Far from being simply a stalwart of seaside resort entertainment, with a heyday in the Victorian period, some of the origins of the Punch and Judy show trace back to the Classical Greek era and Mr Punch finds distant roots in the 4th century B.C in far-flung Naples.
At this time the masked actors performing in Atellan farce (from Atella near Naples) also had to draw in an audience, not unlike Punch later, using rowdy, burlesque scenes and stereotyped characters to attract and keep hold of a public which was greatly sollicited by other open-air performances, and accustomed to the violence and action of the gladiatorial arenas. The performing artists from Atella followed a printed text a 'canvas' but used their skills of improvisation to create an art form that was highly appreciated yet was ultimately to fall into decline on the demise of the Roman Empire. Acting reappeared later in public places, church squares and castles in the Middle Ages when performers would enact the Mystery plays to educate and entertain a largely illiterate audience.
In mid-16th century Padua actors started to sign contracts and in so doing left behind their dilettante status to become recognised professionals from the Commedia dell'arte, henceforth paid for their work. The themes of their performances were similar to those treated before this change of status, further animated with acts of juggling, mime and acrobatics and with improvisation still playing a large part. Little by little however, the work performed would reflect the social background and its movements and so it was that the reigning instability, a distrust or disregard for the leading classes were portrayed in ironic anecdotes and mimicry.
|Jacques Callot: Balli di Sfessania, 1622.
|Colombine Maurice Sand
Molière, the French playwright was heavily influenced by the work of the Italian actors seen Paris and with whom he shared the Palais Royal from 1662-1673 and was particularly marked by the interpretations of the actor Tiberi Fiorelli. The misunderstandings, chance happenings, disguises and role reversal, prefered by the commedia dell'arte were to be reflected and developed in the works of Molière....
Despite the initial wit and sophistication of dialogue, the performances became increasingly burlesque, even obscene and in spite of the efforts of the Italian Carlo Goldini to refine the form in the mid-18th century the commedia dell'art all but disappeared in the 19th. At the end of the 18th century the English performer Joseph Grimaldi introduced the first modern clown to the world of the circus and this would finally eclipse the Italian art form that had already fallen into disrepute.
It had long been recognised that marionnettes could express the same themes of the commedia dell'arte instead of 'expensive' actors and offer artists greater flexibility, impunity and therefore greater freedom of expression in public places. In addition, the relatively small, easily dismantled puppet theatres - the castelets, offered significant mobility and enabled performers to travel from district to district, city to city with greater ease - "That's the way to do it!" as Punch would say...
Mr Punch was first officially sighted and named in Restoration England in 1662 when Samuel Pepys wrote of a puppet show he had seen in Covent Garden.
The Puritan reign had finally come to an end and Punch, like an irreverent, gaudy Elizabethan jester, was here to mark the event as Charles II gave patronage to actors' performances. Early Punch was rather like Old Vice from Medieval morality plays, acting out the battle between good and evil, with the Devil as a fixture in the performances. In a rapid sequence of events Punch would be confronted by numerous situations that would reflect the social concerns and spirit of the time. Gradually, however, Punch became increasingly individualistic and defensive of his own interests, taking on the forces of law, order, convention and above all his shrew-like wife, Judy. His outrageous behaviour in response to events assumed a farcical quality as it led to mayhem and buffoonery.
Dressed in his fool's motley and a sugarloaf hat, bearing a hunched back, hooked nose and prominent boot chin Punch looks like the ultimate anti-hero who gloats on his bad behaviour ("Pleased as Punch") and loves to flout and outwit all rules and norms. He gleefully brandishes his stick - the noisy weapon that gave rise to the expression slapstick comedy - and doesn't hesititate to wield it against his harridan wife, or even their baby.
The performances did not follow a set 'definitive' text, and consequently improvisation and intereaction with the audience led to livelier, up-tempo shows which featured a group of characters and props. These extras would vary but staples beyond the dysfunctional family itself would include the Devil, the Mistress, the Policeman, Toby the Dog, the String of sausages and the Ghost....
Below is the link to a show in Covent Garden.
Themes covered in the performances would include current social issues, but often focused on the eternal demands of domestic life, and particulary the exigencies of the role of father which weighed heavily on Punch who would prefer to cavort with Pretty Polly, his mistress, than to look after the baby.... Eternal themes indeed!.... Punch's fortunes and the nature of his misadventures were to change in the wake of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 1800's and the social changes this brought about. Indeed, Bank Holidays were introduced to encourage a healthier work force and the seaside resort suddenly gained in popularity with the arrival of the working masses, aided by the advent of a nascent railway network. Seaside entertainment and amusement was the order of the day, and consequently the Punch and Judy show had its field day - Mr Punch's theme song was to be "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". Here's an extract of the song 'featuring' Edith Piaf....Hmmm!!!
Nevertheless the prevailing morality meant that certain aspects of the show changed to suit the sensitivities of the audience - which included more and more children. The Mistress and the Devil, soon deemed inappropriate, figured less in the shows but increasing numbers of real Toby dogs wearing a trademark ruff would sit on the front of the characteristic stripey booths, trained to participate in the action. The enthusiasm for Punch and Judy shows grew; even Dickens mentioned their importance and the storyline of The Old Curiosity Shop is said to reflect their influence. Despite dips in popularity due to changing tastes and waves of political correctness the Punch and Judy show survived and has become one of the traditional 'English' institutions. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Punch the magazine, launched in the mid-19th century and yet with its publication ending in 2002. Based on the satirical French paper Charivari, the Punch magazine was outspoken and outraged figures of authority just like its namesake...
I have to say that despite all of that, I prefer good old pugnacious Punch, mad, bad and surely dangerous to know and wholly selfish with it, but endearing nevertheless.
And this brings me to another Frenchman, son of the famous 19th century writer, George Sand, yet apparently little acknowledged for his own contribution to art - above all to the world of the marionnette. Perhaps Maurice Sand remained partly in the shadow of his mother, George. She was indeed a leading figure in the literary world, yet equally well known for her lovers (Alfred de Mussy, Frédéric Chopin amongst others...) and a wide circle of artistic acquaintances, her masculine clothes, her involvement in politics and her defiance of social conventions.
|A Sand Marionnette.
In this manner, the world of puppetry is perpetuated, although economical considerations and the foibles of taste sometimes lead to strange arrangements, with the most bizarre stage couplings as can be seen from this Guignol poster I came across!
That's the way to do it!
And finally, two years after writing this post in 2011, I finally made it to Nohant.... Here's the post:
The marionettes of Maurice Sand