word craft


Story Behind the Story #27: Punch With Judy

Punch with JudyWhen I was a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin (Madi­son) my focus was the­atre. As it hap­pened, the The­atre Depart­ment orga­nized a group of stu­dents to per­form Oth­el­lo, Shake­speare’s great tragedy in schools through­out the large state of Wis­con­sin. This was, to put it mild­ly, a deeply edit­ed ver­sion of the play, which, when we per­formed it, last­ed only one hour. Nor­mal­ly, it should take two to three hours.

I was brought on just as stage man­ag­er, because it was well known among my the­atre pals that I was a bad actor. For one thing, I could not remem­ber lines.

At the last moment how­ev­er, one of the actors dropped out, and I (since I was there) was asked to play his part, Lodovi­co. It is this char­ac­ter who gives the last, somber lines of the tragedy.

We loaded up the sta­tion wag­on (as SUVs were called) with cos­tumes and sets. Then we sev­en actors toured the state, per­form­ing in gyms. We had a great time.

If you know the play, it ends with bod­ies on the floor, and ter­rif­ic tragedy. Then Lodovico—that’s me—comes on stage, and gives the last grief-loaded speech.

Except I could nev­er remem­ber my lines.

The cast would be on stage star­ing at me, won­der­ing what I might say for that per­for­mance. More­over, they were strug­gling hard to keep from laugh­ing. Tragedy? Comedy?

Jump years ahead. I chanced to see Char­lie Chap­lin’s 1928 film, The Cir­cus. As a life-long fan of Chap­lin I always loved how he was able to induce laugh­ter from sad­ness. Indeed, the notion of some­one slip­ping on a banana peel is con­sid­ered fun­ny, ignor­ing that the per­son who has slipped is expe­ri­enc­ing pain.

After watch­ing that film, I won­dered if I could write a book in which I might achieve this odd mix­ture: pain and laughter.

All this is the ori­gin of my book, Punch with Judy. It tells the tale of a woe­be­gone troupe (see above) of per­form­ers. When they try to be fun­ny, they are not. When they are sad, or in pain, it is very funny.

The book is lit­er­al­ly a slap­stick com­e­dy. A slap­stick, in fact, is a Com­me­dia del­l’arte device: two thin pad­dles are attached and between the two pad­dles is a wedge. When char­ac­ter A hits Char­ac­ter B with a slap­stick it makes a big noise but does not hurt. How­ev­er, if that wedge is removed the slap­stick, when used, will hurt. But it may still be fun­ny for the audi­ence to watch it hap­pen. You get the idea.

I won’t pre­tend that this is one of my more pop­u­lar books. Some­times I think it should have been a play. That said I have always been extreme­ly fond of it. Maybe that’s my tragedy. Or com­e­dy. Hard to know. Maybe both.

1 thought on “Story Behind the Story #27: <em>Punch With Judy</em>”

  1. Punch with Judy is one of my favorite books! It’s real­ly unfair it’s not more pop­u­lar than it is. It’s so clever and enjoy­able, total­ly sat­is­fy­ing! I would­n’t change a thing about it, Mr. Avi.


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