Lovers and Liars

Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill

The Origins of Farce

Stemming from the French word meaning ‘stuffing,’ or ‘padding’, farce has been a source of theatrical comedy entertaining audiences for generations. The first farces were short comic sketches to pad the short breaks in long, often very sombre plays – a welcome respite from five hours of serious drama. These farces were usually performances of one act in length but towards the end of the 18th century, any piece that closed a play bill was labelled as farce and soon the definition of this comic genre became blurred until actor manager, David Garrick began to revolutionise farce on stage.

18th century farce often revolved around the arranged marriages of the old school and the romantic love-matches of the new, thriving on social upheaval. These stock plotlines and stock characters were being developed throughout European Theatre at this time. 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 Commedia dell’ Arte. The professional touring troupes of Commedia 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 whilst the physical action was a series of well-rehearsed, often acrobatic comic moments.

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The early Commedia characters have evolved and adapted over the years and can still be evidenced in our performance of Miss In Her Teens. The rascally, witty servant, Zanni, bears similar clown- like attributes to Puff whilst the soldier who is in fact a devout coward, mirrors the army escapee, Flash. These stock characters all had attributes and physical stances personal to them which when adopted, would immediately inform the audience of their social standing in the play’s hierarchy.

By 1650, the travelling troupes practising Commedia had infused French culture too, but 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. This influenced many farce writers from Moliere to Marivaux, to Goldoni who began to establish farce as we know it. The plays were now being sponsored by the nobility, were performed indoors and audiences had to buy a ticket. Entertainment in eighteenth-century Paris was far more than mere light hearted diversion and socialising though. The public’s subliminal search for sex, pathos, brutality, and absurdity through entertainment was often satisfied through this theatrical genre and shows how the lower classes often used entertainment to mock the elite.

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By the end of the 17th Century, 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. This amalgamation 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 up to and including Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, whose plays are indebted to another inheritor of Commedia – the British music hall.

The fashion of criticizing and laughing at the political establishment was seeping into British theatres at this time as well, but of course, did not go on forever. The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 heavily censuring British stages.  After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre. Both Miss in Her Teens and The Lying Valet were first performed in these establishments after the act was passed; a suggestion as to why any ‘debauchery’ within the text is coquettish and discreet, left instead to actors to extract then heighten through physicality on stage.

Then, in the 1920s, suddenly a new form of farce, the bedroom farce, began to emerge. This brought the comedy of too many doors, hidden onlookers and lots of sexual innuendo to match the new morality, (or lack thereof) of the Jazz Age. Many argue that this was mainly due to one particular playwright; 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 Alan Ayckbourn, Noel Coward and many more whose performance style and rehearsal techniques we have drawn upon whilst preparing our production.

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Bibliography:

Bermel, Albert, (1990) Farce: A History from Aristophanes to Woody Allen. Carbondale: South Illinois University Press.

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