You know how I said that George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement would have been familiar to Eli Smith? Well, as it turns out, George L. Fox, the actor, would have been familiar to Mr. Smith, too.
When we last saw George “Laff” Fox, he had been apprenticed to a shop keeper because his parents didn’t hold out much hope that he could have a career in the theater.
Well, they were wrong. George washed out of his apprenticeship and went into acting. However, he did not encounter much in the way of success until he joined the Bowery’s National Theatre as a slapstick comedian. The working-class audiences loved him, and he shot to headliner status for the remaining seven years of his tenure at the National Theatre.
Eventually, George discovered pantomime, a form of family-oriented musical comedy that was popular in England and performed in New York City’s National Theatre and the New Bowery Theatre. He played burlesque theaters. I know what you’re thinking. No. These were not strip tease clubs. In the 1800s burlesque theaters featured musical and theatrical parodies of established, “serious” drama, opera, and ballet.
According to the “Victorian Era England Facts about Queen Victoria, Society & Literature” webpage on burlesque, the rules for a burlesque show were:
Our Wikipedia author says of Fox, “Though often overlooked by the theater critics of the day, Fox’s popularity in burlesque houses could at the time be compared to that of Edwin Booth’s playing Hamlet, a role Fox also played except in a much lighter vein.” In other words, Fox was very well-known in his day.
When the Civil War broke out, George Fox served as a lieutenant in the Eighth New York Infantry and fought at the Battle of Bull Run. He was mustered out in 1861. I’m guessing he signed up for a three- or six-month enlistment. Even the military thought the war would be over in a few months in August 1861.
Fox returned to the theater. After facing a devastating fire at the New Bowery Theatre and a poor business decision that landed him in court, Fox had triumphs playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the clown in “Humpty Dumpty,” which was the first two-act pantomime ever produced.
And that brings us up to our trade figure. Fox was so famous as the clown in “Humpty Dumpty” that someone turned him into a figure. But what was the figure advertising? Where might it have been placed.
Here is my humble opinion on the matter. In my research on the “image business,” I found a reference by blogger Jaime Morrison to “Punch figures.” I think he is referring to Punch of the Punch and Judy puppet shows. The puppet shows originally were aimed at adults and contained violence and adult humor. By the Victorian era, and at toward the end of the Victorian era, the more ribald and violent aspects of the performances were toned down and the shows began to be considered children’s fare.
So, I wonder if perhaps clown figures were not also included under the “Punch figures” category. Certainly Fox’s “Humpty Dumpty” clown qualifies, especially since the date of the figure’s creation is estimated to be 1886-1895. And it is possible that the figure might have been outside a tobacco shop since such “Punch” figures were used to advertise tobacco.
The rest of George Fox’s career alternated between success and struggle. In 1875, a fall taken while onstage resulted in a broken nose and damage to an optic nerve. His behavior became increasingly erratic and after a series of strokes in died on 24 October 1877 at the age of 52.
Fox was remembered by Bill Irwin in the 2004 stage show “Mr. Fox: A Rumination.” I like that. A contemporary clown honoring his clown forefather.
Although not remembered well – or at all by most people today – Fox had a significant impact on theater for the everyday people of his time to the point that his image as the clown in “Humpty Dumpty” was so recognizable that it became a trade figure to advertise a tobacco shop (or so I believe).
Until tomorrow, friends!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder