Punch and Judy – a little bit of history – “That’s the way to do it!’

According to some authorities the character of Punch was the character of Pulcinella (the original Italian name for Punch) who was invented in Naples in or around 1600 by a comedian named Silvio Fiorillo.  This show would have been performed by actors travelling about from place to place.

The plot was pre-arranged and the outline of each scene worked out  in advance but the dialogue was impromptu and left plenty of room for the skill of the performers. Pulcinella was one of the characters, others were the Clown, Fool and Harlequin.

This theatrical tradition is known as Commedia dell’ Arte.

This tiny set of marionette of characters above came from Italy, where my own father had discovered this form of theatre before returning from serving in the Second World War.  He never wanted to become a Punch & Judy man but rumour had it that an ancient uncle had been one in late Victorian times. The Commedia dell’ Arte however had considerable impact on my father and led to him becoming a professional puppeteer.

A lot of research has been done into the origins of Punch and one of the characters called Maccus  can be traced back to the prehistoric folk drama of Greece. There were references to a Punch like character in the form of a bronze figurine being  excavated at Herculaneum.  Although many thousands of years separate these theatres there are common characteristics in  the story lines.

The character of Pulcinella resembles Punch too, with a half mask and the use of various comic weapons such as a broom, a sword or a stick.

The early Punch character in the puppet world was believed to have been a marionette with a sword.  It was much later in the glove puppet version that Punch uses a stick to get his own way.  The swazzle  is known to have been used by the Osceans in Rome but was not part of Pulcinella on a live stage.

There is little doubt that the character of Punch was developed by observing the  lives of the residents of Naples.   The story line is always the same including his own vanity and preoccupations with greed and deception.

It is not clear when Punch first arrived in England but from information in the overseer’s books of the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields for the years 1666 and 1667, it appears that sums varying from £1 2s 6d to £2 12s. 6d where received of ‘Punchinello, ye Italian puppet playing, for his booth in Charing Cross”. This would appear to be the earliest mention of a performance.

In 1790 Robert Powell, an early showman according to ‘Punch’ in London, set up a show for his puppets in Covent Garden.  It is suggested that the shows were so popular it depleted the congregation of  St Paul’s Chuch and the Sexton complained about the notice advertising the show.

Dr Johnson is known to have expressed the opinion that Shakespeare’s plays might be very appropriately represented by puppets instead of living actors.

Great men have witnessed performances of Punch and Judy. Mr. Secretary Wyndham on the way to the House of Commons stopped and watched a performance to the end despite important matters awaiting his attention.

Albert Smith was another admirer, and an oriental potentate delayed his journey to a state function to watch a Punch and Judy Show.

The diarist Samual Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of Punch and Judy in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by an Italian puppet showman called Pietro Gimonde.  Pepys described the event in his diary as “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty.”

See the highlights from  Professor Paul Perrin’s  Punch and Judy show on the terraces in Rottingdean 2011 below.

Paul will be in the line up for photograph Punch and Judy professors are part of the  Mr Punch’s 350th birthday celebrations in Covent Garden this Saturday.

I am there as his ‘bottler’  The name given to the person who collect the money for the show, although Paul will not be doing a show this weekend, we are going up enjoy all the fun!

Link to puppety nonsense – one of last weeks blogs – Punch and Judy’s Wedding Day!


In Brighton the cost of a licences and health and safety rules etc. may yet drive dear Mr Punch from his casual travels along  the beach! “What a pity, what a pity,”

But Mr Punch being an anarchist he will no doubt think of a way to get his own back”That’s the way to do it.”

This entry was posted in Brighton - out and about, London out and about, Marionette, Photography, Puppethouse mayhem and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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