Box and Cox
Box and Cox was first produced at the Lyceum Theatre, London, on 1 November 1847, billed as a "romance of real life." The play became popular and was revived frequently through the end of the nineteenth century, with occasional productions in the twentieth century. It spawned a sequel by another author, in 1867, and was adapted as a one-act comic opera in 1866 by the dramatist F. C. Burnand and the composer Arthur Sullivan, Cox and Box, which also became popular and continues to be performed regularly. Other musical adaptations were made, but have not remained in the repertory.
The phrase "Box and Cox" has entered the English language: the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "applied allusively to an arrangement in which two persons take turns in sustaining a part, occupying a position, or the like."
In the nineteenth century, it was common practice for plays to be adapted from French originals for the London stage, with changes often made to conform to Victorian playgoers' expectations. The main source of Morton's play was a French one-act vaudeville, Frisette, by Eugène Marin Labiche and Auguste Lefranc, which had been produced at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris in 1846. Some commentators have stated that Morton also drew on another vaudeville, La Chambre à Deux Lits (The Double Room), which itself reputedly derived from earlier French, English and Spanish comedies. Morton is not known to have pronounced on the matter, but F. C. Burnand, who later adapted Box and Cox as an operetta, discounted the importance of La Chambre à Deux Lits. He wrote, "Whether La Chambre was 'taken from the Spanish', who, I dare say, have got on very well without it, or not, certainly it was not the original source of Box and Cox. This immortal English farce was adapted – a masterpiece of adaptation, be it said – from a comédie-vaudeville by Labiche and Lefranc entitled Frisette." Burnand added that the later sections of the plot of Box and Cox, namely the men's connubial entanglements, their efforts to evade them, and the discovery that they are brothers, were not derived from anyone, and were "thoroughly Mortonian".
In Frisette, an unscrupulous landlady rents the same room to a young woman (Frisette, a lace-maker) by night, and to a young man (Gaudrion, a baker) by day. In Box and Cox, both the lodgers are male.
Box and Cox was first performed at the Lyceum Theatre, London, on 1 November 1847. The cast was:
- James Cox – John Pritt Harley
- John Box – John Baldwin Buckstone
- Mrs. Bouncer – Mrs. (Frances) Macnamara.
Reviewing the first performance, The Standard said, "The piece is neatly and smartly written, but it is not difficult to guess that it owes its salvation solely to the felicitous whimsicalities of the two actors upon whom it chiefly devolves. The grotesque gentility of Harley, the hatter, is drolly matched by the cockney vulgarity of Buckstone, the printer, and both have ample room for the exhibition of their own peculiar conceits of method – those never-failing helps to mirth. Box and Cox, in short, are a pair of pleasant varlets, and promise to be long in the good graces of the public." The theatrical newspaper The Era said, "A more 'laughable farce' has not been produced for many a day."
The audience was enthusiastic, and Box and Cox became the first success of the Lyceum under the new management of Lucia Elizabeth Vestris and Charles James Mathews. Matthews assumed the role of Cox later in the run.
Mrs. Bouncer, a London lodging-house keeper, is letting an apartment to a double tenantry – to Box, a printer on a daily newspaper, and to Cox, a journeyman hatter, the former occupying the room during the day, the latter during the night. They invariably meet on the stairs of the lodging-house when one comes in from work as the other is going out, but neither has any idea that Mrs Bouncer is letting his room to the other. Cox, suspicious that Mrs. Bouncer has been using his flat during the day, complains to her that his coal keeps disappearing and there is "a steady increase of evaporation among my candles, wood, sugar and lucifer matches." He also complains that his room is continually full of tobacco smoke. Mrs. Bouncer gives various excuses – among others, that Box, who, she says, occupies the attic, is a persistent smoker, and that his smoke must come down the chimney. Cox departs for his work at the hat shop, and on the stairs passes Box who is returning from the night shift at the newspaper.
Box has brought home with him a rasher of bacon, which he at once prepares to cook. He lights the fire, is indignant that his matches have been used and his candles burnt low; for, being at home only during the day, he suspects Mrs. Bouncer of these depredations. Leaving his bacon to cook, he retires to bed for a short nap. Cox then returns, having been given the day off by his employer. He has bought a mutton chop and, going to cook it on the gridiron, finds the fire already lit and the rasher of bacon on the gridiron. He removes it, puts his chop in its stead, and hurries into an adjoining room for a plate. The slamming of the door awakens Box, who, recollecting his bacon, leaps from the bed, and finds the chop where he had left the rasher. He angrily seizes the chop, flings it from the window, and leaves the room to fetch a plate. Cox re-enters, and, in lieu of his chop, discovers the rasher, which follows the chop out of the window. Box and Cox meet, each imagining the other to be an intruder, each pulling from his pocket the last week's receipt for rent, and each clamouring loudly for redress from the landlady. Mrs. Bouncer is forced to explain the mystery, and she throws herself on the kindness of Box and Cox by promising either of them a handsome second floor back room, which she hurries off to prepare.
Frustrated, Box asks, "Hark ye, sir – can you fight?" Cox answers, "No, sir." Box: "No? Then come on!" Agreeing, however, that they have no quarrel with each other, and that the whole mess is Mrs. Bouncer's fault, Box and Cox converse civilly. It emerges that Cox is about to be married to a widow, Penelope Anne Wiggins, a prosperous proprietress of bathing machines at Margate and Ramsgate. Box is astonished, as he too had once been engaged to Mrs. Wiggins, but, he reveals, he had struck on an ingenious plan to escape her clutches: he had pretended to commit suicide by drowning. Cox is equally reluctant to marry her. The two argue about which of them is obliged to do so, and eventually they call for pistols. When Mrs. Bouncer goes to bring them, Cox cries, "Stop! You don't mean to say ... that you keep loaded fire-arms in the house?" "Oh, no", says Mrs. Bouncer, "they're not loaded". Cox: "Then produce the murderous weapons instantly!" Meanwhile, the two agree to cast dice; the loser must marry Penelope Anne. Both have loaded dice, and at each successive throw they continue to throw sixes. The dice are then changed for shillings. At every toss each man's coin lands on heads, as both contestants are using double-headed coins.
The impasse is broken when a letter arrives from Margate stating that Penelope Anne has drowned in a boating accident, and has left her property to her intended husband. Box and Cox now argue their claims to the bathing machines, but finally they agree to split the fortune. Now a second letter arrives, which states that Penelope Anne is quite safe and is on the road to London to claim her lover. Escape is now hopeless, and Box and Cox are in despair. A vehicle arrives, a knock resounds at the door, and Box and Cox place their backs to the door. Penelope Anne goes away again, leaving another letter revealing that she has decided to marry Mr Knox, an admirer nearer her own age. Box and Cox are delighted, and their happiness is completed by the realisation that they are brothers, who have been long separated (Box: "Have you such a thing as a strawberry mark on your left arm?" Cox: "No!" Box: "Then it is he!"). They reject the second-floor back room and determine to reside permanently in the same room, and under the tenancy of the same landlady.
Later productions and adaptations
The piece became a popular favourite; from late 1847 it was widely staged throughout the United Kingdom, and it was frequently performed to raise funds for causes including a new drama college and the proposed Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. In January 1849, a command performance of Box and Cox was given at Windsor Castle to Queen Victoria and her family and court. Harley and Buckstone repeated their original roles, and "the Royal party laughed heartily". The Queen and Prince Albert saw the play again in 1850, at a revival at the Haymarket Theatre, starring Buckstone, together with Hamlet and Buckstone's The Rough Diamond. Buckstone's revivals, co-starring Henry Compton as Cox, were so popular that W. S. Gilbert later wrote, "Mr. Morton's dialogue can only be properly given by Messrs. Buckstone and Compton, and in the mouths of any other actors it is, to those who have seen Messrs. Buckstone and Compton in the parts (and who has not?) a bore." In 1856 a performance was given by army personnel in the Crimea, with an officer of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers playing Mrs Bouncer en travesti. The New York Times called the play "the best farce of the nineteenth century".
Box and Cox was revived at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, in 1867 with G. Honey as Box, John Hare as Cox, and Mrs. Leigh Murray as Mrs. Bouncer; and again at the Haymarket Theatre in 1889, with H. Nicholls as Cox, E. M. Robson as Box, and Mrs. E. Phelps as Mrs. Bouncer. It was first performed in America at the Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia, with W. E. Burton and Joseph Jefferson in the title roles. In the twentieth century, it was successfully revived at the London Coliseum in 1924, the cast comprising Donald Calthrop, Hubert Harben and Dora Gregory, and in 1961 Lindsay Anderson directed the work at the Royal Court Theatre.
The play became so well known that the humorous magazine Punch printed a mock examination paper on it for use in drama schools, with such questions as "What was Mrs. Bouncer's ostensible employment? Would Mrs. Siddons, at any time in her career, have been justified in refusing this part? If so, state when, and give your reasons." Punch (and others) also used the characters of Box and Cox to represent the two opposing British party leaders, Benjamin Disraeli and W. E. Gladstone.
The popularity of Box and Cox suggested the production of Box and Cox Married and Settled, a farce in one act, by Joseph Stirling Coyne, first performed at the Haymarket Theatre on 15 October 1852, with Buckstone as Box, Robert Keeley as Cox, Mr. Coe as "an anonymous gent," Mrs. Caulfield as Mrs. Box, Mrs. L. S. Buckingham as Mrs. Cox, and Mrs. Selby as Mrs. Bouncer. The Morning Post gave this plot summary: "Box and Cox have both retired from business, both having been left enough money to live on, and they have a wife and baby apiece. Cox's better half turns out to be the former sweetheart of Box, who, in imprudently making himself known to her, is discovered by the lady's husband. There is, of course, immense indignation from Mr Cox and Mrs Box, and great fun arises out of the various demonstrations of these injured individuals. Everything, however, is arranged to the satisfaction of all parties."
Box and Cox achieved further notice when F. C. Burnand adapted it as a comic opera libretto under the title of Cox and Box, set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1866. The piece was Sullivan's first produced comic opera. It was played privately, then given a successful production by the German Reeds in 1869, and was later taken up by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which played the piece throughout Britain and overseas for about a century, and licensed it to numerous amateur companies. The opera continues to be performed regularly. A later musical adaptation, Daye and Knight, with libretto by Walter Parke and music by Louise Barone, was presented by the German Reed Entertainment at St. George's Hall, London, in 1895. Both the lodgers in that version were young women. In 1885, there had been another musical treatment of the same plot, John and Jeanette, by L. Machele and J. Batchelder, but that version was based directly on Labiche and Lefranc's 1846 vaudeville Frisette, rather than on Box and Cox.
- "French and English Plays", The Era, 22 November 1874, p. 14. Some sources name the play as Une Chambre à Deux Lits
- "Box and Cox". Theatre History, accessed 11 November 2013. Excerpt from A Dictionary of the Drama by W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1904, p. 195
- Burnand, F. C., letter to The Times, 18 October 1889, p. 8
- "Agen Théâtre: Frisette, un Labiche qui défrise". ladepeche.fr (2009), accessed 11 August 2010.
- The Standard, 2 November 1847; p. 1
- The Era, 7 November 1847, p. 11
- Pearce, Charles E. "Madame Vestris and Her Times", p. 295, Kessinger Publishing, 2006 ISBN 1-4286-1244-0
- "Provincial Theatricals", The Era, 5 December 1847, p. 12; and 19 December, 1847, p. 12
- "The Theatres, &c", Illustrated London News, 7 April 1860, p. 327
- "The Theatres", Illustrated London News, 23 April 1864, p. 402
- "Theatrical Performances at Windsor Castle", Illustrated London News, 13 January 1849, p. 21; and The Era, 7 January 1849, p. 9
- "Theatres, etc ", The Era, 17 February 1850, p. 11
- Gilbert, W. S. Fun magazine, issue for 1 June 1867, pp. 128–29
- "Theatricals in the Crimea", Illustrated London News, 26 April 1856, p. 450
- Obituary: The Author of "Box and Cox", The New York Times, p. 2, December 22, 1891
- Murray's wife performed as Mrs Elizabeth Leigh Murray. See "Box and Cox". Theatre History, accessed 11 November 2013. Excerpt from A Dictionary of the Drama by W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1904, p. 195
- The Times, 4 March 1924, p. 12
- Gaye, p. 303
- "Hints for a New and Original Dramatic College", Punch, 7 February 1880, p. 51.
- The Morning Post, 15 October 1852, p. 5
- Jacobs, p. 50
- "The German Reed Entertainment", The Era, 9 November 1895, p. 8
- "John and Jeanette", The Era, 26 September 1885, p. 15
- Gaye, Freda (1967). Who's Who in the Theatre. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, fourteenth edition.
- Jacobs, Arthur (1984). Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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