The persistent appeal of the Punch and Judy show to young and old alike is difficult to explain.. On the surface it is a sad story, improper, cruel, sadistic and based upon violence. But there is a surprising depth to the traditional story, a depth which has intrigued many a present day psychologist.
On the surface Punch is a bully, he wins the day by the simple method of inflicting a beating or even death on all who cross him. This is one view of Punch. But if we look at his opponents we see that they are the real bullies: Judy, the nagging wife; Authority in the forms of the Policeman, the Beadle and Jack Ketch the public hangman; and the fear inspiring manifestation of the supernatural, the Devil. So, in fact, Punch can be seen as 'the worm that turns' - the little man beset by a nagging, wife and petty authority, who finally turns on his tormentors.
Although the story was born in the days when violence was commonplace, when justice was harsh and humour crude, it is still apparent how Punch, in harmless fantasy, acts out our secret yearnings. How often must the poor wretch who has been humiliated by his domineering spouse wish for the clean and simple solution of a bash on the head? And how often has the motorist locked in a traffic jam, voiced some unlikely deviationist act
against the Minister of Transport or wanted to punch the nose of an officious policeman?
The Beadle, representing civil officialdom, can easily be seen as the unsympathetic income tax collector, when his fate at the hand of Punch becomes eminently acceptable and amusing. And in days when religion was less emasculated and fear of the devil very real, what more delightful concept that that the power of Old Nick should be ended for ever. Though the churches claimed the authority of God, their discipline was too often based upon threats of Hell.
Punch is a rascal and a rogue, and we identify with him. If over the years he has become less promiscuous and lechary no longer a prime feature of his character it is because with our greater freedom we are not so much in need of a sexual champion. But we still thrill to the easy solution of the cudgel, just as we applaud the escapist black and white morality of the cowboy film. In Punch, as in the Western, the hero always triumphs in a simple direct manner, with all the opponents neatly put out of the way. Bang! Bang! You're dead!
Punch kills off his enemies. In fact he is a murderer. But the nature of the presentation and the patent unreality of the puppets and their action makes what could be a nauseous tale quite palatable. The Punch booth is a land of fantasy where the characters can safely be murdered twice nightly and still come back for more. When the characters are killed we know they are not dead. A child will often watch repeated performances of the show and find no incongruity in that the fact that Judy who was so viciously despatched just a few minutes ago is now back, once again entrusting the baby to the tender mercies of Mr. Punch. In fact, many children find great delight in seeing the show over and over again and violently object to even the slightest deviation from the familiar script. In some ways the Punch show can be compared to the cartoon film, where characters can be flattened by a falling rock or be run over by a steam roller yet miraculously re-inflate themselves and return to the chase. It is a story of killing and violence, but without pain and without any real death. It is an ideal world where one can always wipe the slate clean for a fresh start and never have any worry about the complications of yesterday.
One old Punch man stoutly maintained that contrary to popular opinion, the show was in fact highly moral. He saw the story of Punch as allegorical of the sinner's path through the world - a sort of poor man's Pilgrim's Progress. Punch succeeds in conquering the temptations of the flesh in the form of Judy and Pretty Polly. He goes on to triumph against worldly wealth and position, Scaramouche and the Beadle, and finally conquers death and the power of the devil an echo of Cleland's metaphysical fantasy.
Ingenious though this interpretation might be, I find it impossible to believe that Punch's tale was ever conceived with this intent. Still, it is a handy yarn to have up your sleeve. If you present Punch and Judy you may well have need of it to confound the critics.
One thing is certain: Whatever the final judgement may be, Mr. Punch remains shockingly indifferent to castigation. He knows only too well that as long as we, young and old alike, delight in the sight of Authority getting whacked over the head and seeing Roguery emerge triumphant, his preposterous nose and shrill voice will never disappear.
Cartoon appeared in Australia's National Times, Week 1 of February 1985
The Morals of Mr Punch © C.C. Somerville 1990
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