Around the World With Mr. Punch Vol. 8 No. 2           March 2005 Page 5

Punch & Judy Overseas - and the Language of Puppetry

by Dan Bishop

'Prof' Dan Bishop, whose Mr. Punch carries a small passport, has played in numerous countries and believes it imperative that the audience participation element of the Punch and Judy Show should be carried out in the host language of the country visited. Here he makes his case.[Prof. Dan Bishop]

GLYN Edwards (a fellow member of the Punch & Judy College of Professors) has written recently in British UNIMA's 'Puppet Notebook' about his impressions of a recent Italian puppet festival and his views - amongst other things - on performing traditional Punch & Judy overseas. He also published an extract from this article in the online journal 'Around the World With Mr. Punch', plus an additional final paragraph regarding performing in other English speaking countries.

Leaving the 'other things' aside, his position, as a self confessed 'mono-linguist', seems to be that, for various reasons of rhythm particular to the English language which reflect the culture from which the tradition has emerged, the performance is more authentic when played exclusively in English, regardless of the host language.

The piece quotes Tony Clarke (another College member) as stating that "Punch & Judy should be performed in our native tongue."

(I had also read Tony's article about some performances he gave in Slovenia some months ago, and - although his is definitely not my approach to touring overseas with Punch - I privately concluded that we are all at liberty to present our shows as we think best, and promptly forgot all about it. Each to their own, as they say.)

However, now a serious case has been made in favour of performing Punch & Judy exclusively in English to audiences overseas. As a 'multi-linguist' - so far as performances of Punch & Judy are concerned - I have to respond. There is another point of view. The gauntlet has been thrown down !

I am very familiar with the "Arrivano Dal Mare!" festival of Cervia in North Eastern Italy. Indeed, reading Glyn's account of the 2004 festival prompted a small pang of disappointment that I had been unable to respond to their invitation at very short notice that year. However, I'm glad Glyn was able to be there and I am in complete agreement with him when he asserts that the traditional shows he described having seen (Pulcinella; Dom Roberto; Vasilache; Vitez Laszlo; Guignol; etc.,) - given by performers I know well - these shows, with the possible exception of Guignol, do not require their audience to understand a word of their respective languages.

All of the above traditional street performances are easily understood by virtue of their action, and the 'music' of their respective languages does, indeed, serve to reinforce their national identities.

Punch, however, seems to me to be an exception.

Through examination of its early roots in Commedia and the English Fool, and careful study of the various extant scripts we have available to us, it is clear that - as it has progressed through the centuries - the style and language in the performance of Punch & Judy has necessarily undergone various changes, one of which - as Glyn rightly points out - is reflected through "echoes of music hall and pantomime" (this in the English understanding of the term) and which are still very much in evidence in current times.

Indeed, practically all the Punch & Judy performers I have seen - and I've seen a few - incorporate a high degree of audience participation.

"Oh no they don't !" '"Oh yes they do !"

Why else will any complete stranger you meet (when they learn that you're a Punch Prof.) feel immediately compelled to mimic Mr. Punch's voice and squeak: "That's the way to do it !" ? It's ingrained in the British psyche.

So, when travelling overseas, how is this vital aspect of our tradition possibly to be conveyed without some kind of verbal exchange with the spectators? Surely this is an indisputable prerequisite. The alternative is to rely solely on the slapstick elements of the show and deny the audience access to this characteristically British aspect of Punch & Judy.

(I know that the French company, Theatre Pas Sage, during their recent performances of their new Polichinelle show at the 4th Aberystwyth Punch & Judy Festival, were delighted at the ease with which the audience responded to the English banter they had laced into the show. Georges Vetters from Liege in Belgium, at the same festival, with his city's traditional hero Tchanches, ensured that his audience participated - as is the custom in Liege - by communicating in English.)

It seems to me a simple courtesy to try to offer a non-English speaking host the pleasure of participation in the performance - just as we do in Britain - and to hear, for example, an audience of Arabic, Croatian, Hungarian, Japanese, Russian speakers - whatever and wherever it may be - joining Mr. Punch in enthusiastic banter is music to my ears.

[Resting]It would certainly be tempting not to bother with the considerable trouble one must go to to ensure one's hosts not only understand but are admitted into the fun that comes from participation. In my case, I prepare an A4 sized lexicon of memorized vocabulary, thinly administered as and when required rather like verbal Lego, throughout the show - the vast majority of which is performed in English. Sometimes, little or no such vocabulary is needed at all. It depends on the audience. I can soon detect - sometimes even before the show starts - the degree of understanding the audience has of English and adapt the show accordingly.

I think it was Rod Burnett, (another College colleague) years ago, who put me onto the alternative to trying to translate "Oh yes he did !", etc.
That to alter the context to a simple: "No ! No ! No !" countered by "Yes ! Yes ! Yes !" was a far more simple way to introduce a foreign audience to this aspect of the tradition.

Having worked side by side with me in Italy some years ago, when I performed my show using a smattering of Italian, Glyn is aware that my approach is different to his. Whilst I fully understand & respect his & Tony's wish - and right - to maintain their Englishness in their own way, I don't agree at all that the English identity of our show is jeopardized by learning enough of the host language to allow an audience to participate.

Some years ago, during a puppet festival in the Canary Islands, my wife, Gemma, and I spent some happy times with a Dutch couple - puppeteers - and their two young children. The festival was based in Santa Cruz de Tenerife which is quite a large city, but, after performing in the morning, we had all decided to take a bus out of town to visit a small village. It was the end of the line for the bus, so the driver turned the engine off and we made a note of the departure time for the return to Santa Cruz. I thought the driver looked slightly askance at us as he strolled away for his break.

We enjoyed a relaxing hour or two of walking around, and finally made our way back to the bus. The children wanted to show their parents something they had found in a shop, so they all wandered off to see what it was. Gemma and I took our seats on the bus as the departure time was approaching and the driver was already sitting in the driving seat. We got quite anxious as it was almost the time for the bus to depart and there was still no sign of our friends.

Quite suddenly the bus driver started the engine at which point I jumped up in a panic and called out: "No ! No ! No !" Then, I caught the driver's wicked grin in his rear view mirror.

"Si, si, si....", he said. The bus didn't move.

From my very first days with Mr Punch, I have always known there's an unfathomable depth to his world - open to all of us. But then, there's always a danger of getting too serious about it. Gemma is often telling me: "It's only a Punch & Judy show !"

All the same, it was her who told me that on many a street corner, in many countries she has time and time again seen care-worn passers by - the weight of the world showing in their long faces - families, intellectuals, office workers, street cleaners alike - pausing in the street to look at what is animating the crowd as they connect with Mr. Punch. For a time, as they drop their guard, their preoccupations fall away. Their mouths slowly opening in anticipation as the crocodile opens his jaws. Their faces breaking into broad smiles to see Mr Punch dealing with all their private demons - just as he always has. Just as he always will.

There have been certain moments when, suddenly, the rapport developing between the puppets and the spectators was not simply a translation into another language. Certain occasions and places: a particular square in Ljubljana, a park in Magdeburg; a spot by the Danube in Budapest; in the Piazza Pisacane, in Cervia

It's not just that a group of children could understand what the puppets were saying. Or seeing the precious naiveté that hides in every adult mind liberated in the absurdity of their excited children's urgent explanations to the puppets on my hands - who seem to them to comprehend every word.

Something unexpected happens. A kind of communion, an intense moment of connection, transcending mere language.

What Glyn failed to quote from Tony's article about his Slovenian trip was the following: "My second show was blessed with an English family who lives and works in Slovenia." Later, he says: "...The (English) children shouted back at the correct times at the performance, which helped the native children to follow suit, so it made for a better show with the traditional audience participation we are all used to. A great show for me and ensured I ended on a great note...' (My emphasis).

© Dan Bishop December 2004.

A monolinguist replies: Dan’s emphasis on “the traditional audience participation we are all used to” is timely. We may be used to it now but it’s not a feature of any of the Victorian scripts. My original ‘thinking out loud’ was inspired by the contrast between some fast, funny and universally comprehensible traditional puppetry which transcended the language barrier and some verbose, modern intellectual puppetry in which language was a millstone round the neck of the performance. Given that ‘real’ Punch scripts usually look pretty dead on the page (whilst the ones that read well on the page look pretty wordy from a performer’s viewpoint) and given too that the ‘call and response’ element of modern performance practice has only grown alongside Mr. Punch’s career as a childrens’ entertainer, my true interest lies in the basic role of language in the Punch show. How performers use it to shape their audiences’ expectations and then subvert them (or not), and how they use it to play games with them beyond basic peek-a-boo and Hi-de-hi, is a topic I hope to look into in a future issue (with readers’ help!). How performers then attempt to achieve this in one or more other languages is really a footnote to this – one in which there are probably as many viewpoints as there are performers.[Punch icon]

Punch's Postbag
Baseball Trivia

The baseball world refers to weaker, fast, slap hitters as ‘Punch and Judy hitters’. Where does this come from? From ‘Punchlines’

Here in the UK we are always as mystified by this as Americans are by obscure cricketing terms. The best guess from Brit Land is that it possibly derives from the way that Mr. Punch (or indeed any glove puppet) holds a stick. It's a bit similar to how a human would hold one if they were not allowed to grasp with anything below the wrist. Whilst this method of grasping/hugging a stick allows puppets to wallop each other with glee - it's a pretty ineffective position from which to deliver a good hit to a baseball (or a cricket ball for that matter). It was probably a good description of a less than perfect hitter at a time when most Americans knew their Punch and Judy Show and picked up on the reference. Ed.

More law lore

Further to items concerning Punch and the Law. In 1852 Albert Smith wrote: "We cannot, however, disguise the meloncholy fact, that Punch is on the decline. It is true that he escaped the notice of the Metropolitan Police Act, and, whilst the dogs were emancipated from the trucks, he was permitted to bully and tease the hapless Toby to his heart's content; still, we fear his glories are departing." This raises a couple of points, firstly the fact that Punchmen honestly believed that the law requiring the pavement to be kept clear did not apply to them by virtue of some ancient custom sanctioned by the Crown; secondly, the influence of animal welfare groups on the decline of the live dog Toby (whose 'rights' are protected by law now!). Also in the early 19th century Horatio Smith wrote:

"But Punch, thou'rt ungallant and rude,
In plying thy persuasive wood;
Remember that thy cudgel's girth is fuller
than that compassionate, thumb-thick,
Established wife-compelling stick,
Made legal by the dictum of Judge Buller."

This refers to the judgement that allowed husbands to beat their wives, so long as the stick used was no thicker than a thumb. For some inexplicable reason Punch was exempt from this ruling!

And finally there is all the business of the legal aspect of Profs painting the Royal crest on the proscenium: "By appointment to His Royal Highness"... etc. (I suppose John Styles really can do that!).

Sincerely, Keith Potter.

See also ‘Lore and Disorder’ in this issue. Ed

Crocodile Corner

I am a zoologist currently writing a book on crocodiles. I am writing a chapter about crocodiles in art at the moment. I was wondering if you could give me any info on the crocodile in Punch and Judy. How did it come to be in the show. I recall reading that it was originally a dragon. Is this correct?

Many Thanks. ~ Richard Freeman.

Diane Rains has an article posted on the web concerning this and we have covered the topic in a previous issue of this Journal. If my indexing were better I’d even be able to locate it! Ed.


My brief Crocodile article can be found on The Puppetry Home Page. It's certainly not comprehensive and doesn't mention all of the many theories that have been put forth. (BTW, the email address given for me in that article no longer exists.) For example, some say that the Croc sprang directly from the pages of Barrie's "Peter Pan." In an article appearing in Vol 4 No2 (Summer 1999) of Around the World With Mr. Punch, Michael Byrom discussed the origins of the crocodile. He finds some evidence that a Dragon was in use in historic Punch shows either before or concurrently with the Crocodile. In his opinion, the Crocodile first emerged in the Polichinelle shows of mid-nineteenth century France. Online Ed.

Punch as Ambassador

I thought you and your colleagues might be interested in the following.

In 1989 I spent 3 months in Indonesia leading an expedition on behalf of Dr. David Bellamy to collect medicinal plants from the jungles of Sumatra. At the conclusion of the expedition I spent a few days in Jakarta, where I visited a museum of Indonesian shadow puppets.

One of the exhibits there was a complete Punch & Judy set including a booth and all the puppets, with a note that this had been presented to the Museum by the then British Ambassador who was, himself, a Punch & Judy Professor! Unfortunately I do not know when this presentation was made, nor the name of the Ambassador. But I found it most interesting that this should sit side by side with traditional Indonesian puppets.

As a parallel to this, a couple of years later I was invited to a demonstration in London of the traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra, one of whose players was the then Indonesian Ambassador to the Court of St. James!

James A. Gilman

All Profs are used to being ambassadors for Punch and Judy – but here is Mr. Punch actually in the hands of an Ambassador Prof. We hope our world wide intelligence gathering Punchiana experts can shed some light on this fascinating revelation. Ed.

Classic Films

I recently saw the original version of the film "Gone to Earth" which was filmed in Shropshire during the late 1940's. One scene has a country fair and a P&J show. Any idea who the professor might have been? The Punch had a red ponytail.

Regards, Trev Hill.

This was a classic British movie. It’s a David O. Selznick production, produced and directed by Powell and Pressburger. It’s been described as “one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside, and in all its moods”. Trev Hill has supplied links to two websites (Gone to Earth, About Gone to Earth) which give a glimpse into the filming – but no information about that ponytailed Punch. Your Editor was also interested to note it was filmed in and around Ludlow – which is about fifteen miles down the road from Far Forest and the Editorial Office.


I thought you might like to know: We recently uploaded a dvd-quality mpeg of Santa Claus' Punch & Judy (1948) to the Internet archive.

You probably have this film already, but if not, you surely need it!

Cheers! Germaine Fodor

Well, I’ve got it and I expect many of you have too. If not you’ve been missing a treat. It’s a strange show very strong on speedy manipulation and short on logical plot. It’s also obviously been edited down from a longer version which adds to the confusion. It’s not a Punch show as most of us know it – but it’s certainly a virtuoso piece of vaudeville-style solo puppeteering. Is it swazzled? Or is that a good ‘clothes peg on nose’ fake? It certainly whips up a storm of audience reaction. Who’s the puppeteer?[Punch icon]

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