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The Upside Down: That’s The Way to Do It!

John Mitchinson explores why are we so fascinated by the odious, uncancellable, Mr Punch

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Long ago, when I was a student, I found myself directing the summer production at my college. It was my first time directing anything and a combination of youthful arrogance and a visceral dislike of student drama led me to attempt a commedia dell’arte

For more than 300 years, from the 16th to the 18th Centuries, this anarchic, improvised style of Italian comedy had dominated the makeshift stages and marketplaces of Europe. 

It worked better than any of us expected – my basic script offered plenty of opportunities for the cast to improvise and, by the end of the week, we’d begun to feel that odd alchemy that only the laughter of an audience induces. 

But by far the biggest laughs and the sharpest intakes of breath were elicited by the episodes involving Pulcinella, his wife, and their unlucky baby. 

Pulcinella, the hook-nosed, hunch-backed, cunning bumpkin of the commedia, is, of course, the ancestor of the English puppet, Mr Punch. 

The episodes I wrote combined violent slapstick with surreal existentialist monologues; the two actors (and baby doll) and plenty of high-pitched squealing did the rest. On five warm summer evenings, the sinister, liberating energy of Mr Punch carried all before it.

The transformation of Pulcinella into Mr Punch happened in the late 17th Century, with Samuel Pepys recording in 1662 that he had seen an Italian puppet play in London’s Covent Garden that was “very pretty”. 

Pulcinella soon became Punchinello, and his companion Joan transformed into Judy (one theory is that ‘Judy’ sounds better when spoken through the swazzle – a device comprising two pieces of metal wrapped in cotton tape that produces Punch’s characteristic cackling kazoo-like voice). 

The marionettes evolved into hand puppets so that a single person – the Professor or Punchman – could mount a performance on their own. 

By the mid-19th Century, the red-and-white striped booths were a staple in most English street fairs and seaside promenades. But the traditional ‘Punch and Judy Show’, although now mostly staged for children, didn’t start out that way. 

From the beginning, Punch was cast as a peculiarly violent species of everyman: deformed, unmasculine in his speech, put upon but cunning, and lethal with his slapstick. He kills first his own baby; then Judy his wife; is unfaithful with Pretty Polly; flouts the law by battering a policeman; tricks Jack Ketch the hangman into hanging himself; and in his final encounter with the Devil, who is ominous in his silence, he either triumphs or is cast into hell.  

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John Mitchinson explores why perception is as much about what we know as what we see

It’s a peculiar sequence to adopt as a national drama and has always annoyed those who feel that domestic violence, misogyny, and sexual incontinence aren’t fit subjects for popular entertainment.

Charles Dickens, a man who knew a lot about what people liked, disagreed. “In my opinion, the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive,” he wrote. “It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering.”

This is true as far as it goes, but there is definitely the shadow of real pain and suffering that hangs over the character – and this is what makes Punch such a powerful and popular archetype. 

He is the hero of his own show; he usually wins; we root for him. But, like all tricksters, there is a darkness or even an emptiness at his heart which repels as much as it fascinates. 

In his brilliant Mister Punch, the poet David Harsent presents a Punch who might be both a rapist and serial killer, haunted by nightmares; both perpetrator and victim. He introduces his 1984 volume with a quote from Carl Jung: “The wounded wounder is the agent of healing.” 

It is this uneasy paradox that animates Harrison Birtwhistle’s astonishingly violent one-act opera Punch and Judy (1968), Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s pitch-dark graphic novel The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (2006), and even XTC’s council estate mini-drama Punch & Judy (1982).

My favourite modern deployment of the Punch archetype occurs in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), a dystopian novel set in an England of the far-future after a nuclear holocaust. In this harsh and violent world, a version of the Punch and Judy Show has become the state religion. Riddley, the main character, uses the broken-down language of the novel to perfectly skewer the fascination of Punch – “a character so old he can never die” according to Hoban: “Why is Punch crookit? Why wil he all ways kil the babby if he can? Parbly I wont never know its jus on me to think on it.”

John Mitchinson writes an exclusive column, ‘Zeitgeisters’ for the Byline Times monthly print edition. Subscribe now

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