We were very fortunate to have our own Simon Webb deliver the Sunday Coffee Talk lecture for Black Comedy on Sept 20. He plays the character Georg Bamburger, who doesn’t make his entrance until late in the play. This meant that, as well as his own wealth of experience as a performer, he was able to bring knowledge of the play’s rehearsal process–knowing the intimate details that went into its creation. It is always interesting to know the background of a play, especially one so bound to a genre and comic tradition as Black Comedy is to Farce.
“Farce is one of our most enduring and influential dramatic forms. Farces over three hundred years old are still making people laugh today.
The recipe for Farce is simple and time-honoured. First, take a handful of stock characters, stereotypes that reflect our too-human faults and failings: pride, greed, lust, deceit, jealousy, snobbery – all the good stuff. Add to this a simple plot-premise, say, a man trying to muster the courage to propose. Throw in a tiny problem or obstacle, such as mentioning an ancient property dispute between the two families, and watch as the mixture ferments. Misunderstanding multiplies miraculously, manic desperation sets in, fantastic stratagems are wildly improvised. Yet the poor sap who started it all always has the irrational and unshakeable belief that if he can survive the next two minutes, everything will be alright. And he’s always horribly and hysterically wrong. But while Farce is relentless in pointing out human idiocy, it is also very forgiving of it. Despite everybody’s flaws, things always turn out right in the end–usually by the luck of blind Fate, seldom by the wisdom of the characters.
The word ‘farce’ is originally French, and means ‘stuffing,’ in the culinary sense, ‘padding’ in the sense of padding a speech or presentation. The first farces, back in the late middle ages, were just this second kind of stuffing – short comic plays to pad the short breaks in those long and very serious presentations, Morality Plays. I imagine that for the common person, those early farces were a welcome respite from five hours of compulsory upliftment. The characters in morality plays were abstractions of human and supernatural virtues and vices–highly sophisticated, but remote from everyday life in the trenches–whereas these early farces were populated with real characters, who had real names, real jobs, real problems, and an earthy mix of typical human faults and foibles, getting into jams, and stumbling about to get out of them. They must have been much more accessible to their, largely illiterate, audience than the Angels and Everyman.
In Renaissance Italy, a very physical and acrobatic style developed, incorporating old performance traditions that dated from the Roman Empire, and the comedies of Plautus. This became known as the Commedia dell Arte – The Comedy of the Artists’ Guilds. The professional touring troupes of the Comedia performed outdoors at fairs and markets on makeshift stages. The style was broad, exaggerated, burlesqued, as it had to be to be seen and heard over the noise of a market fair. The dialogue was improvised around a short sketch by stock, masked characters. The physical action was a series of well-rehearsed, often acrobatic comic ‘bits,’ or ‘lazzi.’ There was sometimes female nudity (and authoritarian outrage!) and always violent scenes where the cast chased and beat each other with the original ‘slapsticks.’ And they were free, just like street performances today.
The early Comedia characters have stayed with us, and have evolved and proliferated over the years. There is the rascally, witty servant, Zanni, who gave us the word ‘zany.’ Zanni quickly evolved into Arlechino, (Harlequin), and Pierrot and all the other precursors to modern clowns, and the clash of interests between him and his Venetian master, Pantalone, old and rich, lustful and easily duped, was fundamental to farce for the next three hundred years. There was Il Dottore, the self-proclaimed Doctor of everything, the know-it-all who knows nothing; and Il Capitano, the loudmouth soldier who is in fact a devout coward – Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a sort of English Il Dottore, and the famous Cyrano de Bergerac is a later French incarnation, by a now altogether wittier, much braver a man of action, known also to the French as Scaramouche.
And of course, there were the young, star-crossed overs, the Inamorati, Silvio and Isabella, Flavio and Columbina, Leandro and Corollina (and here’s an interesting byline – Italy was alone in all of Europe in having women play women’s roles. Everywhere else it was men.) These stock characters can still be recognized in modern farce, whether on the stage, in film, or on television – from The Honeymooners on you’ll find a raft of characters with a long pedigree, always updated for their time. Jerry Seinfeld was describing all farce when he said of his own series, “it’s about unpleasant people, being selfish.” But, selfish or not, it is their vices that allow us to laugh at their comeuppances, and their perennial ineptitude that endears them to us.
Italy, of course, was for Europe the mother-lode of all things cultural, and the Commedia beacme popular all over the continent, and nowhere so much as in Paris. By 1650 or so the plays were no longer improvised, and the literary side of farce began to be emphasized, as the actors switched languages from their native Italian to French, took on native actors, and began to work with the greatest writers of the time, from Moliere to Marivaux, to Goldoni, Dufresny, Regnards, La Motte, Lefranc, and a host of others. The plays were now being sponsored by the nobility, who often have the knack, if they see the common man enjoying something, of claiming it as their own and putting the price up–now the plays were performed indoors, and you had to buy a ticket.
So it was that the Comedie Itallienne became established in Paris in the late 1600’s. It’s still there, and has operated with very few interruptions. One such came in 1697 when they put on a new farce called The False Prude, which took direct aim at the behaviour of the Queen herself, Madame de Mantenon. Her husband, Louis XIV wasn’t too happy about it, so he closed the theatre and kicked the actors out of town. They weren’t invited back for almost 20 years. The fragility of government support for the arts is not new, apparently. In 1680 Louis XIV founded the Comedie Francaise, not too long before he closed the Comedie Italienne. The Comedie Francaise was a bold national statement, and was the home theatre of the great Moliere. It’s still going strong today, with three theatres and a repertoire of over 3,000 works. Often politically edgy, though cautiously so, by today’s more democratic standards. Under the monarchy they generally got away it, rather like the King’s appointed jester. But a little more than a century later, Robespierre threw all the actors in jail and closed the theatre for seven years. Because a single audience member complained about a single speech on the subject of religious tolerance.
Regardless of government intervention, by the end of the 1600s France had developed the two principal styles of comedic farce that we still have today: the older Italian style, very broad and physical and acrobatic, and the newer French style, where the acrobatics are verbal, and quick wit dominates over slapstick. And they continued to evolve until the end of the 19th century, when they were brought to their ultimate form by Eugene Labiche, and then Georges Feydeau. Their farces are still regularly performed, such as An Italian Straw Hat, and A Flea in her Ear. Feydeau, in particular, as insanity gripped him and a darker mood fell over his work, is seen as a precursor to the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the Absurdists, right up to and including Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, whose plays are very beholden to another inheritor of Comedia – the British music hall.
Strangely, there was no similar development of farce in Britain. Some of Shakespeare can be properly called farce, for example The Comedy of Errors, but after that there was nothing for three hundred years (the Restoration comedies are pure social satire and burlesque, rather than farce) until suddenly, at the fin de siecle, we get Brandon Thomas and Oscar Wilde. Thomas’s great play, Charlie’s Aunt, and Oscar Wilde’s most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest, sum up the two styles of French-derived farce. Charlie’s Aunt leans heavily on physical comedy, which was to become the bigger characterisic of British farce; The Importance of Being Earnest thrives on verbal alacrity, packed with satirical epigrams.
Then in the 1920s suddenly a truly British innovation, a new form of farce, the bedroom farce, the kind with too many doors and lots of sexual innuendo to match the new morality (or lack thereof) of the Jazz Age. This was all down to one man, Ben Travers. His famous series at the Aldwych Theatre: Rookery Nook, Turkey Time, Thark, A Cup of Kindness, A Cuckoo In The Nest, these plays set the tone for British farce for the next 50 years, including the great Whitehall farces of the 30’s and 40’s, the comedies of Alan Ayckbourn, and of course, Peter Shaffer‘s Black Comedy. Noel Coward, meanwhile, took on Wilde’s mantle, in Blithe Spirit, Private Lives, Present Laughter, Hay Fever, and many more.
Farce thrives on social upheaval, the death of old ways, the difficult birth of new, and has always been good a vehicle for social commentary. 18th century farce often revolved around love and marriage – the arranged marriages of the old school, and the romantic love-matches of the new. So it is with Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, and Anton Checkov‘s A Marriage Proposal [this is the curtain warmer which plays before Black Comedy]. In one you will see tthe new sexual freedom of the 60’s, against the old rigidity of class, and the idea of marriage for social prestige and money, rather than true love and the meeting of like minds. Zanni, Pantalone, Il Dottore, Silvio and Isabella, are still on the stage, almost four hundred years after they first appeared in the Comedia. In A Marriage Proposal, a very traditional proposal is fatally jeopardized by an ancient property dispute. The old Russian values, tied to land and tradition, are not under threat new ideas, but from the old. It’s a uniquely Chekovian twist.
No modern form of drama carries it’s own history with it as much as farce, and none is more capable, not only of mere survival, but of complete regeneration.