The purpose of Punch and Judy
Posted on December 10, 2007 by glyn
Hello! I am a puppetry student very interested to learn about Punch, and what it is about him that means he has popped up throughout history all over the world. I was wondering if you have any answers to a few questions. And anything else you can tell me about Mr. Punch would be really great!

On your web site you said that Punch is "a key figure in society's development; a figure able to turn shared values upside down for the shocked amusement of the community and the ultimate strengthening of the bonds that mutually bind it". Do you think this is still true, and as such do you think he is able to and / or should address issues that exist today?

You also said that Mr. Punch has "amused generations of ordinary people - particularly those with no power of their own. For them Punch has been a subversive superhero." What exactly is Mr Punch "flying in the face" of? And does he have any merit as an activist, or is he merely parody?

Do you think Punch's message could be expressed in other ways? I am discovering that different types of puppets have different character traits, and obviously hand puppets such as Punch are brilliant at manipulating objects, and also have a definite sense of removed comedy- they are clearly not human and yet can reach something very human inside us and make us laugh. Is it best with hand puppets? What about actors/ animation?

I look forward to any answers you may have!

This was a recent email from a student and with her permission I'm posting it - and my attempts to answer the questions - as part of the debate anyone may join as to the purpose of Punch and Judy.

I think I meant that the Trickster tradition (of which Punch is a part) is where the 'key figure....' quote is relevant. I'm not an expert here but my general reading of 'Ethnography/sociology for Dummies' literature over the years seems to make it apparent that at some stage in the transition from bands of wandering apes to emergent human societies it has been important that 'rules' were required - and were also required to be scrutinised. Looking at them in an outrageous way (as Trickster stories tend to)is a way of seeing things from different perspectives and testing the validity of communal assumptions. Ultimately the shared stories reinforce the society that tells them rather than tears it apart. In a 21st Century post-modern era a mere puppet show can no longer be a key medium for transmitting ideas to a mass audience - but 'the arts' in their widest sense can do.

I think Punch still works as a subversive parodist today in a simple vein. He's restricted to making these observations to family audiences in public places but there's always something topical a good performer will pick up on. Poking fun at politicians is always popular (Cameron's 'end to Punch & Judy' politics' call was a boon here. References to 'wooden headed politicians' get a chuckle) and modern policing methods usually provide comic fodder. I don't think Punch can work as an activist - he (or rather his show) is more of a commentator. Making the Doctor in the show a New Age quack provides a chance to send up current obsession with alternative therapies. Introducing a character bent on enforcing Health and Safety regulations seems to strike a chord in these days of excessive officialdom. Everyone knows what Mr. Punch will make of this! References to asking him to show his ID usually work anywhere (his stick his, of course, his ID).

So it's not the Big Things that Punch can overturn - he's an irritant who reminds us we don't have to conform. His generic enemy is 'them' and he's on the side of 'us' (well he's on the side of Punch actually - in a way that we root for him). That's why he can't go around reinforcing yesterday's stereotypes (be they gender issues, ethnicity or cultural). Nevertheless in an inclusive society the general public still have their 'hate figures'. Most often they are the representatives of authority. No one likes being told what to do by people they don't trust, admire or respect.

As to 'other ways'. Well, I think Punch only works as a hand puppet (for the reasons you have pinned down so well). Also, however, my current favourite analogy is to ask people to think of Punch and Judy as a very early forerunner of something like the Simpsons where a dysfunctional family and surreal comedy also make references to contemporary culture within a popular entertainment.

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