A Salute to Mr. Punch on World Puppetry Day

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by Jeremiah Bartram

We can’t celebrate World Puppetry Day without toasting Mr. Punch.

Ernie, Bert, Big Bird and Kermit the Frog may have replaced him in contemporary North American culture – but if you’ve never seen an old-fashioned Punch And Judy show, go immediately – right now – to YouTube and take a look! You’ll find the essence of glove puppetry: funny, violent, fast-talking, action-packed – and it’s entertaining for kids and adults alike.

When you watch the antics of our modern Punch, you’re participating in puppet history.

He’s a big-mouthed glove puppet with a hooked red nose and a pointed hat. He talks in a squeaky voice – and he’s cheerfully and unashamedly bad, as only a glove puppet can be bad.

The famous seventeenth century diarist, Samuel Pepys, records seeing him in London – and here he is, today, still going strong with many of the same jokes and sight gags that entertained crowds in the streets of that city two and three hundred years ago.

He carries a club with which he beats anyone who offends him. He argues with his wife, Judy (in Pepys’ day she was called “Joan”). He throws the baby out the window when she cries. He gets in trouble with the law and tricks the devil into hanging himself.

Kids love him because he’s irrepressible – “Look behind you, Look behind you,” they squeal when the crocodile rears up to devour him.

His squeaky voice comes from a whistle-like device called a “pivetta” or “swazzle” that the puppeteer holds in the roof of his mouth – another of the ancient practices still used in modern puppetry. An experienced artist can vary between a puppet squeak and a normal human voice in the course of a fast-paced dialogue (always at the risk of swallowing the swazzle).

There’s evidence that swazzles were used for puppets in Shakespeare’s day – although puppets weren’t called puppets back then. They were called “motions”.

Punch is an English version of Pulcinella, a character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, masked and elaborately costumed players who improvised a drama of stock characters in Naples and beyond in the sixteenth century. These performing troupes travelled throughout Italy and Europe; they performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1572.

Pulcinella was never a major character in the Commedia dell’Arte– but somehow he appealed to puppeteers and the street crowds that they entertained. In France he became Guignol and in Germany he was Kasper; in Spain he was Cocoliche – and in England, Mr. Punch.

So he tells us a lot about the history of puppetry, this sociopathic clown with the crabby wife (who would blame her for being crabby, being married to him?). He shows us how puppet theatre steals and adapts; how it thrives in different cultures; how it sustains a theatrical tradition long after its main-stage source has died.

And Mr. Punch warns playwrights like me. Don’t become too avant-garde, too esoteric, he tells us. Because puppet theatre has always been, and remains, firmly rooted in the public squares and the streets – an art for ordinary people, and kids.

(Jeremiah Bartram is an Ottawa playwright who is writing a book about puppets.)