The Development of Punch and Judy
Prof. em. Dr. Heinz Rölleke / German Studies
Photo: Andreas Fischer

Foundation of the Hohnstein Puppet Theatre

The Germanist and fairy tale researcher Prof. em. Dr. Heinz Rölleke on the origins and development of the Punch and Judy show

In 1921, Max Jacob founded the Hohnstein Puppet Theatre in the Ore Mountains. The hand puppets used are style-defining for the Punch and Judy show of the 20th century. Where does Punch and Judy actually come from?

Rölleke: Max Jacob (1888-1967) was an active member of the culturally very influential "Wandervogel" group that emerged around the turn of the last century in the course of the youth movement and whose ideals shaped him. After seeing a puppet show that deeply impressed him, he bought some hand puppets. With them he performed for the first time in front of an audience on his birthday, 10 August 1921. He gathered a group of artists around him (including puppeteers, wood sculptors and costume designers) who soon became known as the "Kasper Family". They developed the Hardenstein puppet shows which, after moving to Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland, quickly became known as the "Hohnstein Puppet Shows" throughout Germany and soon internationally as well. After 1945 Jacob lived in Hamburg, while part of the group of artists remained in Hohnstein. The Punch and Judy family created hand puppets, mainly made of wood, which were soon imitated everywhere. Above all, the main character of all the games, Punch, became a well-known figure with his stereotypical laughing face, overlong hooked nose and red pointed cap.There are multiple origins of the Punch and Judy show, in the form in which it became established at the end of the 18th century. The name Kaspar was probably adopted by Casparus, the Moor among the Magi, as a designation of the typical jester. It can be traced back to the 15th century in preliminary forms of the newer genre of theatrical performances. Unesco recently awarded this with the status of intangible cultural heritage. As early as the end of the 17th century, Abraham a S. Clara could assume that his readers understood when he spoke of "Kasper, who so often kasperlt his opponents". Just as mentions of the funny figures and Punch and Judy Show have accumulated in literature since that time. Around 1800, many poets speak of the now very well-known Punch and Judy show (in 1853, the fairy-tale teller Bechstein already uses the term as a universally understood metaphor: "like Punch and Judy in a puppet show"). The world of puppet theatre becomes the central theme in Theodor Storm's famous novella "Pole Poppenspäler" (1874) together with its main actors in front of and behind the stage.The genre of the Punch and Judy show had come off the coarse mannerisms of its beginnings with the obligatory orgies of beatings. (Most recently, Jacob replaced the wooden shillelaghs and frying pans with the typical Punch and Judy cot, whose light blows, which were more comical than brutal, incidentally inspired the English term "slapstick"). The fact that the figures are, always wood-carved (callous, so to speak) naturally also decisively softens the impression of apparent brutalities. In Swabian, the main character is explicitly known as the "Hölzerne Bengele".
A turning point was the replacement of the famous Viennese Hanswurst figure by Kasper. The world-travelling Seume wrote in 1802 about the funny figure: "I must confess that as a Tyrolean Wastel she gave me immense pleasure. The Viennese are not to be blamed at all for sometimes pulling out to see him and Kasperle and leave the National Theatre empty." It was precisely in this year that Germany's first permanent puppet theatre was established in Cologne.In the meantime, the genre had been influenced by many different things. Among them, the Italian comedia dell'arte, whose main character Arlecchino, who always appears in a dress with colourful patches, has been on record since 1584. He is the type of the always cheerful and greedy jester, a voice of the people, so to speak.In the first half of the 19th century, the genre was influenced by the "Punch and Judy" Franz von Pocci, who was highly esteemed by the Brothers Grimm, with the "Larifari" stories he wrote and illustrated around 1840. In the second half he was famour for Collodi's ingeniously invented "Pinocchio" character, carved from a log of wood, and his adventures (Collodi, along with Dante, is still the most translated Italian author today).Kasper always plays the leading role. He is expected to always follow his often endangered path to a happy ending, that he speaks with the voice of the people (and from their hearts), that he always decides small quarrels with his wife, grandmother or friends as well as arguments with the policeman in his favour through wit, but also through lies, deceptions and impertinence. But above all, that one can always discover such traits in him that make him thoroughly likeable and thus cause the audience to identify with him. Especially the child spectators prove this by their often loud intervention in the course of the action: "Kasper, watch out! The crocodile (the witch, the devil) is coming up behind you!"

What other figures are included as well?

Rölleke: Just like the main character, the other actors, who are almost always the same, are unchanged, fixed types (quite comparable to the staff of some TV crime series): Grete, the grandmother, Sepp(el). The policeman, the devil, the witch, the crocodile. Their roles always remain the same. They all are only related to Punch and, unlike him, remain marginal figures like the functionaries in fairy tales who claim no interest of their own.

From where do the stories originate?

Rölleke: With its hand puppets, the Punch and Judy show draws on a wide variety of sources from ancient and modern times. From the Commedia dell'arte to older popular literature such as anonymous folk books and Punch and Judy stories by various authors. The resulting motley repertoire tends to develop its material from everyday scenes or from educational material such as the performances of the traffic clown by the police. It is very different from the repertoires of the established puppet theatres with their characters guided by strings, which traditionally feed on material from mythology, the Bible, classical dramas and great operas. This can be seen right up to the successful productions of the Steinau "Holzköppe" and the "Augsburger Puppenkiste", which developed newer characters, such as Jim Knopf, and forms (also of media distribution).

How did Punch and Judy develop into a purely children's theatre?

Rölleke: Just like folk tales, Punch and Judy shows used to exclusively be intended for adults as readings and staged productions. It was only when these art forms were rejected as unserious that they took refuge in the children's parlour more and more. For the first time, the children's parlour gained serious interest in that epoch as well. In the course of this, fairy tales and puppet shows were considered suitable for children. More and more children, even at an age when they were not yet able to read, became the recipients, without adults completely losing their interest in fairy tales and puppet shows. Today, this is still evident in the diverse access of an ever-growing number of interested adults of all ages to the world and the mystery of fairy tales, as well as in the enthusiastic popularity of Punch and Judy shows in nursing homes and old people's homes.In the course of these developments, the relationship between fairy tales and Punch and Judy shows is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, one can largely recognise the figure of the Brave Little Tailor, famous and universally known since the 16th century in "Kasperle" (as he has been called with a diminutive ending since his immigration into the nursery).He alone is taken as important, and particulalry offers children an easy means of identification. One feels his manifold dangers in one's own flesh. And one is all the more pleased how cunningly and how amusingly the little outsider copes with them. The fact that he sometimes cuts up, lies and cheats, and is also not squeamish in his dealings with his opponents, is something we readily, if usually unconsciously, concede to him, like the modern figure of the trickster. In the certain expectation of the hero's happy ending, one can ultimately accept all his dangers and sufferings with a lighter heart.

Even today, the Punch and Judy show is being continued by various puppeteer families in Germany. Can the "Tri-tra-trullala stories" still exist in the digital age?

Rölleke: In his autobiographical writing "Dichtung und Wahrheit" (Poetry and Truth), Goethe recalls Christmas in 1753 in a famous passage. His grandmother, Cornelia, had given the four-year-old boy a puppet theatre, the preserved remains of which are still on display in Goethe's Frankfurt birthplace. With it, she "created a new world in the old house. This unexpected spectacle drew me in with force. It made a very strong impression particulalry on me in particular, which resonated with a great long-lasting effect. The little stage with its mute staff, which was given to us for our own practice and dramatic animation, must have been so much more precious to us children than it was the last legacy of our good grandmother." It cannot be ruled out that Goethe, even as a child, tried to re-enact the then universally popular puppet show of "Doctor Faustus". The consequences for world literature are well known. There is a growing realisation that fairy tales are important and actually indispensable for child development in many respects (Bruno Bettelheim: Kinder brauchen Märchen; Children need fairy tales).The same is true for the Punch and Judy show, even or especially in the digital age. Both genres mean first encounters with literature. They enable children to empathise with foreign characters, to suffer with them, to rejoice with them. They help to develop their imagination and creativity, because they have to imagine the type-like characters of fairy tales and puppet shows themselves in their imagination, fill them with individual inner life, so to speak, into which the texts themselves never give a glimpse. They convey a sometimes brutal-seeming but always honest picture of the world in which it is easier to find one's way with the fundamental optimism imparted by early childhood reading. Through appropriate situations and scenes, the child can suspect and internalise that no situations are ever completely hopeless. One can often help oneself in surprising ways or one can ask for help from others and accept it (from whomever). The fairy tale and, on a smaller scale, the Punch and Judy show are of inestimable importance and completely irreplaceable.

Uwe Blass (Interview on May 03, 2021)

Prof. em. Dr. Heinz Rölleke held the Chair of German Philology and Folklore in today's Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies from 1974 to 2001.Among his 70 published books are many standard works of fairy tale, legend and folk song research. For years he has been one of the most internationally respected Grimm researchers. More than 100 lectures at universities in Germany and abroad have made him world-famous as a literary scholar. He is a recipient of the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class and numerous awards.

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