May the Farce Be with YouDate: 26 September 2005
With Ray Cooney’s Tom, Dick & Harry, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw & David Mamet’s Romance, the oft-maligned ‘farce’ seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence of late. Master farceur Cooney considers the misunderstood genre.
Write a piece about ‘farce’ in 500 words, I was told. I’ve been involved with farce for over 30 years and I don’t think I could find any real satisfactory way of summing it up or explaining it. I’m not even sure that plays should be categorised.
A ‘comedy’ is supposed to be ‘a play with a happy ending’. Anton Chekhov described his ‘plays’ as comedies. Ben Travers’ farces were called comedies by Ben. I have a dictionary which describes ‘farce’ as “a style of comedy marked by broad humour and extravagant wit…” and then goes on to say “a ridiculous or empty show”. Now I don’t subscribe to that dictionary’s view at all. Some of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays may be fairly described as ‘farces’, but I don’t believe they are either ridiculous or empty.
It’s easy to underestimate farce, partly because there are one or two not very good ones around and because some actors who should know better treat the playing of farce in a different way to that which they might treat the playing of tragedy. Basically, I believe that the best farces are tragedies. The plot line in a good farce should be able to be transplanted into a stark tragedy. Tragedy is the essence of farce and even the dialogue of farce should be interchangeable with that of tragedy.
Most tragedies have as their basic theme the struggle of the individual against forces which are overwhelming and the individual’s efforts to combat these forces as the tide runs stronger against him. In addition, the individual is usually tortured because of his own character flaws and his inability to control these flaws under stress.
Well, that seems to me to sum up most of my farces!
More in common with tragedy
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that farce probably has more in common with tragedy than it has with comedy. Comedy is frequently about an eccentric person in an everyday situation: whereas farce (and tragedy) usually involves ordinary people attempting to deal with eccentric situation.
Therefore, if farce is more akin to tragedy, it would stand to reason that the more real, the more truthful the play and the performance, the stronger will be the audience reaction. There is absolutely no difference between a man discovering his wife in bed with his best friend in a farce and a man discovering his wife in bed with his best friend in a tragedy.
The reaction of the husband in each play should be exactly the same. The difference is in the audience’s reaction – not the husband’s.
Of course, the actor playing in farce has to develop certain techniques. Clearly, he has to listen to the play or he’s going to walk into a lot of laughs. The farce actor must learn, too, not to ‘hold the ball’ too long. Farce acting is very much like a tennis match: you play better when your opponent returns the ball to you well.
One feature of the writing in tragedies is the long speeches where the leading player arrives centre stage and bemoans his ill luck for a couple of pages. Very nice (and not too difficult, I would suggest) for the leading player. This however, is not the stuff of farce. Very rarely are there two-page speeches with Macready pauses. You need the other actors and the other actors need you.
And I suppose it’s easy to underestimate farce because the language appears mundane and ordinary. They are not intellectualising on their predicaments. They are dealing with them – and usually under pressure.
The words ‘contrived’ and ‘concocted’ spring to mind when considering the mechanics of farce writing. Possibly that’s the difference between ‘farce’ and other types of plays. The farce writer manipulates the situation to suit his play.
However, I’m convinced that the playing must remain utterly sincere and truthful. Of course, the actor can only give a truthful performance if the writer has given him a character and relationships which will sustain the performance. So the writer, too, must be sincere and truthful even though the situations are manipulated to suit the ‘contrived concoction’. I think that’s about 500 words and I hope you are a little wiser.
Anyway, it’s given me food for thought.
Tom, Dick and Harry is at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. What the Butler Saw continues at the Criterion Theatre until 22 October 2005, the same date when Romance finishes its limited season at the Almeida Theatre.