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Classical Burlesques

Planché is most noted as an author for his extravaganzas and burlesques, which feature abundant puns, musical parodies, and an elegant, refined sense of play.  Properly speaking, burlesques are sendups of the stories they adapted, while extravaganzas are musical comic adaptations of the source tales.  However, the two terms were used almost interchangeably by contemporary critics.  If any pattern is observable, it is that the pieces based on mythology were "burlesques" and those based on fairy tales were "extravaganzas."

Planché's extravaganzas and burlesques have been recognized by scholars, including Allardyce Nicoll, as precursors of W.S. Gilbert's works (a relation the latter freely acknowledged).  (For discussions of the issues involved, see, for instance, Nicoll, World Drama, and Granville-Barker.) Like Gilbert's comic plays and operas, Planché's creations feature a strong emphasis on character development which, however eccentric, had to remain consistent to what we would today call psychology.  An abundance of topical humor, poking fun at everything from fashion to politics, also permeate their works.  However, while Gilbert's parodies and jokes are highly satirical and biting, Planché's are gentler, reminiscent of the work of later American humorist Frank Morris.

Planché wrote eight classically-inspired pieces, including a a parody of Medea and a spoof of a popular French young people's novella of the time (by François de la Mothe Fénélon), Telemachus; or, the Island of Calypso (Olympic, 1834), which provides a playful recounting of that character's search for Ulysses.  In truth, Telemachus is an adaptation of a novella burlesquing mythology, and therefore it is an extravaganza.  Also an extravaganza, in its strictest sense, is an adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds (Haymarket, 1846), which was offered as satire, not burlesque.  Planché went to considerable lengths to point out that it was not a burlesque; however, most critics and theatergoers seem to have been oblivious to the difference.  On the other hand, his final classical piece, Orpheus in the Haymarket 1865), is a definite burlesque, not so much of the Orpheus myth (which Planché had earlier adapted as Olympic Devils; or, Orpheus and Eurydice, Olympic, 1831), but of Jâcques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers).

Planché's first classical burlesque occured as a result of his meeting with Eliza Vestris.  She was assuming the management (with Laura Honey) of the Olympic Theatre, a small, run-down playhouse in a very rough neighborhood, and she had enjoyed some of Planché's early work.  He wanted a chance to create the sorts of entertainment he had admired on the French stage, and offered to write a burlesque in the French style (subtler than the broad humor then popular in England) for Vestris.  Seemingly because Vestris had been married to a French ballet dancer, Armand Vestris, and was herself of mixed French and Italian ancestry, the English public always seemed willing to accept "foreign" material from her.

Using the name of the theater as a pun, Planché brought out an old burlesque he had written shortly after his marriage, based on the myth of Pandora. Olympic Revels came out in time for the opening night of the newly redecorated theater, January 3, 1831.  (Evidently Vestris had hoped to cash in on the profitable Christmastide season, but had been unable to open on Boxing Day.)  Dance had helped him update the humor, replacing old, stale topical references with more current ones, although the work remained primarily Planché's.  The play opened on Jupiter, Hercules, Uranus, and Pluto involved in a game of whist.  The costuming was as correct as Planché's research could make it, and contrasted amusingly with the slangy, contemporary speech and mundane actions of the deities.  Jupiter, for instance, inquires after Apollo, whom he wishes to regale him with a song, and is told the sun god has gone to practice in his glee club, a common fad of the time. Bacchus is at a pub, Juno is doing the laundry, and so forth; the gods appear to behave exactly as contemporary Englishmen do.

The piece also gave Vestris' classically-trained voice a showcase.  For example, when Pandora appears to Pygmalion, she introduced herself with lyrics sung to the tune of Giuseppe Rossini’s The William Tell Overture, only recently performed in London:

    My only name is Pandora—a—a—a—a, &c.
    This morn I came from Mount Etna—a—a—a—a, &c.
    By Jove I am sent to be,
    Your chère amie, and so d’ye see,
    I’ll have you if you’ll have me,
    Etcetera—a—a—a—a, &c.
    My only name is Pandora—a—a—a—a, &c.  (3, 55)

The play was such a hit that Vestris requested another for the following Boxing Day.  Still punning on the theater's name, Planché and Dance churned out Olympic Devils, a burlesque of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  For the first burlesque, the newly-opened theater had almost no budget for scenery, and so relied on a few pre-existing flats.  For Devils, however, Vestris (always admired for taste if not frugality) commissioned all new scenery, including realistic views of Bronze-Age Greece.  The play again was a hit.  Soon other playwrights were developing similar works, including the Irish writer Samuel Lover, who created The Olympic Pic-nic.  The actions of the other playwrights prompted Planché and Dance to attempt their first fairy extravaganzas as a way of staying ahead of the market.

Planché wrote other classical pieces over the course of his career.  His third piece, Venus and Adonis; or, the Paphian Bower (Olympic, 1832) starred Vestris as the goddess of love, and opened with a spoof of contemporary sentimentalism.  When the curtain went up, the audience beheld a picturesque scene of a temple where Hymen is placing hearts together on a flaming altar (and turning them with tongs as if grilling meat), the Graces are striking emblematic poses, and Cupid is sharpening his arrows on a common grinding wheel.  Later, the nine Muses arrive via public omnibus, and so forth.  The puns also crowd together: for instance, after Mars discovers Venus's passion for Adonis, the latter offers to meet Mars in a duel, which the god of war refuses, remarking that he is a "Planet, and not a shooting star"  (1, 101).  Later, before Adonis is to be gored by the wild boar, Mars remarks that he will "Cry havoc, and let slip the hogs of war"  (2, 106).

When "Sea Serpent" sightings became a craze in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly off the shores of the Maritime Provinces and New England, "the Great American Sea Serpent" appeared in many of Planché's musical comedies.  In his fourth classical burlesque, The Deep Deep Sea; or Perseus and Andromeda (Olympic, 1833), Amphitrite summon the Serpent, and they together sing another parody of "Yankee Doodle" in which the monster promises to ravage the coast of Africa (in reference to American slavery):

AMPH[ITRITE].  Yankee Doodle !  munch ’em down,
                                            Fat and lean and bony,
SER[PENT].     I can swallow human kind,
                                            As fast as macaroni.
                          Mister (to Neptune), now, upon my soul,
                                            It’s true as any rifle ;
                          Only you ask uncle Ben,
                                             Who owes me that ’ere trifle.
AMPH.              Yankee Doodle ! munch ’em up,
SER.                                      Since for me you cater ;
                           See if I ain’t half a horse,
                                              And half an alligator.
CHORUS.          Yankee Doodle !  munch ’em up,
                                              Yankee Doodle Dandy !
                            Breakfast, lunch, and dine and sup,
                                              And with your jaws be handy.  (1, 155)
Suggesting the overlap between the two genres, in a fairy extravaganza, The King of the Peacocks (Lyceum, 1848), the Serpent chats with the captain of a Chinese junk, explaining that he is going to dine at the Admiralty in London. He will not be "the first odd fish they've seen at their board / And he can tell 'em something 'bout the ocean," unlike many another "naval lord"  (Extravaganzas 2, 286).

The strong reliance on musical spoofs in burlesque is exemplified by "Yankee Doodle" and also by the scene where Perseus first appears, riding Pegasus and singing a parody of "Ride a Cock-Horse":

    Ride a wing’d horse,
    The country across,
    I’ve killed an old woman,
    Both ugly and cross ;
    Ringlets of vipers hung down to her toes ;
    Her name was Medusa, as all the world knows.  (2, 155-56)

The fifth classical burlesque was the Telemachus already mentioned.

The sixth classical piece was the partial spoof of Euripides already mentioned, The Golden Fleece; or, Jason in Colchis and Medea in Corinth (Haymarket, 1845).  Planché had left his classical pieces behind for eleven years; his return was prompted by a revival of Sophocles’ Antigone (with music adapted from Felix Mendelssohn) “on a raised stage and in the Greek manner” at Covent Garden   (Extravaganzas vol 3, 8).  This same production was lampooned mercilessly in the humor magazine Punch via a long, mock-heroic poem, which included the following lines:

    A feeling of classical rapture comes o’er us,
    Which is smashed when there enters a queer-looking Chorus,
    With sheets on their shoulders and rouge on their cheeks;
    Though Greek in their guise, they are sad guys of Greeks.  (8, 42)

Planché "could not resist the temptation to burlesque—not the sublime poetry of the Greek dramatist . . . but the modus operandi of that classical period, which clearly illustrates . . . that there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous"  (7-8)

The burlesque is remarkable for its second act, which Planché, in a letter to C. J. Mathews referred to as "a pretty close parody" of the Greek tragedy.  In it, the dialog and plot move closely to the tragedy, and especially to the production.  However, a typical humorous strategy in the burlesques involved trivializing the painful or profound moments of the original myths; at every turn, the play defuses the tragic passion:  for instance, King Creon, played by James Bland, was identified purposely with AEetes, the King of Colchis, in Act One.  The Chorus, played by Mathews, complains that the audience will know he is the same man, although in a different wig, eliminating any possible sympathy for a character thus rendered into a joke.  Again, at the climax, when the revival's Medea drew a large dagger out of a sheath, Vestris' Medea produced a willow wand from a similar sheath.  When Medea and Jason hurl epithets at each other as the former is flying away in the solar chariot, Planché's Medea, resorting to baby talk, tells Jason that the boys (who stand up and wave) are to be enrolled in boarding school.

The seventh classical piece did not appear until 1848, although Planché's 1847 Haymarket revue, The New Planet, came close to being a classical burlesque, since it featured the classical gods, who represented the heavenly bodies which were named after them, echoing humor found in his earlier works.  In 1848, Theseus and Ariadne; or, the Marriage of Bacchus, appeared at the Lyceum.  Again in 1853, another Haymarket revue, Mr. Buckstone's Ascent of Mount Parnassus, this time written for his friend J. B. Buckstone as the latter assumed the management of that theater, featured classical deities and demigods, without specifically burlesquing any one myth.

In 1865, nearly a decade after the writer had retired from theatrical work, Planché's very last piece written entirely on his own for the professional stage was undertaken for his old friend, J. B. Buckstone.  It was the parody previously mentioned of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, called (by an unnamed friend of Buckstone's) Orpheus in the Haymarket.  Planché disliked the name, although he did not record why.  Although Planché found the libretto rather tasteless, with its suggestions of adultery and its broad humor, he admired the music and was lured by Buckstone's assurances that they would have fine musical talent to work with  (Extravaganzas 5, 233).  The dialogue is a masterpiece of sarcastic self-reference, which Donald Roy also treats in his introduction to Plays by J. R. Planché.  For instance, at the several points, characters discuss the merits and demerits of the operatic plot, which altered the classical myth considerably.  However, for the most part, the promised musical talent did not come through, although Planché was able to create some striking self-reflexive humor and make use of some newly-invented stage techniques for his drama, including a large electrical arc which shot across the stage from Pluto to Orpheus as a way to get the latter to look back and lose his chance to rescue Eurydice from the underworld.

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