Part I: John Maddison Morton and His Other Play
In any well-rounded streaming service that delivers movies, the romantic comedy is a category that holds a place of pride. Even if you don’t particularly care for the genre, you are probably quite familiar with its stock characters, typical plotlines, and can even reel off a few of its most popular tropes. In the 1840s and 50s, however, this category of drama was something quite unfamiliar and puzzling to reviewers. “The humor is too flimsy and isn’t sustained enough for these plays to be fully classed as comedies,” they complained. “And the cast is too chequered with silly, jokey characters for these to be taken seriously as romances.” Audiences, however, embraced these light, sentimental offerings with enthusiasm.
Romantic comedies – as they were never called in those days – perfectly suited the talents of Anna Cora Mowatt. Thus far I have concentrated primarily on her experiences in dramatic or tragic roles such as Pauline in “Lady of Lyons,” Blanche in “Armand,” Shakespeare’s Juliet, or the title role in Thomas Talford’s “Ion.” Critics and fans lauded her ability to wring tears from viewers. However, Mowatt was also quite skilled as a comedienne.
There is evidence that in private conversation Anna Cora Mowatt was a very witty person with a sharp sense of humor. When asked if she should compose a comedy or tragedy, her friend Epes Sargent persuaded her to write the play that would become “Fashion” by answering adamantly;
“Comedy, decidedly; because you can only write what you feel, and you are ‘nothing if not critical’ — besides, you will have a fresh channel for the sarcastic ebullitions with which you so constantly indulge us.”1
Many of her early short stories published under the pseudonym “Helen Berkeley” contained comic characters and ironically humorous twists. Most of Mowatt’s novels employ humor to achieve certain effects. Possessing a good sense of humor does not guarantee success as a comic performer, but it does improve the odds for most people.
The actress’ first touring partner, William Crisp, had an established reputation in playing comic roles. The two did not have a good off-stage relationship and the Mowatts terminated Crisp’s contract as soon as the terms they agreed upon expired. However, Crisp’s specialization in comedy meant that Anna Cora learned dozens of leading lady roles in the most popular farces and light romances of the day during the year she and Crisp toured together.
Mowatt’s association with Crisp might have even led her to make more daring choices than she might have otherwise so early in her career. When Crisp married, in order to accommodate his wife, who was also an actress, Mowatt took on different roles in plays she and her co-star already had in their repertoire. In Boucicault’s “London Assurance,” Mowatt switched from portraying the witty but determinedly demure ingénue, Grace Harkaway to the boldly flirtatious and self-assured Lady Gay Spanker. In Planche’s “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,” the actress switched from portraying the frosty Duchess to experimenting with her first breeches role when she played the naïve and mischievous teen-aged King Charles II of Spain.
In the future, I plan to do a comprehensive survey of Mowatt’s work as a comedienne. However, I’m still waiting to complete the recording of several more plays at Librivox before I attempt to begin that project in earnest. In my opinion, as difficult as it is for modern theatre enthusiasts to appreciate Victorian era dramas from a dry reading of a script, it is nearly impossible to get the proper feel for a comedy without hearing a performer voice those words so the listener can get some idea of the timing. After we finished our recording of J.M. Morton’s “All That Glitters Is Not Gold,” however, I felt that this play and author had sufficient notable features to merit entries of their own.
Rather than talking more about the origins of romantic comedy and “All That Glitters is Not Gold,” though, in order to properly introduce the author of this text and provide context for the play, I’m going to spend this essay discussing a different genre – the Victorian farce. As will become abundantly clear, it is impossible to talk about John Maddison Morton without also talking about farce. I believe it would also be as negligent to leave a discussion of farce out of a description of the development of romantic comedy as it would to be to omit mentioning the adding of peanut butter to the story of the invention of the Reese’s Cup.
To start with a nitpick, some sites on the Internet mis-attribute “All That Glitters is Gold” to Thomas Morton Sr. , John Maddison and Thomas Morton Jr.’s father. Thomas Sr. was a successful playwright. His most well-known work was the Restoration era classic, “Speed the Plough.” This is the work that gave the world the character of “Mrs. Grundy,” the arch-prude, looking disapprovingly over everyone’s shoulder. However, Father Thomas died in March of 1838, a full thirteen years before the premiere of “All That Glitters.” Other than L. Ron Hubbard, most dead people don’t have extensive post-mortem publication credits.
The “Thomas” cited in the credits for the play is John Maddison’s brother. After J.M. had his big hit with “Box and Cox” in 1847, the Morton brothers co-authored several plays. I can’t find any examples of solo credits for Thomas, though. J.M. Morton, was by far, the star talent of that generation. Since he was the more famous of the two, many reviewers spoke of “All that Glitters” as being the work of J.M. Morton. I am afraid that I am going to follow suit since I cannot find any information on Brother Thomas other than the fact that his more famous brother shared a byline with him on several writing projects in the 1850s.
John Maddison Morton had the mix of talent and good fortune to write the definitive comedy hit of the 19th century — a quirky little one-act farce titled “Box and Cox.” As is sometimes true of pop culture fads, it is as difficult to explain what made this silly comedy so much more beloved than other similar Victorian-era works as it is to precisely pinpoint the factors that made audiences in the 1970s go crazy for “Three’s Company” or obsess over “Friends” in the 90s. “Box and Cox” was a play that captured a certain cultural zeitgeist at just the right moment.
The play takes place at a time of runaway inflation and a terrible housing crisis in London. At its heart, the farce is about two lodgers – one who works a day shift and the other who works a night shift. These tenants discover that their unscrupulous landlady is doubling her profits by renting their miserable little apartment to one of them during the day and the other at night. So, as with many comedies, the playwright gives us a situation that really isn’t at all funny. It could be the basis of a lawsuit. The basic situation of the comedy expresses pain and anxiety that might be a daily reality for many audience members.
Like Felix and Oscar of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” the defrauded lodgers are not sympathetic personas. They are, instead, obnoxious urbanites. Charles Matthews originated the role of Cox. Matthews, (husband of Madame Vestris) specialized in playing high-strung, annoying, smart-alecks. James Buckstone , who had developed the skill of playing blustering, blundering idiots to a high art, was cast opposite him as Box. (I have previously written about these two playing the similar characters of Fast Man and his pal Slow Coach in improvisations that spilled over from stage farces into the letter columns of Punch Magazine and the Theatrical Times.) Like John Cleese’s mean, fawning Basil Fawlty in “Fawlty Towers,” the bad behavior of the character creates a distance that isolates the audience from distress over the characters’ plight and allows them to laugh at how ridiculous the playwright allows the situation to get… and Morton lets things get as tipsy-tidily-crazy as the format would allow. “Box and Cox” contains strong hints of absurdist humor a good century before absurdism was invented.
“Box and Cox” was a fun play that skilled performers could go a little wild with, adding all types of personalized twists to the quirky characters and increasingly silly situation. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert requested it be included in one of their special theatrical evenings at Windsor. “Box and Cox” was continually revived in Great Brittan and the U.S. for the rest of the century. A musical version of the farce was created in 1867 by Arthur Sullivan before he partnered with W.S. Gilbert.
Modern productions that I have seen of “Box and Cox” usually suffer from flaws of pace and contrast. A Victorian farce should properly be conducted at a speed that starts brisk and then steadily accelerates to breathless. The humor is often constructed of whimsical non sequiturs tied together by visual gags. It’s the sort of thing that does not benefit from a lot of ponderous silence. If you are a director approaching this kind of script, aim to maintain the sort of punishing pace that Adam Sorkin sets for his actors as your goal – or better yet, think of the machine-gun delivery of quips Howard Hawks achieved in “His Girl Friday.” On second thought, leave human beings aside entirely and imagine you are directing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
The image of screaming cartoon characters might help with both correcting tempo problems and the second, bigger problem of creating contrast between the two characters. Apparently some directors look at the script and think to themselves, “These two fellows are basically the same person.” Thus they miss and spoil the script’s central, sad joke about urban life.
Mr. Box and Mr. Cox are obnoxiously eccentric urbanites. Outwardly, they should seem as different as possible. One should be thin. One should be plump. One should be sloppy. One should be neat. They should dress in two extremes of fashion. One should be a tenor, the other a bass. Each man is convinced that he is perfectly, fiercely, and brilliantly unique. Maddison Morton’s central joke of the show is that no matter how big of an oddball you think you are, in a giant city like London, somewhere there’s a whole pack of weirdos who are carbon copies of you. In the megalopolis, no one is unique.
“Box and Cox” was not Morton’s only hit. Maddison Morton was a prolific writer, turning out over thirty farces between 1840 -60. His credits included comedies such as “Lend Me Five Shillings,” “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and “Our Wife, or The Rose of Amiens.” In a short biographical sketch of Morton included in a collection of his works, playwright and critic Clement Scott explained the practical popularity of farces as follows;
Benjamin Webster told Maddison Morton, not long before his death, that he had made more money by farces than by any other description of drama. This is not difficult to account for. The author was certainly not overpaid; the farces were evidently well acted; it cost next to nothing to produce them, and if successful, the world and his wife went to see them.2
One-act farces and two-act light comedies such as “All That Glitters Is Not Gold” were the glue that held evening-long programs together in the Victorian era. They served much the same practical function that situation comedies did in the days when network television was king. By design, these plays usually had just one set, a cast of around five to ten performers, and only one costume per performer per act. Such productions were, therefore, much cheaper to produce than the five-act plays that topped the bills.
In London, there were some headliner performers who refused to appear in farces, considering them beneath their dignity. However, leading actors who were skilled in comedy did not turn up their noses at these crowd-pleasing shorter pieces. In the U.S., where the demands of touring encouraged performers to incorporate lots of variety into their repertoire, most American actors included a selection of at least one and two light comic roles from short plays in their regular rotation.
Critics often didn’t bother to review these shorter plays despite their great popularity and long runs. Advertisements and mentions of catchphrases from such works testify to the impact these texts had on popular culture. However because of the lack of critical note, they are often difficult to track.
With the runaway success of “Box and Cox” in 1847, Maddison Morton emerged as the prince of the one-acts. Morton had the reputation of being very affable. Clement Scott quotes him as saying of himself;
“My dear boy, it would never do for me to blow my own trumpet. In the first place, I haven’t got one, and I am sure I could not blow it if I had.”3
Scott, who encountered the playwright in late middle age, characterized Morton as superlative raconteur, whose twin enthusiasms were fly-fishing and writing farces.
Despite being the son of a successful author, Morton did not start his professional life in the theatre. Like Walter Watts, he labored as a clerk from 1832-1840. Morton’s position was more prestigious than Watts’ though. He was a Government clerk, appointed to a position at the Chelsea Hospital by Lord John Russell. Morton’s first play “My First Fit of the Gout” had been staged at the Tottenham Street Theatre (Later Prince of Wales) in 1835, though, so perhaps the writing was already on the wall for that career soon after it started.4
Since I am obsessed with gossip about Walter Watts, I will include this mention of Maddison Morton that connects him to the manager of the Marylebone theatre. However, please bear in mind that probably most of what is related in this quote is untrue;
The author of “Box and Cox” was Maddison Morton, who unintentionally was connected with as tragic and as curious a story as is to be found in the history of the English stage. Morton made a good deal of money out of “Box and Cox” and invested some of it in the purchase of two £50 shares in the Globe Insurance Company. Sometime after, being pressed for money, he determined to sell the shares, and chancing to meet in the street Walter Watts, a dandified, dressy little man with theatrical tastes, who, Morton knew, was a clerk in the Globe, he suggested that Watts should purchase the shares, which Watts did. Whatever may have been in Watts’ mind at the time, it is clear that Morton had not the slightest idea of the extraordinary legal issue to which the sale of these two shares led.5
Walter Watts and Maddison Morton probably had a number of professional interactions between 1848 and 1850. Watts, in his capacity as manager of the Marylebone, was actively seeking out new works from playwrights. Unlike other managers, he was willing and able to pay cash. Morton was one of the hottest playwrights in London. It stands to reason that Watts would seek to get access to works by him for his venue. In October of 1848, a play of Morton’s titled “Midnight Watch” ran at the Marylebone with Fanny Vining as its star. Watts and the playwright might have been in negotiations for other productions that did not come to fruition during this time as well.
The fact that it is likely the two exchanged business correspondence does not indicate that they were friends or were swapping financial advice. There is certainly no indication that Maddison Morton knew of Walter Watts’ double identity. Watts casually revealing this explosive secret to someone to whom he had such a tenuous connection would have changed everything for everyone connected to the Marylebone and Olympic Theatres in a big way.
Walter Watts probably owned shares in the Globe Insurance Agency because he had worked there since he was a teenager. The idea that being a shareholder might shield him from prosecution is less likely to have come from Morton than it is to have originated with Watts, his legal advisors, or former coworkers.
Stories about Watts testify to the fact that he was generous with friends and employees who found themselves in dire straits. This trait lends an air of credence to his act of buying the shares from the down-on-his-luck playwright in this bit of gossip. Anecdotes about Morton establish his “easy come, easy go” attitude towards money. In 1848-50, however, the playwright was at the apex of success and was therefore unlikely to be in need of a handout from the manager of the Marylebone. This story, then, like several other bits of “celebrity gossip” connected to the Watts Scandal from the late 19th century that are sometimes related as fact by recorders of theatrical histories, seems to be the product of stringing together known characteristics of two figures from the London stage world to make an interesting tale that becomes implausible once matched to dates and facts.
By the time that Clement Scott was writing about him in the latter half of the 19th century, Maddison Morton was still honored by his peers as a trailblazer. John Philip Souza would write an operetta based on one of his comedies. Gilbert and Sullivan would be inspired by his frantic, irreverent characters and plots. However, the day of the Victorian farce had passed. Morton had become outdated and could no longer depend on his ability to sell his work. The last of his plays produced during his lifetime was a three-act farce titled “Going It” staged at Toole’s Theatre in 1885. A critic remarked that, “The unlucky thing about him was that though he could write as well at 80 as at 30, he was left stranded high and dry by the receding wave of fashion.”6 Morton ended his days as a Charterhouse pensioner.
John Maddison Morton’s legacy would far out-live him, though. As I will discuss next week, the type of zany, absurdist characters that were the signature of his style will come to dominate comedy writing of cinema of the early twentieth century. Although Morton’s plays would gradually cease to be revived after the turn of the century, the insertion of irreverent foil characters borrowed from farce into lightweight romances would be a trend others would copy until this day.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1854. Page 202.
- Scott, Clement. Preface. Plays for Home Performance. John Maddison Morton. London: Ward, Lock, & Co. 1889. Page xiii.
- Page xii.
- Pearce, Charles E. Madame Vestris and her Times. London: Stanley Paul & Co. 1900. Page 294-295.
- “Theatrical and Musical Notes”, Otago Witness, 17 Poutūterangi (March) 1892, p. 36.