Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My current obsession

The title of the post I wrote about body knowledge was going to be "Stretching." I didn't mean to write about physical stretching, but about going beyond the borders of what I usually do. That brings me to my current obsession.

For the last three months, I've been thinking about Punch and Judy. I received a call for proposals for roving performances and began ruminating on doing a traditional Punch and Judy show. I missed the deadline for the proposal, but the idea had taken root. Before I went to Belgium, I began my research and now I'm in it, up to my neck.

One of the pieces of information I turned up on one of the many websites about the show was that real Punch Professors, as those who perform Punch and Judy are called, use a device called a swazzle to make the strange high-pitched voice of Mr. Punch. This is a kind of reed instrument made of two pieces of metal and twill tape. It's like making noises with a blade of grass. I found directions for making a swazzle, but I needed to see one to understand it. I ordered one (new) on e-bay right before I went to Belgium so it was waiting for me when I got home. I followed the instructions, soaking it in water, attaching a thread to it with a safety pin to put on my shirt (they're small and easy to swallow), placing it in the back of my mouth on my palate. I couldn't get a sound out of it. I tried it in the very front of my mouth and got a squeak, but I knew that wasn't right.

Finally, I decided that the store-bought swazzle was too big for my mouth, so I made my own with metal from a cookie-cutter and twill tape. Within seconds of putting it in my mouth, it worked! Thrilling! I can't practice when the cat is inside, because it makes him suspect that a weird animal has gotten into the house, but I do it when he's outside and I occasionally practice in the car. Some sounds are hard to make, others easy.

Now I'm working on making the puppets. It's time consuming. I've begun with seven papier mache heads, though I haven't yet put the features on. Then I'll have to add the bodies. Normally, I prefer to have puppets with moving mouths, but as a one-person puppet troupe, these puppets can't have that--they must be able to wield a stick. There is no Punch and Judy show without the slapstick (that's where the term originated). When I'm done making the puppets, I'll have to make the stage. I do have a puppet stage, for the few stage shows I do each year, but Punch and Judy really demands its own stage and set. I'll also need to work up my own script. One website (dang, can't remember which one) recommended doing the show first without words, to make sure the action was strong enough.

I have no idea if I'll ever perform this other than in my own backyard, but it is engrossing to work on. It may take me years to get it the way I want it. At the moment I'm enjoying immersing myself in the project.

The show is old, brought from Italy to England in the 17th century but going back much earlier. Sometimes it's called "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch." It's politically incorrect from start to finish, with the unrepentant Mr. Punch happily throwing the baby out the window (or whacking it to death with his stick), beating the daylights out of his wife Judy, the policeman, and in some versions a crocodile and/or a devil. He also tricks the hangman into demonstrating how the noose works. There are other characters who might appear: a dog named Toby, a clown, a horse. None is as important as Mr. Punch. "Root-i-toot-toot! That's the way to do it!" is his call.

I was telling this to a friend, who looked horrified and wondered why I wanted to perform such a meanspirited show. That started me worrying. Why did I? I went back to my research to remind myself. Because it's not as meanspirited as that sounds, and though violent, it's funny. It makes people laugh! In a lovely piece by Chris Somerville entitled Why do we laugh at Punch and Judy, I found this quote:
In Mr. Punch we recognise the total selfishness of the child thrusting aside all those who thwart his immediate desire, and secretly within us all is that child, now tamed by manners and society.

Aah, isn't that it?