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Punch is accepted everywhere as the traditional puppet of Britain, or, to be more correct, of England, but through the ages other puppets who have much in common with Punch have come into being around the world. Perhaps they all have a common ancestor, Vidusake, of Ancient India, Dossennus-Manducus of the Atellan Farce, perhaps the basic ingredients of buffoonery are common throughout the world. Certainly since earliest times a humped back and a pot-belly have been thought funny; many court jesters were hunchbacks. Knockabout comedy has always been popular, so has cruelty, and, of course, comic faces too, especially those with big noses. It is not so surprising therefore to find. Punch's equivalent in many lands, but it is interesting to note how the Punch-like character is always the central figure of the puppet drama. By whatever means, this character has somehow become the star of the show, so everyone, it seems, loves a rogue!
Karagheuz , principal character of the Turkish puppet theatre, is unlike Punch in looks generally, although some versions of him have a large hook-nose; he has a large chin too but this is adorned with a black beard, and he has not got Punch's wide grin, in fact he looks ferocious. He is noticeably round-shouldered but hasn't the huge stylised hump of Punch. In boasting, pugnacity, cruelty, stupidity and cunning he fairly matches Punch and exceeds him in lewdness. Unlike Punch he is not a glove-puppet but a shadow-puppet. He and all the other characters in his play are flat, cut from thin translucent leather and tinted with bright colours. In addition pierced decoration outlines hands, facial features and details of costume. The puppets, worked by slender rods, are never see by the audience, for they are held against a screen of white linen on the side away from the audience and a lamp of some description behind them lights them up giving an effect reminiscent of figures in a stained glass window. The origins of the shadow puppet theatre go far into antiquity and though the shadow theatre is rarely seen now in the West it still remains popular in the Far East where it was born. The Turkish shadow theatre is almost extinct however and, as far as we can ascertain, is not now shown in Turkey at all. In Greece and North Africa though it is still to be seen.
There is a cast of traditional characters in the Karagheuz plays: - and here it should be mentioned that Karagheuz is not always seen in the same play, as is Punch, but appears in a variety of stories all based on life in a precinct of the city of Istanbul as it was lived in the time of the Ottoman Empire. Karagheuz is, by trade a stonemason and has as his inseparable companion one Hadschiewad who is ignorant and settles every argument, like Punch, by belligerence. A parallel can be drawn between the Karagheuz-Hadschiewad partnership and the Punch-Clown partnership, since in many versions of the Punch play the clown partners Punch in some of his escapades, plotting with him, assisting him, arguing with him, fighting with him and cheating him. Both Karagheuz and Hadschiewad are dressed in the traditional middle-class fashion of the Empire period, both are always poor, and it is Hadschiewad who gets involved in some money making scheme or amorous intrigue and Karagheuz whose blundering ruins his plans.
The other basic characters of the Karagheuz plays include Celeki, the juvenile lead, who is a rich, foppish young man; Zenne, the leading lady, invariably of easy virtue; Tiryaki the opium addict, an habitue of the local cafe; Bekeruhi, the hunchback dwarf and local idiot; and Tuzsuz Deli Bekir, a kind of law enforcement officer but also an ogre of whom everyone is terrified.
Celeki, the juvenile lead, is always dressed in the height of fashion, and in modern fashion too, unlike the other characters whose dress is traditionally that of the Ottoman Empire period. He is obviously a man of good family but inclined to rakishness. He is haughty,sometimes boastful, often generous and he might be a rich heir in one play, owner of a cafe in another, a philandering husband in another. Whatever his role Hadschiewad becomes his henchman and so Karagheuz also becomes intimately involved.
The Zenne, female lead, is traditionally a whore pursuing and pursued by all kinds of men. She might play the part of a faithless lover of Celeki; she might be a dancer, a sorceress, a courtesan, but her role is always scandalous.
The Opium addict, Tiryaki, when not snoring under the influence of the drug, is a mixture of irascibility, jest and seriousness. He is always awakened from his stupor by some turn of events, plays his part and falls asleep again.
The hunchback dwarf, Bekeruhi, the counterpart of the village idiot looks a bit like Mr. Punch. He is usually a glutton, a boaster with a speech impediment, and a target for other characters wit.
Tuzsuz Deli Bekir, looking like a pirate captain holds a carafe of wine in one hand, a curved sword or yataghan in the other. He only appears for the denoument at the very end of the play and sees that justice is done and morality restored. Ogre-like, he announces his arrival with a roar and all the characters, especially the guilty ones are terrified of him. Only Karagheuz defies him, even when Tuzsuz condemns him to death. Needless to say Karagheuz is never executed; Punch-like he manages to save his neck.
There are many lesser characters in the Karagheuz plays, provincial types, foreigners, porters, street urchins, servants, acrobats and dancers, and a grand procession of all the characters crosses the screen at every performance.
Although there is a great deal of knock-about comedy in the plays, no murder is comitted and the plays always end happily. There is a good deal of simple humour like Karagheuz having to climb up a ladder to speak to the giant woodcutter a good deal of satire, much of it very clever, and a good deal of coarseness. The Karagheuz plays have become notorious for their bawdiness. Relations between the characters of a most intimate nature are performed in full view and indecencies indulged in which would certainly never be allowed on any public stage other than a puppet stage. The English puppet theatre has become refined over the centuries but there was a time when it, too, was noted for bawdiness. In competition with the live theatre of Restoration England the puppets threw discretion to the four winds and outrageous scenes were overlooked or ignored by the guardians of public decency. Mr. Punch himself, has played his part, in no small manner, in such presentations.
Theophile Gautier in an essay on Karagheuz gave the following account of a performance: "The court was filled with people. Children, and above all little girls of eight or nine years of age, abounded. There were some delicious ones who, with their sex yet undefined, recalled those pretty heads of the "Sortie de l'Ecole' by Decamps, so gracefully bizarre and so fantastically charming. With their beautiful eyes astonished and entranced, expanded like black flowers, they watched Karagheuz giving himself up to his Saturnals of impurity and contaminating all with his monstrous caprices. Each deed of erotic prowess drew from these naively corrupt little angels peals of silvery laughter and endless clapping of hands; modern prudery would not permit that one should seek to gve an account of these Atellanian follies where the lascivious scenes of Aristophanes combine with the laughable dreams of Rabelais; picture to yourself the ancient god of gardens dressed as a Turk and let loose in the harems, the bazaars, the slave markets, the cafes, in the thousand imbroglios of oriental life, and whirling in the midst of his victims, impudent, cynical and joyously ferocious. It would be impossible to carry to a further extreme ithyphallic extravagance and the shameless licentiousness of obscene imagination."
Throughout the world and throughout the ages the theatre has concerned itself and still concerns itself with the presentation of sex and brutality, with depravity and horror. No less the puppet theatre; the present day salacious exploits of Karagheuz, the murders of Punch, the bloody battles of the Paladins of Sicily provide their audiences with an outlet for pent-up passions. Gautier remarks:
"Karagheuz is often transported into the seraglios and there gives performances which the women witness hidden behind grated galleries. How can one reconcile the licentious spectacle with manners so severe? Is it not, because some vent is always required for the over-pressed boiler, and that the most rigid morality must leave an escape for human corruption? Moreover these disordered fantasies are not dangerous and vanish like the shadows when one puts out the lamp of the booth ."
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Pulcinella, buffoon of the commedia dell'arte, in his travels towards England from his Italian birthplace, encountered and conquered France en route where he changed his name to Polichinelle and acquired a wife Dame Gigogne. He had established himself in Paris by the middle of the seventeenth century. It is almost certain that in the process of French naturalization he cast off the baggy white suit he had worn as Pulcinella and adopted the costume which has become traditional for Mr. Punch. It has been claimed that the costume was originally a caricature of the uniform of the Gascon officers of the time of Henry IV, that the pot-belly was originally the cuirass of the soldier. It seems much more likely, though, that it was referred to, jokingly, as a cuirass in the same way that a modern comedian might say of his pot-belly that it had once been his chest but had slipped! The hump on the back, as has been pointed out before, has always been associated with the buffoon and, long before the arrival of Polich'inelle it had been part of the Court-jester's make-up. Humpbacked or not, by nature, the jester wore a stylized, false hump on his back. The upturned pointed hump of present-day Punch may have been adopted in France. Some historians have claimed that Polichinelle is entirely a French creation but, obviously, both he and the English Punch have a common ancestor in Pulcinella.
On the Restoration puppet plays of London, Pepys writes of Punch under various but similar names. The records of St. Martin-in-the-Fields mention "Punchinello, ye Italian popet player", but Pepys' comments on Polichinello, Polichinelli, Punchinello and Punch and, very significantly, "Polichinellet"make one wonder if, in fact, he saw both Italian and French puppet shows with the same central character or if the Italian puppets were under a French influence after, perhaps, a sojourn in France en route for England. Possibly Polichinello was the Italian clown, still in his white suit; perhaps Polichinelle was the French clown in the traditional Punch's garb. It is more than likely there were a number of Italian and French puppet players in London, all exploiting the popularity of Punchinello. Pulcinella, certainly, was in white, and to this day is seen in Italy dressed in the traditional Commedia dell'arte fashion, Polichinelle wears the costume evolved in France and so does the English Punch.
It was in France, too, that puppets were constrained, because of their great popularity and opposition to the theatre of live-actors, to the use of the sifflet pratique or, as it is known in Britain, the swazzle or swatchel. It was popular practice of the puppet showmen to attend the first performance of a new play in the live theatre and, in an incredibly short time produce a vulgar version of it on the puppet stage. Audiences were inclined to visit the puppet-show for a rude laugh rather than see the original version. The idea of preventing the puppets speaking in ordinary voices was to render the play unintelligible. The puppet showmen soon got over this difficulty by having an "interpreter" outside the booth who literally translated the puppets' dialogue - a practice continued with comic effect to this day in the rare instances when a man, on the audience's side of the proscenium, chats with, and interprets (usually intentionally erroneously) Mr Punch's comments and vice versa. A feature is made of the fact that Punch and the 'interpreter' continually misunderstand one another.
Polichinelle as both string-puppet and glove-puppet flourished in France despite the jealous opposition of the live theatre and, as in England, played not only to the ordinary citizens but to the aristocracy as well. He lampooned everything and everybody with impunity, assuming the licence of a court jester, and his insolence and wit, to say nothing of his amorous proclivities, endeared him to the French people. The eighteenth century was the golden age of puppets but as the nineteenth century approached the great popularity of Polichinelle began to decline and a usurper arrived on the scene in the character of Guignol, a character, who today has virtually replaced Polichinelle as the hero of the French puppet theatre, though the two of them do still appear together. One Laurent Mourguet, a puppeteer of Lyon using Polichinelle as the star of his show, used to try out his new attractions on his neighbour, an old silk-weaver, before putting them before the public. One of the weavers expressions , "C'est guignolant" which he used when the puppet's antics took his fancy, Mourguet gave to one of his characters, a puppet modelled on the silk-weaver himself, though with a young almost boyish face, and in the inexplicable way in which certain phrases or expressions become catch-phrases of the general public "C'est guignolant" established the character who became known as Guignol as a result and who quickly became the principal character in a new series of puppet plays. This puppet, jolly and happy, freed from the limitations of speech imposed upon Polichinelle through the traditional use of the sifflet pratique, gathered around himself a set of characters just as Punch did, although they were conceived by Mourguet and did not evolve in the same way as the Punch play characters. Guignol has a wife, Madelon and a drunken friend Grafron who replaced Polichinelle as his partner and who contrives always to lead him astray, and a variety of other well-defined types as friends and enemies. There is none of the fire and swashbuckling pride of Polichinelle in Guignol yet he conquered France and his name has become synonymous with glove-puppet shows generally.
It is understandable that the Italian puppet showmen with their Commedia dell'arte repertoire and the principal comedian Pulcinella should wander all over Europe and that Pulcinella should be adopted by the various nations and, over the years, acquire characteristics peculiar to the country in which he found himself. In Germany and Austria he began as Polizinell and eventually became Hanswurst, that is Jack Sausage, which was just a popular name for a clown like the English Jack Pudding. Perhaps his sausage-like nose inspired the name, for certainly his nose became all-important, being given a joint or two, when he was a marionette, so he could wiggle it about as he talked. He leapt on to the stage to interrupt the most serious plays just as Punch did in England, and his coarse humour and habit of settling every argument with blows underlined the similarity of character. In Austria Hanswurst somehow became associated with Kasper or as he is more affectionately known, Kasperl, a character who had evolved as a clown from the ancient mystery plays of medieval times. Hanswurst became Kasperl, wiggling nose and all, but eventually Kasperl became a more elfin character, especially when he was a marionette, and Kasperl, unlike Punch who is now seen only as a glove puppet, remains to this day both glove-puppet and marionette. On the surface, though, Kasperl is far removed from, Punch but he remains a clown and still wields a stick with alacrity; the very name Kasperl conjures up, nowadays, a picture not of a hook-nosed ruffian but a rather simple, open-faced peasant type of character. He still gets himself involved, though, in all manner of plays, making himself the most important character in the play whilst having nothing to do really with the actual plot. His most famous role is that of a casual servant in the time-honoured puppet play "Dr. Faustus" when he torments the devils, ridicules Mephistophilis and even interrupts Faustus's meditations in his final hour, with tomfoolery. A wonderful character, this Kasperl, and it is not surprising that he has ousted Hanswurst not only in Austria but throughout Germany as well.
Pulcinella, by a process of naturalization, adopted a new name and some national characteristics of every country he settled in. He became Don Cristobal Punchinella in Spain, Hans Pickelharing and Jan Klaassen - another Jack Sausage - in Holland, Kasparck in Czechoslovakia and Valicke in Romania. The Russian Petrouchka immortalized in Stravinsky's ballet in a pathetic sawdust-stuffed creature but the real Russian Petrouchka of the street shows is none other than Punch with his long nose and habit of knocking down everyone who disagrees with him. (picture shows Jan Klaasen Poppekast, Holland)
Travelling further East, we find characters with Punch-like characteristics and of Punch-like appearance in the puppet dramas of India, the East Indies, Burma, Thailand and China and although they have no obvious link with Pulcinella, perhaps long, long ago, they had a common ancestor. This we shall never know, but one thing is certain, of them all, the English Punch is the biggest rogue: No other puppet in the world so joyfully commits so many murders in so short a time, yet the shrieks of merriment his crimes provoke in the audience, theimpertinent way in which he squeaks "That's the way to do it" after each, to receive the reply "Oh, no it isn't" from the laughing children, and to retort, "Oh, yes it is", and so on, testify to the harmlessness of the whole spectacle. Wife-beater and murderer Punch may be but no one is horrified or frightened, no one takes it seriously, everyone is delighted with the old ruffian and everybody knows the corpses will spring to life again for the next performance for they, like Punch, are immortal.
© Eric Bramall 1990
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