An Anatomy of Farce



The Times     9 September 1992 

With Ray Cooney back on stage, Michael Arditti looks at what goes into a good farce

In 1870, Nietzche wrote ‘in our day, only the farce and the ballet may be said to thrive’.   If you substitute musical for ballet, much the same may be said of the West End today.  Don’t Dress For Dinner by Marc Camoletti, author of Boeing Boeing, continues in its second year at the Apollo, while veteran British farceur Ray Cooney’s new play It Runs In The Family follows the record-breaking Run For Your Wife.

Of all theatrical terms, farce is the one used most loosely – and cynically.  Andy de la Tour, the author of three political farces and the most recent translator of Dario Fo, notes how Fo’s plays are always billed as farces even though, with the exception of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, the description is false.  They may have a madcap quality but not the genuine farcical motor and momentum. ‘The term is used to reassure people:    it may be about a political subject, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

To many audiences, laughter is the litmus test of farce.  Ray Cooney declares:  ‘Someone once said the sole purpose of farce is to get laughs.’ That is a perfectly respectable ambition.  People need to laugh, even in adversity, hence the traditional Jewish joke. Meanwhile, the first casualty of mental illness is a sense of humour.  Playwright and novelist, John Mortimer, goes further, seeing farce as the quintessential dramatic genre: ‘Most of life is farce. Whoever said history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce was right.’

The word itself derives from the French for ‘stuffing’ and refers to the medieval custom of either ‘stuffing’ a programme with several short pieces or the liturgy with comic scenes.  Traditional French farce has its roots in Moliere and commedia dell ‘arte; but the first generally accepted English version is little more than a hundred years old:  The Private Secretary, adapted from the German by Charles Hawtrey in the 1880s and starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

This was followed by the ‘Court’ farces of Arthur Pinero; the most celebrated of which. The Magistrate, contains the archetypal farcical plot, in which the hero, a pillar of Victorian society, escapes in compromising circumstances from the police and appears in court with a filthy collar and black eye.   As Brian Rix, long a byword for the genre, puts it ‘All farces have the same thread running through them, though they may be presented differently:  people with reputations to lose caught in situations where they can lose them.’

Farce is the most conservative dramatic form.   Ray Cooney admits ‘I’m writing the same thing that I was writing thirty years ago.  The trimmings are more sophisticated, but the heart is still as naive.’  Andy de la Tour agrees that ‘Farce has more set rules than anything else;   it’s 1ike a piece of music or a sonnet’.  And yet it need not serve a conservative purpose.  De la Tour adds:    ‘You can make  it  about  anything you want.  Whatever the cover-up, whether it’s a mistress in a cupboard orcorruption in high places, it’s still a farce.’

The action of a farce is propelled by panic, with characters lying to save face, which compounds their troubles since they now have to deal not only with the original problem but also the lie and hence they behave even more bizarrely.   The art of a master farceur is supreme, as Marcel Achard said of Feydeau:  ‘It is not simple to combine the skill of a clockmaker, an inventor, a chess-player, a mathematician and a comic writer.’

Despite the common ground of laughter, the world of farce is very different to that of comedy.   In John Mortimer’s view, ‘Comedy is to do with people saying funny lines.  In farce, after the first ten minutes there’s no time to make jokes because they’re so busy running around;  the laughs come from character and situation.   The biggest laughs in farce are on lines like “what?”‘

In fact, farce is more akin to tragedy.   As Ned Sherrin says, ‘It’s the same complications:  people put in impossible situations, but with different results.’   The discovery of two simple  items of  clothing – braces and a handkerchief – can produce the very different dramas of A Flea In Her Ear and Othello.   Jumping into a grave is tragic in Hamlet,  whereas tampering with a coffin is farcical in Loot.  As Mortimer neatly defines it:  ‘Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions a minute.’

This emphasis on speed is also of the essence, both in the writing and playing of farce. Feydeau declared ‘When in one of my pieces, two characters must not meet, I bring them together as soon as I can.’  Which is why so many writers, whether Ben Travers at the Aldwych, Brian Rix at the Whitehall or even Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas in the Carry On films, have relied on a stock troupe of actors.  Instant identification saves time.

Cooney maintains that farce needs the most generous actors: ‘There’s no time to stand centre-stage making flowery speeches or intellectualising problems’.  Subtlety hampers speed.  The result is to bypass normal audience identification.  As Mortimer says, ‘the audience’s response has nothing to do with fellow feeling, because the actors themselves have no feelings.’  It is rather recognition that we might be in the situation ourselves coupled with relief that we are not.

Orton  may  have  inverted  it  and  Fo  subverted  it,  but traditional farce still aims for the happy ending and endorses the status quo.  Changes in social convention have been reflected in the humour – as Cooney remarks ‘When I first played with Brian Rix, we were allowed only one “bloody” in an evening’ – but the conventional virtues of hearth and home continue to be extolled.  Thus, although the central couple in Don’t Dress for Dinner are rampant adulterers and a worse advertisement for marriage could not be found, come the final curtain, they trot merrily up to bed.

They are, however, French and, by definition, immoral.  We  may have appropriated French maids and French windows as farcical devices, but we have never embraced the French attitude to sex.  In English farce adultery is unacceptable;  in French it’s simply expensive.   There may be more beds in Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce than in any Feydeau and yet they are put to quite innocent use.

Despite such innocent pleasure, farce is frequently derided.  In the seventeenth century Dryden declared  ‘The persons and actions of a farce are all unnatural and their manners false’ and his view would find many adherents today.   Michael Frayn, author of the most virtuosic modern farce. Noises Off, regards such criticism as self-protection:   ‘In laughing at it you have lost your moral dignity, and don’t like to admit it afterwards – you don’ t like to concede the power of the people who have reduced you to such behaviour.’

Farce remains a uniquely theatrical genre.   To sit racked with laughter in an audience six or seven hundred strong is very different from tittering to the canned laughter of a sit-com on TV.   The obituarists periodically file their notices and even Brian Rix admits that bedroom farce is dead – ‘The public no longer wants to see middle-aged ladies in slips and middle-aged gents with large tummies running around the stage thinking that their sexual prowess is  undimmed.’  But, in other guises, it radiates good health.  So long as the lies are big enough, the plot convoluted enough and the person important enough, there will always be farce.