The great Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov, as well as being director of the Moscow State Puppet Theatre, was famed for his concert performance with hand puppets. Indeed it was with hand puppets that he initially achieved success. In his fascinating book "My Profession" he confesses one great failure his attempt to perform a traditional Petrouska show. Today our knowledge of this Russian Punch character is perhaps limited to that depicted in the Stravinsky ballet but the traditional Petrouska was very similar to Mr. Punch, and its history similar, being a folk hero with a tradition sustained by itinerant showmen.
By the nineteen-thirties the tradition had almost died. Obraztsov sought out one of the old showmen, still alive but retired. The old man and his wife were welcoming and co-operative, bringing out the old fit-up and figures, showing Obraztsov the routines, and teaching him the script.
Obraztsov attempted to recreate the show. His puppets and fit-up were authentic in every detail, the performance meticulously rehearsed. Yet it was a flop. Obraztsov in his analysis concludes that this was because his attempt was basically false. He was artificially trying to re-create a tradition of which he was not a part. He could intellectually appreciate the qualities but couldn't duplicate the naïve energy of the real thing because he wasn't a part of it. I suppose it's a bit like those painters we call "primitives," though technically untrained and unsophisticated their art has a child-like purity and vibrancy, but let a trained artist try and mimic their work and it immediately seems false and inept. Only a child may draw like a child.
There are various reason why some Punch shows fail. Some attempts are made by very adequate puppeteers, performers brilliant in certain spheres and yet unable to come to terms with Punch and his gang. I have a theory that you have to "catch" Punch, in the same way that you "catch" a disease. This infection can only come from seeing one or more Punch and Judy Shows. It isn't enough to read the history, and study the old scripts, and carve your own puppets and make and master the swazzle. You can do all those things and still finish up with a show that doesn't "click" with the audience. How can it if it hasn't "clicked" with you?
In the USA, where Punch and Judy was once as strong as in Britain, the tradition has now apparently almost vanished. There are of course some American profs keeping the flag flying with splendid shows, but not many. The result is that when nobody has the opportunity to see a Punch show, they cannot know what it is. They remember the name, but that is all, and very quickly "Punch and Judy" simply becomes a generic term for any children's puppet show performed with glove puppets.
You can create a new puppet show from scratch, but you must build a Punch and Judy Show on a distillation of what has gone before. A Punch show can be as topical as you like, but must grow from the past. Therefore it must be extraordinarily difficult for anyone who has never seen a Punch show to even understand what it is all about, never mind to attempt to perform themselves.
There are perfectly good puppeteers who claim to present a Punch show, but fail. They imagine that their failure is due to the fact that Punch is old fashioned, and so they try and bring him up to date. They have missed the point. Punch is never out of date, he is as fresh as the children's laughter he evokes, as topical as today's news because his performance is "live" today. A stale Punch show can only come from a stale performer. Keeping the show alive and vital today is not a matter of introducing space monsters, topical references or pop characters, it is simply a matter of the performer's continued enthusiasm and zest.
There is, of course, no reason why new characters cannot be introduced, no reason why new dialogues and routines evolved, providing the Punch-essence is there in the first place. The tradition of Punch is less a matter of story and script and more a matter of "style". Yes, "Punch and Judy" is a "style" of puppetry, a distinct, unique "style".
I cannot pretend to be able to analyse this style, but I rather think it evolves from the punchman's attitude to his puppets. The parallel puppet tradition in Britain was of the marionette stage the Fantocinni. Here there were twin aims of realism and novelty. All the publicity of material of the period stresses the life-like nature of puppets, the ingenuity of their construction and the wonders of their tricks and transformations. Contrast this with punch showman's crudely crafted figures, the simplicity of his fit-up and his reliance on earthy humour, poking fun at domestic and everyday situations. There is no pretence that his puppets are lifelike in appearance or even in movement. They pop up and down at impossible speeds, deliver slapstick blows of preposterous violence, are killed and revived with total illogicality, and prove that they are only puppets by extracting humour from taboo subjects. Where other than a Punch show could you find innocent fun in the humour of hunt the live man among the corpses?
Part of Punch's secret is that the puppets remain puppets. Nobody would for one moment imagine that Punch and Judy characters were "real", yet nobody surely can deny that they are "alive". The Punch puppets are utterly self confident in what they are and what they do. If a marionette king has to enter onstage I take care that he does not sag at the knees, or float above the floor. I make him take steps in keeping with the character, and always I enter with the upstage foot. My glove puppet king will enter from the wings, maintaining his level, at a constant height at all times, and on his exit I will make sure that he is well out of sight before he is allowed to sink. Contrast this with the supremely self-assured Punch characters who simply pop up, say or do what they have to do, then pop down again. They don't have to pretend, their incongruity is accepted in a way that is only paralleled, perhaps, in a Tom and Jerry Cartoon.
The Punch and Judy Show has a style, an approach, a way of doing things which makes it a thoroughly individual form of puppetry, a style which delights in breaking the rules. It's all a joke, and you know the punch line . "That's the way to do it"
Chris Somerville 2001
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