Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Punch and Judy

I am sure there are those of you out there who know a lot more about the connection between Punch and Judy and Chesterton than I do. All I can say is that, in reading the list of traditional characters in a Punch and Judy show, I finally felt I understood the characters in the story called "The Flying Stars" where a harlequin and a doctor and a policeman appear, each traditional characters in a P&J puppet show.

I cannot recall ever having actually seen a P&J show, although I've certainly seen snippets, Punch with a stick wacking at everyone in sight, etc., but I never knew the history or the story, nor how much this influenced Chesterton.

I hope that those who know will comment here, because I feel quite inadequate. I enjoyed reading this short history of P&J and knew that it was an important piece in understanding Chesterton (in trying to read some of the material he himself would have been familiar with and read in his day) so I enjoyed reading it.
Note from Gramps on Chesterton on Punch click here.
ILN October 8, 1921

I was delighted to see that Dr. Kimmins, at the recent British Association Conference, declared that children still find the fullest measure of fun in Punch and Judy. He said that his investigations had convinced him that most children preferred it to the cinema, in which I entirely agree with them. I can enjoy the cinema also, in due and distant subordination to Punch and Judy. As Tennyson says, "Let her know her place; she is second, not the first." At present it seems doubtful whether the cinema does know its place. It seems to have an indiscriminate craving for all stories and styles that are most unsuitable to it. I have remarked before on the incredible rumour of the filming of Mr. Bernard Shaw's play of "Pygmalion," which is exactly as if the original Pygmalion had advertised his statue as being recently translated from the original Hebrew, or arranged in syncopated time suitable to the banjo.It means literally nothing whatever. There is no play of "Pygmalion" apart from the tones of voice in which the heroine speaks. But apart from such extreme cases, the cinema producer seems to have very vague notions of the nature and limits of his own art. He delights in producing "Vanity Fair" by the machinery of the movies; or some such story that obviously depends on talk, and even on gossip. Now if I were to announce that I was producing "Vanity Fair" by the machinery of Punch and Judy, it would be clear that the form of art chosen had its limitations. It would have its triumphs also - the soul-sufficing, thundering thwack that Rawdon Crawley gives to Lord Steyne could be given with an energy far beyond the cinema or even the stage. These are the high moments of the Punch and Judy art; high even in philosophy and in ethics and politics. For do not our day-dreams of practical politics now largely consist in wishing we could hit wooden heads with a wooden stick?

The truth is that the cinema prevails over Punch end Judy not as great art, but merely as big business. There was probably more fun got out of Punch and Judy, but there was less money got out of it. And many modern people have a sort of imaginative reverence for a thing not only because a lot of money is got out of it, but merely because a lot of money is put into it. The materials of the old puppet-show were as simple as the wood carving and colouring of the old mediaeval crafts. The reason why all such puppet-shows have died out, I regret to say, is the same as that which has caused the guilds and the local liberties to die out. It is the same that has destroyed the free peasant and the small shop-keeper. It is the denial of dignity and poetry to the poor, and the concentration of worship as well as wealth upon a smaller and smaller ring of the rich. Dickens, who represented the last of the old liberty in a sort of glorious sunset, threw his rays of colour and romance on a thousand such poor and private figures, and among others on two men who travelled with a Punch and Judy. Dickens was a true egalitarian, seeing such men as men in an equal balance, for one of his showmen is a humbug and the other an honest fellow. But by no possibility could those two mountebanks have become millionaires, even by humbug, let alone honesty. They would never in any case become Lord Codlin and Sir Thomas Short.

That is where they differed from any adventurer producing films; and that is where they fail to attract or interest the emancipated modern mind.

Punch and Judy, or more properly, perhaps, Codlin and Short, suffer from the opposite fault to the vulgar universalism of the cinema. Punch is too modest, or Short is too shy. Punch and Judy, like the colder classical drama of Seneca and Corneille, does not extend its range even legitimately beyond certain unities of time and place. The firm of Messrs. Codlin and Short had in its hands a method that really could be applied to a great many other things besides Punch and Judy. I have always wondered that nobody has applied it; for the method of direct manipulation of dolls by the human hand itself is both a simple and a suggestive one. Like Mr. Short, I am more modest and moderate in my views than are the advertisers of the American film. I do not propose to produce "Pelleas and Melisande"in the manner of Punch and Judy. It might indeed be appropriate enough to represent such dramatic figures as dolls. The great Belgian dramatist often implies that his people are the puppets of fate. But they do not fight with fate with anything like the heroic courage shown by Mr. Punch. Punch is not a model of moral conduct in all his domestic relations; but the play is the more moral of the two in that vital respect - that Punch is defiant where Pelleas is only discontented. There is more kick in the old puppets than in many of the modern personalities. But I do not, as I say, propose to transfer the whole tragic and romantic drama of antiquity and modern times to that little stage in the street. I recognise its limitations, as the artists of the film do not seem to recognise theirs. The Punch and Judy method is admirably adapted to a certain type of artistic effect, which might be achieved by any number of other stories of the same style and spirit. It is adapted to the knock-about pantomime or fantastic farce, in which people are hammered with clubs or hanged on gibbets. But we have only to survey the society around us with a philosophical and philanthropic eye to see that there are many who want hammering as much as Judy, and many who need hanging as well as the Beadle. Anything in the way of mock tournaments, comic combats with broadsword or quarterstaff, dances at the end of a rope or otherwise beheading people, boiling them in big pots, or other simple sports of an age of innocence, could be performed in this fashion with any amount of vivacity and variety. I see such a vista of adventures for the wooden dolls that I feel inclined to devote my declining years to writing dramas for the Punch and Judy show.

The art of the Punch and Judy, like the arts of the old guilds, is a handicraft. It is that low thing called manual labour, like the work of the sculptor, the violinist, and the painter of the Transfiguration. The interest of it lies in the fact that the only instrument really employed is the hand, and the costume of the comic figure is merely a kind of glove. Everything is done with those three fingers, or rather two fingers and a thumb, with which, in fact, all the mightiest or most ingenious works of man have been done. Everything turns on the co-operation of that trinity of digits: the pen, the pencil, the bow of the violin, and even the foil or the sword. In this respect Punch and Judy has a purity and classical simplicity as a form of art, superior even to what is more commonly called the puppet show - the more mechanical system of marionettes that work on wires. And there is this final touch of disgrace in the neglect of it: that while marionettes are mostly a foreign amusement, Punch has become a purely English survival. It is very English; it is really popular, it is within the reach of comparatively poor men. Who can wonder that it is dying out? GKC ILN October 8, 1921


  1. Greetings!

    I haven't seen a Punch and Judy show either, but in a fortunate coincidence, I just read a wikipedia article on Punch and Judy last week! I also own a comic book "retelling" of Punch and Judy I bought a couple of years ago. In other words, I'm no expert, but I'm confidant that I could provide you with a brief rundown of what I learned about this topic.

    Punch traces his origins back to the character Punchinello in Italian Commedia dell'Arte theater and is an example of the age-old trickster archetype. Punch was introduced to England in the mid 17th Century (May 9, 1662 is his "Birthday", that is, the first recorded account of a Punch and Judy Show.)

    traditional Punch and Judy shows have no official script or storyline, They are seemingly improvised on the spot by the "professor" (the official term for a Punch and Judy puppeteer.)

    Due to the improvisional nature, the story can vary greatly, but it mostly focuses on Punch running afoul of various characters then besting them by beating them sensless with a slapstick while exclaiming, "That's the way to do it!"

    A greatly simplified Punch story may go something like this: Punch is asked by his wife, Judy, to mind the baby. He proceeds to throw the baby out the window. Judy is understandably upset, so Punch beats her, His neighbor is upset by the racket so Punch beats him. The police come to arrest him, so Punch beats them. Eventually, Punch is brought before a judge (whom he may or may not beat)and is sentenced to hang for his many bludgeonings. He is brought to the notorious exocutioner, Jack Ketch (based on an actual exocutioner in the late 1600's). In some shows Punch manages to trick Jack into putting the noose around his own neck. In other shows punch is executed and goes (naturally) straight to Hell. However in this version of the show, Punch gets the last laugh by beating the Devil himself to death!

    All and all they certainly seem to be good rowdy fun. I'd like to see one someday myself!

  2. Hi Michael,
    Yes, this is just how this book (pictured above) described the show.

    And I'd like to see it too.

    I think the Chesterton Society should put it on for the Friday night entertainment some year.

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  4. Hi Nancy,

    Chesterton, in G.K.'s Weekly mentions Codlin and Short, two characters in a P&J in reference to Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, a story published in Charles Dickens' weekly journal.

    "Business men will tell you that, while a good article will not sell unless it is advertised, a well-advertised article will not continue to sell unless it is good. But what do they mean by “good?”—Why, merely as good as, or better than other well-advertised articles. And even within these narrow limits (very like the voter's choice between Codlin and Short at an election) the assertion is false. Provided the article offered is not altogether worthless, the extent and the cleverness of the advertisement will decide the issue."


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