Satie composed this little "pantomime" in two acts in 1899, but the work was not premiered until 1926, two years after his death. Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev approached Satie in 1922 with a request for a ballet, and again in 1924. Nothing came of either request, and Diaghilev had to settle for the misplaced Jack in the Box, which was revived after Satie's death by his pupil Darius Milhaud. Satie referred to this work as a "suite anglaise," and composed three jigs for it: Prelude, Entr'acte, and Finale. The work was mislaid sometime after 1905, and was only discovered decades later by accident; the score for Jack in the Box, along with a score for a marionette opera called Genevieve de Brabant, was found in a pile of soiled, discarded papers in one of Satie's apartments.
Jack in the Box is based on a scenario by Jules Depaquit, and has little to offer in the way of dramatic substance: it is essentially a Vaudevillian experiment, a "pantaloonery" which pokes fun at "the evil men who live in this world." Musically, the work is relatively simple, and in many ways typically Satiean. The overall harmonic framework is diatonic; the work is cast in the key of C major. Satie employs unresolved seventh chords, bitonal harmonies, constant metric shifts, and repetitive motives in what musicologist Eric Gillmor describes as Satie's appropriation of "the sounds and boisterous atmosphere of the music hall." Gillmor also notes that certain aspects of the music look ahead to the work of Milhaud, who was thus the obvious choice to revive the work after Satie's death.
The ballet was finally performed in June of 1926, choreographed by famous Stravinsky collaborator George Balanchine. In the Balanchine production, the music accompanies the dancing of the principal figure, the Jack in the Box puppet, along with several other characters, including two harlequin-like ballerinas dressed in half-black/half-white costumes. As with many of Satie's works, Jack in the Box was not well received by critics, in this case on both sides of the English channel. The French dismissed the work as banal, while English critics decried it as "pert but hollow." Perhaps the failure of Jack in the Box is not so surprising, given that it was written during a period in Satie's life--around the turn of the century--when he was deeply depressed, and feeling resigned to failure as a composer.