But even if Punch is not seen so often or so easily nowadays, who has not seen him? For most children Punch's play is their first sight ever of a live theatrical performance, the first opening of the magic door into the enchanted world of theatre. And how easily Mr. Punch holds and sways his audience. Watch their faces - and not only of the children. See how quickly the expressions change, now concerned, now sad, now sympathetic, now apprehensive, now laughing -but mostly laughing. The greatest actors in the land can learn from Punch. Why, he has only to poke his long nose through the crack of the curtains before he has even made an appearance, and his audience squeals with joy! What a comedian! What a rogue! Before the curtain rises everybody knows that he is about to commit more murders than Bluebeard and are delighted at the prospect of watching him do them - a slap over the head with his club, a spin around it, then up into the air with them and away. One after the other they are disposed of and old Punch struts proudly around rejoicing in his wickedness. And what about justice? Nobody cares tuppence for justice. When the strong arm of the law is dealt with in similar fashion everybody laughs. Just for a change, then, Punch hangs the hangman in his own noose and everybody cheers: It's good, though, to see Punch taking a few knocks and even better to see the Crocodile taking a hefty bite at his nose, but the very idea that Punch should otherwise suffer for his crimes is unthinkable!
What a play it is, too. Everybody in front of the show, except the very youngest, knows all the characters and the plot, but its appeal is such that it remains evergreen and ever exciting. Perhaps the showman may shove in a couple of guest acts like the Boxers or the Chinese Plate Spinners, but they only interrupt briefly the general massacre which runs its time honoured course.
Punch did not always have his own play; it seems his first role, in England, was to provide comic interludes in serious plays by interrupting the action as and when he could. Only later did he acquire a wife, then called Joan, and only slowly did the plot of the Punch play as we know it today evolve. The story was probably not completed till the late 18th century and was at its fullest and best in early Victorian times.
Wherever people were, there was Punch. The itinerant showmen humping the show on their backs or trundling it on a noisy cart over the cobblestones followed the crowds to country fairs, city streets and watering places. Punch saw the towns grow, he would perform before the open window of a house in a graceful Georgian Square when papa had specially ordered a performance; he would march the endless streets of Victorian Gothic setting his show up wherever there seemed a chance of earning a few coppers; he played in the pale light of gas lamps near the city centre, he screamed defiance at the jostling hackney cabs and noisy tut-tut-tut of the horseless carriages. Like the characters at the Mad Tea Party the cities shouted back "No room, no room"and poor Punch was slowly pushed off the streets.
Until not so many years ago in England, however, one famous Punch and Judy show clung to its pitch, not only in the busiest part of a city, but on an island at the junction of three main roads! Audiences risked possible death from the ever increasing streams of traffic to cross to the island in Lime Street, Liverpool, to watch Codman's Punch Show.
Until only a short time before his death Richard Codman, son of the founder of the show, could be seen outside the booth with pandean pipes and drum, dressed in grey top hat, frock coat and check trousers, summoning his audience - then remaining outside the booth to exchange backchat with Punch throughout the performance in traditional fashion. One of his sons would be inside the booth working the figures. When the old man died the pipes and drum were no longer heard, though the show continued on its island site till the 1950's when progress caught up with Punch once again and pushed him off bag and baggage. Liverpool hated to see the famous theatre go and the City Fathers offered two alternative sites, the Pier Head, most exciting place in the city with its ever changing throng of people, ferry boats and ocean-going liners, or St. George's Plateau, a wind-swept expanse of sandstone flags under the east portico of the great building. The Codmans chose the latter site, perhaps so they could stay as close to the old pitch as possible but the booth looked strangely tiny and remote at the top of the long flight of steps from the busy street. In later years there was rarely a performance seen, just the skeleton framework of a booth standing in memory of a once glorious tradition.
During summer holiday time Punch appears in the parks of cities if not on the streets but with the end of summer the little theatre closes down and the showman relies on playing in schools, at parties and such like to earn a livinge It must have been fun in the old days, though, to have joined the crowd on foggy afternoon before a Punch Show lit by a paraffin flare, or to have heard the rascal's raucous voice on the sharp air of a winter's evening, and to have stood to watch the show with a bag of hot roasted chestnuts to keep out the cold:
But now to find Punch we need to go mainly to the seaside. Twenty years ago and there was hardly a resort that didn't boast a Punch and Judy show among its summer attractions. Punch had become part and parcel of a holiday by the sea and we knew we had really arrived when we saw the tower-like booth with its red and white striped tilt and its gaudy painted proscenium But as fewer Britons favour the traditional seaside holiday anymore it has become hard for Punch performers to make a living in the traditional way. Many resorts no longer have a Punch show, he has moved to birthday parties and Carnivals, village fetes and Shopping Precincts. Fads and fashions in entertainment may change; Punch has seen them all, and when the dodgems have ground to a halt and the last Bingo arcade has closed its doors there will still be the Punch and Judy show offering its timeless humour and its immortal star, Mr. Punch.
Punch in Pictures * Scraps of Punch * Message Board * Questions
Punch in Pictures
Scraps of Punch