At the back of our garden, up against the woods, is the two-room cabin where Howard has his office and a small theatre studio. My own studio is not far away, so I often hear a variety of sounds drifting over the hedge between us: it might be music practice...or the growls of gnomes...or the Hedgespoken team planning works of wild hedgerow theatre for their travelling stage. Or the odd "swazzle" voice of the puppet Mr. Punch: contrary and rude, making merry mayhem.
Howard's studio has been used for puppetry performances before, but right now it's a vibrant, bustling workshop as he puts a new Punch & Judy show together. Puppet heads are scattered across tables and shelves, puppet clothes hang from our washing line, and even Tilly is getting used to Mr. Punch and his colorful companions....
I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met my husband -- whose life has been devoted to the European form of masked theatre known as Commedia dell'Arte, which is very slapstick, and very funny, and which won me over its mix of ridiculous pratfalls and sly, wry intelligence. Howard helped me to see the mythic roots of such comedy in Trickster tales and Dionysian revels, in the sacred anarchy of traditional carnaval and rural folk pageantry, and now I'm fascinated by lines of connection between the various forms of mask/puppet theatre and folk use of these arts in ritual form.
The ritualized slapstick violence of Punch & Judy is problematic today, however, for we tend to "read" the story in a literal fashion, interpreting the action as domestic abuse, when it is best understood metaphorically, as the unleashing of pure anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's wicked delight in violating all social norms and constraints -- brazenly knocking down every authority figure (which is precisely why children love him). The challenge for performers today is to craft a story that conveys this same archetypal spirit of contrariness, freedom, and anarchy, without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world.
If you'd like to know more about the history of Punch & Judy, I recommend "That's the Way to Do It!" on the Victoria & Albert Museum website, curated to honor the show's 350th anniversary in 2012 -- a date based on the first known puppet play in England to contain a version of Mr. Punch, recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662. He noted seeing it in Covent Garden, writes the V&A's curator, "performed by the Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, otherwise known as Signor Bologna: 'Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.'
"Mr. Punch made himself thoroughly at home in Britain during the 18th century," writes the curator of the V&A page on Punch, "where he became a celebrity, disrupting the action in puppet plays in theatres and fairground booths throughout the country....His wife was the shrewish Dame Joan who made his life a misery, and his hunched back and pot belly became more pronounced. The marionette Punch was the celebrity disrupting the action in puppet plays all around the country, in established puppet theatres and in fairground booths where puppets were a popular feature of all the great fairs and small country wakes throughout the century."
"By 1825 we hear in Bernard Blackmantle’s The English Spy of his wife being called Judy instead of Joan: ‘old Punch with his Judy in amorous play,’ and of Punch’s having a Toby the dog, usually played by a real dog."
Perhaps there's a role here for Tilly...?
Keep an eye on Howard's theatre Facebook page if you'd like to see how his Punch & Judy project develops.
The art and photographs above are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)