One of the longest and unhappiest marriages has brought joy to others for 350 years now: Punch and Judy, the battling puppet duo, for whom the term “slapstick” was coined from their constant marital wars. This weekend, England celebrated the pair’s anniversary with a two-day festival of puppetry and comedy.
Punch and Judy’s anniversary is well-timed. Across the pond, it coincides with a revival of commedia dell’arte, the Italian theatrical comedy tradition from which Punch was made (his name comes from Pulcinella, the red-nosed mean clown who was a stock character in commedia). The 500-year-old art form has seen a new life in contemporary interpretations, such as the Tony-nominated Broadway play “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
Here in Washington, Nelson Pressley wrote about two commedia shows — “The Servant of Two Masters” at the Shakespeare Theatre and “Hamlecchino” by the Faction of Fools company.
“These are cross-cultural themes that you can play in Italy, Germany, Russia, England,” Faction of Fools’ Matt Wilson said of the historic art’s legacy. “It’s looking at very basic stories about what it is to be human.”
As for Punch and Judy, the pair were first mentioned in Samuel Pepys’s diary in 1662, in which he said that he was “mighty pleased” by an Italian puppet show at London’s Covent Garden. Since then, their punishing marriage has been milked for improvised laughs by puppeteers in colorful booths at the English seaside. Punch is frequently a squeaky-voiced, mean-spirited figure who battles his wife and other foes, like a crocodile and ghosts, violently (hence the “slap stick”). The characters fell out of favor in the past few decades as critics accused them of promoting domestic violence. However, audiences have learned to distinguish Punch’s violent actions from that of real people, Katey Wilde, a puppeteer, told the AFP:
“It’s not violence, it’s physical comedy. It’s much too knockabout and silly to compare with real life — that actually trivializes problems in real life,” she said. “In the old days they were horrified that there was a devil in the show. But it does change. You play to the cultural sensitivities of today.”
See an example of a Punch and Judy performance below: