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Punch 'n Dickens

by freshwaterpearls @ attbi.com

Which two well known personalities most clearly represent the spirit of 19th century England? In my view, we could choose no better ambassadors than Mr. Charles Dickens, and Mr. Punch. Both these personalities were immensely popular in the mid to late 1800's in Britain, and both continue to enjoy legendary status and appeal today. One might expect that two such statuesque personalities would, in their day, have had an antagonistic relationship; did each feel he must compete keenly with the other, for the public's admiration? We have no record of Mr. Punch's attitude toward Mr. Dickens. But this fact is luminously clear: Mr. Dickens adored Mr. Punch. Not only did Charles Dickens publicly defend the Punch and Judy show against those who felt it to be an immoral entertainment; he also alluded to the show and its characters in many of his literary works.

Punch - A Novel Adornment

Dickens' references to the Punch and Judy Show serve several functions in his writings. Often Punch is used simply as a descriptive ornament to help convey the atmosphere or mood of a location in the story. Dickens was a master of descriptive prose. His portraits of 19th century London -- often a sooty, dank, crowded and oppressive place -- are unequaled in their crisp and ironic imagery. The presence of a Punch show in such scenes seemed to represent the seedy, unprosperous life that was too often the lot of Punchmen and their lower class audiences.

I beheld a Punch's Show leaning against a wall near Park Lane, as if it had fainted. It was deserted, and there were none to heed its desolation. (from The Uncommercial Traveller)

Punch's shows used to lean against the dead wall in Mews Street, while their proprietors were dining elsewhere; and the dogs of the neighborhood made appointments to meet in the same locality. (from Little Dorrit)

London's genteel rich and snobbish upper middle class might try not to see the squalor that was evident not far from their elite neighborhoods, but it was there. Even these "dreadfully genteel" neighborhoods are themselves, in Dickens' books, bathed in a gray malaise.

The summer sun was never on the street, but in the morning about breakfast-time.. It was soon gone again to return no no more that day; and the bands of music and the straggling Punch's shows going after it, left it a prey to the most dismal of organs,

and white mice; with now and then a porcupine, to vary the entertainments; until the butlers whose families were dining out, began to stand at the house doors in the twilight, and the lamplighter made his nightly failure in attempting to brighten up the street with gas. (from Dombey and Son)

Punch has another role in the literature of Dickens. He is a model to which Dickens can compare his own characters. Sometimes Punch is mentioned in a passing reference intended only to infuse humor into a character's description.

"I received a note --" he said, very tremulously, in a voice like a Punch with a cold. (from Sketches by Boz)

In other passages, Dickens uses comparisons with Punch in order to expose the ridiculousness of British social pretensions. Such is the case in this description of a popular literary "lion" (writer), who is adored at a high-class dinner party as a creative genius, but must rely on his agent to provide witty dinner conversation.

First of all, they began to make puns upon a salt-cellar, and then upon the breast of a fowl, and then upon the trifle; but the best jokes of all were decidedly on the lobster salad, upon which subject the lion came out most vigorously, and, in the opinion of the most competent authorities, quite outshone himself. This is a very excellent mode of shining in society, and is founded, we humbly conceive, upon the classic model of the dialogues between Mr. Punch and his friend the proprietor, wherein the latter takes all the up-hill work, and is content to pioneer to the jokes and repartees of Mr. P. himself, who never fails to gain great credit and excite much laughter thereby. (from Sketches by Boz)

There are even instances where a passing mention of Punch seems to forebode future tragic circumstances. An example is Dickens' description of the marriage of Mr. Dombey to his second wife -- a happy event on the surface, but one which precedes tremendous upheaval and marital conflict later in the book.

Now, the carriages arrive at the Bride's residence, and the players on the bells begin to jingle, and the band strikes up, and Mr. Punch, that model of connubial bliss, salutes his wife. (from Dombey and Son)

Dickens' skill in creating memorable characters is unsurpassed in English literature. His forte was exaggeration, parody -- the outrageous, but insightful, overstatement of human traits. Who can forget the satiric wit with which characters like Ebenezer Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber and Uriah Heep are painted? It was natural for Dickens to choose Punch as a character reference. Mr. Punch, being by constitution a grotesquely exaggerated and overblown caricature, was much like Dickens' own characters -- a near cousin, perhaps. How could Dickens help but love him?


Dickens - Champion of the Underdog

Dickens loved Punch not only for his outrageous personality and humor. Dickens respected and identified with Mr. Punch as social commentator. It was Dickens' lifelong passion to expose and condemn all the oppressions and in justices that were heaped upon the poorer classes of 19th century London. In many ways, this was also the role of the Punch and Judy show. Through satire, this modest street entertainment was a political forum. Victorian London offered no resolution to those tormented in unhappy marriages; divorce was nearly impossible to obtain, and domestic abuse was rampant. No recourse was allowed for people shut up in debtor's prisons for the dubious offense of being poor. The medical practices of the day often bordered on barbaric. Punch, in his brazen, unrestrained way, acted out the consequences of these social ills; thus, he exposed and denounced them. Dickens cherished him for it.

There were, even in Dickens' day, some who opposed the presentation of Punch and Judy shows in the streets. The indignation of these critics rested on the premise that Punch displayed violent, immoral behavior. He did indeed. But as Dickens saw it (and many modern Punch performers continue to see it,) Punch's actions were not meant as an example to be emulated. Just the opposite. Punch was saying, "Here I am, your own reflection. I'm an exaggerated image of how you, out there, behave. How do you like it?" Besides. Punch was not real. Here is Charles Dickens' famous defense of the Punch and Judy Show:

In my opinion the Street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance, as from the more boisterous parts of a Christmas Pantomime, is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain of suffering.

The Old Curiosity Shop

The difference between Punch's immorality and human evil was, in Dickens' view, like night and day. As if to drive home this point, one of Dickens' early novels, The Old Curiosity Shop (published originally in weekly installments in Dickens' journal) seems to present a picture of what a truly evil Punch would be like if incarnated as a human being. Physically, Daniel Quilp looks quite a bit like Punch. Quilp is a bent-over, hook-nosed dwarf, with (as Dickens describes it) a "ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connexion with any mirthful or complacent feeling,... gave him the aspect of a panting dog." Quilp uses his frightening appearance and bizarre manner to intimidate his meek, submissive wife and her mother. At breakfast..

... he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.

In another passage, Quilp's resemblance to Punch is again illustrated. Here Quilp is engaged in a cudgel (a stout stick) fight with two boys:

... the dwarf flourished his cudgel, and dancing around the combatants and treading upon them and skipping over them, in a kind of frenzy, laid about him, now on one and now on the other, in a most desperate manner, always aiming at their heads and dealing such blows as none but the veriest little savage would have inflicted.

Though Mr. Quilp fits well in the mold of a grotesquely exaggerated Punch, his wife is nothing at all like Judy. Mrs. Quilp is a shy, pretty, frightened woman who has no defense against Quilp's tyranny. This, of course, makes Quilp's astonishing behavior all the more brutish:

"Mrs. Quilp!"
"Yes, Quilp."
"Am I nice to look at? Should I be the handsomest creature in the world if I had but whiskers? Am I quite a lady's man as it is -- am I, Mrs. Quilp?" Mrs. Quilp dutifully replied, "Yes, Quilp"; and fascinated by his gaze, remained looking timidly at him, while he treated her with a succession of such hostile grimaces, as none but himself and nightmares had the power of assuming. During the whole of that performance, which was somewhat of the longest, he preserved a dead silence, except when, by an unexpected skip or leap, he made his wife start backward with an irrepressible shriek. Then he chuckled.

Quilp's abuse of Mrs. Quilp is not physical; he never hits her, only bullies her. Yet there is something much more horrifying in his treatment of Mrs. Quilp, than in Punch's cudgel fights with Judy. This may be because Judy is most emphatically not a submissive character, when it comes to beatings with sticks, she gives as good as she gets. Even in versions of the Punch and Judy show where Judy is cudgeled to death by Punch, Judy still gets the upper hand . She returns to torment him in the form of a ghost, and, later, a crocodile; most analysts of the Punch show agree that the crocodile which swallows Punch during the show is a reincarnation of Judy, back to seek revenge.

There is even a crocodile reference in The Old Curiosity Shop, when Quilp, scolding his wife, says "..couldn't you have done what you had to do without appearing in your favourite part of the crocodile, you minx?" Here again is evidence that Quilp and his wife are a distorted Punch and Judy. Perhaps Dickens was trying to point out that Mr. Punch, in comparison with his alter ego Daniel Quilp, was not as guilty in his violence as his critics contended -- because Judy, unlike Mrs. Quilp, was at least as feisty and handy with a stick as her husband. Dickens, it seems, wanted us to understand the distinction between the relatively innocent Mr. Punch, and his counterpart in the novel. Mr. Punch is merely a childish, cheerfully irresponsible libertarian with a genius for making errors of judgment. Daniel Quilp is a monster.

As if to make the analogies between The Old Curiosity Shop and the Punch and Judy Show even more obvious, Dickens actually places Punch and Judy in the book. Short and Codlin, a somewhat comical duo of minor characters (yet with some importance in the plot), are a Punch puppeteer and his bottler. They accidentally meet two of the book's main characters, Little Nell and her grandfather, and together the four travel for a time through rural England. During these travels, we are treated to glimpses of the gypsy life of a Punch show:

... whereas (Mr. Codlin, the bottler) had been accosted by Mr. Punch as 'master,' and had by inference left the audience to understand that he maintained that individual for his own luxurious entertainment and delight, here he was, now , painfully walking beneath the burden of that same Punch's temple, and bearing it bodily upon his shoulders on a sultry day and along a dusty road. In place of enlivening his patron with a constant fire of wit or the cheerful rattle of his quarterstaff on the heads of his relations and acquaintances, here was that beaming Punch utterly devoid of spine, all slack and drooping in a dark box, with his legs doubled up round his neck, and not one of his social qualities remaining.

The Pleasures of Punch

Charles Dickens was a man who knew his own opinions. As we've seen, he held the Punch and Judy show in the highest regard. Through his outspoken defense of the show and his references to its hero and heroine in his literary works, Dickens has helped earn the Punch show a position of merit in British arts and history -- not that Punch needed any help! Dickens loved the Punch and Judy show for the honesty of its portrayal of English institutions, the colorful outrageousness of its characters, and for the sheer joy of its humor -- all of which are the same qualities that have earned Charles Dickens' works the timeless love of his readers. These qualities -- in Punch and Judy, and in Dickens -- are elegantly illustrated in this passage from The Uncommercial Traveller:

In a shy street behind Longacre, two honest dogs live, who perform in Punch's shows. I may venture to say that I am on terms of intimacy with them both, and that I never saw either guilty of the falsehood of failing to look down at the man inside the show, during the whole performance. The difficulty other dogs have in satisfying their minds about these dogs, appears to be never overcome by time. The same dogs must encounter them over and over again, as they trudge along in their off-minutes behind the legs of the show and beside the drum; but all dogs seem to suspect their (collar) frills and jackets, and to sniff at them as if they thought those articles of personal adornment, an eruption -- a something in the nature of mange, perhaps. From this Covent-garden window of mine I noticed a country dog, only the other day, who had come up to Covent-garden market under a cart, and had broken his cord, the end of which he still trailed along with him ... The ways of the town confused him, and he crept inside and lay down in a doorway. He had scarcely got a wink of sleep, when up comes Punch with Toby. He was darting to Toby for consolation and advice, when he saw the frill and stopped, in the middle of the street, appalled. The show was pitched, Toby retired behind the drapery, the audience formed, the drum and pipes struck up. My country dog remained immovable, intently staring at these strange appearances, until Toby opened the drama by appearing on his ledge, and to him entered Punch, who put a tobacco pipe into Toby's mouth. At this spectacle, the country dog threw up his head, gave one terrible howl, and fled due west.

Codlin & Short drawing

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Freshwater Pearls Puppetry
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