Thursday, April 16, 2009

May the Farce Be with You

farce--a dramatic subset of comedy in which the pace and physical action intensify to the point of combustion; plot-driven circumstances which accelerate to the point where characters cannot adequately cope with them.

An appropriate analogy for farce is the now legendary state room scene from the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera (available on YouTube), another analogy being the results when a professional juggler drops the dishes he has in motion and is now surrounded by broken china. The dramatic beats begin to come faster, adding a surreal note to the already comedic, physical atmosphere of the action, causing language and gestures that turn up the heat, leading to one final, uproarious explosion.

Farce may appear in any story, coming as a surprise, appearing when the reader least expects it but where, appropriately, the building tension of the story is growing more intense. Depending on the length of the story and the writer's ultimate goal for the conclusion, the whole narrative may have the atmosphere of farce. As an example, thanks to adroit use of farcical elements such as one or two over-the top scenes, Evelyn Waugh's satire, The Loved One, moves into farce.

The important point to emphasize here is that farce may rise above mere jokes, pie throwing, and slipping on banana peels even while using burlesque settings and techniques. For all its antic, zany humor, Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys has a strong texture of plausibility.

As with its cousin, humor, the intent of farce is to reduce some target by ridicule. Just as humor may well appear suddenly within a tragic or lofty narrative, so too may farce slip in the back door to work its effects. The goal of humor is the exposure of some painful truth or awareness. Farce aims further below the belt, wanting not only to destroy or render dignity inoperative but to inflict some damage on the furniture as well.

For the history-minded, Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), the French playwright, is generally considered to be the quintessential modern farceur, A Flea in Her Ear being one of the more legible and instructive.

Overly complex plots, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings are salient ingredients of farce, making such diverse examples as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit, and yes, even Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys arguable candidates for the farce hall of fame.

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