Pretty Polly


Lady Dorotka Marionette is a Czech-made puppet who would make a very nice Pretty Polly,

Since the new Puppetland book has been released in .pdf format from Arc Dream Publishing, I thought I would write a bit about the three scenarios that I’ve written for the project, particularly about the research I did into historical and contemporary puppetry, to generate my characters, conflicts and settings for the game.

The first scenario I wrote for Puppetland was “Pretty Polly”, which was inspired by one of the frequently-occurring characters from Punch and Judy shows prior to the 20th century. Pretty Polly was always a dancer, and usually depicted as the mistress or lover of Punch. Here’s the description of a typical Pretty Polly appearance from a Punch script dated 1832:



Punch. [Seeing her, and singing out of “The Beggar’s Opera” while she dances,] When the heart of a man is oppress’d with cares, The clouds are dispelled when a woman appears, &c.

Punch. [Aside.] What a beauty! What a pretty creature! [Extending his arms, and then clasping his hands in admiration. She continues to dance, and dances round him, while he surveys her in silent delight. He then begins to sing a slow tune and foots it with her; and, as the music quickens, they jig it backwards and forwards, and sideways, to all parts of the stage. At last, Punch catches the lady in his arms and kisses her most audibly, while she appears “nothing loth.” After waltzing, they dance to the tune of “The White Cockade,” and Punch sings as follows:]

I love you so, I love you so,
I never will leave you; no, no, no:
If I had all the wives of wise King Sol,
I would kill them all for my Pretty Poll.

[Exeunt dancing.

My own take on the character and her relationship to Mister Punch is based on three observations:

#1. That Pretty Polly is very much the patriarchal ideal of the perfect woman.

      Beautiful, sexually available without any economic or social strings attached (no marriage and no payment), and absolutely incapable of communicating or expressing her own needs–she never has any lines, and most Pretty Polly puppets don’t have a functioning mouth at all.

A real Pretty Polly puppet featured in a BBC article and slideshow on the old Punch and Judy puppet shows.:


#2. That the story of Pretty Polly may actually pre-date the use of the character in Punch and Judy shows. The folksong “Pretty Polly” is actually a murder ballad about a young woman who falls for the wrong man.

The earliest known version on record is a folio of the lyrics from 1760, when it was called “The Gosport Tragedy”, but the origins of the song doubtless date further back in time.

The song has never lost its power, and variants of the story continue to be sung to the present day. Most of them skip the first few lines, however, which were the ones that struck me the hardest:

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind
Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind
Let me set beside you and tell you my mind

Well my mind is to marry and never to part
My mind is to marry and never to part
The first time I saw you it wounded my heart…

#3. That the Punch of Puppetland and the murderer of the original song had a lot in common. Specifically, I thought that the image of Pretty Polly in both the song and the old Punch plays had a lot to say about the origins of violence against women in general. Patriarchy breeds a dark spirit of narcissism in men, and trains them from early childhood with the expectation that women will be quiet, pretty, and available on demand. Women who stray from this ideal of silent sex dolls are subject to violence, and often death: when these expectations are subverted, the resulting rage can be homicidal.

The character of Pretty Polly in the scenario I’ve written is a survivor. The scenario is my comment on the issues of “stolen hearts” and marital infidelity, the ways that female victims of assault are silenced, and how powerful and precious our joy in living and our art can be as tools of survival.

The character of Pretty Polly echoes throughout time. She is the eternal victim of the world’s violence toward women–whether anyone can save her is the eternal question.


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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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