Friday, May 10, 2013

Everyone Should Know Punch

"Punch" from Scribner's Monthly, 1876

Having just celebrated Mr. Punch's 351st birthday yesterday, I thought today would be a good opportunity to revisit an article I wrote in 2010 which exhibits a brief history of Old Red Nose.

Punch, of course, is known to all of us because of his antics with his put-upon wife, Judy, and their equally long-suffering baby (named appropriately enough, “Baby”). Together, they are the stars of the much-beloved traditional English puppet shows.

The original Punch puppets were actually English adaptations of the Italian Sixteenth-Century 
Commedia dell’Artecharacter, 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
The Punch figures themselves have changed drastically over the centuries—adapting from stick-operated puppets to marionettes and, then, to the traditional glove puppet we know today. Since Victorian times, the puppeteer in a Punch show is known as “Professor.” While each Professor’s Punch will differ slightly, his appearance always has a characteristically bulbous, ruddy nose which curves to meet his jutting chin. His lips are always pulled back into a red smile which nestles into his rosy cheeks. Though inspired by Punch, his French cousin, Guignol, has less-severe features. Often portrayed as a hunchback, Punch stoops under the weight of the enormous stick or club which he uses to beat his wife and child.

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.

No comments: