Punch and Judy is one of the world's most famous and long running puppet shows. It is recognised as the national puppet theatre of England but Punch and Judy can be found wherever the English language is spoken. America, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong.
Punch and Judy has its origins in the commedia street theatre of medieval Italy and Punch arrived in England in 1663 from Italy as the marionette Pulchinello (noted by the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys). The character evolved into Punch over the next century and Punch appeared extensively both as a marionette and as a comic actor and slowly acquired a more English character that was a cross between the English Jester, Fool and the Shakespearean comic characters. In the late 1700's the London puppet theatres closed and Punch and Judy as we know it appeared as a busking act on the streets of London as a portable hand-puppet show.
To entertain its new audience of street-wise townsfolk this new form of puppet theatre needed to be fast, loud, action-packed, comic and portable. Punch and Judy was all of these and more. The show started with the bottler (assistant who carried the bottle for the money donations) banging a drum and playing the pan pipes. The Punch-Man (later to be called a "Professor of Punch") stayed inside the booth and operated all of the puppets and most notably the character of Punch whose shrill shrieking voice was created with a special reed inserted in the throat (the famous swazzle).
The early puppeteers led a gypsy style existence moving through the streets of London and also taking the puppet show to fairs and events. When Londoners began to travel to the seaside towns by train in the 1840's the Punch Professors followed and soon the Punch and Judy Show became a seaside institution. Some beaches and cities have had a Punch and Judy show every year for well over a hundred and thirty years. The Punch Professors guarded their shows fiercely and only passed on the secrets of puppetry to a son or nephew and kept the business 'in the family'.
The show itself has changed enormously over the last two hundred years. The first written scripts appear around 1830 but illustrations of shows actually appear in the 1770's. By the time the first scripts are found the Punch and Judy show has already been around for fifty years and has had a chance to develop into a fully fledged puppet show. While the story is new and reflects the life of the then modern Londoner, the script is also full of references to the early years of Punch, to the Medieval mystery plays and to the symbolic dramas, themes and characteristics of England.
The early shows feature Mr Punch , a hook-nosed comic figure with a stick who is a cowardly braggart but strangely likeable. He hides, lies, cheats, steals, beats, boasts eats, drinks and loves his way through a difficult life. He is a rascal but is also an "Everyman" figure in that he represents the average person. In the old storyline he has an argument with other characters, fights them, sometimes he kills them, is chased by the law, taken to jail, but beats the hangman and the devil and ends as triumphant anti-hero. In between, the whole drama is treated as a total farcical comedy with lots of action, routines, jokes and slapstick moments. Other characters include Judy his wife and their Baby, Scaramouch the neighbour and his dog Toby (often played by a real dog) Joey the Clown, The Beadle or Policeman, The Quack Doctor, The Crocodile, Sweet Polly the Mistress, The Hangman, The Devil. In particular the characters of Hangman and Devil owe their origins to the medieval English dramas and early theatre of the Elizabethan period.
Obviously much of this is black-humour but with the comic drama, Punch and Judy acquired a symbolic status as a drama about life itself. Punch and Judy was a hugely popular entertainment for ordinary people on the street but also was often invited into private homes and mansions of the aristocrats.
It is interesting to note that a similar evolution of the commedia/marionettes also happened in other parts of Europe around the same time or slightly later and in Germany we have a similar hand-puppet show-Kaspar, in France - Guignol, Petrushka in Russia, Punchinello in Italy as well as links to the Greek shadow puppet theatre.
Punch and Judy emigrated with the English to America, Australia and other parts of the world in the Nineteenth Century but by the 1940's was in decline with the advent of films and other aspects of popular entertainment. As with many other forms of traditional performance such as Vaudeville, Circus, Fairs and so on Punch and Judy was able to reinvent itself and had a revival in the 1960's with the new emphasis on community arts, national pride, tourism and so on.
However over the years the Punch and Judy Show has also adapted and changed. In some cases it has become more of a children's entertainment, far removed from its origins as a street-play. The rough and tumble violence has been changed and Punch is very much less of a sinister figure than he was in his early days. Some performers however do present shows that portray old-style performances still to this day.