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Comedies and Farces

Planché ground out numerous comedies (or, in the parlance of the time, "comic dramas") and farces.  The bulk of these were translations from the French.  In an age marked by rampant and unabashed plagiarism, Planché was a conscientious translator.  He cited his original text and gave credit to its author for the creation of the plot and characters.  On the other hand, he was also proud of his adaptations of the dramas to suit the different cultural expectations of the British from those which shaped the French originals.

In many of his comedies, the "comic man," the likable working-class sidekick familiar from melodrama, becomes the central character.  For instance, in The Jacobite, John Duck, a tavern waiter played by J.B. Buckstone, blunders his way through various situations and finally thwarts a villain who would have forced a beautiful widow to marry him rather than the man she truly loves.  Had the piece focused on the emotions of the widow and her suitor, it would have been a standard melodrama.  However, the normal heroes of melodrama take second place to the comic man, allowing the audience to laugh at melodramatic situations usually played for tears or thrills.

Such a strategy is typical of Planché’s comedies.  That a writer who struggled to work within a melodramatic framework should proceed to ridicule melodrama in his comedy is not in itself surprising, although the relative success of the spoofs is perhaps a little more so.  Few of Planché’s comedies failed as did some of his melodramas.  The latter were often accused of being too weepy and depressing to be entertaining; however, when he was able to move in his more accustomed elements of comedy and satire, Planché’s work was far more satisfying.  He was no longer struggling to create something which, by temperament, he was ill-suited to create, but rather crafting works in which he could rejoice and take pride.

Planché’s farces are even more often direct translations from the French, but still adapted to English tastes.  At the time, the sort of implied sexual scandals allowable on the Parisian stage were unthinkable in London.  (For instance, overt suggestions of adulterous liaisons were acceptable in France if they were ridiculous enough not to inflame passions, while in England such things remained problematic.)  Therefore, Planché’s farces typically involve an unreasonably jealous husband who deserves to be humiliated for his lack of faith in his wife, while the wife, instead of the vivacious coquette of French (and later English) farces, is much more likely to be an innocent and virtuous, if lively, woman who loves her husband, despite his jealous excesses.

For instance, in The Irish Post (1846), Terence O'Grady comes to England on the Liverpool packet with a young Englishwoman who fainted from seasickness and was comforted by him.  He writes a love letter to her, unaware she is actually married.  To compound matters, her husband is one of the wealthiest clients of the young man's stockbroker uncle (played as a self-important businessman by James Bland), and the uncle gives Terence a business letter to mail to the husband.  Terence accidentally switches the envelopes, and panic spreads as he, his uncle, and finally the young wife realize the potential for catastrophe if the husband should intercept Terence's letter.  In one climactic scene, they disembowel a post box to retrieve the letters, and stuff the mail back frantically, so they will not face felony charges for tampering with the post.  The play ends happily, of course, as the jealous husband never learns of the letter, and so the wife is protected, the uncle keeps his client, but poor Terence is shipped home, so as not to cause confusion again.

This piece laughs at the confusion caused by the recently-introduced custom of addressing envelopes, rather than simply writing the address on the back of the letter, folded over.  Other comedies ridiculed the nature of contemporary literature and theater, always Planché’s favorite topic.  For instance, in A Romantic Idea, Gothic penny novels and melodramatic theater are spoofed.  The play begins as do many Gothic tales, with an outsider finding a mysterious secret in a remote place.  Hans Skelter, a young German author on a Wordsworthian walking tour, visits a small town whose people hesitate to speak the name of a nearby ruined castle, “Teufelsthurm,” or “the Devil’s Castle,” in days of yore known as “Spectresheim”  (1, 6).   Finally, the innkeeper's wife, a lively and playful woman (married, of course, to a tyrannical and jealous husband), sings a song about medieval adultery and treachery which supposedly explains the haunting of the castle by "the Demon Jester."  Hans is intrigued by the story, and decides to spend the night on the mountain.  He has a lurid dream about the song.

When he awakes, he finds an old letter which links the innkeeper to a smuggling ring.  He uses it to blackmail the innkeeper into behaving himself, and decides he will write up the legend for publication.  He earlier has complained that, unlike the great authors he admires, such literature consists of "some ultra horrible incidents—some incredible atrocity—something that nobody ought to read—[but that] it would sell like wildfire—I should be execrated and adored !"  (2, 16).  Hans' comic dilemma actually mirrors what Planché and many of his contemporaries complained about in the theater.  If they wrote what they regarded as artistic and tasteful, no one would go to see it, but if they disregarded their own instincts to please the public, they would stand a chance at box-office success.

Hans is a writer of prose, but the piece also spoofs theater.  The dream is shown, for instance, in an elaborate transformation scene, in which the cast of the other scenes of the piece take on roles indicated in the song.  Hans, for instance, is the heir born out of wedlock whom is helped by a mysterious jester.  The dream scene ends, like many melodramatic potboilers, with the appearance of a supernatural entity--in this case, the Demon Jester himself, just as the castle catches fire:

        Enter JESTER, who seizes HANS.
    JEST.  Ha ! ha ! ha ! ha !
    HANS.   The Jester.
    JEST.                     Yes, who comes
         To crown the jest.  Adolf of Spectresheim,
         I claim thy promise.
    HANS.     Don’t talk nonsense, fool,
         But shew me the way out.
    JEST.      There is no way !
         The heir of Spectresheim is pledged to grant
         The boon I ask of him.  ‘Tis but to dwell
         In flames with me for ever !
    HANS.      Me ! I’ll see you—
    JEST.  You shall—come come.
    HANS.      Help ! murder ! s’death, I had
         A pistol somewhere—ah, here ! let me go,
         Or—
    JEST.      Fire !  It is my element.  (dragging him)
    HANS.      Nay, then, here goes ! (2, 25-26)

Hans shoots, and immediately awakens as the scene returns to that of the ruined castle, now in daylight.  Planché plays with dramatic convention here as he would in his burlesques.  Audiences enamored of seductive, brazen devils (descended from such characters as Ruthven the vampire) would recognize the eerily-laughing Jester, with his grim puns, as a caricature of stage evildoers.

Of all Planché's farces and comedies, A Romantic Idea is one of the freshest for contemporary readers.  It is primarily a spoof, but it is a spoof of the sort of horror fiction and drama that still intrigue audiences today, and it provides a laugh at the weak plot devices which second-rate stories still incorporate.

Another piece which was primarily comic, but which did not mock current theater, was The Court Beauties.  Termed a “dramatic sketch,” the work was an outgrowth of the contemporary fascination with tableaux and living “statues,” and took the pictorial approach to the drama to a degree never before reached.  In the final of six scenes in this very short piece, several Olympic actresses dressed as famous “court beauties” of the reign of Charles II, and appeared in specially-prepared frames in order to resemble the portraits by Sir Peter Lely at Hampton Court.  The production was remarkable not only for the effect, but also for costuming, which Planché and Eliza Vestris took great pains to make as authentic as possible.

However, the plot was slender, consisting primarily of a series of practical jokes.  George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (James Bland) wishes to embarrass Sir Peter Lely (William Vining) by getting him drunk and then showing him a gallery of portraits of the ladies of the court, portrayed by a group of actresses seated behind the aforementioned frames.  He tells Lely another painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller, has rendered more lifelike images of the ladies than he.  Meanwhile, the King learns of the plan, and substitutes the real women for their impostors.  The Duke has become tipsy, and begins to insult the women themselves, however, the door through which they attempt to leave has been locked by the king, who appears and reveals his joke.

In a role created as a showpiece for her, Vestris portrayed Jane Tiffany, termed a “gentlewoman’s gentlewoman” in the cast of characters, who humorously manipulates three unwanted suitors of her mistress, Lady Alicia Lawson (Lely’s niece).

Each scene contains at least one air or madrigal current in the reign of Charles II, and the opening scene, set in Will’s Coffee Shop, begins and ends with Alicia Lawson’s would-be suitors good-humoredly singing madrigals.  The dialog emphasizes verbal displays of wit, resembling those of Restoration comedy.  For example, Tiffany gives each suitor another’s love-gift intended for Lady Alicia and claims each is a pledge of Lady Alicia’s interest.  When Sir George Hewit realizes the prank, he vows revenge:

     SIR G[EORGE HEWIT].  I’ll poison her monkey.
     DUKE [OF BUCKINGHAM].  Nay, that would be suicide.  (3, 21)

Similarly, when Buckingham responds to Lely’s comments that the “paintings” look lifelike enough to be the actual women, “The ladies themselves!  No, rot it, Sir Peter, the pictures arn’t [sic] half so highly painted”  (6, 30).

Potential prudery was an issue with this play.  The morally questionable behavior of the court of the Merry Monarch could, with some restrictions, be presented onstage in a way which more recent activities of nobility and royalty could not.  The obscene poetry of the Earl of Rochester, or the keeping of mistresses by noblemen, for instance, was impossible to display, but the ladies’ vanity and flirtations as well as the men’s drinking and revelry could be presented.  As in farces, extramarital affairs could be hinted at but not depicted.  Moreover, presenting a more recent Duke in a state of drunkenness might also be difficult; as would slandering noblewomen of the courts of George III or IV.  History provided a filter for material.

The lightness of plot and the recreation of seventeenth-century costumes, speech, music, and habits, are summarized in a speech given to Tiffany at the finale:

     ’Tis a mere sketch—its sole intent and aim
     To give some well-known pictures here a frame.  (6, 31)

Like a sketch done as a study for a painting, The Court Beauties provides a study of a subject more than a finished treatment.  It entertains in the sheer zeal and variety of what it shows in its short time, but it has little depth.  However, to resurrect the past, Planché provided references to London monuments built during the reign of Charles and footnotes to explain their relevance in the published version.  He even gave a footnote attesting to Sir George Hewit’s preference for the oath “demme”  (1, 6).  The piece is essentially musical comic antiquarianism.

The effects cost so much that the production had no hope of making a profit in its first season, although Vestris and Mathews revived it often  (Mathews 2, appendix B, 423-24).  However, unlike many such expenditures, the effects satisfied Planché, for they drew attention to the performers rather than away from them.  The acting was the main reason for the effect—for instance, the looks of rage on the women’s faces as the inebriated men insulted them, oblivious to their presence, provided much of the humor of the climactic scene.

Although termed a “drama,” An Old Offender mocks the "Newgate" melodramas popular in the 1850s, crime dramas named for a famous prison.  These plays usually portrayed at least one criminal in a sympathetic light, for instance as driven by desperation or hunger into a life of crime, and then preyed upon by more hardened characters.  In An Old Offender, an honest man is mistaken for the eighteenth-century robber Jack Sheppard, and finds a group of thieves following him about as if he is their leader.  The man, of course, is in absolute panic for his life lest the thieves discover his true identity, and clumsily tries to adapt to their criminal jargon.  (Such slang was a major appeal for the audience, just as eighty years later in the early gangster movies.)  The man eventually escapes and informs the police of the thieves' whereabouts; the whole piece ridicules the stereotypic criminals of the contemporary stage, and like A Romantic Idea, makes pleasant reading for audiences still confronted with predictable criminals in much entertainment.  Like The Court Beauties, the play provided an interesting glimpse at life in the past, also.

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