Farce is a term derived from Old French since early 16th century which literally means “stuffing,” or “to stuff” in Latin “farcire.” However, farce as nonliterary form can be traced back to classical Greece.
Historically, the term meant a literary or artistic production of little merit so it is categorized as low comedy. It usually achieves its effects from physical or bodily humor, which sometimes turned to be violent due to its absurdity and crude verbal jokes, rather than from verbal wit or nuances of social behavior.
Its main purpose is to stimulate laughter through exaggeration and extravagance instead of being realistic imitation of life. The gravity or emphasis on plot highlights the difference between plot and comedy; in farce, characters are required only to act out the complexities and sophistication of the plot; however, plot is subordinated to characterization in comedy.
Farce is a type of comedy that uses absurd and highly improbable events in the plot. Situations are humorous because of their ludicrous and often ridiculous nature. The choice of setting is a key factor in farce, as the protagonist is sometimes at odds with the environment. Often the central character in a farce does not (or should not) belong in the place of the action. The audience will only accept the situation if they follow the conventions previously established. But characters in a farce can also quite logically belong in the setting they are placed in (JC, 2006).
Farcical elements have entered into many forms of primitive comedy, but the term farce seems to have been applied first in France to the pieces produced by certain lay companies, or clercs de bazoche (organizations of such secular groups as notaries and law clerks, which held annual festivals), in contrast to the morality plays produced by the religious orders. A characteristic of many of the early farces was a mixture of dialects. For example, in the French farce L’avocat Patelin (Lawyer Patelin), an often adapted and translated 15th-century piece attributed to various authors, the principal character speaks seven dialects. The French writer Molière later refined the farce form into the comedy of manners. In England, about the beginning of the 18th century, the farce came to be regarded as a form distinct from the comedy proper. Today, the term farce is freely applied to almost any light piece in which the comic effect is carried to ridiculous lengths (Encarta, 2006).
Knowing that farce is both a verbal and physical humor, performer uses deliberate character exaggeration. Notable examples are the Marx Brothers, who are renowned for using their bodies in such a way as to exaggerate the situation, thus making it even more farcical, with or without props. This famous team made farce a very physical form of comedy. Likewise, John Cleese also uses his body to do extraordinary effect, gifted with height; Cleese controls his body to make silly walks by simply extending his legs outward and exaggerating his movements for extreme comic effect.
REALIZATION WITH FRENCH THEATER
Molière’s Les précieuses ridicules
French writer Molière frequently satirized the difference between people’s perceptions of themselves and other people’s perceptions of them. Molière’s Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Conceited Ladies, 1732) is a farce about the pretentious manners, style, and language of two country women who wish to distinguish themselves. Extremely popular in Paris after its opening, the play established Molière as a master of the farce genre.
Corbis/Gianni Dagli Orti
The theatrical tradition known as commedia dell’arte originated in northern Italy in the 1550s and soon spread throughout Europe. Its influence can be seen in the comedies of writers such as William Shakespeare, from England, and Molière, from France. French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting of a commedia dell’arte performance, shown here, portrays some of the standard characters used in the improvisational farces created by a typical commedia troupe.
Corbis/THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE
SOME FAMOUS QUOTES ON FARCES
“Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electric display of God the Father.”
Eugene O’Neill (1888 – 1953)
“Farce is the essential theatre. Farce refined becomes high comedy; farce brutalized becomes tragedy.”
Edward Gordon Craig (1872 – 1966)
British actor, director, and stage designer.
The Story of my Days
“You just can’t have a leisurely farce, and the jokes have to come out of the plot, not the people.”
Neil Simon (1927 – )
The Times (London)
SOME NOTED WRITERS OF FARCES
Oscar Wilde’s most distinctive and engaging plays are the four comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), all characterized by adroitly contrived plots and remarkably witty dialogue. Wilde, with little dramatic training, proved he had a natural talent for stagecraft and theatrical effects and a true gift for farce. The plays sparkle with his clever paradoxes, among them such famous inverted proverbs as “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes” and “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
William Shakespeare’s comedies celebrate human social life even as they expose human folly. By means that are sometimes humiliating, even painful, characters learn greater wisdom and emerge with a clearer view of reality. Some of his early comedies can be regarded as light farces in that their humor depends mainly upon complications of plot, minor foibles of the characters, and elements of physical comedy such as slapstick. The so-called joyous comedies follow the early comedies and culminate in As You Like It. Written about 1600, this comedy strikes a perfect balance between the worlds of the city and the country, verbal wit and physical comedy, and realism and fantasy.
Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), British author of popular farces and social dramas, was born in London. Pinero began his career as dramatist with the farcical comedy £200 a Year (1877); he received wide acclaim with The Money Spinner (1881) and after 1882 devoted himself to writing plays. Pinero was a prolific writer of farces and comedies, but he also wrote melodramas dealing with ethical and social problems; the latter were characteristic of the movement in Victorian England away from plays intended merely to entertain toward those dealing seriously with life. Among Pinero’s plays that are still performed are The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893), the best known of his plays and the first to win recognition outside England; Trelawney of the “Wells” (1898), about life in a theatrical company; and the farces The Magistrate (1885) and Dandy Dick (1887). Pinero was knighted in 1909.
Molière (1622-1673), France’s greatest comic dramatist, who produced, directed, and acted in the plays he wrote. Many of his comedies addressed serious themes and pointed the way to modern drama and experimental theater.
Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), French dramatist known for his farces with elaborate plot lines, often dealing with cases of marital infidelity or mistaken identity. Feydeau’s matchless perception of the frailty of end-of-the-century respectability and his superb economy in writing reveal his skill as not simply a light entertainer but an accomplished writer of satire. Feydeau’s plays do not lend themselves well to reading but rely on the dynamics of the visual dramatic mechanism consisting of impossible coincidences, complicated stage directions, and failures of communication.
Henry Fielding was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, and educated at Eton College and in law at the Leiden University. From 1729 to 1737 he was a theatrical manager and playwright in London. Of his 25 plays, the most popular was the farce Tom Thumb (1730).
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a motion picture directed by Richard Lester based on the Broadway musical farce written for the stage by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim. Released in 1966, the film features Zero Mostel as a conniving slave in ancient Rome. Mostel and the large cast of well-known comedians deliver the show’s burlesque humor at breakneck speed (Encarta, 2006).
Examples of farce can be found in the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes, the plays of Shakespeare and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Farce in film includes the works of Charlie Chaplin, Keystone Cops and the Marx Brothers. On television, the best examples of farce surround British actor John Cleese. Ridiculous situations abound in the 1970’s television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus and later in the wonderful, but short-lived series Fawlty Towers. There are also several Monty Python films that are excellent examples of farce. Few actors possess the ability to create pure farce better than Cleese (JC, 2006).
“Oscar Wilde.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Kastan, David Scott. “William Shakespeare.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
“Arthur Wing Pinero.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Cosper, D. Dale. “Molière.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
“Georges Feydeau.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
“Henry Fielding.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
“Justin’s Theatre Links.” 2 Dec. 2006. <http://www.theatrelinks.com/farce.htm>