Three Years in Europe

Source: W[illiam] Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (London/Edinburgh: Charles Gilpin/Oliver and Boyd, 1852)

Text: As we were returning to our lodgings, we saw in Exeter Street, Strand, one of those exhibitions that can be seen in almost any of the streets in the suburbs of the Metropolis, but which is something of a novelty to those from the other side of the Atlantic. This was an exhibition of “Punch and Judy.” Everything was in full operation when we reached the spot. A puppet appeared eight or ten inches from the waist upwards, with an enormous face, huge nose, mouth widely grinning, projecting chin, cheeks covered with grog blossoms, a large protuberance on his back, another on his chest; yet with these deformities he appeared uncommonly happy. This was Mr. Punch. He held in his right hand a tremendous bludgeon, with which he amused himself by rapping on the head every one who came within his reach. This exhibition seems very absurd, yet not less than one hundred were present—children, boys, old men, and even gentlemen and ladies, were standing by, and occasionally greeting the performer with the smile of approbation. Mr. Punch, however, was not to have it all his own way, for another and better sort of Punch-like exhibition appeared a few yards off, that took away Mr. Punch’s audience, to the great dissatisfaction of that gentleman. This was an exhibition called the Fantoccini, and far superior to any of the street performances which I have yet seen. The curtain rose and displayed a beautiful theatre in miniature, and most gorgeously painted. The organ which accompanied it struck up a hornpipe, and a sailor, dressed in his blue jacket, made his appearance and commenced keeping time with the utmost correctness. This figure was not so long as Mr. Punch, but much better looking. At the close of the hornpipe the little sailor made a bow, and tripped off, apparently conscious of having deserved the undivided applause of the bystanders. The curtain dropped; but in two or three minutes it was again up, and a rope was discovered, extended on two cross pieces, for dancing upon. The tune was changed to an air, in which the time was marked, a graceful figure appeared, jumped upon the rope with its balance pole, and displayed all the manoeuvres of an expert performer on the tight rope. Many who would turn away in disgust from Mr. Punch, will stand for hours and look at the performances of the Fantoccini. If people, like the Vicar of Wakefield, will sometimes “allow themselves to be happy,” they can hardly fail to have a hearty laugh at the drolleries of the Fantoccini. There may be degrees of absurdity in the manner of wasting our time, but there is an evident affectation in decrying these humble and innocent exhibitions, by those who will sit till two or three in the morning to witness a pantomime at a theatre-royal.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. Fantoccini are marionettes, puppets controlled by wires or string, associated with Italy.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

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