Saturday 9 May 2009

Happy Birthday Mr Punch ....

Dear Mr Postman thank you for visiting today .. and for bringing this letter about Mr Punch – it’s his birthday today – May 9th – he’s 347 years old! Good for him – it is amazing how some of these figures transcend each era of life and live on ..

There is evidence that marionette puppetry was in use in Egypt as early as 2,000BC – wire controlled puppets made of clay and ivory have been found in Egyptian tombs. Greek literature (from 422BC) suggests that puppetry was important in the presentation of theatrical shows and festivals – eg: the ‘Iliad’ and its sequel the ‘Odyssey’, both attributed to Homer, were performed this way, while Aristotle, Archimedes and Plato all referred to marionettes. The Greek word usually translated as “puppets” is neuropasta, which means “string pulling”, from nervus, meaning either sinew, tendon, muscle, string or wire, and span to pull.
Most of us I expect will have childhood memories of our own, or our children, sitting watching the antics of puppet “Mr Punch” in his candy-striped booth – at home, at shows – perhaps even on the beach .. or at puppet shows put on for us as a special treat.

Now-a-days .. the show has evolved .. as it is not appropriate to show the traditional story of Mr Punch killing his baby, beating his wife Judy to death; he might be imprisoned for the murders, but he manages to escape using a golden key. He then murders a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer, the hangman, death and the devil .... all with huge pleasure, each time squeakily repeating his catch phrase “That’s the way to do it!”.

Anarchic - it really is – comes from the Greek meaning “without rulers” .. a political philosophy which considers the state, as a compulsory government to be unnecessary, harmful and/or undesirable. But!! we loved it as kids .. roaring with laughter at his antics and his squawking, squeaky voice ... – did you? or have you taken your own children to a Punch and Judy show? or perhaps you’ve made a model .. and built the puppets?

Puppet shows started to appear in Britain at the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, while 9th May 1662 has become the accepted date on which the figure, who later became Mr Punch, made his first recorded appearance in England . The diarist Samuel Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. Pepys described the event in his diary as "an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty."

Its name then was Punchinello, of which Punch is the short form. The show had been imported from the character called polichinello in the commedia dell’arte in Italy, where its original was known in the Neapolitan dialect as Polecenella, perhaps a diminutive of pollecena, a young turkey cock, in reference to its beak, which looked a bit like the puppet’s long red hooked nose!

Punch was extremely popular in Europe and, by the end of the 18th century, he was also playing in the American colonies, where even George Washington bought tickets for a show. But marionette productions, presented in empty halls, the back rooms of taverns, or within large tents at England's yearly agricultural events at Bartholomew Fair and Mayfair, were expensive and cumbersome to mount and transport.

In the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant "bottler" to collect their earnings from a crowd the "bottler" had likewise been obliged to gather!

Originally intended for adults, the show evolved into primarily a children's entertainment in the late Victorian era, but the outline of early 19th-century shows is usually still recognizable. It typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order all performed in the spirit of outrageous comedy and is intended to provoke shocked laughter, whilst the Victorian version of the show drew on the morality of its day.

It’s the enormous satisfaction of Punch with his awful deeds that led to the idiom ‘as pleased as Punch’ appearing at the beginning of the nineteenth century for somebody who was delighted. Punch’s pride in outwitting every figure of authority also led to ‘as proud as Punch’ as an alternative.

Punch the former British weekly magazine of humour and satire published from 1841 until 2002, was named after Mr Punch. When we used to go to the dentist in London, outside Harrods!, I loved looking through the Punch magazines at the cartoons: I didn’t mind the dentist and had another happy experience with the cartoons of life in those times.

Oh! Mr Postman .. my mother will love this story ..and it will bring back memories of our childhood and the visits to the dentist and much mirth .. that were often tied in with other excursions in London .. – and as the title says Happy Birthday Mr Punch! – with many years ahead of you ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Liara Covert said...

During childhood summers, I recall attending puppet performances in seasonal theatre. Punch is a classic character many children remember even if they did not always agree with the personality of behaviour of the character.

Peter Baca said...


What an interesting post on puppets today! The facts on puppets in Egypt was quite fascinating!

Unfortunately, Punch does not live here on this side of the pond...not that I am aware. Puppets live on today in a number of ways...their use in movies has been quite interesting and entertaining.

Children find them fascinating for the most part!

Thank for your your entertaining post!

Pete Baca
The Car Enthusiast Online

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. thanks ... yes I too remember the 'bashing' ceremonies .. definitely what we as kids were not allowed to do .. but we did laugh.

I couldn't think of the right word for the type of story Punch told .. but obviously over 3 centuries the morality of the tale changed ..

Thanks for enjoying the memories ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Pete .. puppets and marionettes are all part of growing up .. Punch developed into a very specific English tale .. being adapted to English conditions over time .. Washington saw him though ..

and the marioneete and puppet theatres continue on in the States .. and as you say the films and cartoons have provided a different perspective.

Thanks - Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Giovanna Garcia said...

Hi Hilary

Thank you for the history of puppet show. Now I can share this with Dylan when is a little older, for now I think we will just do the puppet show for fun :-)
Thanks for sharing.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfefct Action is better than No Action

Unknown said...

Hi Hilary,

Nice post about puppet. Puppets are interesting. They co not change their emotions, but based on the play they look sad, happy, worry, etc...

Thank you for your interesting share.
Shaw Funami
Fill the Missing Link

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Gio .. thank you .. yes I agree the puppet show for fun at the moment .. children love them so ... I expect Dylan spends lots of time talking to himself .. we all seem to do at that age .. making up our own stories .. engineering our own lives!

Thanks .. excellent - have lots of laughs with the little one .. they make you gasp as much as my Mum does .. and laugh out loud .. great times ..

Have a good mother's day today .. USA one!
Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Shaw .. thanks for enjoying the puppet story .. I'm certain they'd have featured in Japan too .. each area having its own traditions ..

Go well - good luck with the trip ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
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