Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Tragical Comedy of Punch and Judy

I've written in the past about Mr. Punch, the puppet descendant of the commedia dell'arte character Punchinello. He first showed up in England in the 17th century, and a plaque outside of St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden marks the spot of the first recorded performance of a Punch puppet play, which was mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1662.

At first, Punch appears to have been a marionette, but later versions tend to be hand puppets. We have records of puppet shows featuring Punch and his wife Judy throughout the eighteenth century. Colley Cibber's daughter, Charlotte Charke, was given a license in 1738 to run a puppet theatre at St. James's that was known as Punch's Theatre. Unfortunately, no scripts for Punch and Judy plays exist from this period.

That changed in 1827, when John Payne Collier published a script entitled The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy, of Punch and Judy. The dialogue was allegedly related to Collier by the puppeteer Giovanni Piccini, but given that Collier was later outed as a forger of documents relating to William Shakespeare, everything he claimed has to be taken with a heavy portion of salt. He secured the noted artist George Cruikshank to illustrate the book, though, so the script at least has the advantage of being beautiful.

Collier's script begins with Punch getting into a fight with his neighbor, Scaramouch, another figure from the commedia tradition. Scaramouch's dog Toby bites Punch's nose, and after a fight between the two neighbors, Punch knocks Scaramouch's head clean off his shoulders. Judy then makes her first appearance, handing the couple's child over to Punch. After failing to appease the crying baby with a lullaby, Punch beats his child, then throws the baby out the "window" of the puppet stage's proscenium and into the audience.

As you might imagine, Judy is unimpressed. She beats Punch with a stick, but then he snatches the stick from her and beats her in turn. After at first appearing like he will relent, Punch beats Judy to death and knocks her body off the side of the stage, claiming, "To lose a wife is to get a fortune." He soon finds another woman, though: Pretty Polly. She's actually a character borrowed from John Gay's play The Beggar's Opera, and in Collier's script Punch sings an air from that play: "When the heart of a man is oppress'd with cares."

The second act opens with a special puppet with an extendable neck. Alluding to hanging, Punch tells him, "You may get it stretched for you, one of these days, by somebody else." The comment foreshadows an event later in the play, when after killing a doctor and a servant and beating a poor blind man, Punch is at last arrested for multiple murders. The hangman Jack Ketch tries to execute him, but Punch tricks Ketch into putting his own head in the noose, and Punch hangs him. Punch's final challenge comes when the devil himself comes for him, but Punch succeeds in even beating the devil.

A later Punch and Judy script appeared in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in 1851. The script Mayhew recorded also includes a clown named Joey (after Joseph Grimaldi) and a character named Jim Crow (who originated in minstrel shows). Another innovation in the script is bringing Judy back from the grave as a ghost. After being terrified by the ghost, Punch keels over, and a doctor comes on and asks Punch if he's dead. Punch responds that, yes, he is dead, and becomes quite upset when the doctor doesn't believe him.

Punch and Judy shows have continued to evolve over the years, though now in the 21st century, they might just be too violent for most people's taste. Even Mr. Punch himself might tell you that he's now dead. You probably shouldn't believe him, though.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Romanticism and Theatrical Experience

I recently read Jonathan Mulrooney's book Romanticism and Theatrical Experience. It provides an excellent analysis of the actor Edmund Kean, the critic William Hazlitt, and the poet and playwright John Keats. It also delves into how each of these three figures in turn influenced one another.

The first part of the book is divided into two sections, one on theater and the daily news, and another on Britain's theatrical press during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. As Mulrooney observes, the eighteenth century had always had people writing about the theater in periodicals, but it wasn't until the end of that century that audiences were able to read day after day the events that had just taken place in the playhouses at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

According to Mulrooney, the role of the reviewer shifted from being an advertiser to being an independent reporter. Reviews became longer and more substantial. A watershed moment came with the Old Price Riots, when audiences at Covent Garden disrupted performance night after night to protest an increase in ticket prices. After that, reviewers took to both giving their aesthetic judgments on plays and reporting how they saw audiences respond during the evening. Even people who were not there that night could then participate in the performances vicariously.

Mulrooney next details the different theatrical periodicals available in London from 1800 to 1830. The Theatrical Gazette, for instance, though it didn't last long, was able to give accounts of both Drury Lane and Covent Garden throughout the 1815-1816 season, focusing on alternating houses each night. Of more lasting importance was the Examiner, founded by Leigh and John Hunt. Mulrooney finds the Examiner to be "the most innovative periodical to publish theatrical criticism in the Romantic-period" because it represented theater "as a public experience equal to politics and commerce."

Perhaps no figure in Romanticism was as much a creature of the theatrical press as Edmund Kean, who created a sensation after he appeared at Drury Lane as Shylock in 1814. Mulrooney sees Kean as troubling class differences, since he came from and appealed to the working class. According to Mulrooney, he "embodied a kind of theatrical bad taste, a mobile, sexually ambiguous, working-class and even Cockney subject." Unlike the great John Philip Kemble, Kean avoided stately orations and statuesque gestures. Instead, his acting seemed natural, almost improvised. This made his performances best viewed from the pit, not the expensive boxes.

The same year Kean took to the stage at Drury Lane, Hazlitt began working as critic for both The Examiner and The Morning Chronicle. Mulrooney sees Hazlitt's writing as playing a role in the shift not just from the acting style of Kemble to that of Kean, but in "a fundamental change in the understanding of what a 'mental state' is, what a self is, and how that self is to be represented on stage." Hazlitt focused on cultural receptions to performances. Kean's class-defying performances in turn allowed him to write not just about theatre in the hallowed halls of the patent theaters, but also about jugglers, boxers, and other entertainers not generally covered in the press.

Kean influenced Keats, as well, as can be seen in his famous "negative capability" letter written in December of 1817. As Mulrooney notes, "the letter begins with Kean" and "represents a vital connection between Keats's theatrical experience and his poetry." Keats also wrote three substantial theater reviews in the Champion, covering for his friend John Hamilton Reynolds when he was out of town. Though some critics see Keats as a bit of a social climber, his championing of Kean firmly allies him with the working class.

Unfortunately, the list price for the book is almost $100, but that's what libraries are for, after all. If you get a chance, it's a compelling read for anyone interested in Romantic drama.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Scotland, PA

Previews are always an exciting time for a show. Last night, when I saw Scotland, PA in previews at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, director Lonny Price came out to let us know we would be the first audience ever to hear new song lyrics that had just been given to an actor that day!

The number was a patter song, he explained, with lots of words sung very quickly, so the actress would be holding a pad of paper. He said we would know the moment when it came, which was true, but fortunately, the character was a detective taking notes anyway, so had he not announced it in advance, we might not have noticed a thing.

If you haven't heard about Scotland, PA yet, it's a new musical with songs by Adam Gwon and a book by Michael Mitnick based on the 2001 film by Billy Morrissette. Inspired by William Shakespeare's Macbeth, the movie and the musical tell a familiar story of ambition, murder, and madness, but re-set in a 1970s-era fast-food restaurant in the middle of rural Pennsylvania.

The three witches are replaced by three hippies, played in the musical by Alysha Umphress, Wonu Ogunfowora, and Kaleb Wells. Ryan McCartan and Taylor Iman Jones play the murderous couple, whose fierce sexuality only grows as they plot to kill their way to the top. In the film, Christopher Walken played the homicide inspector Lieutenant McDuff, but in a brilliant gender switch, the character in the musical becomes Peg McDuff, played by the exceptional Megan Lawrence.

It was Lawrence who did that wonderful patter song, and Gwon's lyrics can be hysterical. Josh Rhodes's choreography is inventive and memorable, and the set designed by Anna Louizos provides just the right tone. At intermission, even the lobby is transformed into a fast-food restaurant adorned with a certain golden M.

This show deserves to be a hit, so I recommend getting your tickets now.