James Robinson Planché Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In his Recollections and Reflections, James Robinson Planché categorized contemporary English drama as “mere amusement.” Although critical of this situation, Planché both capitalized on and contributed to it. Indeed, he was the master of nearly every popular dramatic form of his day, including the melodrama.

The melodrama ad been popular in England since the end of the eighteenth century. The term literally means “musical drama,” and therefore songs and sometimes dances were often an integral part of the entertainment. Songs were also necessary to circumvent the theatrical licensing regulations of Planché’s day, which placed many restrictions on the kinds of dramatic fare the minor London theaters were able to offer. Although the nineteenth century enjoyed several specific varieties of melodrama (such as the nautical or the gothic), exotic settings, excessive emotions, and extravagant dialogue characterized the genre as a whole.

Despite Planché’s criticism of popular dramatic forms, the majority of his own works were written to satisfy commercial dictates. Indeed, his instincts for what would work on the stage of his era were remarkably acute (a talent also shared by his most direct dramatic descendant, W. S. Gilbert). Although content with the personal profitability of the popular theater, Planché was never content with the status quo. He attempted to change the English stage by experimenting with new dramatic forms and theatrical techniques; by presenting satiric, sentimental, or sensational plays with an underlying serious point; and by proposing the establishment of an “English Art Theatre” to revive “the masterpieces of the last three centuries” in a theater in which commercialism would be subordinated to the highest production standards. The result of Planché’s creative efforts was 176 dramatic entertainments and perhaps the most successful career of any nineteenth century playwright.

The Vampire

One of Planché’s early melodramas was The Vampire, which Planché adapted from a French melodrama, Le Vampire, at the invitation of Samuel James Arnold, then proprietor of the Lyceum Theatre. Indeed, it was Arnold who refused to allow Planché to change the play’s setting from Scotland, “where the [vampire] superstition never existed,” to somewhere in Eastern Europe.

This “Romantic Melo-Drama,” as Planché called his play, consists of two acts and an “Introductory Vision”—the latter set in the moonlit interior of “the Basaltic Caverns of Staffa.” Lady Margaret, soon to be wed to the Earl of Marsden (the vampire), is sleeping fitfully. Unda, the Spirit of the Flood, and Ariel, the Spirit of the Air, recount the vampire legend and try to warn Margaret of danger by raising a vision of the vampire, who emerges from a nearby tomb, springs at Margaret, and then “sinks again, shuddering.” Planché’s invention of the so-called vampire trap enabled T. P. Cooke, as the vampire, to repeat his spectacular exit at the end of the play.

The action of The Vampire is confined to Lady Margaret’s wedding day. Neither she nor her family is aware that her fiancé Ruthven is a vampire who must wed a virgin bride and drink her blood before the moon sets or forever vanish into nothingness. Although Ruthven loves Margaret and tries to forestall their wedding by eloping with a servant girl, his plans are thwarted, and he presses for an immediate ceremony. Margaret’s father at first consents, but later he reflects on two miraculous reappearances of Ruthven, each after Ruthven has supposedly been killed, and concludes that Ruthven himself must be the legendary vampire. Margaret’s father tries to prevent the wedding, but Ruthven discredits his warnings as the ravings of a madman. To Ruthven’s distress, however, Margaret promises to humor her father and to heed his plea not to marry until after the moon has set. As the moon sets, the desperate Ruthven draws a dagger and attempts to seize his bride but is disarmed by Margaret’s father and his servants. With a peal of thunder overhead, the lost Ruthven falls to the ground and vanishes forever.

Although Planché often condemned the public’s preference for a theater of “mere amusement,” he succeeded more often than any other of his contemporaries in catering to that preference. Planché himself attested that The Vampire became one of the most popular plays of its day. Its curious Scottish vampire-villain, its suspenseful though contrivance-ridden plot, its Gothic setting, and its spectacular vampire trap precisely suited public tastes. In 1829, Planché converted his melodrama into a libretto for the German opera Der Vampyr, changing its location to Hungary and substituting a “Wallachian Boyard” for the play’s “Scotch chieftain.” Planché also designed costumes that were, in his own words, “novel as well as correct.” Taken together, these two “vampire” works testify to Planché’s talents as playwright, translator, set and costume designer, librettist, and theatrical entrepreneur.

Charles XII

One of Planché’s most successful ventures into what he termed “historical drama” was Charles XII. The play’s title character, the Swedish King Charles XII (1682-1718), was renowned for his obsession with war. Not having been content to rule his own country, he had attacked Denmark, Saxony, and Poland before being defeated by the Russians at Poltava in 1709. As Samuel Johnson later observed, “the name at which the World grew pale” would henceforth be used only “to point a Moral, or adorn a Tale”—in this case, Planché’s drama.

Planché’s Charles XII avoids the moral ambiguities of the king’s military escapades, using war only as a background menace that sometimes threatens to intrude into the play’s comedy. Instead, the focus is on Charles’s incognito visit to an inn kept by a Mr. Firmann, who is really one Major Vanberg, unjustly convicted of treason and under Charles’s own death sentence. Charles is both charming and charmed, especially by the innkeeper’s daughter Ulrica, who in turn is in love with Gustavus, one of Charles’s officers. Charles has come to the town in search of Adam Brock, the play’s liveliest and most popular character. Brock, something of a good-humored philosopher, had earlier lent money to the king, who now comes to repay him and cancel the debt. Brock’s daughter Eudiga is in love with a Colonel Reichal, and when the king uses that name for his alias, Brock assumes he has come to propose to his daughter. The ensuing comic confusions are finally straightened out when Charles reveals his identity. Potentially tragic...

(The entire section is 2768 words.)