|"Punch" from Scribner's Monthly, 1876|
The original Punch puppets were actually English adaptations of the Italian Sixteenth-Century Commedia dell’Arte character, Pulcinella. The name was anglicized to Punchinello, and, later, simply Punch. In early performances, Mr. Punch’s wife was known as “Joan.” The first written notation of a performance of a Punch show in England is recorded as May 9, 1662—a date which is considered the birthday of “Mr. Punch.” In his famous diary, English statesman Samuel Pepys noted that he had seen in Covent Garden, “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty."
|"Mr. Punch," Museum of Liverpool|
However, despite the beatings, Punch is not entirely a malicious character. While Punch’s story varies from puppeteer to puppeteer, the gist of it remains that though Punch struggles with his wife and baby, he also must fight a greater force—often law and order (as a form of social commentary), and very often, something more sinister and supernatural. Most Punch plays end with Punch’s triumphant cry, “Huzzah, huzzah! I killed the Devil!”
Originally performed for adults, the Punch shows invariably attracted children. They were performed in portable and permanent outside venues in places such as Covent Garden and other public venues. These puppet shows were a staple of sea-side resorts as well and proved ever-popular.
Punch has inspired songs, films, books, magazines and a host of other art forms. In his role as struggling every man—at once comic and tragic—Punch continues to be as popular a figure today as he was almost four hundred years ago. The puppets may change, but the spirit of Punch remains the same.