Puppet shows are generally created for an audience of children. One classic form of puppetry made famous during the Renaissance would definitely receive an R rating in today’s world. In this chapter of ORIGINS, I look into the history, comedy, and popularity of a puppet show that glorifies infidelity, murder, and insanity.
Every January and February, I take part in the Brevard Renaissance Fair, a three-weekend event filled with fun, entertainment, lots of bad British accents, and a venue where I get to share my books with the community. My novel Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light takes place in Wickham Park, the fair’s venue. Plus Clifton time travels to Medieval England to rescue King Richard’s nephews, which is when the fair takes place. It just makes sense that I’m there selling books, right?
Over the years, I’ve made friends with an incredible puppeteer named Apryl Tennison of the Good Knight Theatre group in Orlando, Florida. Her stage is crafted by hand, as are her puppets, and I fell in love with her art. In today’s day and age, while entertainment is delivered mainly through screen via internet, gaming, or binge watching, there is one thing they cannot duplicate…even if they’ve mastered the “feel” of being there, and that is TEXTURE. What I love about Apryl’s puppets are the feel of the wispy beard and the velveteen shirt and the faux leather boots and the wooden pipe she formed when she created my character Dane the Dwarf into an amazing puppet that I display on my table at live events and signings. You can’t duplicate texture on any video game, YouTube show, Netflix binge, or cartoon on television. In fact, it’s the very same reason I created my candles, Wick Books, based off scents from my books for readers to engage in a different sensory experience by lighting the candle and reading the novel.
But I digress.
Apryl introduced me to a classic form of puppetry made famous during the Renaissance known as the Punch and Judy show, a classic seaside demonstration that glorifies infidelity, murder, and insanity. The Punch and Judy show originated as an Italian puppet act of slapstick comedy featuring a hunchback, crooked-nosed marionette named Punchinella. In the late 1660s, Italians were forced to flee Italy due to war and a very poor government, but they took this abhorred, yet loveable, wooden man along with them to Europe. Shortened to “Punch” and later joined by his wife Judy, the classic style of puppetry is known for the boisterous actions, such as pie throwing, violence, inappropriate humor, and elements of poor role modeling such as lying, stealing, cheating, and beating. Basically, this show would NEVER survive in today’s marketplace. Punch would be forced to post his atrocities on Facebook and admit to harassment, plus a myriad of other criminal and moral offenses. And if we’re going to be honest, that’s why this show is still impactful nearly 400 years later. Our love of violence, sex, and masculine dominance is universal (and don’t tell me I’m wrong; just look at the book sales and movie tickets sold from the 50 Shades series and I dare any woman to tell me otherwise).
Punch wears a jester’s uniform, complete with curved hat and ruffled collar. He carries a stick that he uses to beat the other characters in the play called a “slapstick” hence the name of this variant of comedy still in use by legends such as The Three Stooges and even superstar Jim Carrey. The show is a combination of short scenes between Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy in which Judy (originally known as Joan) beats her husband with a club. Perhaps, the origins of my favorite show SNAPPED are rooted in this off-color production. This show found its main home as a travelling, seaside theater, due to the increased population, technology, and street traffic in England, which forced puppeteers, known as a Punchman or the Professor, to move around performing as a way of attracting an audience, who would hopefully dish out a coin or two as their appreciation.
In its earliest form, Mr. Punch interacted with a wide array of characters including the devil and Death. Some scholars believe Mr. Punch to be these incarnations and the interaction is more introspective. To keep the show alive, the devil has become a monstrous crocodile in many performances today. Punch talks directly to the audience for engagement, asking questions and conversing to keep the crowd in attendance for the duration of the show. Bottlers were folks who walked about the crowd prior to the show’s curtain catcalling to bring an audience to the Professor’s performance. They worked on tips collected in bottles, hence their name, and would most often play an instrument to accompany the show. Here’s another interesting phrase’s origins, like slapstick, directly from the Punch and Judy show. Ever heard someone say they’re “Pleased as Punch”? Well, this is the Punch of whom they’re comparing their pleasure to, as the character Mr. Punch was extraordinarily pleased with himself and satisfied with pretty much everything he did.
On the darker side, the Punch and Judy show has some really disgusting parts that some Punchman choose to replace with more comedic “child friendly” actions. Mr. Punch is grotesquely formed with a hunchback and a crooked nose, typical of the Medieval times where it was commonplace to insult anyone malformed. In some original versions, Mr. Punch and Judy argue constantly. Tired of the nagging, Mr. Punch grabs a club and beats his nagging wife, Judy, to death. They have a baby, who is usually just a head on a stick, and a dog, who in original works was a real dog that became a puppet in the show named Toby. Another popular character is Punch’s mistress, Miss Polly, one of the reasons he murders his wife. While Punch and Polly are onstage, Judy’s nose will appear to be coming into frame off the edge of the set, which is merely a box camouflaged by curtains just large enough to cover the Professor. The children watching the show will scream and laugh, pointing at Judy’s nose and warning Punch that she’s coming.
Another element that moves about the stage with each scene is a white glove that evokes the same audience reaction and participation. Sometimes, it’s the baby. A clown named Joey is an immortal companion to Punch who never speaks but sits and observes Punch’s behavior. Joey represents Punch’s benevolent side, and that’s why he can’t be killed. Some versions have Punch killing the baby too, and the dog, leaving him alone to face the devil. Even still, in some forms, Punch beats the devil to death, like he does every other character (including the minister), takes on the devil’s persona, and faces Death in the final act of the play. During World War II, Punch and Judy shows were delivered by Punchman Percy Press to the troops. Punch wore battledress donned a gas mask, and Judy wore her NAAFI cap. Jack Ketch, who is the hangman in all Punch’s skits, was replaced by a very nasty Hitler.
The mask of Punch is also associated with magic and power, a dark force that linked Punch with Paganism and Roman mysticism in Naples. He would come out at carnival times with his fowl mischief, including the element of a box that stays unopened to drive the children watching mad with curiosity. A link to Pandora’s Box, perhaps, or the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat” though in this case, it might be the Devil who’s in the box or worse: a grotesque wooden puppet known as Punch.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle where you can find stories with a supernatural slant. You can learn more about my books, read show notes, and study this topic through provided links by visiting podcastORIGINS.com. Subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. Consider a Magic Membership as my Patreon supporter, where you’ll receive incredible rewards as my way of saying thanks. And stick around for a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “Picture Window” about a little girl who isn’t much for sugar and spice, as one would expect a little girl should be.
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