Planché was fascinated by what he regarded as the sophisticated wit of such writers as d'Aulnoy and the other fairy romancers of France in the years around 1700. His scholarship in translating collections of these tales, with endnotes regarding the historical background of their writing, is astounding. He searched out items as divergent as popular toys of the time and references to particular shopkeepers in d'Aulnoy's Paris. However, for the stage, the scholar had to bow to the showman. His extravaganzas featured gorgeous special effects, excellent singing and dancing, and eye-catching costumes (where his scholarship could and did prove useful). Still, his self-referential humor and his abundant topical references and puns provided much of the appeal. For instance, in 1848, in The Bee and the Orange Tree, he spoofed the current Railway Bubble, a stock market plunge caused by the myriads of railroad companies whose bad management left many individuals penniless. He has an ogre remark "Since the panic started in the City, / Why, we've eat a whole Provisional Committee" as various railway executives flee London to escape legal action. Additional humor was generated by the fact that one of the actors was named Hudson, while the single most conspicuous fleeing manager was the "Railway King," George Hudson, and care was taken to emphasize this coincidence on the program.
Despite his love affair with the genre, Planché's first fairy extravaganza grew out of a need to vary his productions. By 1836, his classical pieces had grown so popular that other writers were copying his work, and he wanted to do something different. Eliza Vestris had grown accustomed to the success of the burlesques and so was hesitant to change. However, the writers' confidence was such that Vestris was persuaded that such a piece might work, and so Planché dusted off his translation of a French comedy he had witnessed while honeymooning in Paris sixteen years earlier, Riquet with the Tuft. Based on Perrault's tale Riquet à la Houppe, this adaptation by Charles-Augustin de Bassompierre Sewrin and Nicholas Brazier was comic but still suggested the tension and potential heartbreak of a good fairy story. Planché had long wished to write such a work for the English stage; prior to this time, fairy tales were treated as vehicles for broad humor and for elaborate scenic effects, but not for a poignant dramatization. He felt the plays could be much more effective if adapted in a way truer to their original spirit, allowing for both fun and more serious moments.
C. J. Mathews became his Riquet and Vestris his Princess Esmeralda (Riquet's love interest). Charles Bland played Esmeralda's father. Critics were generally happy with the performance, and indeed praised Vestris' portrayal of the simpleminded princess and Bland as the vain and stupid king for evoking just the kind of pathos and humor Planché was hoping for. However, Mathews, despite delighting the audiences, disappointed Planché. Mathews was an excellent comic in his line, that of an elegant, handsome man-about-town puzzled by whatever madness was occurring around him, but not for the tragicomic Prince Riquet as Planché had conceived the character. Even so, the enormous success of the play assured the possibility of future fairy extravaganzas.
The next fairy extravaganza, Puss in Boots (Olympic, 1837), was conceived specifically for the Vestris-Mathews company. (Indeed, Riquet would remain the only fairy-tale play Planché ever adapted from another dramatist's work.) The character of Puss was far more in Mathews' accustomed line, as a wise-cracking and well-meaning assistant who fretted about his appearance. Vestris assumed a breeches role as the young man whom Puss befriends, and Bland was again a king. This piece established a pattern which future extravaganzas would follow, with Mathews always in a humorous part, Vestris in a part designed, in some fashion, to showcase her beauty and singing ability (in Puss, her character even sings the words of the will that deprives him of all his expected inheritance), and with Bland as a pompous authority figure. For instance, in Beauty and the Beast (Olympic, 1841), Mathews was a sarcastic clerk; Vestris played Beauty in a Versailles-inspired white dress with pink trim; and Bland was her father, a speechifying former Lord Mayor of London.
In one particularly interesting extravaganza, Planché used the same strategy he employed in his parody of Medea to lessen the shock of a potentially gruesome scene. In Blue Beard (Olympic, 1839), when the young wife opens the door to the "Blue Room" she has been told to never enter, the nineteen bodies of former wives mentioned in this bloodiest of fairy-tale scenes sway in time to music, as their heads, which they hold in their hands, sing a nonsense song to which the character makes punning comments. Planché was comfortable evoking sadness, tenderness, and even fear in his fairy adaptations, but there were limits not only imposed by his audience's expectations, but by his own willingness to explore. Gore simply had no place in Fairyland.
His writing for the Vestris-Mathews ensemble was interrupted, briefly, when the company went to work for William Macready at the Drury-Lane Theatre during the 1842-43 season. A dispute over contract issues led Mathews and Vestris to walk out, while Bland and Planché remained. The play Fortunio and His Seven Gifted Servants (based on d'Aulnoy's Belle-belle, ou le chevalier Fortuné) was Planché's first extravaganza without his friends. It was also the first in which Priscilla Horton acted, taking the title role of a young noblewoman who poses as a man to relieve her ailing father from military service. Similar to roles attempted by Vestris, it allowed Horton to dress in a typical "boy" costume with knee breeches, stockings, buckle shoes, and a tight vest with loose sleeves--a parody of eighteenth century men's costumes designed to show off the woman's figure. More importantly, it allowed Horton to showcase her fine voice and great emotional range. In the years to come, she would act in many Planché works, her refined sense of humor and pathos actually surpassing many of Vestris' own accomplishments.
In addition, Fortunio permitted Macready and his colleague, Ellen Tree (who acted in some of Planché's finest melodramatic successes), to have input into the production of an extravaganza. Planché found that the tragedians actually had a very good instinct for how the work should be performed, with the right tension between passion and playfulness, and their coaching helped the actors to achieve the desired effect. Although Macready soon came to despise Planché (the two men were of such differing temperaments that they could not easily get along, Macready proud and serious, and Planché garrulous and fun-loving), the writer remained impressed with the tragedian's insight (see, for instance, J.C. Trewin and Alan S. Downer). Shortly afterward, Planché and Bland were reunited with Mathews and Vestris, but the input of the noted actors of tragedy and "serious" drama remained a valuable experience for Planché.
His art blossomed with the addition of Horton to the company, for she was a fine singer and a gifted mimic, whose breeches roles became amusing parodies of male behavior, rather than the elegant sex appeal of Vestris' portrayals. This was particularly noted by critics in Fortunio, but also occurred elsewhere.
At other times, her figure and musical prowess were more in demand. In The Invisible Prince, Horton as the hero, Prince Leander, poses in classical draperies as a statue to observe Vestris' Amazon princess. (The latter is miserable, loving Leander from a portrait, while her fairy mother has forbidden her to even look upon males.) The princess's subjects sing the recent American import, "Wait for the Wagon", to cheer their princess who has told them of her passion for the stranger in the picture. After the Amazonian chorus, Leander comes to life and continues:
I do believe you, sweet Princess,
And take you at your word;
I vow to make you happy,
And prove your ma absurd.
So donít mind that she-dragon,
My dear, my lovely bride,
But jump my gallant nag on,
And off with me ride.
Jump, jump my nag on,
And away with me ride. (vi)
The echo of the original words provides most of the humor; in the meanwhile, Horton's bell-like voice, accompanied by a harp, provided considerable musical enjoyment. Horton took some of her experience with extravaganza into her later career, also, when she helped launch the career of W.S. Gilbert.
Despite these well-received works, by most accounts, Planché's greatest comic triumphs occurred during his relatively brief collaboration with Frederick Robson. Throughout his career, Planché had searched for performers who could handle both comic and serious roles with equal skill. Vestris and Mathews, although acclaimed in The Day of Reckoning (Lyceum, 1850), were often hissed if they tried anything other than their familiar burlesque parts. Near the end of his career, Planché discovered Robson, and they worked together for three years. Planché's The Yellow Dwarf (Olympic, 1854), based on d'Aulnoy's Le Nain jaune, allowed Robson to develop both the comic and tragic elements of the role of a freakish imp in love with a beautiful princess who shuns him. This eternal outsider amused audiences by absurd dances and songs, touched them with the poignancy of his hopeless love, and startled them with his wrath at rejection. Queen Victoria enjoyed Robson's acting enough to see the play several times (see George Rowell, Queen Victoria Goes to the Theater); in his notes (Extravaganzas 5, 35), Planché quotes W. M. Thackeray as being so moved by the tragic ending as to proclaim, "This is no burlesque; it is an idyl!"
Robson's next Planché role was as Prince Richcraft, a similarly skulking, malicious, but pathetic figure in The Discreet Princess; or, the Three Glass Distaffs (Olympic, 1855), based on L'Adroite princesse. His performance drew especial praise from William James, who remembered seeing it in his youth. Robson's final Planché role was Zephyr in Young and Handsome (Olympic 1856), in which he acted well, but without the universal acclaim of the earlier roles. Zephyr was an airy spirit, alien to human feelings, who assumes human form briefly, only to find love very problematical, as he sings in a parody of "Comin' through the Rye"
If a body love a body,In this character, Robson also danced in the style of prima ballerina Marie Taglioni. The role was entertaining, but seemed to remove Robson from his niche as a grotesque and unhappy man who becomes a villain because of rejection. It also led to the early collapse of the production, for Robson hurt his leg in the demanding dance and had to turn the role over to other performers, depriving the public of their much-loved star. (For more information on Robson and his characters, consult Mollie Sands' Robson of the Olympic.)
As somebody I,
If a body snub a body,
It makes a body cry.
Every lass has got her lad,
To kiss one if I try,
Up comes a hulking chap, half mad,
And says, ď Iíll punch you in your eye !Ē (4, 179)
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