Although Planché's dramas and melodramas never achieved the acclaim of his burlesques and extravaganzas, he yet had some singular successes, most of which were published as acting editions by Lacy's, Miller's, and French's publishing houses. In all, about half his works which did not feature vocal music as a primary component (including those labeled drama, melodrama, or farce) were so published. Although he and contemporary critics made distinctions between "melodrama" and "serious drama," the distinctions depend upon problematic perceptions which cannot be detailed here for each specific theatrical work. Essentially, "melodrama" was melodic drama, or drama in which music played a key role in heightening emotion. It was also written primarily to entertain, while "serious" drama was written to explore a philosophical or artistic perception. Serious drama also often utilized music, although not to the same extent as melodrama. Many of Planché's dramatic works seemed to contemporary critics to straddle the line between melodrama and serious drama; the modern reader is apt to find most of them to be relatively sophisticated melodramas.
His first ticket-office triumph was an adaptation of Charles Nodier's Le Vampire (itself based on John Polidori's novella The Vampyre). The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (Lyceum, then called the English Opera House, 1820) introduced the "vampire trap" as a way for the title fiend to appear in a dream at the beginning and then to vanish into the earth at his destruction. Planché was frustrated, however, because Nodier (who loved Scotland) had set the play there rather than in a country where people believed in vampires. However, Planché's producer, Samuel Arnold, insisted on the Scottish setting, because Scottish music was then popular in London and the costume department had the appropriate apparel in stock. Nodier's play was also the basis of an opera by Heinrich Märschner, Der Vampyr, whose libretto Planché was able to translate into English in 1827 (produced again by Arnold at the English Opera House). The writer exulted in moving the setting to Wallachia and designing appropriate costumes. (By 1827, ethnological accuracy mattered to the London public, so Arnold saw a reason for the expenditure.)
In 1822, Planché also
wrote or co-authored Ali Pacha (
One difficulty for scholars is placing Planché's role in creating Ali Pacha. It was also published, with slight differences in stage directions, by J. Lowndes as being by the American dramatist John Howard Payne. One obvious alternative, that either man plagiarized, seems out of character for both; however, given the current lack of document evidence, the other logical deduction, that they collaborated, cannot be borne out. (They do seem to have worked together on Clari; or the Maid of Milan, the opera in which Payne gave the world the quintessentially melodramatic song, "There's No Place Like Home." Also called "Home, Sweet Home," the melody is by Sir Henry Bishop, the most respected English composer of his time, and a man who would work with Planché several times through his career. See Evans 32.) All that is certain about Ali Pacha is that the contemporary press accepted Planché as the author, even though Payne was already known and respected in England.
In 1828, The Mason of Buda, Planché created what would become his signature dramatic type, an open-hearted middle-class man who provides most of the plot action. In this case, it is Peter Stein, a stonemason in the city of Buda (now part of Budapest) who is kidnapped by a Turkish warlord and forced to entomb alive an Austro-Hungarian nobleman and the Arab slave with whom he has fallen in love. Stein saves the day by returning to rescue the pair that night. With such characters, Planché furthered a tendency which was already very much part of melodrama's appeal for working- and middle-class audiences--the emergence of commoners of strong moral principle who save the nobles or royalty around them, and who are then rewarded in a manner which affirms democratic feelings without truly ever articulating them.
In the same year, Planché wrote Charles XII.; or, The Siege of Stralsund (Drury Lane), a genteelly comic portrayal of the Swedish king, in which historically-authentic costume and set design helped create the illusion of period. The king himself undergoes relatively few adventures in the play; most of the action is provided by commoners whose lives intersect his, especially a jovial middle-aged homesteader named Adam Brock. Brock is a memorable character, in many ways reminiscent of Simon Eyre in Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, and yet the king's stage portrait particularly please Planché and fascinated his contemporaries, for all agreed that William Farren, who portrayed the king, seemed the very embodiment of the monarch. (Farren had also portrayed Ali Pacha, although with far less acclaim, for critics had wanted to see a stern, cerebral Ali, mirroring the real strongman. See, for instance, Daniel and Sargent in their introductions to the acting editions.)
Planché also wrote The Brigand; an Operatic Drama (Drury Lane, 1829), based loosely both on a French melodrama, Le Bandit, and even more loosely on the life of Italian brigand Alessandro Massaroni (who, like Ali Pacha, had died recently), and in so doing turned a vicious killer into an endearing Robin Hood who meets a poetically sad end. (For information on the real Massaroni, see Giuseppe Pinacchia.) This "operatic drama" featured even more singing than many contemporary melodramas, and boasted set designs and costumes derived from paintings of brigands in and around Sonnino (the haunt of the real Massaroni) by Planché's friend Sir Charles Eastlake. Along with Eastlake's paintings, Planché's costuming and the resultant theater portraits helped establish a vogue for "brigand" scenes that lasted for many years. Many such portraits are preserved in the Harvard University Collection, some of them artistically colored by hand. (For a discussion of this art form, see George Speaight; for discussions and examples of the brigand images generally, see both Pinacchia and Martin Meisel.)
So visually was this play conceived that tableaux vivants formed one of its greatest attractions. These are moments during which the actors freeze in one position for several seconds, to allow the audience to enjoy the scenes--in this case, comparing them to Eastlake's original paintings. (For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Meisel.) Although the Brigand did not mark the first use of such tableaux in British theater (as many authorities claim), it certainly helped initiate a fad for such scenes in the years to come.
As The Brigand suggests, the boundary between opera and drama was fuzzy for Planché and most of his contemporaries. For instance, in 1835 he translated Eugène Scribe's libretto to Jâcques-François Halévy's opera La Juive as a melodrama, The Jewess (Dury Lane). This drama also provides a glimpse into Planché's ideas of character development. Although Planché balked at having to do so, he changed the original tragic ending for a "happy" one, denying the Jewish heroine her moral triumph over Christian bigotry as a martyr. (Almost as with the fictitious grandson given Ali Pacha, she is the biological daughter of the persecuting Christian churchman. In Planché's revision, her Jewish adoptive father still dies, but due to heart failure rather than in a terrifying rush to join his beloved daughter in her death.) Both versions were entirely melodramatic, but, unlike the French, English audiences demanded that beautiful young heroines should live regardless of the circumstances. With other pieces of recent memory, audiences actually rioted over the disappointment of their is expectations. Although the translation was a financial success, Planché regretted the change enough to published his version with an apology to Scribe and to his readers, and provided a translation of the original text along with his revision.
The majority of Planché's dramatic output was finished by the mid 1830s. As he came into greater prominence as a writer of musical comedy, he shied away from a form of theater which had always produced mixed results for him. (Despite his successes, the failure of approximately half his melodramatic and dramatic works to be published indicates their unevenness.)
Planché's final major dramatic success was in the "genteel melodrama" of The Day of Reckoning (Lyceum, 1850; based on Émile Souvestre's L'Enfant de Paris). (A genteel melodrama attempted to show the life of the upper classes and to do so in a relatively subtle way, although subtle only by comparison to the haunted houses, exploding ships, collapsing bridges and burning tenements which marked much other melodrama.) In it C.J. Mathews and Eliza Vestris both achieved considerable acclaim for "natural" acting (based on French practice) which belied the usual declamatory style of English melodrama (for a discussion of the development of French acting, see, for instance, Gabrielle Hyslop).
Typically, even in relatively somber works such as A Day of Reckoning, abundant humor enlivens the characters and heightens the other emotions by contrast. Planché's main gifts as a dramatist were in creating lively dialog and eccentric, character-based humor, and these pervade his dramas and melodramas, setting off the darker scenes (such as in Day, which ends with a duel killing both the protagonist and the chief villain). It is for his comic writing that Planché was best received as a playwright.