Samuel Pepys records seeing Pulcinella in London in 1666. Now known as Mr. Punch, he is an English version of Pulcinella, a character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, masked and elaborately costumed players who improvised a drama of stock characters in Naples and beyond in the 16th century. These performing troupes traveled throughout Italy and Europe and performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1572.
Pulcinella was never a major character in the Commedia dell’Arte – but somehow he appealed to puppeteers and the street crowds that they entertained.
In France he became Guignol; in Germany he was Kasper; in Spain he was Cocoliche – and in England, Mr. Punch.
Mr. Punch is still going strong with many of the same jokes and sight gags that entertained crowds in the streets of London 350 years ago.
He carries a club with which he beats anyone who offends him. He argues with his wife, Judy (in Pepys’ day she was called “Joan”). He throws the baby out the window when she cries. He gets in trouble with the law and tricks the devil into hanging himself.
Children love him because he’s irrepressible – “Look behind you, Look behind you,” they squeal when the crocodile rears up to devour him.
His squeaky voice comes from a whistle-like device called a “pivetta” or “swazzle” that the puppeteer holds in the roof of his mouth – another of the ancient practices still used in modern puppetry. An experienced artist can vary between a puppet squeak and a normal human voice in the course of a fast-paced dialogue (always at the risk of swallowing the swazzle).
There’s evidence that swazzles were used for puppets in Shakespeare’s day – although puppets weren’t called puppets back then. They were called “motions”.
So Mr. Punch tells us much about the history of puppetry; a sociopathic clown with the crabby wife (who would blame her for being crabby, being married to him?). He shows us how puppet theater steals and adapts; how it thrives in different cultures; how it sustains a theatrical tradition long after its main-stage source has died.
And Mr. Punch warns playwrights not to become too avant-garde, too esoteric, because puppet theater has always been, and remains, firmly rooted in the public squares and the streets – an art for ordinary people, and kids.
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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.