Neil Gaiman, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch
"It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy." -- Joseph "everlasting" Campbell.
I tuned into BBC online today and heard a play by Neil Gaiman. Puppet shows, monsters in the dark, childhood memories, drab seaside towns and family history are stuff that it is made of. A brooding, intelligent yet intelligible narrator tells the story of his encounter with a Punch and Judy show a long time ago, even before there were hippies.
As a boy, the narrator stayed with his grandparents in Southsea. The boy seems to be a solitary sort, more conscious of the adult than the child world -- and I can identify with that -- yet also very conscious of the divide between himself and most adults. Truth withheld is the currency of their power over him; he revels in the fact that he can look at Uncle Morton, with his hunched back, eye to eye. Then a Professor Swatchell comes to town, and things begin to happen. Truth will out?
Swatchell, the Punch and Judy professor, introduces him to "the cast." He lets the boy try on the crocodile puppet, but not Punch. Never Punch. The crocodile is fierce and makes real the boy's courage, but Punch would make real something he never wants to know. Part of the mystery which unravels through the copious voice-over meta-narrative is the secret violence between his grandfather, grandmother, his uncle Morton, a mermaid, and a shadowy lost twin, seemingly catalysed by the arrival of the puppet show. The puppets, needing human arms and hands and imaginations to animate them, also, in effect, begin to animate men and women.
The narrative is a blending of present and past and puppet shows extemporare. Complicated but discernible. For me, the real links between these modes were the young protagonist's dream, where he hears thunder speak his name, walks through the darkness and comes to a looming, juggernaut puppet tent; the moment where he witnesses a Punch-like family scene; and at the end, as an adult, when he is offered a chance to put on the Punch puppet.
Neil Gaiman generates unique meanings from prehistoric "dawntime" crocodiles and heart-shaped ice creams; bent narrative threads and Uncle Morton's bent back; old black and white comics full of ghosts, disappearing houses and vengeful wives; grey ocean and speaking thunder; and of course the swatchell.
As I listened, I wondered about Gaiman's personal mythology and history. Don't get me wrong, not the family issues (perish the pseudo-biographical thought). Just the bits about the boy reading and bringing books wherever he goes, and trying to find truth in a world of unintelligible adults, and also the comics. I wondered about the thunder speaking the protagonist's name -- a motif? I enjoyed listening to the play on that level as well, with Gaiman's distinctively charcoal-smudgy, cornersy style. Dark, and shadows, and once in a while a twinkle of light.
Darkness is a cloud of unknowing which surrounds the visuals of the play, penetrates the relations of heart, love, family, and pervades the boy's understanding of the world. As an adult, he recognizes the darkness of his past to be the fabric of reality. Darkness precedes and follows the Great Play with silence, death. The puppet tent is the antithetical clean, well-lighted place. And it's weird.
But then, family mysteries and dreams of darkness belong to us all. Death is the divide between every one. People drop out of time's current and fall behind so quickly. One generation gone, and just a name is remembered. Two or three, and pretty surely not even that. I loved the narrator's sense of puzzlement throughout, and remembered that childhood was not only a halcyon Bradburyesque stream of golden days, but also a sort of penumbral epiphany: Punch waits, dark waits, and this is the "lesson" which the narrators remembers. Really, Joseph Campbell, though hackneyed, fits the situation very well.
My dad always listened to "The Shadow" radio plays while falling asleep when I was a kid, and I'd listen too, drifting off to "who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men . . . the Shadow knows." And I sat there today feeling like a wise kid, which is rather difficult to pull off as an adult. I loved Dave McKean's piano music, and the studio sound effects. I loved the spooky sadness of Gaiman's radio play, and by the end, I hated Punch's voice. But in a good way.