Oh good, a farce is afoot! Cyril must get Clotilde, the beautiful and currently naked model who showed up by chance at his cottage after being caught in a squall of rain, out of the spare bedroom before Mr Arbuthnot, the ever-suspicious guardian of Cyril’s beloved Linda, arrives at the cottage to collect Cyril for a round of golf. Cyril strikes on the ingenious stratagem of disguising Clotilde as Chauncy, a caddy with a gigantic mustache; and . . . You get the idea.
A farce is a theatrical comedy built around exaggerated characters and an unusually convoluted plot. There will be surprise relationships, mad coincidences, and the story includes a deadline so there is an urgent propulsion to resolve the complications before some other thing happens.
Farce has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but it is on the upswing again with big hits like One Man, Two Guvnors (the photo accompanying this article comes from the 1st Stages excellent production in 2014). Farce was once a dominant force on the stage, to such an extent that there were specific categories of farces to let the audience know what to expect.
Sex farce uses desire and affection as the drivers for the plot. A lot of the fun comes from the naughty nature of character motivation, which is harder to pull off in contemporary America because it’s harder to seem naughty.
Slapstick farce is driven mainly by not-quite-believable combat, injury, and pain. Characters have their fingers trapped in window sashes, are hit by spinning ladders, and generally absorb enough apparent punishment in the course of each performance to send them to the hospital before curtain call; but always spring up to be hit again. A lot of Tarantino movies are really slapstick.
Situation farce is familiar to most of us in that it spawned the TV situation comedy – A long series of stories all recurring in the same absurd situation. Lucy always has some elaborate scheme to get into Ricky’s show. For those too young to know about I Love Lucy, the members of the extended Pritchett family spend every episode furiously trying to change each other, only to discover that the thing they were trying to change is one of the main things they love. It’s the same story again and again, and we keep coming back.
Slamming-door farce always involves characters hidden away in different rooms with our hero carrying out extreme measures to prevent the wrong ones from meeting each other.
Farce isn’t pure. Any one you see will potentially include elements of all these categories, making them not so much distinctive varieties as flavors within the playwright’s and director’s spice cabinets as they put a production together.
You’ll also see these flavors of farce coming through in almost any play you see, because the conventions of farce did so much historically to influence the basic rules of theatre. As we put together the Autumn number of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC, we’ll be on the hunt for a proper farce to include.
In the meantime, when you scent a whiff of farce in something you’re seeing, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.