Howard is back on the Devon seafront this month performing traditional Punch & Judy puppet shows in Teignmouth, Dawlish, and other coastal towns. Although he does this every summer with his pitch-partner Tony Lidington (a performer and scholar specialising in historic British seaside entertainments), these live shows are particularly popular now after the long, dreary months of pandemic restrictions. This year, Tony and Howard initiated an apprenticeship programme to teach young drama students the arts of traditional outdoor theatre. This has been getting a lot of press attention -- which inevitably raises questions about Punch & Judy, its history, and its relevance to modern audiences. Here's a post I wrote about Howard and Mr. Punch that may answer some of those questions....
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 accordion or mandolin practice one moment, lines declaimed from Shakespeare the next...or the odd "swazzle" voice of the classic English puppet Mr. Punch: a sound which initially sent Tilly into fits of barking until she finally figured out that it was just Howard at work.
Howard has loved Mr. Punch since his university days, when he wrote his thesis on the puppet's history -- so once he became a professional puppeteer he began work on his own Punch & Judy show. But then other theatre projects claimed his time, and the Punch puppets were all boxed away... until the morning I came downstairs to find them grinning at me from a chair.
For much of that summer, Howard's studio was transformed into a puppetry workshop. There were carpentry tools, lumber, and swathes of red-and-white striped cloth crowding the practice room; tiny puppet clothes hang from our washing line; and more and more puppets staring at me when I walked through our livingroom.
I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met Howard -- 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 with 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. As I learn more and more about the roots of comedy from Howard, I find myself fascinated by lines of connection between the various forms of mask/puppet theatre and folk use of these arts in ritual form: in the Jack-in-Greens and Obby Osses of England, in the ceremonial clowns of North America's indigenous peoples, and in other folk rites and sacred traditions all across Europe and around the globe.
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 childlike "naughtiness," mayhem, and gleeful anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's sly 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 and cheeky anarchy without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world. Howard's re-telling of the Punch & Judy story treads this line carefully, without losing the glorious mayhem that gives children such delight. (See Emma Windsor's post on the subject on the Puppet Place News blog.)
"It was in the early 1990s," Howard recalls, "while I was working at Norwich Puppet Theatre, that I began to carve my own Mr. Punch. Later, at the Little Angel Theatre in London, I carved several of the other characters found in classic Punch & Judy shows. I'm a puppet director and performer, not a maker, but the P&J characters are fairly simple and I wanted to try my hand at making them myself -- working in the Little Angel workshop under the eye of master carver Lyndie Wright. I made Judy, Joey, the Baby, the Policeman, the Devil...but I never finished the full set. Other theatre work intervened, and Punch went into a storage box. Years later, when I moved to Devon, the box disappeared into a dark corner of the attic.
"Then, in the spring of 2016, I attended an excellent Punch & Judy workshop at the Little Angel, run by Professor Glynn Edwards (aided and abetted by Professor Clive Chandler) -- and when I came home, I searched the attic and rescued Punch from the dust and cobwebs. I'd dreamed of performing a Punch & Judy show for a long, long time, and now I was determined to do it -- but I had to work slowly, between other jobs, and the process spread over another two years: first finishing the puppets, then building the booth, and finally developing and practicing the show.
"I was lucky to have some expert help. My mother, a retired theatre costume designer, made all of the puppets' clothes, and covered the booth in traditional candy-striped fabric. The booth has to be light and portable, quick to assemble and disassemble, and her clever design of the booth's fabric cover allows for easy removal. I used a simple wooden frame for the stage, until our friend David Wyatt -- a multi-award-winning book illustrator -- stepped in. David generously designed and painted the glorious sign that crowns the booth today.
"I then took my P&J booth on the road for trial performances in various public and private settings: learning the mechanics of the back-stage action, discovering all the ways that it could go wrong (in one show I swallowed the swazzle!), exploring each puppet's character and finding the rhythm and movement of the show.
"Highlights along the way included some wild off-grid performances with Hedgespoken Storytelling Theatre, birthday shows for Dark Crystal designer Brian Froud and fantasy novelist Delia Sherman, and two years' of performances at the Shambala Festival's Puppet Parlour. Now I'm the official Punch & Judy man for Teignmouth beach -- performing on a classic seafront pitch with Tony Liddington and his hilarious Flea Circus every summer. We also perform in Dawlish, Exmouth, and other towns on the south Devon coast; and during the winter I do the odd Punch gig indoors. But Teignmouth is best place to see us, all through the summer school holidays.
"I love contrary, naughty Mr. Punch, and the way he makes children scream with laughter, and plenty of adults as well. Despite all the entertainments on offer in our complex, fast-paced, digital world, these simple objects of cloth and wood, and a funny swazzle voice, can still create magic."
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.'
"Bologna was one of many entertainers who came to England from the continent following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Unlike today’s Punch & Judy, performed with glove puppets in canvas booths with the audience outside, Bologna used marionettes -- puppets with rods to their heads and strings or wires to their limbs – and performed within a transportable wooden shed, and as such would have been quite a novelty. Pepys was so delighted by the show that he brought his wife to see it two weeks later, and in October 1662 Bologna was honoured with a royal command performance by Charles II at Whitehall, where a stage measuring 20ft by 18ft was set up for him in the Queen’s Guard Chamber. The king rewarded ‘Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella’ with a gold chain and medal, a gift worth £25 then, or about £3,000 today. Other Italian puppeteers appeared in London, and on 10 November 1662 Pepys took his wife to see another show in a booth at Charing Cross performing: 'the Italian motion, much after the nature of what I showed her at Covent Garden.'
"Pepys usually referred to the shows as Polichinello, a name relating to Punch’s roots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where masked actors improvised comic knockabout plays around a number of stock characters, and Polichinello was the subversive, thuggish character whose Italian name Pulcinella or Pulliciniello may have developed from the word pulcino, or chicken, referring to the character’s beak-like mask and squeaky voice.
"Punch’s characteristic voice comes from the use of a reed retained at the back of the Punchman’s (or Professor's) mouth, calling for expert alternation of reed use when Punch is talking to other characters. In Britain the reed is called a swazzle, and in France a sifflet-pratique. Its most common Italian name was pivetta, but also sometimes strega, or witch, and franceschina, after Franchescina, one of Punch’s wives in the Commedia dell’Arte who had a voice like a witch. Swazzles are made of thin metal today, but bone or ivory were formerly used, each equally tricky to master and easy to swallow.
"Mr. Punch made himself thoroughly at home in Britain during the 18th century. 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."
Marionette shows were expensive to operate, however, "and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead."
"With Punch’s move from marionette stage to portable booth came new clothes and new companions. 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.
A role for Tilly, perhaps...?
Punch & Judy shows were not just for children in past centuries. As the V&A curator notes:
Aspects of the comedy such as the marital strife between Punch and Judy, and in Piccini’s show the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, obviously struck a chord with many adult members of the audience. Punch was a well known celebrity with the satirical magazine named after him in London in 1841, children’s picture books published based on his shows, and images of him proliferating on all manner of household artefacts, from doorstops to baby’s rattles.
"As today, some censured the shows for Punch’s violent behaviour, but Punch & Judy found an ally in Charles Dickens, whose novels include several references to the shows. Dickens defended them as enjoyable fantasy that would not incite violence:
" '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.' "
Or as Mr. Punch himself would say, "That's the way to do it!"
For more information on Punch & Judy, visit the V&A's Punch & Judy pages, Punch & Judy Online, and the Punch & Judy Fellowship. For puppetry in general, see The Curious School of Pupptry (where Howard teaches), the Puppet Place News blog, Puppeteers UK, and The Centre for Research on Objects & Puppets in Performance.
The art above is credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Some of my text comes from a previous post in the summer of 2016, when Howard began to put his Punch & Judy show together. All rights to the text quoted from the V&A website reserved by the V&A Museum, London, 2012.