THE WASSAIL-BOWL. Albert Smith V.1 pp22-30
London: R.Bentley 1843

PUNCH


Amidst the various inducements to loiter on your way, which the streets of London continually present, there is one object that always possesses for us an irresistible attraction, far above all others; and that is the peripatetic theatre of our adored friend Punch. No matter how pressing our business—no matter how late for our appointment we may be, or distant from the spot towards which we are progressing, the instant we hear Punch's shrill, expressive squeak, and behold the light framework of the scene of his gambols assuming a fixed perpendicular position, we bid a temporary adieu to aught else of consequence. And taking our place amongst the crowd of small boys, servant-maids, printers' devils, errand-carriers, and other street frequenters that surround his temple, we are for the time lost to everything but the tricks and drolleries, the sly manoeuvres and deep-laid schemes, of our merry, bold, cowardly, deceitful, candid puppet.

We are never ashamed of being caught gazing at Punch. Many of our friends—nice young gentlemen of the glazed boot and lemon kid-glove school—have severely reprobated us for yielding to the inducements which the wooden hero holds out to arrest our steps; but these chidings have invariably gone in at one ear and out at the other—a curious overland journey across the brain, which no philosopher has yet properly defined, although we hear of it hourly in society. We are not angry with our friends, for everybody has his own ideas of refinement and gentility; but we pity them. We regret that they allow themselves to be deprived of much amusement and real laughter, from a mistaken notion of the comme-il-faut. And if they are seen, what does it matter? There are puppets in society, whose tricks are similar to, and twice as mischievous as, the pranks of Punch, whom it is thought no disgrace to gaze at. But this is one of the results of our English "fear-of-what-other-people-think." In the Champs Elysees, the small rough benches which the poor exhibitor of Punch places in front of his show are thronged with grown-up and respectable people, who scream with uncontrolled delight at his vagaries. The French enjoy themselves, because they do not quail, as we do, beneath the opinions of their neighbours; and the same feeling which allows them to ride in roundabouts and revolving ships, permits them equally to enter, heart and soul, into the performances of Punch, without caring whether anybody they know is regarding them or otherwise.


We cannot, however, disguise the melancholy fact, that Punch is on the decline. It is true that he escaped the notice of the Metropolitan Police Act, and, whilst the dogs were emancipated from the trucks, he was permitted to bully and tease the hapless Toby to his heart's content; still, we fear his glories are departing. Commend us to the goodly times when Mr. Powell, the prince of "motion-makers," set forth his exhibition "under the little Piazza in Covent Garden," and the Opera at the Haymarket was seriously injured by the concurrence; when the sparrows and chaffinches at the latter theatre, instead of perching on the trees, only put out the candles, and the ballet yielded in attraction to the pig that danced a minuet with Punch. The clever paper of Steele, that made Pope shake his sides as he read it, related to no commonplace performance. But alas! the times are sadly changed. The Opera has resumed its sway, and a pas de deux between Perrot and Cerito is now thought superior to the celebrated opening dance between Punch and his consort.

Punch loves to be in the world, although he affects retirement from a great thoroughfare. He rather inclines to a quiet street that debouches into the stream of population. Hence the cul-de-sacs in the Strand that lead towards the river are sometimes favoured by him; for he is not annoyed there by passing vehicles, whilst he can attract a good audience from the foot- passengers. We have occasionally seen him at the bottom of Berners Street; more frequently in the offshoots of Tottenham Court Road; and very often in Castle Street, Leicester Square, his most favoured locality, where he collects a delighted crowd from the multitudes who are perpetually threading that extraordinary series of courts and archways, combs, straw-bonnets, cold ham, false teeth, and portmanteaus, that leads from New Street towards the West-end. Here he revels in uncontrolled wickedness; here his scream is more joyously shrill than in any other situation; and here his performance is generally of a more prolonged nature, from the change of audience, than his spectators are usually favoured with. And yet, we never saw the end of it—we do not believe any one ever did, for his antics are too often cut short by the paucity of the last collection of coppers which has been solicited in the inverted cymbal.

Our ideas of Punch are of a mysterious and inexplicable kind. We cannot quite divest ourselves of the opinion, that he is not altogether an inorganic body—a mere compound of wood, calico, and dirty paint. We confess it without shame, we should not sleep tranquilly in our bed if Punch were lying on the toilet-table. We should feel more at our ease if we locked him up in a drawer previous to retiring to rest, because then we should know there was not such a chance of his amusing himself during the night by beating the back of our head with his all-powerful cudgel. Even in his own abode, although we are distinctly aware that there is a man in a fustian jacket and corduroy trowsers, with lace-up boots, directing his actions, we still concentrate all our ideas of vitality there enclosed in our frolicksome hero. The other persons of the drama are mere puppets, subservient to the proper performance of the comedy; but Punch is an exception to them. We can imagine him, when the show is over, carrying his pugnacious disposition into the oblong box that encloses him and his companions, and thrashing them with the same merciless vigour when shut up in the aforesaid case, as he did when he figured in public.

Whenever we see a Punch's show, we look upon the chief actor as the same being we have witnessed before, and invest him with the same propensities and internal economy. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the reality, that there are more Punches than one in the world; and nothing would distress our intellectual faculties more than to see two Punches in one show. A sight like this would bewilder us; our mind would not be able to grapple with the confusion thus created. We would rather not witness so strange a sight, but incline to the theory that Punch is ubiquitous; that the same Punch who figures at the Fete of St. Cloud is the next moment, perhaps even at that very time, thrashing the constable to the delight of a London mob, or amusing the pleasure-seekers on the smooth turf of Egham race-course.

Punch is the only one of the street performers who does not care a bit for the policemen. We were watching his drama one day, in company with a friend, to whose able pencil we are indebted for the illustration, when a raw recruit of the Police force requested the wooden hero to "move on." But Punch, nothing daunted, immediately began to argue the case with his enemy, in which he succeeded so admirably, that the policeman was glad to slink off amidst the laughter and jeers of the audience. He could not have been more completely beaten had he been Jack Ketch, Shallabala, the constable, or any other of the puppets.

Punch enjoys an excellent constitution. Blows that would be sudden death to other people, fall lightly and unheeded upon his occiput. He merely exclaims, "How hard the wind blows!" and cures himself in five seconds by rubbing the back of his head against the wings of his theatre—a species of counter-irritation to which many quacks have, doubtless, been indebted for their ideas. One of his finest delineations, however, is the manner in which, after receiving a thrashing from the unknown intruder, he looks carefully round his theatre, to see from what quarter the injuries have proceeded, and concludes his search by leaning half over the front, and endeavouring to peer round the sides of the show. This is perfect, and only approached by his occasional convulsive shudders after the ghost has appeared to him, one of the most terrible personifications of supernatural fright ever exhibited. Nor does the Belgian Lion at Waterloo repose in calmer triumph over the mound of slaughtered heroes which it surmounts, than Punch does, when he tranquilly perches himself upon the line of victims to his conquering arm, whose lifeless forms embellish the front board of his theatre.

The drama of Punch has suffered material change within the last few years. The baby, Jack Ketch, the gallows, and the—(we hesitate to write his name) the — enemy of mankind, have almost disappeared. Their places have been supplied by a clown, and divers other characters. We have also witnessed a tin caddy, through which Jim Crow pokes his head, when Punch’s curiosity leads him to peep into the interior; and a spectre made of wood, with an enormous mouth of red
cloth. We do not like these innovations. They look like a taste for spectacle, and, where this prevails, the legitimate drama must fall. Punch is to the Fantoccini what Shakspeare is to the ballets of her Majesty’s Theatre, and we should not wish either to merge into the other. Some mercenary proprietors have desecrated Punch's show by turning it to account with an evening exhibition of Chinese shadows, illuminated by various candle-ends placed behind. This is unpardonable; and we were exceedingly rejoiced to see the transparent screen destroyed by accidental conflagration, a few evenings since, in Bloomsbury Square. It was a just visitation.

In conclusion, we have a question to ask, connected with our immortal friend; and, if any of our readers can solve it, we shall be more than happy to receive their communications. How is Punch's unearthly voice produced? Is it a natural sound, or the result of some peculiar instrument in the mouth? We were taught in infancy, that two quadrangular pieces of tin, bound together by narrow tape, would produce the desired effect, when placed between the lips. This is not the fact. A squeaking sound may be perpetrated through their use, but no articulation of words is practicable; and we opine that the noise is the result of much training, or natural conformation of the muscles of the organs of voice. One use these tin instruments certainly possess. A lady of our acquaintance bitterly offended us. We could not openly retaliate, so we cloaked our anger under the mask of kindness. We made four of the above whistles, and gave them to the same number of her children. Our vengeance was complete; the house was the scene of one long, continuous squeak, from morning till night, as shrill as Punch's, without the advantage of his sage remarks.