Punch and Judy and M.R. James

March 2, 2011

A grim Punch and Judy scene

If you read my previous entry about M.R. James, you’ll know that his fascination with the ghost story began as a result of seeing a particularly disturbing Punch and Judy puppet set as a child.

Punch and Judy give me the creeps, too. More so even than clowns. The characters are nasty, even grotesque, and the narratives are frequently violent. Here is a brief description from Wikipedia: “In the British Punch and Judy show, he is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice… “ A typical show is usually described as “anarchic”. “The tale of Punch and Judy… typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.”

With that in mind, here is James’s quote, from his later short story, “A Disappearance and an Appearance”. I’ll return to these unnerving caricatures when I discuss the documentary film that I’m currently working on.

It [the dream] began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light…

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch… But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.”

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

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One Response to “Punch and Judy and M.R. James”

  1. Meaghan Ryersee said

    These little puppets are so creepy! They look like they belong in the film “Puppet Master”

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