I’ve always felt there’s something slightly sinister about Punch and Judy, the traditional puppet show with its cruel caricatures and incessant violence, whether domestic, bestial or judicial. It dates back to the seventeenth century, and draws on Italian commedia dell’arte material going back further still, but the earliest known visual record of a Punch and Judy performance is an incidental element in a watercolor painted in 1785 by the celebrated British illustrator Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827).
The main focus of the picture is a royal visit to the naval dockyard in Deptford, but over to the left, the crowd are paying less than the proper amount of loyal attention to King George III, because of the alternative spectacle of a Punch and Judy show. Let’s take a closer look at what they’re gawping at:
The detail comes out more clearly in a later monochrome facsimile:
Punch is spanking his wife Judy – on her bare bottom!
That’s not something that Rowlandson can ever have seen at any actual puppeteer’s booth, because by this time Punch and Judy were portrayed by glove puppets. This made it possible for Punch to wield the huge stick with which he belabours Judy,
but it effectively ruled out her getting a spanking, especially with her skirt raised, because what would be revealed would not be her legs and bottom, as in Rowlandson’s painting, only the puppeteer’s hand.
That’s why it’s worth turning to Mister Punch, a 1929 playlet described as ‘a tragical comedy or a comical tragedy for living puppets’. It was written by Colin Clements (1894-1948), but is also sometimes also credited to his long-time co-author (and wife), Florence Ryerson (1892-1965), best known as one of the three writers of the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz (1939). The play was offered for amateur performance by high schools, and indeed there were several known productions in the 1930s.
Mister Punch’s main claim to originality does not lie in its story, which is the familiar one of domestic abuse that would be appalling if it were real but is comical because it isn’t. No, what marks this play out as more than a run-of-the-mill piece of theater is that it is not a puppet show but a play for actors pretending to be puppets: they are directed to speak in falsetto and move jerkily, as if someone is pulling their invisible strings.
If you’ve ever seen a Punch and Judy show, you’ll know what happens. Punch is knocked about by Judy and in turn he knocks their baby about, and finally throws it out of the window. When Judy protests at his barbarism, he suggests they get another one that cries less. Judy takes reprisals of a violent physical nature: she hits him over the head six times with a large stick, but he dodges the seventh blow and Judy loses her balance.
(Mr Punch grabs the stick and goes chasing Judy back and forth across the room.)
PUNCH: Now it’s my turn.
JUDY: Oh, pray, Mr Punch, don’t strike me.
PUNCH: Just one little lesson.
(Judy trips and falls. Her head and arms hang over the edge of the stage. Punch gives her a spanking.)
Afterwards he tells her to get up, but she doesn’t move. Then he tells her to get down, and pushes her off the stage. ‘To lose a wife is to get a rare fortune,’ he opines. And on he goes to the later stages of the traditional Punch and Judy story, outwitting the executioner who is trying to hang him and killing the Devil who comes to carry him off to Hell.
The key difference from the puppet version is what Punch does to Judy: rather than beat her, he spanks her. To which the only conceivable answer has to be: that’s the way to do it!