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L. The brutality of “Punch and Judy.”

Whenever the season of picnics and children's excursions draws near, I feel disposed to renew my protest against a performance which has only crossed the Atlantic within some twenty years, and which has in some inexplicable way crept into decent society. I mean “Punch and Judy.” It is an exhibition only fitted to be shown, as it seems to me, before the children of prize-fighters or cock-fighters. It is something that could only have originated, in its present form, among a race of very coarse fibre, which the English stock unquestionably is; and now that a more refined race is being developed from this parent stem, it is a shame to transplant its very coarsest amusements. No sane parent would paper a child's bedroom with representations of murders and executions from the Police Gazette; and yet the exhibition of “Punch and Judy” offers this and nothing more, and does it in the more pernicious form of action instead of picture. From beginning to end the performance has not one redeeming trait. All the fun lies in the fact that [255] Punch successively knocks on the head or otherwise slaughters his baby, his wife, the doctor, the policeman, the servant, and such others as the varying ingenuity of the operator may introduce; that he counts the corpses over, hustles then about, and stuffs them into coffins with every form of irreverence; that for these offences he is haunted by ghosts, executed by hangmen, and dragged down by demons. It is not strange that there should be city precincts so degraded that this sort of thing should just meet the public taste. In the old-time Seven Dials of London, or Five Points of New York, it might seem at home, and perhaps be regarded as a moral exhibition. The strange thing is that it should be selected by refined and high-minded parents for the delectation of innocent children amid the roses and perfumes of summer gardens.

How far it directly harms these children it is impossible to say. We all know that such young people-can see a great deal of evil pass before their eyes without being really reached by it. The story of the little boy who throttled his baby brother by trying to apply the noose like Punch's hangman may or may not be correct. It has never been proved that the children of butchers were more brutal than those of other people; but no thoughtful person would wish to bring up his family at the next door to an abattoir. And surely Punch should [256] be avoided on the same principle. It seems impossible that such a show should not insensibly vulgarize a child's pure mind. The last time I took a child to see it — its detestable features having grown dim in my mind — I found by comparison that all the parents present felt very much as I did, and only consoled themselves with the thought that the little things “did not understand.” But they did understand. A child under five narrated the whole thing with animation after reaching home — the only things she did not comprehend, from never having seen or heard of them before, being the ghost, the hangman, and the demon. Should she go again --which she will not if I can help it-she will soon be coarsely introduced to those also, and begin to dream about them, perhaps, in the slumbers that follow.

I do not wish to put all the blame of “Punch and Judy” on our English ancestors, for it is much older than they. The very figure of this hero was familiar on the Roman stage, and an ancient statuette has been found which represents him essentially as now. The play is not much coarser than some of the old mystery plays of the Middle Ages; and the very name is by some supposed to have come from Pontius cum Judaeis--Pontius Pilate with the Jews. The drama itself is Italian, and belongs to the seventeenth century, where it had a highly spiritual [257] conclusion and a moral bearing. The English version strikes off all these redeeming traits, and the American is worse than the English. For instance, the English performance has usually a little dog (Toby) added, the only live member of the dramatis personae, and the only decent one, his worst offence being to leap up and snap at everybody's nose. The noses being only those of puppets, this can hardly be counted as a moral offence; and the shouts of laughter it excites are at least innocent. But our ordinary performances of “Punch and Judy” exhibit nobody so alive and so harmless as a real puppy; it is one dreary series of quarrels and fights, and proceedings that would be very blood-thirsty except that there is no blood. It is a wonder that some more artistic Punch does not provide this too.

As our children go through the world they must necessarily make acquaintance with brutality and sin and wrong; but this should never be done in the way of joke, any more than we should wish them to laugh at the spectacle of a drunken man. Up to a certain point ignorance is the best shield; and beyond that point there should be serious disapproval, not uproarious laughter. The Spartans used to make their Helots intoxicated, not for the amusement of their children, but for their abhorrence; that the latter should become disgusted with excess, and so avoid it. It was a questionable process, but [258] a serious one. It may have coarsened the young observers, but it did not pervert them. Our tendency is rather to take evil too lightly when shown to the young; and this, whether it be licentiousness, as on the French stage, or brutality, as in “Punch and Judy,” involves a deeper danger — that such things may not only grow familiar as a spectacle, but as a joke.

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