Punch & Judy, Britain’s best-loved seaside performers, are 350 years old today, having been first recorded by Samuel Pepys at Covent Garden on May 9, 1662. The original puppets were based on commedia dell’arte characters who seem to have gone native, resulting in the trickster figure of Punch becoming a patriotic icon, as well as an unregenerate, but lovable, serial killer.
Modern versions of Punch and Judy are a pale imitation of their more robust Georgian and Victorian ancestors. The title of John Collier’s 1828 script – The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy, with illustrations by George Cruikshank – nicely captures the ambiguity. Punch successively murders his neighbour (Scaramouch), his baby, Judy, a doctor, servant, blind beggar, constable, officer, Jack Ketch (the hangman) and finally the Devil himself. The extreme violence is reminiscent of Kick-Ass, with the difference that Punch isn’t one of good guys.
Neil Gaiman has written a novel with the same name, based on Punch & Judy, which I haven’t read yet. And it’s no surprise the The Tiger Lillies were inspired to write a 2004 operetta. Here’s the title song.