Diarist Samuel Pepys first recorded Mr Punch in 1662. Pepys saw the character as a marionette in London’s Covent Garden operated by Italian puppeteer Signor Bologna. Mr Punch (or Pulchinella) was displayed in a tent, as opposed to the kind of booth we see him in today with an audience watching while standing outside.
Pepys returned just 14 days later, this time bringing his wife. That October, a performance was put on for the King at Whitehall. Pepys also recorded seeing a number of other puppetry showmen from Italy perform in England. In 1672, the King demanded that a puppeteer perform at Charing Cross.
Strolling puppeteers, however, continued to perform in portable booths up and down the country, putting on shows based around legends and Bible stories. Norwich was especially active in puppetry in the 17th century. That tradition continues in the city today.
Satan has long had a role to play in puppetry shows, in fact. He has also made numerous appearances alongside Mr Punch. The May Fair from 1699 featured a written account of a show it described as a senseless piece of dialogue, taking place between the Devil and Pulchinello, which was performed in front of the audience through a tin speaker. Walter Wilkinson was responsible for making the puppet and did a lot to give some credibility back to glove puppetry in the first half of the 20th century.
1700 to 1800
Puppetry theatre became a fashionable form of adult entertainment in 18th-century London. Other marionettes established themselves soon after 1710 when Martin Powell’s Dublin puppets opened at a St Martin’s Lane theatre.
Powell’s theatre featured scenery, backcloths, and footlights. He performed at a Covent Garden tavern, along in towns such as Oxford, Bristol, and Bath. His marionettes satirized such contemporary theatrical fashions as Italian opera and lampooned celebrities. Other puppetry theatres in the 18th century included Exeter Change’s Patagonian Theatre and James Streets’ Punch’s Theatre.
In 1770 a company of Italian marionettes (or fantoccini) introduced a new wave of European puppetry to London. Companies from Italy performed comedic opera, plays based on the Commedia dell’arte featuring Columbine and Harlequin, as well as ‘magical’ scenery transformations.
Just seven years later, four West End puppetry companies were in existence, along with an oriental-style shadow theatre show called ‘Ombres Chinoises’. One was managed by the famous Philip Astley and included shadow theatre in a show he put on in Piccadilly.
By the start of the 19th century, puppetry shows at larger fairs were close to dying out due to high operating costs. Glove puppet versions of Punch and Judy, however, came to be commonplace in London portable booths.
Mother Shipton was a character that featured in a number of plays in the 18th century. From early Tudor times, she was regarded as a prophetess throughout the country and in her local county of Yorkshire.
Many of Mother Shipton’s prophecies are thought to have included the Great Fire of London, the death of Wolsey, and the Civil Wars. She’s portrayed as an unattractive old lady with an upturned chin and a hooked nose. She appeared in 17th-century plays and pantomime, in addition to puppet theatre, in which she typically smoked a pipe.