Punch and Judy

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Probably the most violent form of live entertainment enjoyed by children today, Punch and Judy puppet shows are a 300-year-old English tradition with roots in Italian commedia. Mr. Punch is a hunchbacked and henpecked husband who, in the course of each show, tricks and kills all of the other characters, including his wife Judy, their baby, Jack Ketch the hangman and various other authority figures, the (now omitted) black servant Jim Crow, a dragon or crocodile, a ghost, and the Devil. Besides his hump, his big hooked nose (in commedia this is a sign of sexual gusto), and his striped club, Punch has a distinctively garbled voice made by talking through a "swazzle." After each of his crimes, he cries "That's the way to do it!"; when the Devil has been done away with, Punch exults to the audience: "The Devil is dead! Now everyone can do as he likes!"

The show is done by a single puppeteer concealed in a "fit-up" (self-contained stage), with an assistant who introduces the show, banters with Punch, and engages the audience to play along at certain points (e.g., to warn him—always too late—when Punch is about to do something bad). Some Punch shows also feature a trained dog. The workings of a fictional Punch show can be seen in the eponymous comic book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.

The Punch and Judy routines in Riddley Walker are partly based on Russell Hoban's observation of the famous "Professor" (Punch showman) Percy Press and his son Percy Press II. The senior Press died in 1980, the year RW was first published; in the afterword to the Expanded Edition and in the essay "1975," Hoban quotes him as saying, "Punch is so old he can't die. He's a law unto himself."

Within the framework of RW, Punch also serves as a foil to several recurrent characters and themes. Where Eustace eternally tries and fails to save his family, Punch eternally destroys his. Punch, Judy ("Pooty") and the baby, like the trio in "Hart of the Wood," are a doomed "nuclear family" with a child who will never grow up. And, per Hoban (in his public discussion of the book in 1990), Punch is further identified with the number 3 due to the three fingers that operate the puppet. EB

See also