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Punch & Judy in America: Lecture and Oral History with Mark Walker

A puppet stage with Punch and Judy hand puppets. Punch is dressed in red with a pointed hat, while Judy is dressed in blue.

Punch and Judy as presented by Professor Horn (Mark Walker) at the Library of Congress on May 2, 2018. American Folklife Center photo by Stephen Winick.

Puppeteer Professor Horn, also known as Mark Walker, gave a talk on the history and art of Punch and Judy and puppet shows at the Library of Congress on May 2, 2018. He also talked about his art with folklorist Michelle Stefano. For professional reasons, Walker preferred not to have the puppet shows video recorded. But we do have videos of his talk and the interview and these are presented here.

A man standing in front of a puppet stage.

Mark Horn holding a wooden doll from his collection as he speaks at the Library of Congress, May 2, 2018. American Folklife Center photo by Stephen Winick.

Punch and Judy puppet shows have their roots in commedia dell’arte plays that arose in the 16th century, especially those that included the beloved Neapolitan rascal, Pulcinella. The creation of this commedia dell’arte character is credited to the Neapolitan actor Silvio Fiorillo with influences from characters of traditional carnival. But Pulcinella of Naples is also thought by some to have roots in the Campania region’s Greek prehistory, with possible links to ancient deities, such as Hermes. In the art and lore of Naples he is not only a trickster but a protector, especially of laborers and the poor. He is known as one who not only can con the Devil, but mediate between the Devil and the people. (For example see “Pulcinella: per un’antropologia del comico,” by Domenico Scafoglio in Annali d’Italianistica
Vol. 15, Anthropology & Literature (1997), pp. 65-84 [JSTOR] in Italian.)

Puppet shows featuring some version of Pulcinella have spread to many parts of the world. They have entertained English-speaking audiences at least since the 1662, when Samuel Pepys attended a show performed by Italian puppeteer, Pietro Gimonde, who performed as Signor Bologna, in London. Pepys wrote about the show in his diary and consequently the date of that show, May 9, 1662, is known in the United Kingdom as “Mr. Punch’s birthday.” Later that same year, Signor Bologna gave a performance for King Charles II who rewarded the puppeteer with a medal. These earliest puppets were described as large and so were probably marionettes. The ease of making, manipulating, and travelling with hand puppets probably led to the familiar Punch and Judy shows of Northern Europe that came to the United States.

In Mark Walker’s talk, “Punch & Judy in America,” he talks about the history of Punch and Judy shows, reasons the show has endured, and how it has adapted to American audiences.

The Punch and Judy show draws on ancient folkloric trickster traditions, ideas from medieval carnival, and outrageous slapstick humor. Plots vary, leaving a great deal up to individual puppeteers, called “Professors” in the Punch and Judy tradition. The plays are generally a series of misadventures making interchanges of scenes and plot elements possible. The humor comes from characters who do things that are socially unacceptable, and from turning the common-sense world upside down. Some plot elements are relatively constant: for example, audiences expect Judy to leave the baby in the care of husband Punch, who handles babysitting badly. The two have a bad quarrel about it, a policeman intervenes and Punch hits him with his stick. After that, the play varies from version to version, as Punch meets with further mishaps and still worse opponents but tricks them in some way in the end.

A puppet stage with a Devil hand puppet. The devil is bright red in color with black eyebrows, mustache, and goatee beard. He has yellow horns on his head, and the whites of his eyes are also yellow.

The Devil as presented in the Punch and Judy show performed by Professor Horn (Mark Walker) at the Library of Congress on May 2, 2018. American Folklife Center photo by Stephen Winick.

Older versions of the plays, still sometimes performed, contain violent elements as part of the comedy. Husband and wife Punch and Judy often come to blows wielding clubs. Punch is sometimes led to the gallows at the end and tricks the hangman into being hung. Punch’s last fight may be with the Devil, and this plot element is one of the oldest in the tradition dating back to the Italian plays with the character Pulcinella. At first intended for adults, the shows have been adapted for children since the nineteenth century. Modern adaptations try to fulfill the expected elements of the play but in somewhat less disturbing ways. A Crocodile, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, often provides a dangerous confrontation in modern shows put on for all audiences. The Devil may still appear at the end.

A clown-like figure in a striped suit with an exaggerated hump on his back and a large belly. The title at the bottom reads "Quadrille de Punch."

“Quadrille de Punch.” This undated drawing of Mr. Punch was published by the 19th century publisher William H. Oakes and signed by W. Sharp. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //lccn.loc.gov/2003674413

In Italian tradition Pulcinella is most often played by an actor or depicted in drawings dressed in white with a mask covering half his face, usually brown or black leather, with a large nose. The mask is said to show him as a laborer with weathered skin. His cap varies, though a conical cap is common. He carries a cudgel or a wooden spoon for settling arguments. Actors gave him a strange raspy voice by putting a small device in their mouths, called a swazzle. Once made of two pieces of bone bound together, modern ones are made of metal. Pulcinella seems to have acquired more colorful outfits as he traveled across Europe, with some of the earliest changes in costume appearing in French prints. He might have cloths with large blocks of different colors sewn together, or a brightly striped suit. He gradually came to resemble the jester of French and English courts. It is the more colorful version of Pulcinella who changed his name to Punch in the British Isles. Mr. Punch of Northern Europe and America usually wears a red or a red striped suit and pointed cap, often hooked forwards. Like Pulcinella he has a humped back, a pot belly, a large hooked nose, and a raspy voice. The cudgel he carries is a slapstick. His garb and features suggested to his historic audiences that he was a servant — a man of poor means who had ideas above his place in life. He has characteristics of both servant and master, worker and elite. That is part of his comedy, as he expects to be a man of consequence and always gets it wrong.

In the commedia dell’arte plays Pulcinella was often described as married, but his wife did not always appear. Punch’s wife as a required character in the puppet shows seems to have developed in the 18th century and she was originally known in Britain as “Joan.” Judy, as she became, is as capable at rebelling against social norms as Punch himself. She behaves in ways that a woman and a wife should not in her era (and often in any other). She talks back to him, berates him for mistreating the baby, and does not hesitate to pick up something to whack her husband.

A man talks with a woman. A video camera on a tripod is visible to the right.

Mark Walker talks with folklorist Michelle Stefano at the Library of Congress, May 2, 2018. American Folkife Center photo by Stephen Winick.

In the oral history with Michelle Stefano, Walker talks further about the history of Punch and Judy, particularly in North America. He talks about the plays and how the plots of the play are loosely organized, allowing him a great deal of freedom as a performer to decide how to present a puppet show for particular audiences. Walker was a magician before he was a puppeteer, and he talks about the common phenomenon of puppeteers also having careers as magicians and/or ventriloquists. It makes sense to me as all those performing arts have a magical quality. He recounts about how he came to perform Punch and Judy, learning to be a puppeteer and relationships with other performers. He also talks about his puppets, which are made in England by traditional carvers. I find it interesting that the performers of Punch and Judy as Walker describes them are so internationally connected — not just via the internet, but through arranged face to face meet ups. Be sure to watch at the end as he tells some stories about his experiences as a puppeteer.

Resources

Hall, Stephanie. “Puppets: A Story of Magical Actors,” Folklife Today, March 16, 2018.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor, Volume III. Griffen, Bohn, and Comany, 1861 (volume III was part of the original 1851 set). Available from Hathi Trust. See page 61 of the digital version for a discussion and script of Punch and Judy street puppetry.

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