A major part of today’s rehearsal involved cleaning up a scene from The Killing Game that Ionesco titles “Night.” What is compelling and challenging in the staging is that it begins with characters bobbing up and down like a puppet show in five windows yet ends with a brutal stabbing. A children’s show that turns macabre. Early in the rehearsal process, we took a look at dialogue from Punch & Judy shows to explore the form.
Punch’s ancestors stem from both English medieval Church mystery plays and Italian puppet shows. The Italian and English tradition married in the period of English theatre history when the puppet show was the only form of theatre allowed by the Puritans (1640-1660). When Charles II re-opened the theatres, “Punchinello” was the star until the 1700s when “Punch” was the clown in every puppet play. Punch & Judy shows were performed in America as early as 1722, but it has a stronger performance tradition in England. By the Victorian era, Punch & Judy shows were geared mainly towards children.
There were eleven basic characters, including a small dog named Toby. Punch was unique from the other puppets because he had legs to kick and kill other characters. A carefully guarded secret among puppeteers was the “swazzle”—a metal instrument held in the mouth between the tongue and upper palate to give Punch his squeaky puppet pitch.
The cast of The Killing Game were given dialogue from the 1854 text of The Wonderful Drama of Punch and Judy by Papernose Woodensconce, Esq. The following section seemed extremely relevant to today’s rehearsal:
Punch exults over his successful crimes in a heartless manner, by singing a fragment of a popular melody, and drumming with his heels upon the front of the stage. Mysterious music, announcing the appearance of the Gho-o-o-o-o-st!!! who rises and places its unearthly head upon the bodies of Punch’s victims in an awful and imposing manner. The bodies rise slowly.
PUNCH: Rum ti tum ti iddity um. Pop goes—
PUNCH: A-a-a-a-ah! He kicks frantically, and is supposed to turn deadly pale.
PUNCH: A-a-a-a-ah! He trembles like a leaf.
Punch faints. The Ghost and bodies disappear. Punch, by spasmodic convulsions, expresses that the terrors of a guilty conscience, added to the excesses of an irregular course of life, have brought on an intermittent fever.
PUNCH: (feebly) I’m very ill: fetch a Doctor.
DOCTOR: Somebody call for a Doctor. Why, I declare it’s my old friend Punch. What’s the matter with him. (Feeling the patient’s pulse.) Fourteen—fifteen–nineteen—six. The man is dead—almost, quite. Punch, are you dead?
PUNCH: (Sitting up and hitting him) YES! (he relapses into insensibility.)
(Excerpts and photo with permission from the Harvard Theatre Collection)