Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Notes on Farce

Traditionally, critics have tended to look down on farce, viewing it as a form of "low" comedy not worthy of much study. However, farce can also be an important tool for getting audiences to think about the world from different perspectives. Sometimes, farce might even be able to make intellectual arguments more effectively than "high" comedies, or even dramas.

Playwrights in the nineteenth century began to unlock some of the potential of farce, and in the twentieth century dramatists including Tom Stoppard brought intellectual farce fully into being. Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties, for example, exemplifies the fact that farce can be, and often is, a much more serious genre than its guffawing audiences might indicate.

The critic Jessica Davis defined farce as "broad, physical, visual comedy, whose effects are pre-eminently theatrical and intended solely to entertain." However, while farce is primarily intended to entertain, it is not accurate to say that its sole aim is entertainment. Farces might have any number of goals in addition to entertaining—such as criticizing misers, lampooning celebrities, or poking fun at old people. These goals are not generally considered lofty, and they are almost always subservient to the goal of entertainment. In fact, farce moves at such a fast pace that entertainment must always be at the forefront of a dramatist's mind, or the mechanics will cease to function.

In a later study of farce, Albert Bermel noted the potential of farcical comedy to make sophisticated political and philosophical arguments. Citing Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, he noted that a non-stop farce might contain social commentary that rivals "serious" plays like Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House. Looking back over the history of farce since Aristophanes, though, Bermel saw little progress being made prior to the twentieth century. In fact, he felt farce had aesthetically retreated since Aristophanes. "The journey had been long and roundabout, forward in time, backward in artistry," he wrote in his classic study appropriately titled Farce.

Some of the early farces on the European stage might seem to confirm Bermel's position. The anonymous thirteenth-century play Blindman and the Boy, for instance, conveys little other than a dubious moral that tricking old blind men is fun and profitable. Thomas Gueulette's eighteenth-century play The One-Armed, Blind Deaf-Mute shifts from making fun of the physically disabled to making fun of a mentally deficient servant. It is an improvement over its medieval counterpart in terms of polish and sophistication, but it still is not tackling great ideas. These short farces fall considerably short of the comedy of Aristophanes.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, farce advanced both in ambition and technical ability. Eugene Scribe's 1842 play The Glass of Water exemplifies many of these advancements. Though its plot turns on some of the same silly conceits that go back to short medieval farces, it is a full-length three-act play. Instead of focusing on low characters, it portrays nobles, members of parliament, and even the Queen of England. The action reaches a farcical crescendo, but with a tastefulness that was lacking in some of its predecessors.

The audience knows from the first scene that The Glass of Water inhabits a very different world from that of Blindman and the Boy or The One-Armed, Blind Deaf-Mute. Within the first few lines, the Marquis de Torcy remarks to Viscount Bolingbroke, "If you succeed, an honorable and glorious peace between England and France will be possible; if you fail... ah, well... God help us!" (I quote from the DeWitt Bodeen translation.) The stakes here are much higher than a few coins. As in Lysistrata, war and peace hang in the balance. The action might be farcical, but its consequences are deadly serious.

Soon afterward, however, the play shifts back to a more traditional mode of farce, as the lovesick Arthur Masham wanders on "dreaming of the most beautiful woman in the world." What follows is a combination of the erotic with the political. Like Aristophanes, Scribe shows how sexual maneuvering can outflank whole armies. The fate of nations rests on which lover pairs up with whom. As Bolingbroke admits, becoming a statesman results from knowing how to dance with the right woman. 

Lysistrata ultimately reduces the warring Athenians and Spartans to horny men pawing over the female figure of Reconciliation. As the play reaches its climax (presumably the goal of the delegates as well) all politics are reduced to ogling a naked woman. The Glass of Water takes that reductionism even further. The play hangs the fate of nations not on an objectified woman, but instead on an actual object, the titular glass of water. At the end of the second act, multiple plots and subplots come together and a single prop seems to seal the fates of nearly everyone in the play.

It would be going too far, however, to compare the politics of The Glass of Water with those of Lysistrata. First of all, Aristophanes wrote about a pressing political issue directly affecting his audience. Scribe, on the other hand, placed his play safely in the past so its politics would be detached from the issues of the present day. More importantly, while Lysistrata elevates sexual negotiations to the realm of global politics, The Glass of Water trivializes global politics by bringing them down to the world of sexual negotiation. After everything is sorted out in the third act, Queen Anne goes right back to coveting a handsome new ensign. The characters in Lysistrata have learned the value of peace, while the characters in The Glass of Water seem to have learned nothing.

Although The Glass of Water might not rise to the heights of Aristophanic comedy, it does represent an elevation in the aims of farce. It shows that Bermel was overstating his case when he concluded that the twentieth century had to break away "from the degeneration of Plautus' plots" and instead look to "Jarry, Grabbe, and the movies."

 In Scribe's day, nineteenth-century dramatists were already finding ways to inject serious concepts into farce. By the end of the century, literary figures were taking farce even further. A number of the serious works of the 1890s were also farcical (including some of the early works by G.B. Shaw cited by Bermel), but the one most relevant to Stoppard's Travesties is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

There can be little doubt that The Importance of Being Earnest is a farce, a fact even Bermel was forced to admit. The play's pace becomes absolutely frenetic, and its comedy is so delightful, that it would seem to fit perfectly Davis's dictum that farce solely entertains. However, Wilde is interested in more than simply going through the motions of yet another piece on mixed-up identities. The play critiques the nature of identity itself. Its very title alludes to the importance of being a given person, yet characters swap names from beginning to end, revealing a world in which identity can never be entirely understood.

The malleability of identity in a modern classic was bound to draw the attention of a post-modern dramatist like Stoppard. Wilde's farce became particularly important for Stoppard when he read about a lawsuit involving James Joyce and a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Stoppard was intrigued by the fact that at the same time Joyce was in Zurich, so were the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara. To write a play based on those three men, Stoppard took on the dramatic form of Wilde's piece. In so doing, he created a work that is both unquestionably intellectual and unquestionably farcical. 

Travesties begins with a prologue in which Stoppard both introduces his characters and sets up the mechanics that will ultimately resolve the plot. Like The Glass of Water, the play uses a prop, or more specifically two props, as a centerpiece of the action. Lenin and Joyce accidentally exchange folders containing their respective manuscripts. Stoppard makes it explicit in the stage directions that the audience must observe the switch. Furthermore, he asks that special attention be drawn to the two folders, describing them as "eye-catching objects in some striking colour."

Through on-stage action Stoppard makes it perfectly clear to the audience what genre of play they will be watching. Plot mechanics are characteristic of farce, and Stoppard is drawing attention to those mechanics in a way that can only be comical.

The stage directions specify how the folders should look, but they note it is not important how they are swapped. All that is important is that the audience sees the switch. Stoppard not only sets up a farcical device, he signals that he is executing a set up.

The first act is filled with the broad, physical, and visual comedy Davis points to as a hallmark of farce. Joyce is not only an Irishman, he becomes the stereotypical Irishman, delivering his first lines after the prologue in the form of a Limerick. Tzara, who is described in a stage direction as "a Romanian nonsense" complete with ridiculous monocle, not only looks like a comic type, he engages in classic physical comedy, inadvertently switching his monocle to the wrong eye after he makes out with Gwendolen.

The play also revels in sight gags, such as Joyce coming out covered in scraps of paper that Tzara has placed in his hat. As the first act approaches a close, these gags become even more ridiculous, with Joyce performing a series of magic tricks using the hat.

All of this has a natural explanation, in that the play is the imperfect recollections of an aging former diplomat, Henry Carr. Carr announces at the end of the first act that he got his "wires crossed a bit here and there." However, Carr's senility is yet another farcical device. Stage directions describe the story as occasionally jumping the rails due to Carr's poor memory, but they also emphasize that it always should be clear what is happening. Stoppard isn't interested in creating an expressionistic memory play. Rather, the memory lapses are mined for comedic effect.

In spite of the play's farcical elements, however, it aims at intellectual engagement in addition to pure entertainment. The first act delves into Joyce's literary experimentation, Lenin's politics, and Tzara's anti-art philosophy. These weighty subjects are discussed even more fully in the second act. As the play explores important ideas, it continues to adhere to a farcical structure. In fact, the play grows even more hysterical and fast-paced in its latter half.

Part of the way Stoppard maintains the farcical pace of Travesties is by looking back not to Jarry or Grabbe as Bermel suggests, but to one of the great farceurs of the nineteenth century: Oscar Wilde. The characters re-enact scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest, but with variations suitable to themselves. The laughs usually come from wordplay, but can also come from sight gags. For instance, Lenin and his wife Nadya appear dressed as Chasuble and Prism, the grim pair from Wilde's play. The scene exploits an intertextual link for comedic potential—even as the play discusses the world-shaking event of Lenin returning to Russia disguised in a very different manner.

Stoppard reworks and politicizes some of the most famous lines from The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell memorably observes in Wilde's play: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune—to lose both seems like carelessness." Stoppard gives this gem to Lenin, changing it to: "To lose one revolution is unfortunate. To lose two would look like carelessness!" Again, Stoppard snags an intertextual laugh, but at the same time he is commenting on the historical Lenin, who had to go into exile after the aborted revolution in 1905 and was positioned precariously during the revolution of 1917.

Far from simplistic medieval plays like Blindman and the Boy, then, Travesties is an intellectual farce. It entertains with the same fast-paced action and rapid-fire dialogue as other farces while getting the audience to think about serious issues. Unlike Lysistrata, however, the play does not have an apparent moral or call to political action. Stoppard even mocks the very idea that a play needs a message or moral. At the end, Carr tries to formulate the three life lessons he learned in Zurich, but he forgets the last one.

However, the play contains its own response to critics who want only "serious" drama that can "teach" the audience something of importance. When Cecily claims the sole duty of art is social criticism, Carr objects. He points out that "a great deal of what we call art has no such function and yet in some way it gratifies a hunger that is common to princes and peasants." 

Even if farce is solely intended to entertain, that is not necessarily a bad thing, the play argues. Ultimately, Travesties calls on audiences to respect not just intellectual farces like itself, or classic farces by the likes of Scribe and Wilde, but all farces that make us laugh and in a way feed our spirits.