The Real Meaning of Punch and Judy
I’d like to talk about the English/Anglo-Italian tradition of Punch and Judy. Now, I saw Punch and Judy first when I was about four years old and almost everyone in Britain has seen it at some time or other. The first thing that strikes you about it is its color and its vigor and its moral/amoral violence. If you remember, it used to be down at the seaside pretty much, but it’s now gone indoors as a sort of under-fives form of entertainment.
Now, the man that does Punch and Judy is called a Professor, and in working class or popular diction it’s widely known that anyone who’s bright about a particular issue or could be said to be informed about it is called a professor. So, anyone who talks with some degree of loquacity about anything “Eh, you’re a professor, mate!” and that sort of thing. That comes from Punch and Judy, the idea that the man who is in charge is the Professor.
The Professor is handed this role by a father figure or somebody before him, so it’s an ancestral folk tradition. Traditionally in this craft art, you have to carve the puppets yourself, so that some of you enters into them as a thing, as a form.
If you notice, in the tall booths, which have got this sort of red and yellow awning on front, back, and sides, the Professor sits inside. So, the Professor is in quite a tall booth, which he has opened in the back so he can breathe easily on the seashore. There’s two hands that go up above the level that a youngish or child-like audience is looking up towards.
You’ve got the two figures. Now, there’s a sort of occultistic or mystical element to Punch and Judy because Punch is always on the right of the Professor (the left as people see it), but he’s always on the right side of the professor because Punch can never be killed. Punch can never be destroyed. Punch is always eternal. Punch is a grotesque. He has an enormous nose and has an enormous belly because he’s been overeating, and he has an enormous hunchback. So, already there’s an element of a sort of “medieval” cruelty to it. People laugh because he’s deformed. As soon as he gets up on the stage people go, “ahahaha!” and they’re laughing at him as well as with him.
His nemesis is Judy, of course, who comes up on the other side. Judy is a nag and comes from the commedia dell’arte. She also has an enormous nose, and sometimes an enormous belly as well. Sometimes their noses sort of lock horns like two beasts, and they move about the front of the stage. At other times, she’s more sedentary. The position of the left-handed puppet is changeable because the left mutates and changes politically, metapolitically, spiritually, it morphs.
And the whole point of much of the “killing” in Punch and Judy is that there has to be a mechanism to change the puppet on the left side all the time. So, Punch beats them to death! They come up, and they’re beaten to death, and they go down again very quickly. There’s a whole range of these puppets that come up, of which Judy is the first.
Now, all of these puppets are gloves with the exception of the baby, because Punch and Judy are a couple, even though they’re really old and decrepit, and they’ve had a baby. The baby’s on a stick with a small head. It’s the only one that exists independently of the gloves. Traditionally, the baby is thrown into the audience in a particular scenario.
The audience is five to 15 to 25 to 90. In the 19th century and early 20th century, there would be enormous audiences. The children would be at the front and the adults, engaging in a slightly guilty pleasure, would be at the back.
Now, where did this tradition come from? The truth is it’s almost eternal. Because these popular or folk forms that Richard Wagner and other major artists loved and built much of the elements of their art out of are immemorial. There are pictures from Anatolia, drawings a thousand years old, and they depict figures in a booth which look suspiciously like a chap with a large nose and a funny hat beating a nag. So, we sort of know that this tradition has existed in various ways and is reinvented.
Those who are aware of puppets will know there are two forms. There’s the glove, and there’s the marionette that moves from above with the strings. Everyone has seen Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds and Joe 90 and all of these sort of heroic things when they were very young pretty much, and here we have a marionette that moves from above. That’s very much the French tradition.
There’s a man called the Bottler who has a top hat and a large trumpet, and he announces the festival. He announces The Tragicomedy of Punch and Judy, although it’s usually just The Play of Mr. Punch, and all the children drag the parents, and all the parents are going “oh, God . . . ,” but the children want to see it, so they drag them to the audience. The Bottler is so called because he controls the crowd, because it’s a popular entertainment. It can be quite rough. If people don’t like it they chuck stuff at the stage. Stray dogs come around and have to be chased off if you’re outside.
Punch and Judy traditionally involves a dog called Toby. Remember Toby dog? Toby! And Toby’s there, and he’s on the top of the panel. He’s very tame and so on, but he can become a bit less domesticated when another mutt turns up, because he knows he’s got to defend the pitch. That’s one of his roles, you see.
Now, this particular tradition that exists now—which has dipped down at various times and is having a bit of a revival, paradoxically, in the last 25 years when major concepts of Englishness have been under such deconstructive challenge—this tradition comes largely from the 1780s. An Italian showman who was believed to be illiterate settled in the East End of London and brought an attenuated version of the Italian playlet called commedia dell’arte over the channel and settled here. His name was Puccini, but he was known as Porcini by all of his followers. “Mr. Porcini and his travelling circus of freaks and shows!” He developed the modern tradition.
A man called J. P. Collier wrote a book about his type of theater in about 1818, and a very famous English artist called Cruikshank did engravings of all of the characters. Now, Cruikshank was a very major figure, equal to Hogarth and Rowlandson, and he’s one of the most violent and famous cartoonists and caricaturists in English traditional art. The line, and the concepts of graphic energy in the line, is cardinal to a particular type of Anglo-Saxon creativity. One of the reasons that Puccini, amongst probably other showmen actually, is designated as the originator of the modern tradition, which is almost 250 years old now, is because an artist and a writer, Collier and Cruikshank, put it down.
Now, Punch is on the right here and can never be destroyed. Judy comes up. The baby also exists. There’s a whole range of other characters. The discourse is modulated as to how adult the audience is and how much they can take.
One of the reasons that Judy and Punch nag each other is because he has a mistress. The mistress is called Pretty Polly, hence the term. Pretty Polly appears occasionally. Polly never speaks. She just sighs. She goes, “Aaah, oooh, aaah,” and she moves about. Punch moves around, circling like a shark, with his nose down and the hat waving, and this sort of thing.
But Judy is always about to appear, like in the French farce. She’s always about to appear. The nose appears on the side of the stage and all the children go, “Ah, there she is!” She’s back again when Polly’s disappeared, you see. What the professor is doing is every time a new character emerges he takes the glove down, he puts the glove on a hook which is underneath the rim of the stage that the audience can see, and brings up another character.
One of the other characters is Clown Joey, and Clown Joey is a zany, or a zani in the Italian version of the tradition, a Johnny. Joey is Punch’s benevolent side. He can never be killed. He never speaks, but he’s very irritating. He goes, “mmm hmm mmm,” and Punch says, “Why are you doing that!? What are you doing that for!? It’s very, very irritating!” and, consequently, he wants to beat Joey to death. He intends to get Joey in various ways. Joey gets down. Joey runs to one side. “I’m going to get you! I’m going to get you!” And they go back and forth across the top of the stage. He can never kill Joey because Joey is his benevolent side. Now, Punch is sort of non-dualist and amoral and attacks everything and everybody. He’s partly deaf, because he’s old, and can’t hear what people are saying.
Another character is Scaramouche. Now, Scaramouche comes up and is a differentiated version of Joey. He has a very long neck which he can extend out, out into the audience even. It’s a trick of the puppet. You press a button inside it, and it comes out. Or it’s just a pole that you sort of lever out from the side and people think in the speed of it that it’s coming from the puppet. And all the children go, “Oh, look, look, look!” Of course, what Punch wants to do is break that neck or strangle him. So, he tries to get over him and strangle him, of course, but he’s indestructible like Joey, his principle.
Another famous character is the Crocodile. The Crocodile appears, and he’s green and has a very long snout with teeth. The Crocodile is a relative of the Dragon which existed in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. The mystery plays typically involve a Christian icon, such as Saint George, beating the Dragon to death. The medieval idea being that the evil in the puppet is beaten out of the character. Now, often the Crocodile can morph into a Dragon, an older variant from the Middle Ages which has largely been discarded from the contemporary troupe, or he can become the Devil.
The Devil appears in Punch and Judy in red with horns. Whenever the Devil appears, the Bottler, whose the sort of middleman between the audience and the stage, goes, “Oooooh, look! The Devil is here!” and the Devil comes up. Initially, Punch is frightened of the Devil and runs about. Because you can have sort of distended perspective, if you like. Say I’m the Professor. You’ve got Punch here. You’ve got the stage there. The Devil emerges behind, and he’s sort of on your shoulder, really. But you’re down here so your head can’t be seen. You move Punch across, and the Devil comes up, and everybody goes, “Oooooh!”
Traditionally, Dr. Johnson said in Boswell’s biography of him, that Punch is always beating the Devil to death, but he’s always beating everyone to death! Including the Minister! The Minister, or Priest, or Methodist as he’s sometimes called, is the Christian figure who appears. His hands are glued together because he’s so pious he’s always praying, you see. He comes up, and he says, “Dearly beloved, we all love Punch. Punch is a sinner. We pray for his reclamation.” And Punch says, “Shut up, you old fraud!” and beats him over the back of head, and he goes back down under the top of the stage.
I first became very aware of the potency of this sort of tradition for people who are beyond five years of age when I attended an event of the British National Party which is called the Red, White, and Blue. Interestingly, they had a traditional Punchman from Lancashire, and the police came on the site to stop it. Very interesting! The police came on the site to stop it. And the reason that they said they were going to stop it is it didn’t have an entertainment license.
This is how things are done in modern Britain. There is a sort of ideological overlay to this that these are just blokes obeying orders, and they say to you, “Look, don’t be boring. We’ve got this thing to enforce. Obey it. We don’t agree or disagree with it. We’re merely functionaries. Just a pair of hands.” That’s the view that they have of themselves, essentially.
But in a way, if you look across England now, and Britain as an extension, an enormous number of our traditions (pubs, the circus, this sort of thing) is being disprivileged. It’s being put down. It’s as if it’s not really wanted anymore. It’s too Ur or too organic or too ethnically charged. There’s a dangerous absence of minorities in the audience. It’s slightly exclusionist by virtue of its program, even though it hasn’t really sought that. It hasn’t set out with the idea of being incorrect or exclusionist. It just is, because it relates to a prior period of identity.
This brings me on to the very politically incorrect elements of Punch and Judy beyond the “sexism” and the generalized beatings and the disableism and the animalism/speciesism and all of the things which I’ve just glossed.
One element is the racial element. All foreigners are funny. So, whenever a foreigner appears people howl with laughter. The Turk appears saying “shalabah,” and everyone howls with laughter. The Black Man, as we’ll call him, appears and everyone howls with laughter. Immediately, Punch wants to kill him as soon as he’s appeared and leaps around and this sort of thing.
This tradition is called Jim Crow, which relates to a 19th century music hall tradition made very famous by Jim Thompson, an Edinburgh artiste and sort of music hall performer in around 1830. The whole tradition that morphs into human acting traditions and that gives rise to the Black and White minstrels, which were very current on mass popular television of the time when I was a child in the 1970s, this all dips down because it becomes self-consciously “offensive.” In a sense, when it becomes self-conscious, due to the presence of the Other in its midst, it begins to realize it might be construed as offensive. Before then it didn’t even think it was offensive, particularly, although some people would construe being beaten to death by a mallet as slightly offensive.
The other element, which is very current in Punch and Judy but which is not often talked about, is the anti-Semitic element. Yes, it creeps in, even into Punch and Judy. It’s the presence of pork on the stage. Because, if you remember, they all have endless fights about pork sausages. And in the modern synthetic puppets which people can get off the internet auction houses like eBay and so on, they’re made of stringy sort of polystyrene, and they’re purple.
They’re always fighting. Joey loves the sausages. “Joey wants the sausages.” “No, you’re not having them!” Punch fights with him over the sausages. The Crocodile wants to eat the sausages. The Dragon wants to eat the sausages. The [unintelligible] wouldn’t mind a few sausages. “Get up!” They’re all fighting over this meat, essentially, but traditionally real pork was used.
So, the Punchman, or the Professor, had to handle pork, and this meant that it would be an indigenous tradition because a way was found, not entirely consciously, to integrate into it elements which were not for outsiders. This is, in a sense, how folk culture evolves. It implicitly excludes those that it wants to exclude, and that’s done quite deliberately.
There are great routines where he wants to turn all the other characters into sausages. He develops a machine, and he puts it on the stage. The policeman comes up then. “Hello! What are you doing?” He wants to turn Joey into a sausage. He wants to turn Scaramouche into a sausage. He wants to turn everyone else into a sausage. The Crocodile comes up and wants to eat them.
There’s all sorts of jiggery-pokery with pans, because you cook the sausages in a pan, and somebody grabs the pan and belts them, and they go down again and come up behind. And if he kills one he feels bad about it, but he doesn’t really. “I haven’t got a conscience!” And they all scream, “You haven’t got a conscience!?” Then he screams, “Liars! Liars!” and this sort of thing. It’s quite fun. The Skeleton comes up again and doesn’t speak. The Bottler says, “Ooooaaah! The Skeleton! There he is!” And he goes down again to be replaced by the Devil, and so on.
Other characters include the Hobby-Horse. The idea in popular diction that people ride hobby-horses when they’ve got a bit of particular enthusiasm of one form or another. Punch gets on his horse and rides, rides, rides and runs to one side. Then he’s a bit bored. He turns around and rides to the other side. Then Hobby-Horse disappears.
Another character is the Doctor. Doctors have been hated down the ages by everybody, and this is a chance for the audience to describe how they dislike the doctor. The Doctor appears with a starch-white collar and an enormous moustache, and he’s bald and quite posh and snobby. The Doctor appears and says, “Hello, my boy, in again?” The Doctor is a complete quack who will be beaten by Punch mercilessly. But, of course, he’s got a lotion called Physick. “What you need, m’boy, is some Physick. Physick is what you need.” Because they’ve all been beaten up, you see. So, what they need is some snake-oil, basically. Because he’s a snake-oil salesmen. The Doctor is told, “Shut up, you quack!” Punch is always beating him. “Oh, hitting a man of the cloth! Hitting a man of the medical profession!” He goes down again and another one comes up.
Now, there’s always retribution for Punch’s transgressive amoralism, and the retribution is in the form of the law and the state. The Policeman is one. “Hello, Hello, Hello! What have you been doing? You’ve thrown out your baby. You’ve thrown out your wife. You’ve beaten the Crocodile to death. You reprobate, reprobate! You need to be ’anged!” And Punch is deaf, you see, because he’s old. He always says, “I don’t want to be fanged.” “No, ’anged!” “Spanked?” “No! ’Anged, boy. You’re going to be ’anged, you understand? You’re going to take some rope.” Says the Policeman over here. And Punch says, “I don’t want any hope! I don’t need any soap!” “No,” he says “rope! Rope!” And the children are howling because of all these lexicographical and grammatical and verbal mistakes that Punch knows full well, because he’s dragging out the moment when he’s going to be hanged.
The traditional way in which he’s going to be hanged involves a whole miscellany of characters, some of whom appear or not. Sometimes they’re just melded into one. There’s the Hangman or the Executioner who has a hood over his head and he’s often called Jack Ketch, who was a very famous executioner at the beginning of the 18th century. Indeed, when the body was thrown to him people in the audience would say “Ketch that, me old son!” Because Ketch is a catcher. He often throws the Baby to Ketch saying, “Get a load of that, mate!” He gets hold of it and goes down at one end of the stage and then pops up again.
The other figure of amusement/contempt/state power is the Beadle. The Beadle, whose figure has sort of died out in English life, was traditionally a figure that imposes parish law on behalf of a rather faceless magistrate in the neighboring town. The Beadle, or as Punch calls him, “the Black Beetle!” “Don’t call me that! Don’t call me that! Have you no respect for a man of the law!?,” directs the gibbet upon which Punch is going to be hanged for his many, many infractions which are almost too numerous to mention, including beating the Devil to death, but we’ll come on to that a bit later.
The building of the gibbet is very important, though it’s usually just a noose in the middle of the yellow and red stage. Sometimes the Judge is involved, the Beadle’s involved, the Hangman’s involved, the Policeman’s involved, and they’re all building it. Punch says, “I don’t understand how you are to be hanged.” And he gets him to illustrate how he’s going to be hanged, which is how he traps them.
In a very famous, world famous, Punch and Judy skit or performance within the drama, the Beadle says, “You mean you’ve lived for several centuries and you don’t know how to be ’anged?” And he says, “That’s right! I don’t know. I haven’t mastered the gist of it. You tell me. How are you to be hanged?” And the Beadle says, “Well, it’s only for illustrational purposes, and children don’t do this at home . . .” And the Bottler shouts, “Get on with it, you old tart!” You have all this interactive stuff, all this chat going on at the same time. And the noose is swinging, and this sort of thing.
The Beadle says, “Well, what you do, old man, is you flex your neck. You need a flexed neck for a good hanging. You need to be in a certain state to be done in properly. Do you know what I mean? Then you put the rope around you. Do you see what I’m doing? Do you want to try it?” And Punch goes “Oh, that’s very good, very good. I’ll give it back to you now.” The Beadle puts it back on and he says, “You see, my neck is tensed. It’s flexed appropriately.” The rope’s going up and Punch is saying, “Ah, yes. I see, I see.” So, you sort of know what’s coming.
And then the box comes out. Sometimes there’s somebody else, even Pretty Polly or somebody. Somebody “neutral” in a way might come and push the box out. Eventually it builds up, and the children are going absolutely berserk because they adore this sort of thing because it’s so asocial and so unmediated and so impolite and so non-adult. And that’s why they adore it, you see? Because it’s also an escapism as well. They know full well what’s coming.
The Beadle steps on this box and says, “Am I doing it correctly?” “Yes, Yes! You’re doing it really well!” Eventually, of course, he says, “Now it’s your turn, boy. You’re going to be hanged! You’re an utter reprobate. You betrayed your wife.” “Lies! Lies!” “You’ve thrown your baby out of the window.” “Lies! Lies! Lies! You damn liar!” “Then you’ve beaten the law to death!” “Lies!” “And you’ve attacked a minister of the cloth!” “Lies!” “And now you’re going to pay! You’re going to pay!”
And Punch comes up behind him and says, “Like this?” and he kicks the box away and the Beadle starts to hang like this, “Oh???! I’m done in, I’m done in, m’love!” And he’s dead. Punch is racing around. “AHAHAHAHAHA!” And he laughs for ages! In a chilling sort of a way. And says, “You’re dead! You’re dead! You’re not red and you’ve got no cred! And you’re really down in the fire! AHAHAHA!” And all the children are like this, and all the adults are getting slightly nervous, because there is this element of pure power . . . they’re just figurines, you know . . . that’s coming out of the stage. Then there’s a sort of resolution, but there isn’t.
Now, to get to those moments, because Punch and Judy is an improvisatory show, there are lots of gaps and so on. Often, topical figures appear or are introduced. There was one show in Brighton with a well-known Punchman, Byron or one of the others who’s well-known, where Saddam Hussein figured, where Osama bin Laden figured once, but that was told to be offensive so that had to be changed. Because, of course, these are just figures against whom we spit and throw potatoes and that sort of thing, you know. They’re just sort of mob “we’re against them” figures. Occasionally, Alex Ferguson’s head will appear, and people will hiss and boo and throw stuff at it. This sort of thing is integrated. Anything can be introduced. Tony Blair was introduced and people were howling outrage: “Death to Blair!” The noose comes down, and everyone cheers. Then it is replaced by someone else.
Some of the most famous skits are the following: the thing begins and Punch comes on from the right side, and it begins quite slowly. “Hello! Hello, boys and girls!” It begins quite slowly, and then Judy appears. “Oh god . . . Hello.” “Hello, darling.” She produces the Baby. The Baby appears in the middle of them as this stick. Punch initially likes the Baby. “Oh, so nice. Yes, lovely, lovely.” Then the Baby starts crying. “Wah! Wah!” And Punch goes, “Shut up. Shut up!” And it gets worse. She’s going, “Soothe the Baby.” He says, “I’ll take the Baby.” And he starts massaging the Baby with his club around the head going, “Ah, tickery-dock. Oh, lovely baby. Lovely baby.” The Baby’s going, “WAH! WAH!” Punch says, “SHUT UP! God, you’re so ugly! Did I really bear YOU!?” “Of course, my sweet!” she says from the side.
In the end, the Baby screams so much and becomes so angry and livid, which is the Punchman doing it from underneath where the puppets are, that Punch gets . . . transgressive. He starts to indicate that he’s going to throw the Baby into the audience. He goes, “ONE, TWO, THREE . . .” and people are going “No! Don’t do it!” and others are going, “Go ahead, boy!” The Bottler’s going, “Now now, is he going to throw it, children? Is he going to do it? Is he going to do it!? My god!” Some say, “Yes! Yes!” and some go, “No! No!” In the end, he throws it right into the audience! Judy goes “aahhh” and almost collapses down because she’s on this side and the Professor drops her down. Punch is there and capers about like a madman. “AHAHAHA! No more trouble with that one!”
Suddenly, the Skeleton appears, his conscience. The Bottler goes, “Ooooh! Ooooh! There he is!” He’s there, but Punch can’t see it, because he hasn’t got a conscience. But he’s worried by the presence of this numinous force, this slightly metaphysical idea, his conscience which he hasn’t got. So, he runs about trying to find his conscience, because if you’ve lost it you need to find it, don’t you? So, he’s trying to get it back. “Where have you gone, then?” He looks, and then the Skeleton can come down again to be replaced by Joey.
Everyone loves Joey, you see, because it’s Punch without any malevolence, which is why Punch can never destroy him. But he’s very irritating, Joey. He’s always going, “Mmm hmmm hmm.” And doing little experiments and little tricks. Punch goes, “God, you’re so boring! I want to beat you to death!” Which is the response to a bad and tedious vaudeville turn. So, Joey always escapes and always manages to get away and usually reappears with sausages, which Punch adores. Punch goes, “Ah, sausages!” They follow each other around, and a little hob comes up, and he’s put on a little tray, and there’s a little platform outside the base of the stage. Punch is looking over, and the sausages are sizzling. The Minister comes along and says, “You wouldn’t give me one of those out of Christian charity?” and Punch says, “No!” and hits him in the head, and he disappears again.
Various other characters come up again. The Crocodile appears because the Crocodile is drawn by the sausages. Now, whenever I have performed Punch and Judy with the puppets for children and adults, children of all ages, I always configure the Crocodile with an Ulster accent. I don’t know why. But I think he should have an Ulster accent, you know what I mean? “I want those wee porkers! I want’em, and I bloody well better have’em! You know what I mean? Heh? Heh? You know what I mean?” He comes up like this and Punch says, “You Irish buffoon!” and tries to brain him, basically. And the Crocodile says, “I’m not havin’ any o’ that! Takin’ abuse from a wife-batterer is a step I can’t tolerate!”
And he eats Punch! He eats Punch. He eats his head. His mouth comes around his neck and head and begins to drag him in. Punch is picked up. Sometimes he comes off the puppeteer’s hand, which dispels the illusion, but the children, and the adults as well, are so bought into the illusion by that time that these little blips don’t matter, because the thing has become magical for them. Punch is going, “Aaaah! I’m dying! I’m dying!” and he sort of dies in the Crocodile’s mouth. The Crocodile says, “[unintelligible].” He takes the sausages and goes down, and the sausages trail along the front of the stage and then whip down.
Then, of course, the Doctor appears. Because when you’re dead you need a doctor, don’t you? The Doctor appears and says, “Punch, m’boy, you look a bit piqued, old man, a bit piqued.” Punch is going, “I’m deeeead. I’m deeeeeead.” The Doctor says, “You don’t look too dead to me. You look rather all in.” “All in!? You quack!” The Doctor wants to administer the Physick. He says, “What you need, Punch, is some Physick. You need some Physick, m’boy. Rub it on your backside, rub it on your spine, rub it under your heart, rub it on your throat, rub it over your brain! Physick in the morning, Physick at tea, Physick in the evening, Physick for me!” Punch says, “Shut up, you quack!” and beats him almost to death, and then he disappears, and the Minister comes up.
He says, “Oh, Punch! Punch, you’ve had a near death experience. Has this turned you towards the revelation?” And Punch says, “No! Get off, you quack!” and then the Minister goes back down. The Minister always comes back up and says, “Dearly beloved, let us sing for Punch, let us pray for Punch and when we are finished . . . buy me a drink.” Then he goes down again.
Then, of course, it’s the Beadle. “Punch, m’boy! Fighting with crocodiles, stealing sausages, throwing babies, beating your wife to death!” “But she’s alive! She’s alive!” And then she reappears again. “Punch, what’s happened to the Baby?” “Nothing’s happened to the Baby.” “Has the Crocodile eaten the Baby?” “No, no!”
Because what the Punchman is doing is he’s improvising on certain tropes, certain themes, certain set pieces. He’s fixed them together in various ways. But the way in which they occur, rather like the way I speak at these meetings, is not predetermined. So, the logic is there, but the way in which it unfolds before you happens heuristically. It happens in the moment. So, it’s a sort of existential tradition, but they know where they are going. They know they have these particular set routines, particularly involving the fixed characters: the wife Judy, the mistress Polly.
Polly comes up, and there’s Punch leering over the stage like a dirty old man. He comes right over the stage. “What a package! What a dolly! What a polly, eh?” But she doesn’t speak. He says, “Speak, me love. Speak words of endearment. Nothing to say?” She’s mute, you see. This is usually slightly excised for the under-fives. She’s there, and she’s in some ways the motivation to the action. “What a lovey!” he says to Polly. “She’s appeared and she’s already in love with me! We’ve only just met!” Then nemesis, Judy, appears and he goes, “Oh, god! It’s Judy.” “Hello, Punch.” He says, “What do you want?” And she says, “Don’t be like that. I’ve had a hard day.” And then he says, “What do you mean a hard day!? I’ve been in the belly of a crocodile and up again! And you say you’ve had a hard day!” Then his club comes out, and he wants to beat her to death, and they run around.
These performances go on for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 45 minutes. The Professor needs a break afterwards, because he’s quite exhausted, but it’s extraordinarily exhilarating because you give out such power and such energy.
Often, the closure of the piece is the Devil. The Devil comes, again, from the mystery plays and medieval license. Again, he’s a sort of figure of nemesis in part to inculcate the idea that Punch is partly heroic when he’s actually transgressed against moral norms and against authority and is a showman and a shaman and a trickster and a number one card in the tarot and the one who’s always out of step and the one who’s cards are thrown on the table. Yet, he’s the one who does for the Devil.
The Devil rarely speaks. He’s always red with a black cloak and black horns and a hook nose. The Bottler does a lot with the Devil. “Ooooh there he is! Children, aren’t you frightened?” And they go, “Yes!” and a few brave ones go, “No, no.” Punch is wary of the Devil, and then they fall on each other. The Devil sometimes has an axe, and Punch has a club. They’re fighting each other. Don’t forget that Punch is on the right side. The Devil, spiritually and occultistically, is on the left side. He’s sinister. Sinistere, you see? The Devil.
They grapple with each other like this, and it gets very violent. It’s been known that in their excesses Punchmen have fallen out of the stage in front of everyone, and they gather it together again quickly and keep on. Because the old theatrical adage is “Whatever happens, you keep going.” You keep going if one member of the cast dies or has a hallucination. You keep going. There’s a famous moment with Olivier at the National when some slightly epicene bloke falls off the stage and breaks his leg. Breaks his leg! Crack! There’s whole silence in the theater, and the director says get back on, and he’s made to crawl up back onto the stage. So, all forms of life have their courage, you see. This is the form it takes in that area.
Punch and the Devil are fighting each other, and the Devil usually gets the better of Punch. He holds him to the ground and jumps on top of him. Because, say Punch is down here and the Professor’s hand is inside him, and the Devil gets on top of him and leaps on down. The Bottler provides the verbal amphitheater. Then Punch throws him off with a Herculean burst that Dr. Johnson would have approved of. Johnson, when asked, said “the first Whig was the devil.” Whig, of course, was a term for liberal in that era.
Eventually, Punch gets on top of the Devil and beats him, beats him very severely. He beats him down to the ground. The Devil gets up again and throws him off. He’s down on the stage. The Devil leaps on top of him. Punch gets more and more strong. The Right seems to dominate the Left more and more. The Devil squirms and gets to the side, dancing back. He gets on top of him. He beats him. He starts leaping and whooping and that sort of thing. And eventually the Devil dies and expires.
The Bottler comes out from around the back and goes, “Children, lords and ladies, moms and dads! The Devil is dead! The Devil is dead! And the man who’s done it, I give it to you, is Mr. Punch!” He takes a bow for killing the Devil. He goes, “Thank you! Thank you, very much! Thank you! Nine to five . . .” The Devil’s lying there, and this is an amazing moment.
For many years the Church used to try and ban these performances because they’re often performed outside mass, often performed outside in the churchyard, and they try to move it into secular ground. Too many people were coming directly out of church and watching this ribald and/or other entertainment.
He leaps on top of the Devil and screams, “The Devil is dead! The Devil is dead! And now you’re free to do what you want!” Which is quite the transgressive idea, of course. This is an under-five audience, you know.
Then he dips down. Usually, there’s a side interlude bit of music. The Bottler gets the trumpet out, which of course is a punctuation device. It’s a way of slowing the action, because you build people up and then you let them go, and then you build them up again. Then you usually go to the sequences with is the gibbet, which is the attempt at closure.
Then after it’s all over, of course, the curtains on the front of the stage go across. It’s just on a switch, and you whip them across. Smaller versions of the red and yellow awning that go from the top to the bottom. There’s enormous applause because usually, if the Punchman’s any good, if the Professor can do it, you can hold children because of the ferocity and the primal nature of it. It’s designed at every moment never to be boring.
It’s a type of pure cardinal performance. It’s not intellectual at all. It’s completely unmediated. The energy comes straight out of the performer, it comes into the audience, and he rips it back out again. They give a lot of energy that he also recycles to them.
It’s pure theater. The people who see it when they are very young, particularly the very violent dolls, the very Victorian ones with heavy papier-mâché heads so every time Punch hits them or brains them you hear the bang, you hear the clunk. Clunk, clunk! It’s quite physical, quite animalian, and also slightly animist.
I know there was a famous modern Punchman from Bolton who would never allow his characters to be hanged. When somebody asked why he said, “Because they’re alive!” There is this streak in all of these performance related arts (ventriloquism is the most famous) where they do take on a life of their own.
I knew a ventriloquist, and the doll would be in the corner of the room. The doll would have gray skin and these big red rubbery lips. The doll was completely hideous, and had long nails. It had a sort of [unintelligible] suit with a bow-tie and a striped waistcoat.
The doll is the unconscious of the performer, or semi-consciousness of the performer. So, you say, “Hello, Robert.” And it would say, “Oh, god! That bastard’s turned up.” And he’d say “Shut up! Shut up!” because the negative side, the anima in Jungian terms, would come out of the doll. It would say, “He doesn’t like you, you know.” The ventriloquist says, “Shut up! He’s such a bad boy.” Because the negative element of the personality comes out of the doll.
There’s a very famous scatological female ventriloquist, and she insults men in the audience. “Go on, look at him!” says the doll and that sort of thing. And these blokes, these working class men, they come out and they punch the doll. They punch the doll! Because the doll has insulted them. Because it’s alive, you see! It’s non-dualist. It’s the bit that people don’t say to avoid social conflict that comes out through the doll. So, there’s always an aggressive sort of tiger-in-the-room element in all of these forms of popular culture. Because they’re interactive, they have a dangerous side.
There’s no bully, as it were, because in Garrick’s day in the 18th century every theater had a bully. You had men at the corner of the stage with clubs. Traditionally, women couldn’t be put on the stage because the audience would howl “prostitute!” and this sort of thing. Only at the end of the 19th century with Ellen Terry did it really become respectable for a woman to be on the stage. Many men, if they saw a woman on the stage, would immediately think she was available. So, they would get on the stage and leap towards her. So Garrick would whistle and a bully would come out of the wing and get hold of the reprobate, flog him, and drag him out into the strand or drag him out into Charing Cross Road, where the Garrick Theater now is, and throw him into the dirt. And Mrs. Defrelli or whoever it is would rearrange her bodice and continue the performance. Always a trooper, you see.
That type of energy, which is dimmed by television, dimmed by the collapse of Vaudeville in our culture in the 1950s . . . How many of you have seen The Entertainer by John Osborne with Olivier, when at the end there’s only three old beers at the back of the audience, the music hall is dying in the ’50’s and Olivier says, “I’m dead, you know, loves. Dead behind the eyes”? And one of the old beers at the back says, “God, this isn’t much fun, is it?”
But Punch and Judy is a lot more fun and a lot more grotesque and quite dangerous actually. The endless prohibitions which have been put on it, church prohibitions, liberal, state, and materialist prohibitions, entertainment license prohibitions. You don’t see it very much at the seaside now.
But it’s sort of been morphed and resurrected as a cardinal folk tradition, usually with the racial and pork sausage element played down and the sexual dimension with the mistress Polly of course played down. But still, that cardinal element.
The modernist composer Harrison Birtwistle wrote an opera called Punch and Judy and Stephen Pruslin wrote the libretto. It was his first piece, and it’s a very violent expressionistic piece in many ways.
Most of the traditional Punchmen don’t like Glyn Edwards and Michael Byrom and George Speaight, who wrote the cultural history of Punch and Judy that came out about 35 years ago, and certain others. Geoff Felix is a well-known Punchman and wrote a book of recollections which consists of them all talking about their lives and this sort of thing.
Many of them led fascinating lives. Traditionally, they would just go about in a car. They had no home. Their home was the next tent. Their home was the next performance. They lived on what they got in the bottle. Traditionally, they’re called Bottlers because you go around with a bottle at the, and people put coins in it. “Some money! Some money for your man! The money for the performer!” And everyone is just putting in some coins. At the end of it, we’re talking about pre-modern money of course, it would be filled to the lip, and you would smash the bottle in front of the audience and all the coins would go all over, but you’d have the Bottler to get them up quickly because that’s what you needed to live on until the next performance. Now that won’t work because you can’t live on 320 a week, which is what coppers filling a bottle would amount to. But people throw fivers and so on.
What they do now is children’s parties. Where, in a way, the tradition is castrated and slightly emasculated. It’s too twee. It’s too polite. It’s too likeably nice. And it’s too small. The average living room, the energy that’s created by this very macabre theater, is too small. But I personally think that Punch and Judy is an extraordinary example of the folk tradition.
It always makes me smile that you have major Cultural Marxists like Theodor Adorno, who wrote an enormous 800 page book in the middle of the 20th century called Aesthetic Theory which is the basis of quite a lot of ideas about contemporary culture. And they dislike the cultural industry. They dislike the industry that provides Madonna and Michael Jackson as the colophons, as the icons, which you are drawn to adore. The Amy Winehouse types. He dislikes all of that.
Yet, if you follow through the logic of what Adorno is saying, one of his criticisms must be that it’s transplanted these folkish forms. That it has transplanted these organic forms. That it’s pushed them to the side. But in all truth, he wouldn’t like many of these organic forms in their fauna and flora, and in their violence and amorality, in their texture lividness, in their Greek tragedy without necessarily the hard words and concepts.
It’s called The Tragicomedy of Punch and Judy, and the best theaters, the very large 19th century ones which were very elaborate, had the theatric figures of tragedy (misery) and comedy (humor). Because one moment he’s crying and the next moment he’s beating them to death. Enjoying himself, in other words. Leaping on the Devil, you know. Wouldn’t you like to leap on the Devil? It goes from comedy to tragedy to tragicomedy to burlesque to sentimentality and back again. Popular culture like this really has two nodal points. Sort of aggression and sentimentality, in a way.
But the speed with which they interchange with each other can be quite profound and quite liberating for an audience. It often exhausts an audience. The audience is often exhausted at the end of it. They’ve been to a rally. They’ve been to the equivalent of a political rally and yet receive no ideology. That’s the trick of that type of performance.
Although it’s a distant point, you can say that politicians and people who attempt to influence society . . . I mean, no academic would give a performance like that, would they? It’s contraindicated. You can’t do it. Because it’s a sort of carnal type of culture. You’re actually giving a physiological performance. The words are largely noises. Which is why Punch is always making noises.
One point I haven’t made is that the Punchman has a device in his mouth called a swazzle through which he creates this sound. You can create it without that, of course, but the tradition is you have this thing in your mouth. This is quite difficult because you have to have it on a chain or a bit of rope. Because when the swazzle’s in your mouth you’re going, but when another character comes you have to spit the swazzle out and speak more normally, like the Policeman.
I think there is a parallel to be drawn between certain types of extremist political speaking and these types of performances. Because that type of speaking, which is now completely disprivileged in current political discourse, involves speaking to the whole audience. It involves speaking to the front of the brain, to the back of the brain. It involves speaking intellectually but also cardinally, also semi-carnally. It involves taking energy from the audience and giving it back. It’s partly a theatrical performance as well as an ideological and semi-intellectual one.
It’s deeply disprivileged now. Hardly any politician can do it. The type of performance that is permitted now is Obama’s. Where Obama has a device here and a device there, and he looks at the one, and he looks at the other, and he says, “Today. . . in America . . . we are born . . . for the greatness . . . which is coming.” And he gives a very big grin. The teleprompter gives the words, and it’s all in about 20 or 18 points. The size of it is enormous.
Indeed, Bush II was so thick that the teleprompters would often have false words because he might get confused if they were properly spelled. So, he had to have these false words like “desert” would be “dezurt” or something just to get his mouth around it. It needed to be phonetic, so he could grasp it and not say “Gee, what’s that?” in the middle of it, with the whole media watching him. “These . . . terrorists . . . that . . . we . . . need . . . to . . . pun-ish.” Like Gerry Adams’ Gaelic. Have you ever heard Gerry Adams speak Gaelic? His political use of language? He speaks Gaelic like this: [unintelligible]. “John said I’m a man.” It’s a political use of language.
Because if you speak too aggressively, too unselfconsciously, too much with a theatrical flow, it’s regarded as fascistic. I remember David Owen once—and David is a very poor speaker, sort of a paint drying sort of a chap—but he always used to address his Social Democratic Party, that tiny little party that split away even from the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party of Northern Ireland], if you remember all that bother about 20 years ago. He used to address them in a slightly authoritarian way. He’d be in black. They’d be down there. He’d be up there. People talked about the new Caesarism. I mean David Owen!
But even something like that, which was not trying to befriend the audience, which was not feeling the audience’s pain, which is the Blair and Clinton thing. “I feel your pain. I feel your pain.” You’re reaching out into the audience. It’s sort of a lie. Of course it’s a lie. It’s a sort of therapeutic discourse rather than a militaristic one.
Do you think Julius Caesar in front of the legions would have spoken like that? Do you think Napoleon would have spoken like that? Do you think even Ulysses S. Grant, if you like, would have spoken like that? Or leaders on the Confederate side? Do you think Montgomery could have addressed the 8th Army like this? You know, reach out to the tankman and say, “I feel your pain.”
When you realize that the discourse shapes the nature of the society and shapes the nature of the minds of the people in the society. If you say, “I’m sorry. You’re going to get old; you’re going to die. I’m so, so, so sorry.” What sort of a society will you have if this isn’t your last word but your first! Your first word when you go to a mass audience.
The important thing about public speaking is never to be afraid. The second important thing is never to give a damn. And that means you can just get up in front of people. The third thing, which is an old actor’s technique, is you must never be frightened of making a fool of yourself. In actor’s college, you go on, and they all laugh at you: “Look at that idiot!” They almost throw things at you. You imagine breaking your leg on stage. Once you’ve made a mistake you’re less afraid about making another one because you just step over the prospect that you might make one.
Another trick to all real performance is domination of the audience. You have to be up there, and they’re looking at you. All rock stars and all these other people use some of these techniques because they’ve gone into those areas. They’re not allowed militarily too much. They’re not allowed at all politically because then they may be authoritarian. So they’ve gone into other areas. You can never destroy anything. You can just displace it. Usually to some internet site they haven’t taken down yet.
But there is a degree to which these sort of techniques are very, very useful. Particularly in a democratic age, because you can speak to 40 and speak to three million using the internet as the weapon to do so. The irony is, you see, in politics you don’t speak to people’s minds. You speak to them physiologically. You speak to what’s underneath the mind. Do you think you can raise men up into battle just by talking to what’s mentally up here? You influence the brains of the men who will influence them. Your discourse will influence them by doing that, but you don’t influence them by doing that.
Tony Blair once said that we went to war in the past between 1914 and 1918 and 1940 and ’45 and all the other wars to fight for tolerance. To fight for inclusion. Inclusion and tolerance . . . Can you imagine giving your troops a bit of tolerance and inclusion before they went over the top!? Of course not! You give them something quite different. Quite different! Almost totally unrepeatable in a way, and probably the men in the back couldn’t quite hear what the bloke was saying anyway, but they understood what it meant.
You see, real speaking, they understand what you mean even if they don’t understand what you say! Because it is the way in which you say it, and the energy which goes into certain subconscious parts of the brain. Of course, there was a man who came earlier in the 20th century who had a very considerable talent for this type of speaking. He was regarded as very dangerous. But all sorts of other people have had that talent, which is inborn. It can be trained. You can make people better, but in the end it’s inborn. It’s a way in which you can mobilize very large numbers of people. The question is, “For what?” And why will they follow?
A critic would put his hand up and say, “What you’re saying is all very well, but why would they follow your discourse rather than another?” My view is this: if you speak as in these puppeteering performances, from a position which is primal, from a position which is organic, from a position that comes out of the ground and relates to the corpses and the genealogies of that which was before you, you can make mistakes, you can abstract things, you can go on to different parts, but the audience understands where you are coming from, because they hear the echoes of the voices that have spoken before you. And that is why they respond in that physical way.
Newton, the scientist, was an incredibly arrogant, slightly sociopathic, and quite unpleasant man, but he was once asked, “How did you come across the second law of thermodynamics?” Newton, in physics, discovered the idea that energy in a system always replaces itself when it’s used. Now, Newton said something very interesting for a man who was so full of himself, and so full of hubris as the Greeks would have said. He said, “I saw further than the others because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
And that is why you can influence an audience. Because they know what existed before you, and you are basically plugging in. You are putting the plug in the socket, and you are turning the switch down. Nietzsche, in one of his books, in Will to Power and in others, the notebooks collected after his death by his sister, says, “Not me. Not me, but the wind that flows through me.” It’s the idea that when you’re in such a mode certain things flow through you from the past, from what is rooted, from which is underneath you. And it can affect people. It can . . . liberate is the wrong word, can free elements of the mind that are otherwise restricted. It can get them to see the truth about life.
That’s why there’s this odd interconnection between high and low forms of culture, because the high intellectualizes the primal energy of the low. As soon as you begin to theorize or philosophize about the motivations of these sorts of characters, even though they’re made of wood and papier-mâché, you immediately have tragedy. Because if you begin to understand the motivations of the method of destruction you’re immediately dealing with the questions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. You leap from the very low, if it’s organic and rooted, to the very high, and can go back again.
This is why liberal society is cancerous, ultimately, of real culture because it divides the interconnectedness between the high and the low and prevents the energy coming up from beneath, from the bottom to the top. A real culture has everyone involved in the culture, not watching the idiocy of Ferguson’s latest team of foreign imports, but understanding the nature of their own culture, from top to bottom. In Shakespeare’s day, the whole society was in the theater, the lower class, the middling class, the upper class. They were all there.
All the sword fights and the extreme switches of scenery and the instantaneous scenes that suddenly they’re full of language but they shift and they’re very quick. That’s to keep it going so people won’t get bored. The Jester. The fool in Lear. And if they were bored, they would throw fruit and nuts out of the pit at the actors and they’d realize that they had to speed things up.
Henry Irving in the 19th century was very funny. (Whether Henry Irving and David Irving are at all related I’ve got no idea.) Henry Irving is the greatest actor of late Victorian England. Always played monsters. Always played Mephistopheles. Always played these sorts of characters. But when he would forget the lines, he would make it up, because he was such a so-and-so.
If he was on the heath doing Lear, you know: “Ho, bloody beadle! Why does thou whip that whore? Thy lust is so used up for that kind for which thou whipped her,” which is a couple of stanzas from Lear. If he can’t remember the next bit he’ll just go, “And as the owls do breech the lofty turns, this tree a storm!” which he’s just made up. Because you’ve got to have that sort of facility to continue it.
There’s somebody in the wings desperately trying to get a message across to you as to what you should be saying. Of course, that’s why the wings are there. Because when you forget your part the man’s got to go “No! no!” and try and give you a bit of it. The theatrical dimension, the excitement . . .
Think how exciting those political meetings would have been before television. Think how innovating and energizing they would be. After one of those sorts of meetings you’d want to take your entire society over, wouldn’t you? Rather than just go back and watch The X Factor on the box. You would feel invigorated and empowered. That’s the purpose of these. They’re almost like secular religious events. That’s what these forms of culture are, and that is why they’re not liked, and that is why they’re slightly disprivileged, and that is why they are scorned. If you want to win a battle in a court you don’t speak in this way, but if you wish to take a society back, you take some cognizance of these traditional forms.
Thank you very much!