Punch Scholar

What is a Punch & Judy show?

Now that is a question worth some consideration. It is a show that has a long history, it is essentially the same show but with many variations. Some of these variations stray beyond the tradition, either for the sake of art or to adapt it to contemporary social norms. There is a point, however, that some of these adaptations depart so much from the tradition that they become inauthentic and should not be considered Punch and Judy. Where that point is exactly is open to contention, and for the Punch scholar well worth considering. Below I outline some of the aspects that most agree are what makes a Punch and Judy show a traditional Punch and Judy show. It may not always be accurately historic but it is nevertheless a continuation of a tradition.

19th Century Punch show in Cardiff.

The swazzle

Yes you can do a Punch and Judy show without a swazzle. It may well be very entertaining, but it is not authentic Punch and Judy.

[ Example of a funny show not using the swazzle. ]
and another: [ Ken Harper in Australia ]

Glyn Edwards notes that he has never known someone who has learned to use the swazzle go back to not using it. (Glyn Edwards, 2011)

The swazzle is an instrument made from two pieces of curved silver that has cotton tape in between. It is put into the back of the mouth and you speak through it to create a high pitched vibrato voice that is rather bizarre and inhuman. This instrument dates back into antiquity and is used in many cultures, in many parts of the world, wherever there is a tradition of folk puppetry.

With a lot of practice performers can speak intelligibly with it, but often the character to whom Punch is speaking to at the time will repeat what he has just said, and sometimes the actual person in the booth will speak as themselves. This creates a sort of call and response rhythm throughout the show. One that is lost when Punch can just prattle on as much as he likes instead of using short simple sentences.

An interesting side-effect of using the swazzle is that women can do Punch's voice just as effectively as men; they both sound pretty much the same.

Here are two links to shows performed by women:

Petrushka performed by Elena Slonimskaya in 2008

Maraiker's Punch & Judy from 2016

An Iranian swazzle illustrated in the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry. The top of the swazzle has been padded to fit into the upper pallet of the performer's mouth.
Source: https://wepa.unima.org/en

"Punch and Judy shows need the swazzle like Rock & Roll needs the electric guitar."

- Glyn Edwards

Bryan Clarke talking Punch. In this interview he describes the swazzle and its use.

[ Click here to open this. ]

The Professor

In the records from the 19th century many performers are given the profession of "showman". At the time the appellation of Professor was given to anyone who put on a show or gave a lecture, academic or otherwise.

A distinct aspect of the show is that it is performed by just one person standing in a booth. Historically people used to watch the show standing up, and so the puppets were held up above the performer's head to be seen. In fact the showmen stood on a board set across the frame that gave them six inches more height and also enabled their weight to keep the booth from falling over. Now the audience tends to sit and so the booths have been lowered. This has altered the proportions of the puppet booth a little and made it so the puppets can't run about in circles, however this has not altered the tradition all that much. But the taller booths are more historically accurate. Bear this in mind if you are working on a film.

Today, almost ubiquitously, puppet booths have a cover of red and white stripes topped with a colourful proscenium. In this we must again distinguish between the historic and the traditional. Tradition evolves with time while always maintaining a distinct link to the past, while the historic refers back to another time and ignores the intervening years as much as possible. In the 18th century puppet booths did not have prosceniums and until the 20th century it was more common for them to be covered with a baize or canvas of blue and white checks or whatever came to hand.

With practice human beings are very good at coordinating their hands; think about pianists , jugglers and the legerdemain of magicians. So there are advantages in having just one performer with a puppet on either hand rather than having to work in conjunction with someone else.

Historically showmen worked with a partner who acted as musician, interpreter for Punch, someone who engaged with the audience, and of course they acted as "bottler", the person who collected the money. Once upon a time a collection of coins was of considerable value but now economics has meant that the performance is mostly just one person.

Although a Punch show is traditional and much of what is performed is prescribed by that tradition, every showman and woman brings to it much of their own personality - The puppets do not perform themselves. Geoff Felix says that the "true puppeteer is never the Prince - they are always the power behind the throne." (Felix, 2016) Indeed, but it is an awful lot of power. However the point he makes is that the showmanship needs to be expressed through the puppets and engage the audience. It is just too easy for a puppeteer to go through a show totally oblivious to what is going on out in front of the booth.

A Punch and Judy show is not one where the audience sits quietly in appreciation of the art. Audience response is everything.

Here we see Piccini standing on a board set across the frame of his booth.

Having someone out front is rarely seen these days.

You can always tell when you have done a good show when the kids come round the back afterwards.

The slapstick

Slapsticks, like the swazzle, have a long history in comedic theatre. Technically speaking the slapstick is a baton made from two pieces of wood set slightly apart that make a loud noise when hitting something. It sounds a lot worse than it actually is. In live theatre this could have been a blown up pigs bladder attached to a stick, and in the illustrations of Cruikshank a simple rod is depicted. But whatever its form, it serves a singular purpose, and that is to represent conflict (and its resolution) both visually and aurally. In action the stick and the noise it makes is an essential part of the all important rhythm (refer to the section where we look at the show of Rod Burnett's).

If someone walks away from a show with the impression it was violent then it is either they are interpreting it far too rationally (which happens), or the performer is using the slapstick wrongly - often both parties are at fault in this. The hits should be humorous. This is often achieved through rhythm and how the character being hit reacts. Whack a puppet down onto the stage (and remember it is just a puppet) and it looks violent; flip it into the air and spin it around, roll it along the stage and bounce it up and down and it looks funny.

Look at the video of George Prentice's show in the Videos section and you will see both rhythm and reaction in play. The stick action becomes part of the frenetic energy of the puppetry, as in the Neapolitan Guaratelle. In the show by John Styles, shown on the right, he has the audience shouting "Oh no it isn't!" every time Punch says "That's the way to do it!". Now if that isn't explicitly training children to not accept domestic violence, what is?

John Styles performing with the slapstick.

[ Click here to see this on video. ]

The puppets

A Punch puppet is always recognisable and yet at the same time comes in many subtle variations. So there must be something about a Punch, both the puppet and his character that makes for an authentic Punch and Judy show.

The other puppet necessary for a show is of course Judy. She is usually something of a mirror image of Punch. Often her dress and character are similar to the Dame in the Pantomime (As played by a man in drag.). This is especially so when it comes to her voice, which is usually a purposefully unconvincing feminine voice as performed by a male.

The logical outcome of any relationship between a Punch and a Judy is the baby. The role of the baby in an authentic show is always to end up being mistreated and thrown "out the window" or "down stairs", with the other option being put into a sausage machine. Again this ought to be done with humour for it not to look like cruelty.

The story of these three characters is the foundation to an authentic show.

Judy is the definitive untamed shrew and their marriage is one that goes from affectionate kissing, conflict over parenting, Judy venting her anger on Punch and finally her domineering behaviour being overcome with his stick. It is never presented as being the right thing to do, on the contrary it is obviously the most totally outrageous thing to do, and the children in the audience know this full well.

The baby starts out being an object of affection but becomes more and more obstreperous until it is thrown away. The circumstances in each of the three parts become progressively more manic, first with the kissing, then the baby minding and finally Judy teaching Punch a lesson. From then on the play is about one sort of tribulation for Punch after another, each time overcome with the stick.

Speaight tells us that in the early 19th century a street show consisted of only four characters - Punch, Judy, the Devil and a Doctor or Constable/Beadle (Speaight,1970, p78), because no time was given to develop any story and the show mainly presented knock-about action. I am sure the baby would have featured as well.

The other characters each provide Punch with an aspect of human experience that Punch eventually knocks down with his stick. These involve threats, fears, bullying, pomposity, officiousness and what have you. Much of comedy inoculates people from traumatic experience in real life through humour and absurdity. In this the puppet is most effective as a release from reality because it is blatantly not real, as are cartoon characters.

Julian Crouch and his interpretation of Punch. In an interview on YouTube he speaks of the shape of Punch's face, which because of its protruding nose and chin has the effect that in whichever direction he looks he does so with a lot of energy. (2011)

[ Click here to watch this. ]

A typical set of 20th century puppets made by Bob Wade.
Wooden puppet heads allow for an extra percussive aspect to the show.

Glyn Edwards
The Art of Punch & Judy: What's the way to do it?
The Fedora Group 2011
Punch & Judy: Inside the Booth
Geoff Felix
Self published 2016
Punch and Judy – a history
George Speaight
Studio Vista, London 1970