Pleased as Punch

Passersby gathered near the arguing pair of men. With his sharp chin, one man in a silly, high-pitched voice taunted a roly-poly policeman then hit him with a flat stick, on top of his head and across his belly. As he swept the policeman out of sight, he squeaked, “That’s the way to do it, that’s the way to do it” and onlookers whooped and applauded.

Mr. Punch continued to do away with one annoyance after another throughout the early afternoon. With the same one-two whack of his slapstick,  he tossed out of sight his wife Judy and their baby, a judge, Pretty Polly Peachum, a hangman, and even the Devil. As every challenger met defeat, the crowd’s laughter and cheers accompanied Mr. Punch’s eventually predictable, “That’s the way to do it!” until the end. I relished their enthusiasm for they had been watching my show. Punch and his antagonists were hand puppets. The onlookers were my audience.

The puppet booth’s curtains closed. I, the puppeteer, and here a Punch professor, stowed my puppets and folded my booth. I was happy to have won over another audience but tired from manipulating all those hand puppets above the playboard for nearly an hour. I had been working in the manner of Punch professors preceding me for hundreds of years. Traditional Punch and Judy shows have provoked shocked laughter since the 17th century, principally in England, but also wherever a Punchman (and in the last four or five decades Punchwoman) could set up a booth and gather an audience.

Originally, a Punch professor would perform at an intersection or on a beach and” busk,” i.e. perform in a public place for money,  passing the hat for coins during and after the show. In the latter half of the 19th century, Punchmen became paid entertainment at birthday parties and other gatherings, an arrangement lasting well into the 21st Century. They still perform on the beach, famously so at Brighton, a holiday area on the south coast of England.

I learned to perform a Punch and Judy routine from a very good acquaintance. Jay Marshall owned a shop in Chicago called Magic Inc. In the shop’s spacious back room, the Chicagoland Puppetry Guild gathered monthly. I joined the group and met Jay at the first Guild meeting I attended decades ago. He was a great solo performer, a magician and ventriloquist often appearing on the Ed Sullivan TV show with his wise-guy rabbit glove puppet, Lefty.

Jay loaned me a script and some books about Punch. He taught me how to make an easily portable stage from a music stand and coached me on the characters I’d need to perform an authentic P&J show. He also advised me to change the plot’s ending to reflect a common American revision of the script. He suggested the story would be more palatable to  Midwestern audiences if I tinkered with the order of the characters who encountered Punch and finished with the crocodile.

I liked the idea but I had no croc puppet. Although I’d sculpted all the other characters I didn’t know where to start building the toothy beast. I was going to give it a try, but one of my good friends, also my collaborator at times, heard about my dilemma and built me a toothy wood and felt crocodile whose mouth shut with a bang. A lovely gift and it worked perfectly.

Naughty Mr. Punch verbally and physically sparred with every antagonist he met, but he was no match for the crocodile. My audiences gasped when the beast chased Punch up, down, and across the stage. They screamed, warning Punch the croc was sneaking up on him, until—whoosh!—he gobbled Punch (below the playboard); then rising alone above the board, he said in a gruff crocodile-ish voice, “That’s the way to do it. The end.”

The character Punch became popular in England when plays were banned by order of the “Long Parliament,” during the Commonwealth following civil war and the execution of the monarch Charles I. Puppetry was the exception to the ban and “motions” as they were called were commonplace.[1] Punch and Judy shows became metaphors about thwarting Authority. They appealed to mass audiences because in their heyday the stories gave vent to popular resentments, bigotry, and endemic misogyny.

I had not considered the negative aspects of this lively entertainment because I felt mastering the routine would connect me to tradition and add to my authenticity, but I had to deal with it when I performed Punch and Judy at a country club Christmas party where I was booked as one of several performers for the occasion. Although most of my audience—children and adults—responded with laughter and applause, one person, the parent of two small children, took me aside to criticize the story’s violence. She shook her head as she reminded me that battering one’s opponent was the wrong way to resolve conflicts. At that moment, I gently replied without rancor that I thought current television programming was worse.

Later, alone and after more consideration, I tinkered with the script again. I had Judy and the baby survive Punch’s tricks. They teamed up with the crocodile to vanquish Punch. My audiences applauded this new ending. Not exactly a negotiated peace, but it worked. That may not have been the way to do it, but soon afterward, my career took a different path and Mr. Punch and Co. never emerged again from their storage box.

[1] “Once again…the public playhouses were closed and the actors exiled; the drama was preserved in the puppet booths. Roughly hewn and barbarous though the puppets may have been, garbled and vulgar the drolls they presented, untaught and illiterate the showmen who performed them, yet here the divine spark of the theatre found a home, and for eighteen long years of English history the drama knew no other stage.” P.72. Speaight, George, The History of the English Puppet Theatre. John de Graff. New York


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