Who is Punch
Who is Punch anyway? Where does he come from? And how could so impossible and ridiculous a character have survived the changes and turmoil of the passing centuries? The plain fact is that nobody knows. Certainly the figure of Punch as we know him today has a direct link with the commedia dell'arte of the seventeenth century, but the character is far, far older. The original significance of Punch's face and figure - his enormous nose and hump - are meaningless to an audience of modern times when, perhaps, it is not customary to associate large noses and sexual potency or find hunchbacks mirth provoking. But it is possible that Punch has lasted so long because he so blatantly cocks a snook at the restrictions of civilised society - and perhaps every man, at some time or other would like to flaunt the laws of society with a comparable nonchalance, removing those who got in his way, pursuing his amorous inclinations willy nilly, and defeating, in the end, the devil himself! How often we say of a likeable rogue "He could get away with murder." And Punch does - or almost always does - and he is such a likeable rogue and, of course, he's only a puppet and puppets can get away with anything.

In 1947 The Middlesex County Council said "No more Punch and Judy shows at school treats! The Punch show is brutal and totally unfit for the innocent eyes and ears of children" or words to that effect. Oh dear! That a puppet could raise such a storm! Of course Mr. Punch objected strongly and at the opening ceremony of the annual Puppet Exhibition organised at Victory House, Leicester Square by the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild in October of that year, ten Punch figures bashed up a puppet of the Mayor of Willesden who, somehow, was blamed for the whole thing, stuffed him into a coffin marked "For Export"and triumphantly carted him off. The sight and sound of ten Punches gathered round the coffin all squeaking their anger and defiance was memorable. Having disposed of the unfortunate Mayor and the ten Punches were joined by even more when they went out of the exhibition hall and on to the balcony of Victory House to squeak their protest to the world at large, almost stopping the London traffic! Of the ban on Punch, the New York Daily News acidly remarked "If the British sense of humour and perspective have sunk generally to the level of those of the Middlesex Council, then perhaps it will be a healthy thing for the world if the British Empire presently dives below the western horizon of history" (There was still a British Empire in 1947).

Many voices were raised in defence of Mr. Punch. Though he didn't need any help. An institution so old as Punch will long outlive pettifogging civic dignitaries. A poem published in The Law Times had as its final verse:

If you fall for Punch and Judy you become morose and broody

And ev'ry decent sentiment is barred;

Your faculties precocious crave what's horrid and ferocious

In the manner of the late Marquis de Sade.

Your story makes its deadline when you hit some tabloid headline

With the murder that your twisted mind has planned;

It's too late to plead repentance when the Judge pronounces sentence

And that's why Punch and Judy must be banned.

J. R. Cleland wrote a treatise entitled "Some Notes on the Punch Play" [1] in which he saw Punch as aspirant to the Ancient Mysteries and linked him with the Medieval morality plays. He considered the play as being " a survival of a Morality, a stage show setting forth the facts about man, and his place and value in the universe, the teaching being as was most usual, veiled in the form of an allegory and illustrated, for those who have the eyes to see, by symbols."

He saw Toby as representative of "the level of emotion and desire, sometimes called the astral or shining" with "his head through the middle of a rainbow". The Policeman represents "the Abstract Mind, the seat of Conscience" and the challenge of the Ghost representing Death, is considered Punch's greatest trial, the conquest of whom enables Punch to finally defy the Devil himself. The fact that only Dog Toby remains alive with Punch at the end of the play. Mr. Cleland links with the story of the Journey of Yudasthira to heaven, as told in the epic Mahabharata of India, wherein the prince refuses to desert his faithful companion the dog. And the Crocodile, though he was a late arrival in the Punch play, he links with an Egyptian form of the story.

The killing indulged in by Punch is viewed as "the lowest manifestations of Mr. Punch's own self but the killing of Judy and the Baby are seen as the achieving of dominion over the levels they represent and the beginnings of the work of self discipline and self conquest. Interesting theories certainly, and quite as valid as any others for the whole history of Punch is wrapped in mystery. Vidusaka hooked nose hunchback clown of Ancient India could be Mr. Punch and who is to say that the gypsies - driven by Timourlaine from Northern India did not bring him to the West? But what of Mandaccus - Dossenus of the Atellan farce of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome? The awkward fool Maccus has often been suggested as an ancestor of Punch but he did not have the hump on his back, and ancient terracottas likely to be representatious of Mandacus -Dossenus have the huge hook-nose, pot belly and hump of Mr. Punch. It is likely too, that he combined wit with stupidity, and comedy with cruelty much like Punch again.

The ancestor to whom Punch's lineage can be traced with absolute certainty is Pulcinella of the Renaissance Commedia dell'arte. A continuous link over the centuries with the Atellan farce has been propounded and refuted by scholars of the theatre and it is nice to think that Punch may have been with us two thousand five hundred years. One thing is certain, the Punch-like type of person has been a stock figure of the Theatre since the earliest days of the Greek mime as ancient bronzes and terracottas have proved.

Although tenuous and speculative the history of the character may be, however, the history of Punch as a puppet is even more so. Nobody knows when Punch first appeared on the puppet stage. Puppet shows were known in Ancient India and China since the stock comic figure of a man with hook-nose and hump-back has persisted through the ages, who is to say a character very close to Punch was not known? It is quite likely, in fact, that any character with a nose suggestive of amorous propensities and a deformity suggestive of the aggressiveness which often arises out of an inferiority complex, should have Punch's characteristic stage-manner.

In Ancient Greece puppets were not only well known but very well performed according to the writers of the day. String puppets seemed to be singled out for mention since, obviously a more articulate and life-like figure than a glove puppet would be the more to be marvelled at, but Punch who is supposed to have arrived in England in the mid 17th century, came first as a puppet worked by strings, so why should not a similar character - a hunchback clown - have entertained Xenophon in the fifth century B.C.?

And if Punch did not arrive in England till the 17th century what predecessor of his appears in the miniature by Jehan de Grise, in a manuscript C1340 and now in the Bodleian Library? Here we see a puppet booth very akin to a modern booth and on stage two figures, one male, one female, the man being in Punch's traditional place, i.e. to the left of the stage as seen by the audience, wearing what looks like a pointed cap and wielding a club or stick, Mr. Punch's traditional weapon? How very like a Punch and Judy show this looks but we cannot be sure.
We are sure though, that Mr. Punch we know today is a puppet version of Pulcinella of the Commedia dell'arte. A water-colour drawing by Lichery of 1688 shows a Pulcinella almost identical with modern Punch and leaves us in no doubt what ever.

Who was Pulcinella - or as he is sometimes called Pollicinella or Pulicinella? His role was primarily that of a servant, as indeed was that of Harlequin, and he was obviously a comedian. He wore an artificial nose, pot-belly and hump -all calculated to make the audience laugh, and he was the mixture of jollity and cruelty, wit and stupidity just as Punch is today. J. Callot in the early 17th century executed a series of etchings of the characters in the commedia dell'arte and it is curious to note that his Pulcinella - or "Pulliciniello" as he calls him - is nothing like Punch, looking more like an elderly Pierrot, but he does illustrate a character called "Cucurucu" who is very like Punch but has cock's feathers on his head. This Cucurucu seems very akin to Cirirrus of the Atellan comedy, so like, in fact, that the connection must be acknowledged -another link between Punch and the theatre of Ancient Greece. Let us not forget either, the comic squeaking of the Atellan comedians and the probability that the raucous voice of Punch may be the tradition of many centuries.

The name Pulcinella is derived from pulcino, a chicken, perhaps on account of the character's beak like nose and his bird like voice. The obvious close link with Cucucus - the very sound of whose name is like a clucking bird -and the cock-feathers characteristic of this character, all add credibility to this theory of derivation.

In England the name "Punch" is obviously an abbreviation of Punchinello, a name synonymous with Pulcinella, Polichinello, Pollicinella and Polichinelle. Pepys mentions several different variations of the name in his diary, between 1666 and 1668, including the name Punch, which apparently became a nickname for anything thick and short.

pic The Punch that Pepys knew was a marionette, not a glove puppet, and able to skip about the stage on his own two legs. Just what he looked like regards facial features and costume we do not know but the water colour by Lichery of Angelo Costanti receiving Arlequin's Mask and Baton from Columbine in 1688 has in the background a Pulcinella who is practically identical with Punch of today and suggests that Punch's appearance has remained unchanged apart from slight variations of costume. His character too, has probably not changed a great deal. The puppets of Pepys time were most likely presenting a sort of Harlequinade but Punch was obviously the principal character. His buffoonery certainly captured the imagination of the spectators and he must have been a likeable rogue from the start. Whatever play, however serious, was presented, Punch would be there, employed as Shakespeare employed his clowns to provide comic relief.

It seems to have been the early 18th century that Punch took to himself a wife, Joan and, fighting and bickering, they held the stage for many years. In the 18th century puppet shows were immensely popular. The rabble at fairs and general lower class get-togethers were entertained to a great extent by glove-puppets as they had been long long before Pulcinella the marionette arrived in England. The upper classes wanted the greater refinement and novelty of string puppets and were well catered for. As a divertisement for the gentility, however, the puppet show declined as the century wore on and Punch, by degrees, suffered the transition from string puppet to glove puppet. As a glove puppet he indulged simply in knock-about comedy to begin with and only slowly did a complete story evolve. It is interesting to note that, as a marionette, Punch kept constantly coming on stage to interrupt the action of the play; as a glove-puppet Punch is On stage all the time, more or less, and the various characters keep coming to interrupt him. As a glove-puppet, too, he has retained his legs, but they are now useless appendages which he just throws over the playboard when he sits down. He is, however, the only character in the Punch drama to have legs, the rest are simple glove puppets who leave the existence of their legs entirely to the audiences imagination.

The evolution of the Punch story is a curious phenomenon. First there was Punch, then his wife Joan who did not become Judy till sometime in the early 19th century, then the Devil, then perhaps the Doctor and Beadle. Lesser characters may have appeared and vanished again. Even today characters completely extraneous to the story are introduced occasionally, but the basic principals in the story, all quite different, clear-cut types, have evolved and remained. There are Punch and Joan (now Judy) and their child, the Baby, the Beadle has become the Policeman, the Doctor remains; the Negro Servant remained until the 1960's, though it was not always clear in the modern version that he was a servant , rather he was just a Darkie; the Hangman Jack Ketch remains in some shows despite the abolition of Capital punishment, the Clown remains. The Crocodile was a late arrival in the story and has now been an important character for about a hundred years. First he was a dragon which eventually became a crocodile. Perhaps the idea of a crocodile became firmly established after children had been frightened by the Crocodile in Peter Pan. The Ghost is seen occasionally still. Originally the Ghost of Judy, it is now just any old ghost. The Devil, once an essential character to the play, is now rarely seen, the Crocodile having taken his place.

Scaramouche, a figure with an extending neck, Hector a hobbyhorse, the Blind Man and Punch's amour Pretty Polly, have disappeared more or less. The Boxers and Chinese Plate Spinners are modern additions but have no place in the story as such. The old showman introduced other characters too, including a Courtier, a second Police Officer, a pair of Undertakers, an Irishman and a Sailor but these are no longer seen, and, since they played such minor parts in the story, are not missed.

The employment of a live Dog Toby is a legacy of the days when performing animals were used quite often with puppets either as a separate turn on the pavement outside the puppet booth or on the stage itself. Trained animals appeared with string-puppets on the marionette stages of the 17th centuries. French puppeteers used monkeys with their hand-puppet shows and. the French Punch, Polichinelle had a cat as companion on the playboard. There seems to be some doubt as to whether Toby was originally a live dog or a puppet dog. If he were first introduced into the story as live dog it would seem a natural enough development from the custom of using animals as a novelty in a puppet show; it is already on record that Punch danced with a trained pig as far back as the 17th century.

pic When George Cruickshank drew the illustrations for his famous Punch and Judy series early in the 19th century he showed Toby as a puppet but since Toby was a well established character by now a puppet dog could have been used when a trained live dog was not available. In modern times Toby as a character has been dispensed with altogether by the majority of Punch Showmen: a few still use a live dog though. One of the most famous Tobys, the one of Colwyn Bay in North Wales, owned and trained by Professor Albert Codman was still working aged sixteen years.

But for all his international lineage, the Punch play as we know it today is far removed from the commedia dell'arte, eastern or classical origins. The traditional rough buffoonery of Old England has predominated, moulding Punch, and building around him the famous tragical comedy which is now part of Britain's heritage.

(C)Eric Bramall FRSA HRCA 1973

[1] Puppet Master Vol 2 #3 July 1948. Published by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild

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