Punch himself is based on the Commedia dell'arte character, Pulcinella or Punchinello, to whom has been added many of the characteristics of the medieval English fool or jester. In the play, which is often coarse and satirical, Punch first kills his infant child when the baby will not stop crying. He then beats his wife to death. The story rambles on with Punch meeting, arguing with and finally beating--often to death--a series of characters. He outwits the hangman who hangs himself and finally vanquishes the devil through either trickery or through combat.
Although the plots vary from one version to the next, the nineteenth century play usually included, in addition to Punch and Judy, Judy’s ghost, the baby, Toby the Dog, the Beadle, the black servant, the Hangman and the Devil. With the exception of Toby these were puppets, but by the nineteenth century it had become a common, if not universal practice, to have a real dog playing the role of Toby. Indeed, some Punchmen even taught their dog to sit and hold a pipe in its mouth.
Punch’s voice, high pitched and squeaky is produced through the use of a swazzle or squeaker. Henry Mayhew interviewed one Punchman who refered to it as a "call" and said,
they ain’t whistles, but calls, or unknown tongues, as we sometimes names ‘em, because with them in the mouth we can pronounce each word as plain as any parson. We have two or three kinds--one for out-of-doors, one for in-doors, one for speaking and for singing, and another for selling.
These devices were made by the Punchmen themselves and were a closely guarded secret. They were tuned to a musical instrument and were apparently fairly difficult to learn to use properly.
Victoria’s reign was one in which the streets of the Metropolis were alive with activity. Steetsellers, beggars and entertainers vied with one another for space and among the most popular of the street performers were the Punchmen who, behind the green baize in their rickety frames, presented the story of Punch and Judy. A century later, largely unchanged, they are one of the few reminders we have of the sights and sounds of street, seaside and fair entertainment in the nineteenth century.
To see a photograph of a late nineteenth century Punch and Judy show, click here.