James Robinson Planché Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Robinson Planché’s literary versatility extended well beyond the theater. He was an inveterate traveler, recounting one of his many Continental journeys in his Descent of the Danube from Ratisbon to Vienna (1828). He was also an antiquarian and a historian, and his History of British Costume (1834) and A Cyclopaedia of Costume: Or, Dictionary of Dress (1876-1879) became standard reference works for theatrical costumers. Furthermore, Planché’s two-volume history, The Conqueror and His Companions (1874), was considered “definitive” in his own day. Always adept at languages, Planché also translated, edited, or adapted works by French, Spanish, Italian, and German authors, including, in 1853, a translation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig and, in 1855 and 1858, translations of the seventeenth century fairy tales of the Countess d’Aulnoy.

When Planché was asked to write about his extraordinarily long and successful theatrical career, the result was his informative and witty Recollections and Reflections (1872), which offers invaluable insights into nineteenth century theatrical practices. Planché was concerned, however, not only with the theater’s past but also with its future. Shortly before his death, he published a pamphlet, Suggestions for Establishing an English Art Theatre (1879). The proposed theater was to produce plays of merit without regard for commercial considerations. Five volumes of Planché’s extravaganzas were also published in 1879. His songs and poems appeared posthumously in 1881.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By his own count, James Robinson Planché wrote seventy-two original plays, ten of those in collaboration with Charles Dance. He adapted or translated an additional 104 plays. Thus, Planché’s pen produced some 176 stage entertainments, embracing such diverse genres as historical drama, melodrama, comedy, farce, burlesque, extravaganza, opera libretto, and revue.

Planché’s achievements were not limited to playwriting. His antiquarian interests, especially his passion for the history of British costume, led him in 1823 to persuade Charles Kemble, then manager of Covent Garden Theatre, to stage William Shakespeare’s King John (pr., c. 1596-1597) with historically correct costuming instead of the contemporary dress that had been customary. Kemble’s production was an unprecedented success. Similarly, in 1831, Planché persuaded Madame Vestris (Lucia Elizabeth Bartolozzi), chief actress and manager of the Olympic Theatre, to stage his burlesque Olympic Revels with authentic costuming. Again, Planché’s innovation was remarkably successful.

Planché was also adept at stagecraft especially set design and scene painting. For his production of The Vampire, he invented the “vampire trap,” which enabled an actor to come and go through seemingly solid scenery. Indeed, when Madame Vestris became manager of the Lyceum Theatre in 1847, Planché wrote for that theater and supervised its scenery.

Shortly before his death, Planché published his Suggestions for Establishing an English Art Theatre, a theater “not wholly controlled by the predominant taste of the public.” Although he did not live to see his project realized, Planché was responsible for two other important reforms. In 1828, an unauthorized performance of Planché’s popular historical drama, Charles XII, led him to seek legal protection. Five years later, in 1833, Parliament, as a result of the efforts of Planché’s friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, passed the Dramatic Authors Act, providing fines for appropriating a play without the consent of its author. Similarly, in 1829 Planché sued George Rodwell, who was about to publish the lyrics to Planché’s operetta The Mason of Buda without payment to the author. Planché won his suit and thereby broke the custom of publishers paying royalties to the composer of the music for an operetta but nothing to the writer of the lyrics, which were considered of little value. Thus, Planché’s reforms and innovations touched almost every aspect of nineteenth century theater, much of whose history can be discerned from his works alone.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Booth, Michael, et al. The Revels History of Drama in English, 1750-1880. Vol. 6. London: Methuen, 1976. Richly illustrated with portraits of important theatrical personalities and drawings of the innovative stagecraft of the early nineteenth century, this readable survey considers Planché among the most important playwrights between 1810 and 1850. Contains a thorough bibliography of primary sources on the Georgian and Victorian theaters.

Emeljanow, Victor. “Dramatic Forms and Their Theatrical Context.” In Victorian Popular Dramatists. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Planché is one of many dramatists on whose work Emeljanow comments as he investigates the paradox of Victorian theater: Its audiences grew and its technical expertise increased even as the literary quality of the drama declined—not only in Great Britain but also throughout the English-speaking countries worldwide.

Jenkins, Anthony. “Breaking Through the Darkness.” In The Making of Victorian Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This important study touches briefly on Planché but offers an enlightening, introductory account of the rise of realistic, spectacular stage production of the sort at which Planché excelled. Jenkins details the crucial role of the Olympic Theatre in breaking the patent theater monopoly under the direction of Planché’s sometime coentrepreneur, Madame Vestris (Lucia Elizabeth Bartolozzi).

Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of English Drama, 1660-1900. 6 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1959-1962. Planché is frequently mentioned in Nicoll’s account of “illegitimate drama,” by which is meant melodrama, farce, burlesque, burletta, and extravaganzas. Nicoll has little sympathy for Planché or any other writer who experimented outside conventional comedy and tragedy, but he provides an exhaustive list of Planché’s prolific output between 1818 and 1850.

White, Eric Walter. A History of English Opera. London: Faber and Faber, 1983. An expanded version of White’s earlier The Rise of English Opera (1951). Aimed at a general audience, A History of English Opera is a readable and sympathetic account of an art form that Nicoll derides as “illegitimate drama.” Although this volume traces opera from the early 1660’s through the 1980’s, it devotes generous attention to Planché and other Victorian practitioners, mainly through anecdotes about personalities and performances rather than the analysis of texts.