acepuppets

Is it appropriate for Punch and Judy shows to be completely traditional today?

Posted on: March 30, 2012


Is it appropriate for Punch and Judy shows to be completely traditional today?

by Sian Hunter on Thursday, 14 April 2011 at 19:11 ·

Having made a lucky find during the first month of Acepuppets we became the proud owners of an old traditional Punch and Judy theatre. It therefore seemed fitting to produce an Acepuppets version of the centuries old famous show.

The first question we had to ask was how true we would keep to tradition. After reading a number of scripts and history of Punch and Judy shows, there seems to be a general consensus that Punch is a psychotic, psychopathic cold blooded murderer who lacks regard for authority and fears no one, including the Devil. It would appear that Punch is indeed a physical manifestation of the ‘Id’ described by Freud where the person is no longer restrained by social constraints and acts without any regard to anyone else.

However another opinion is that Punch is in fact an anti – hero who rises above his bullies and disposes of them. He has a winging baby, a nagging wife and authority figures that are sometimes hypocritical in their approach to maintaining their power.

Whatever opinion you have about the force that drives punch to murder, the question still remains – is it appropriate to re –enact the show using age old traditional conventions or have we become so politically correct that it would be risky to expose delicate minds to such atrocities?

For example by making Punch the hero of the piece are we condoning wife beating, child abuse and murder? Is it fitting to show a complete disregard for authority by murdering a policeman and hangman because they are trying to punish him for his crime? Animal lovers could be up in arms because he kills a dog and crocodile, who, in some circumstances bite off his nose. Not to forgetting his mistress Pretty Polly the only person he seems to truly care about and only kisses her and treats her with kindness. Maybe Judy did nag him into insanity, the performance is only a snapshot into their lives, we are not really able to truly know the full story – it is for us to decide whether Punch is villain or victim.

If you were to omit the psychotic personality from Punch we then have to ask is if the show is still a Punch and Judy show? The phrase ‘There is no show without Punch’ maybe referring to his character rather than a physical representation in the form of a puppet. So a punch puppet may be present but due to a corrected personality he is no longer really Punch but another character that looks like Punch, rather like someone after they have encountered a head injury – they look the same but have become very different to the person they were before.

We also have to consider whether it would be the parents or the children who would be most disturbed by the content. I remember being very amused as a child when the Road Runner regularly blew up the coyote and Tom and Jerry took it in turns to beat each other up. I was always fully aware that the characters were figments of an animator’s imagination and that the characters couldn’t really die anyway because they weren’t real. By acting out taboo subjects using inanimate objects representing sections in society we allow ourselves to laugh without prejudice or guilt because comedy is always based on the negative sides of life. Stand up comedians draw laughs by highlighting deficiencies or peculiarities of people. A tame example is Peter Kaye and, ‘putting the big light on’. You laugh doubly at crude comedians firstly because it is funny and secondly because you are laughing and you shouldn’t so you are being a little bit naughty. Puppets are similar to cartoon characters in the fact that they are not real and therefore the crime being committed is not real, after all the puppets will be alive and well for their next performance.

Times have changed, we live in a contradictory world where openness is the name of the game and we are exposed to graphical pictures of death and destruction in the form of news reports, television programmes, computer games and even books. Sometimes reality and fiction merge and we become desensitised to the value of the destroyed lives we are privy to seeing – I have seen dead bodies on television but have chosen not to view deceased relatives because I wanted to remember them as they were when they were alive and yet all of the news channels seem to think it is fine for me to gawp at someone else’s dead relative – where is the respect in that? On the other hand people in authority are very concerned how we can cope with dealing with these images and try to protect us from feeling discriminated against and now we can claim compensation for hurt feelings and yet celebrities, who air their dirty laundry in public seem to have lives that would make Mr punch blush in embarrassment. In fact most reality shows laugh at vulnerable people who truly believe that they are the next ‘big thing’. Laughing at the pain of real people is much crueller than laughing at puppets that don’t have feelings at all.

Our audience is going to consist of children between the ages of three to nine so hopefully they won’t have been exposed to such horrors. This brings us to the question of what a child’s perception of Punch and Judy is. The whole performance revolves around the use of a ‘Slapstick’ which is used to slap and kill the other characters and of course it is the origin of slapstick comedy – you remember Laurel and Hardy hitting each other with a rotating ladder and Harold Lloyd getting stuck on poles attached to skyscrapers in New York. Slapstick used to be the greatest form of comedy entertainment but has diminished recently due to the fact that people are no longer able to laugh at themselves as easily as in the past and ‘Health and Safety’, which has improved our lives significantly, (you only have to look at documentaries of countries where there is no protection for employees and they live in a Victorian environment to see how much.) unfortunately we have become a society that has to find someone to blame when accidents happen. Slapstick is all about accidents and therefore is too risky and simple to contemplate being sophisticated comedy. Do children see the psychopath or do they just see puppets hitting each other?

The question we therefore have to ask is – Would people complain more if Punch killed his cast members or would they complain more if he didn’t?

Which version would I prefer my son to watch? I would be happy for him to see the original version because at the tender age of two he can understand that puppets only come to life on someone’s hand and that they are not real. He is young enough to find Slapstick hilarious and would probably enjoy the old black and white films made by Laurel and Hardy.

When I wrote this final paragraph I didn’t realise that my son would find people being cruel to each other distressing so I would show him my version, where there is no wife beating and assault just comedy and amusement.

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2 Responses to "Is it appropriate for Punch and Judy shows to be completely traditional today?"

Interesting and well written piece.
I wouldn’t presume that children understand that puppets aren’t real. I’ve had countless children over the years struggle with that very concept, asking me repeatedly if the puppet is real or not, believe it or not, even a 12 year old!
I always start my shows by telling children that my baby monkey puppet isn’t a real baby or a real monkey but is a real puppet( as I do believe that puppets have their own lives ) . That usually seems to satisfy them.

As you probably know my stance on Punch and Judy, I stay well away from it even though my very first experience of puppets was a Punch and Judy show on the sea front. It wasn’t originally made for children anyway. It is only in recent times that puppets have been made exclusively part of the culture of childhood.

I totally agree with your stance on Punch and Judy and will be doing a non violent/nasty version based on a show written called, ‘Punch Cries Wolf…’, by Barry Hopkins alias Uncle Wiggy, which involves teasing and trick but not punching or hitting at a fun day in June.

I wrote quite a brutal version called, ‘Punch tries Anger Management’, which involves a chat show like Jeremy Kyle discussing Punch’s violent outbursts and then setting him on relaxing activities that end up in a hitting frenzy. I decided that it was too complicated to do as a puppet show and not appropriate for children (I plan to use it with adults or older children as a play to look at anger and dealing with it – that will be far into the future).

I wrote this before I had experienced children’s reactions to puppets and the fact that simplicity and silly was more important than deep and meaningful. Also my son’s concept of empathy and imagination hadn’t kicked in so he reacts differently to puppets now than he did a year ago. Children with a better developed imagination seem to respond to the puppets the best and can fill in the gaps with their own imagination – as in the case of your twelve year old.

It seems that it has been so long since Punch and Judy has been watched by people that it doesn’t really matter if it isn’t nasty and horrible as long as it is entertaining and done with the same exuberance as the original.

Thank you for your constructive comment.

Best wishes
Sian.

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