From the Literary Speculum No1 pp152-6, 1821

The Puppet Show

I should have been glad to have seen my old acquaintance, Master Punch. - FIELDING.


Illustration by Robert Cruikshank, 1827

I think it is Lord Chesterfield, who defines laughter to be the characteristic of ill-manners; and I have met with very learned reasons why a man should preserve a perpetual gravity of countenance. But in sober truth, I am inclined to imagine, that laughter is not to be regulated by rule; and that there are some circumstances in every one's life, which, in spite of habitual self-command, will compel him to yield to the temptation.

Were it possible, indeed, before we expanded our risible muscles, to hesitate whether we should laugh or not, the democritical philosophy would probably have few disciples. The excitements to laughter are often of so trifling a nature, as to shrink from the ordeal of rational inquiry; and the most contemptible causes have often produced the strongest effects. A man of tolerable sense, who would honour a sparkling effusion of wit, with merely a well-bred smile, or, at the very utmost, a pleasant grin, shall, at some ridiculous nonsense burst out into a sardonic fit of uncontrollable laughter, and be ashamed the next minute for having made himself a fool. The truth is, that laughter is neither a passion nor a sentiment. It is an impulse, which we cannot subdue, and over which reason has no control. The gravest folks have been caught tripping; and I question whether even Quakers have not sometimes laughed as loudly as their less guarded neighbours. In minds of habitually serious temperament, the exciting causes must no doubt be stronger, than with those hey-day, careless, lack-brained sons of merriment, whose mouths expand into a grin at the holding up of a finger; but, I repeat, there are circumstances and situations in which the demurest physiognomies would not be proof against the temptation. At all events, I cannot consider laughter a crime. The bright spots of a man's life are few enough; without blotting any out; and since, for a moment of mirth, we have an hour of sadness, it were a sorry policy to diminish the few rays that illumine our chequered existence. Life is an April day, — sunshine and showers. The heart, like the earth, would cease to yield good fruit, were it not sometimes watered with the tears of sensibility; and the fruit would be worthless, but for the sunshine of smiles.

My " sunny hours" have been few enough; yet I have been so vulgar as to laugh, and heartily too; and I hope to have many more causes of merriment, before the time, when (like Yorick) I shall not have a jibe left "to mock my own grinning.'' Now I am not very diffident of acknowledging (let the confession detract as it may from my intellectual reputation) that there have been few occasions when I have laughed louder or longer than at Punch’s Puppet Show. I remember, (spite of maternal remonstrances and predictions of caned shoulders and strapped hands) throwing down my dog's eared Virgil, sixty of whose harmonious, but to me discordant lines, I was destined to repeat at the morning's lesson, on peril of corporal punishment, and mental degradation; — I remember, I say, throwing down the Prince of Poets, starting up from my seat, — all on the qui vive, at hearing the grateful, well-known sound of the trumpet, which in sonorous tones of asinine shrillness, summoned a gratuitous audience to this most delightful of exhibitions. I say a gratuitous audience, because the spectator might see it for nothing, if honor would let him slink away without dropping the well earned mite into the hat of the petitioning Fantoccinist. Yet who could refuse so trifling, — so humble a tribute to genius? Who could shrink from the intreating rim, pressed by the ingenious solicitor against the hearts of his audience, as the most vulnerable part after so touching a display of feeling, — who, I say, could resist the plea with a "Really I have no halfpence," when conscience was whispering all the while, as generosity did to Sterne, " you know you have a thousand"? I recollect that young as I was, I gladly gave the penny destined to the purchase of nuts and apples, and heartily wished it had been more.

Yes, I well remember, that in defiance of all the dreadful anticipations of the morrow; the awful magisterial frown of the trencher-capped arbiter of my destiny; and the prophetic visions which would crowd upon my soul on the very threshold of my transgression, like Macbeth's air-drawn dagger, or the perspective rope, supposed to haunt the predestined murderer; — spite of all these awful consequences; — when the trumpet has sounded, I have seized my hat, and followed through street, lane, and alley, the itinerant showman. And ah! what anguish I have felt! how keen, how bitter has been my disappointment, when (and often has it been the case) after tracing the footsteps of Punch's master till I was tired, I have found it a wild-goose chase, and a mere igni fatuus at last. The man who has forged a checque, and is detected in the very act of presenting it; — the thief, who suffers the penalty before he has had time to enjoy the fruits of his crime, — can alone be adduced as parallels; for I was doomed to encounter all the consequences of the time I had wasted, all the penalties of neglected lessons, without the satisfaction of reflecting that the temptation to which I had yielded had ended in actual enjoyment.

But if my Punch's chase has sometimes proved fruitless; it has been more than counterbalanced by the many happy hours I have spent in his company; the remembrance of which I always found strong enough to make the dread of the morrow kick the beam I think I see the fantoccinist now. He was an Italian ; a little thick-set man, with a red, humorous-looking countenance. He had lost one eye; but the other made up for the absence of its fellow by a shrewdness of expression sufficient for both. He always wore an oil skin hat, and a rough great coat. At his back he carried a deal box, containing the dramatis personae; of his little theatre and in his hand, the trumpet aforesaid, at whose glad summons hundreds of merry, laughter-loving faces flocked round him, wit gaping mouths and anxious looks, all eager to renew their acquaintance with their old friend and favorite, Punch. The theatre itself was carried by a tall man, who seemed a sort of sleeping partner in the concern, or mere dumbwaiter on the other's operations.

Whether this favorite of my juvenile days is still living, I know not. It is many years since I last saw him, or heard the cheering sound his brazen trumpet; and I began to think that Punch's glories had shared the fate of all terrestrial things, and had faded away for ever. But how shall I describe my astonishment, and (shall I confess it?) my delight, when a few days ago, casting my eyes up the long perspective of Blackfriars' road, I distinctly discerned the well-known theatre, borne on the shoulders of a man, and attended by a numerous troop of followers, young and old. I had been vain enough to imagine, that with increase of years I had gained increase of wisdom; but I had flattered myself egregiously. Hear my confession. No sooner did I catch a distant glimpse of Punch's glory, than all the recollections of youthful delight rushed into my mind. I mended my pace, and overtook the itinerant, just as he had set down his burden on a convenient spot for exhibition. I looked in his face, — it was not my old acquaintance; but a stout comely-looking young fellow, who having on a smock frock and a dog's hair hat, had the appearance of a rustic, and seemed of all persons in the world, the least worthy to tread in the shoes of his great prototype the inimitable Italian. However, though with this drawback on the enjoyment of the treat, and with the prepossession, that it would be a sorry sort of affair, after what I had seen some twenty years ago, I took my stand ; and with more liberality than usually falls to the share of a dramatic critic, I must confess that I found Master Punch every whit as merry a gentleman as when I had last the pleasure of falling into his company.

Nor was I the only "child of a larger growth," who was tempted to witness the exhibition. Young and old flocked round Punchinello's standard, and mingled en masse without distinction of rank, all animated by the same sentiment of joyous expectation. I had the curiosity, during the performance, to look round upon the motley groupe. There was not a face but smiled; and many burst out into shouts of uproarious laughter. It was curious to mark the risible gradations. “Eh! help us!" said an old woman, "that folks should laugh at such nonsense!" And her mouth was expanded to a full semicircular grin. Those of the throng, who appeared least burthened with this world's goods, seemed the most vociferous in their sympathy. A few decently dressed personages, who formed the outskirts of the crowd, appeared less boisterous in their mirth; but in any other company they would have laughed outright, as was manifest from the frequent applications of their handkerchiefs to their months, and the audible though half-stifled titterings, and tears of pleasure, which proved how arduous was the struggle between nature and good-breeding. Two or three of a superior class kept at a still further distance, and only stole furtive glances at Punchinello; as if they would have it understood, that they had merely stopped by accident, — or were waiting for some person, — or were looking at something else; yet even these betrayed the truth by their awkward attempts to conceal their risibility - One or two coarse jests and miserable puns produced thunders of applause; they could not have been better received within the walls of Drury; and the last scene, where Punch tricks the hangman by getting his neck into the halter, instead of his own, “was received" (as Elliston would say)" with loud and re-iterated bursts of laughter and applause, from all parts of a crowded and brilliant'' — mobility!

I cannot help thinking there is a great resemblance between the character of Punch and that of Falstaff.

Falstaff has scarcely a virtue (strictly so called) in his whole composition. He robs on the highway, cheats his hostess, slanders his prince, and abuses his office. He is a drunkard, a glutton, a thief, a liar, and a coward. Yet, with all these drawbacks, we love the rogue; and such is the magic of his humour, we forgive all his faults, and would forgive them were they ten times more numerous. Punch is a scion of the same stock, but with still darker shades in his character. He intrigues, beats his wife, and kills his child. The scoundrel has no conscience; for his ill-deeds never disturb the jollity of his humour; and his grief, when he expects to be hung, has so little of penitence in it, that it is the mere compunction of detected guilt anticipating its punishment. Yet who does not feel rejoiced at his outwitting the hangman? Who could wish so merry a fellow the fate he deserves; or help exclaiming with the poet: " Oh! Punch! with all thy faults I love thee still?"

In conclusion, I advise nervous folks, by all means, to see Punch's puppet shew: it is a finer specific for the blue devils than vegetable syrup, nervous cordial, or steel pills. Ennui and vapours shrink from its potent influence, and it would transform the veries hypochondriac into another Democritus.

by Anonymous