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The Brutalities of Mr. Punch

A puppet booth with two puppets in the window.

A traditional Punch and Judy booth, at Swanage, Dorset, England by ALoan via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Imagine coming home and hearing the screams of your neighbors. You hear the cries of a baby as you peek through your curtains. Suddenly your neighbor appears holding out a large stick and begins beating his wife and baby mercilessly, laughing and cackling cruelly with each blow. A short while later, you see a policeman knock at the door. The man answers, and you hold your breath. There is a loud whack, and the policeman falls to the ground dead. You are so shocked you don’t notice the second policeman, who takes a shot at the man. There is another whack, and he is dead, too. A moment later, you hear a burning inferno as the devil himself arrives, ready to take the man to hell for his crimes. You know the man is in for it, but then—whack!—the devil, too, is thwarted. The man stands over him, squeaking hysterically with a high-pitched giggle. This is a familiar scene from the life of Mr. Punch, a small sixteenth century Italian puppet whose wickedness and violence has been a source of controversy—as well as hilarity—for millions. Over the centuries, the Mr Punch puppet has been accused of creating scenes of domestic violence, promoting racist undertones, and having the potential to upset vulnerable children. Despite this blatant controversy, the king of misrule has managed to survive and evade becoming obsolete. What is it about Punch’s character that has allowed him to keep his crown?

Pietro Gimonde, an Italian puppeteer, introduced Punch, also known as Policinella, to British audiences during the sixteenth century. The small puppet is witty, charming, and often violent. He is often depicted with clown-like features, a large hooked red nose, an unsettling smile, and the colorful attire of a court jester. He can be seen whipping his battered wife, Judy, with a slapstick and dropping his baby in a meat grinder, and Punch gets away with it every time. He became a popular symbol of anarchy and mischief among the working classes. Punch was seen as a rebel who broke the mold of social hierarchy and stood up for individual freedom. His persona and his comical appearance could draw a large crowd and encourage audience participation. To this day, Punch is recognized as a cultural icon and the king of puppets.

But Punch’s reputation is also controversial. Over the years, concerned parents, schools, and commentators have argued that the violent content of a Punch and Judy show isn’t appropriate for children and that it needs to be adapted for a modern audience or removed completely. Even Good Morning Britain has taken up the question of Is Punch and Judy Outdated?” While some Punch and Judy puppeteers have adapted their shows to be less violent, performers like Brian Llewellyn refuse to change their Punch and Judy shows. They say that they value the traditions and essence of Punch's character, but what exactly is the essence of Punch?

Is Puppet Violence Real?

My first experience of Punch was in Punch and Judy, a 1966 stop-motion short film by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. In the film, Punch is quarreling with another puppet over the custody of a live guinea pig. The puppets fight to the death, ripping each other apart until they both collapse inside a coffin. Their fight is brutal, reminding the viewer of how ruthless humans can be when money and sacred objects (guinea pigs) are involved.

Puppets can reach beyond mere children’s entertainment to teach us something about our own moral codes and virtues.

Punch is a symbolically violent character, and this violence speaks to the anarchic and brutal side of human nature. Julian Crouch from Improbable Theatre describes violence on stage as the theatrical metaphor for conflict. It's not real violence; it’s symbolic of the emotional tension people feel when confronting opposition. The puppets are acting out a universal pattern of human behavior, one that feels timeless and familiar to us. One could frame the conflict as an economic struggle as the two characters fight over who should own and profit from the guinea pig. Or perhaps the conflict is cultural, and the guinea pig could represent a victim who the two characters are trying to “save.” In either case, the symbolic imagery of the guinea pig subverts what might seem like violence.

In the film, the violence is whimsical and childlike. For example, Mr. Punch's hammer makes a gentle and almost pleasant “glock” sound as it comes down over his opponent's head. Towards the end of the film, the puppets rip each other apart, breaking noses and chipping paint—but there is no blood. The viewer knows the puppets aren’t real and are only made of papier mâché. Svankmajer deliberately shows the puppeteer’s hands, further exposing the illusion and conveying that the puppets and the violence are manifestations of our own imagination.

Jan Svankmajer has used the archetypal character of Punch to explore universal moral and political issues that have relevance in today’s political and social climate. He emphasizes symbolic violence as a tool to express confrontation, showing us that puppets can reach beyond mere children’s entertainment to teach us something about our own moral codes and virtues.

A single puppet with an accordion, staring straight ahead.

Pája Neuhöferová as the Trickster in The Wild Card by Quirk Collective at the Bats Theatre 2021. Photo by Ali Little.

Jordan Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture was another kind of Punch puppet that offers a critique on violence. Colored Sculpture was a giant, animatronic, Pinocchio-like puppet that was suspended from the ceiling of Tate Modern by chains in a 2016 exhibition. Its operator controlled the arms and legs of the puppet, dropping and dragging it horrifically around the room. Its face and body were covered in scrapes as evidence of its brutal treatment. Its face had a vengeful expression, and it was programmed to continuously look at the audience, making its presence unsettling and uncanny. Wolfson is known for using puppets to expose humanity’s basest impulses, and this piece made its audience uncomfortable. Even though viewers knew that the Colored Sculpture was an unfeeling object, many had a visceral and bodily reaction to the puppet’s torture.

What does this work say about how one might consider violence in the twenty-first century? Does this puppet trigger feelings of empathy, disgust, or malevolence? How do people relate to it? Some YouTube comments describe the work as terrifyingly beautiful and liken their own emotional trauma to that of the puppet’s. Wolfson uses the essence of Punch’s character and the puppet’s body to question and explore the symbolic nature of violence in a direct and confrontational way. When looking at Wolfson’s puppet and Svankmajer’s film as examples of puppet violence, I wonder where the line might be drawn between offensive art and art that symbolizes emotional conflict. In both cases, it seems that context is important in determining what constitutes real violence.

The Power of the Trickster

Punch has weak moral virtues; he is aggressive, rude, and uncontrollable, and yet one can revel in his foolish mistakes. Perhaps this is because he is a trickster. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung wrote that the trickster archetype has therapeutic value. The trickster brings low intellectual and moral virtue into our awareness so that we may integrate and transcend those parts of ourselves. When Punch hits his wife with a slapstick or neglects his baby, we are reminded of the fallibility of our own human impulses. Punch reminds us that we might become just as violent and out of control in an unguarded moment and that it is not wise to judge our neighbor before interrogating our own impulse for purity.

Though he has never been considered the hero, Punch and his trickster persona are necessary in political discourse. When political leadership is failing, the trickster is seen as the change agent. According to Lewis Hyde, he is the sacred boundary crosser that walks between life and death, truth and illusion, reality and dream. He does not align himself to any particular social group or cause, but he is not a complete outsider. In many cultures, the tricker is seen as an incredibly useful archetype for breaking boundaries that have become oppressive or dysfunctional. He does this by mocking and poking fun at political correctness, self-righteousness, and authority. Though there are many strategies for challenging the status quo, the trickster's way is popular amongst artists and comedians, and perhaps this is why Punch may stick around for many centuries to come.

Though he has never been considered the hero, Punch and his trickster persona are necessary in political discourse.

Punch’s Legacies

Mr. Punch is no longer just depicted as a rosy-cheeked hand puppet. His ethos has spread and is used by artists and activists alike to undermine and subvert the status quo. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), an activist group, embraced the trickster archetype by using clowning techniques to disarm corporate power and militarism. In one of their skits, CIRCA took to the streets of Glasgow to protest army recruitment. Acting as military personnel, they performed in such a bizarre and ridiculous fashion that police and the recruitment office didn’t know what to do, and so closed their doors in response. CIRCA described themselves as “clowns because what else can one be in such a stupid world. Because inside everyone is a lawless clown trying to escape. Because nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule… We are CIRCA because we are approximate and ambivalent, neither here nor there, but in the most powerful of all places, the place in-between order and chaos.”

CIRCA performers used clowning and buffoonery to confuse, undermine, and question the authority of an army recruitment office. They channeled a Punch-like persona by acting with mischief, charm, and a rebellious spirit. They created tension between themselves and the police guarding the entrance by dancing, singing, and mocking army rituals, daring the police to laugh at their silly noises and gestures.

Perhaps this is Punch’s message: there is grace in obscenity. Punch might be considered an outdated and offensive persona that has no place in the modern world; after all, Punch does everything you're not supposed to do. He kills his wife, he kills his baby, he kills the policeman, and even goes to hell to kill the devil. But these actions are not condoning violence. They are an analogy for rebelling against social norms. There are, of course, certain situations and contexts where rebelling against social norms may not be appropriate, but in my opinion Punch, like all tricksters, has his place on the fringes of society to critique the status quo. Punch may take the guise of a clown, but he is more than a clown: he is the provocateur that can stir one into awareness of who they are under the mask, to make one confront things that are disturbing and unsightly—but also divine—within.

Thoughts from the curator

Puppetry is an ongoing negotiation between human and nonhuman. Puppets play out the way things are, but also the way things can be; and in that regard, they allow us to see our positionality and imagine worlds beyond ourselves. This series showcases myriad shapes and styles and the ways in which these puppets, whether representational or abstract, can form solidarities among humans.

Creating Puppet Solidarities

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Beautiful article... The penetration of Punch and Judy can be seen in many visual art forms ... current day animation from Tom and Jerry to Family Guy makes effective use of violence and character prerogatives as outlined. It may be that some parents are repulsed by Punch and Judy as puppets but both are everywhere around us ... more recently seen in US politics or day time tv...and so it is a proven fact they strike a chord and both cut very deep as archetypes. On top of that Punch and Judy the puppets direct their violence towards a conclusion and it could be argued violence is not there for the sake of it or just confined to it but serving a'different if not 'higher purpose' and fulfilling a true social function... something mostly amiss in US cinema and games today if not the theatre.