Punch and Judy - much-loved traditional miniature theatre

Living History

Punch and Judy - much-loved traditional miniature theatre

Punch and Judy is a traditional British puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy, and a number of supporting characters. Enjoyed by generations of children, it has become a seaside favourite. The performance, run by a single puppeteer from a small booth or tent, consists of a sequence of short scenes, each depicting an interaction between two characters, most typically Mr. Punch and one other, who usually falls victim to Punch's slapstick.

The characters and the performance have their roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte. The figure of Punch is derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello. He is a variation on the same themes as the Lord of Misrule and the many Trickster figures found in mythologies across the world. Punch's wife was originally called "Joan."

The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on 9 May 1662. Punch and Judy began to emerge during the Restoration Period (beginning in 1660), during which art and theatre thrived after the Puritan time of Oliver Cromwell. The diarist Samuel Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde, a.k.a. "Signor Bologna." Pepys described the event in his diary as "an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty." Plaque commemorating the first recorded performance of Punch and Judy on St Paul's in Covent Garden

In the British Punch and Judy show, Punch speaks in a distinctive squawking voice, produced by a contrivance known as a swazzle or swatchel which the puppeteer holds in his mouth, transmitting his gleeful cackle. Joan's name was changed to Judy because "Judy" was easier to enunciate with the swazzle than "Joan". So important is Punch's signature sound that it is a matter of some controversy within Punch and Judy circles as to whether a "non-swazzled" show can be considered a true Punch and Judy Show.

Punch and Judy shows were traditionally marionette shows when they were brought over from Italy, but were later reinvented in the glove puppet style to accommodate the characters' violent movements without the obstruction of marionette strings. Glove puppets were often operated by placing the thumb in one arm, the middle, ring, and pinky fingers in the other arm, and the index finger in the head.

The main supporting characters are: the Baby; the Constable (a.k.a. Policeman Jack); Joey the Clown; The Crocodile; The Skeleton; The Doctor. Two of the major props are a cudgel and a string of sausages.

The show is performed by a single puppeteer inside the booth, known since Victorian times as a "professor" or "punchman", and assisted sometimes by a "bottler" who corrals the audience outside the booth, introduces the performance, and collects the money ("the bottle"). In modern shows the audience is encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger or clue them in to what is going on behind their backs.

Further reading

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