Noting the Nature of Farce

September 12, 2009

By Thornton Wilder
Reprinted from The New York Times, January 8, 1939.

Surely highly civilized societies can never enjoy farce, farce which depends on extreme improbability and on the laughter aroused by the spectacle of someone's mental and physical anguish.

These long-lost twins that arrive in the same town; these girls dressed as boys that are not recognized by their closest friends; these deceived husbands under torment; these guardians beaten by mistake; these respectable and distraught ladies with men hidden all over their rooms.

Farce would seem to be intended for childlike minds still touched with grossness; but the history of the theater shows us that the opposite is true. Farce has always flourished in ages of refinement and great cultural activity.

And the reason lies where one would least expect it: farce is based on logic and objectivity.

The author of a farce may ask his audience to concede him two or three wild improbabilities, but thereafter he must proceed with an all the more rigorous consequence. The laughter is an explosion of almost grudging concession: "Yes, granted that premise, these things would inevitably follow."

The School for Scandal simmers along among a thousand mild improbabilities; it is a comedy; but The Importance of Being Earnest shows us what would be bound to happen if a man invented an invalid brother who needed his attendance when-ever he wished to shirk a tedious engagement, and what would happen if his friend decided to impersonate this brother.

The pleasures of farce, like those of the detective story, are those of development, pattern, and logic.

A "pure" farce would be all pattern and would admit no mixture. Comedy, which is the clarification of unsocial human traits through exaggeration, may benefit by a dash of farce, especially toward the close of the evening; but farce dare not lean too far toward the exposition of character.

She Stoops to Conquer is not primarily about a man who mistakes a private house for an inn, which would be farce; but about a man so shy that he cannot converse at ease with a "lady of quality," which is comedy. Twelfth Night is not about a girl who dresses as a man in order to make her way out of destitution; but about a girl who is clear-eyed in a world of misguided "humorous" beings.

Since farce is an intellectual exercise, the only ornament it welcomes is the additional intellectual pleasure of lines of social comment and generalization. It is significant that "the fires of the French Revolution were lighted" during a soliloquy in Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro; and the early farces of Moliere cast a host of proverbial expressions into the French language.

And the cruelty of farce?

Theorists since Aristotle-whose lecture-notes on this matter were unfortunately lost-have tried to analyze the springs of laughter. In this century two distinguished hands have written books on the subject, Bergson and Freud.

Bergson says that we laugh when we see man-man who prides himself on living by choice, reason, and free will-reduced to being a victim of the same forces that govern things. Pretentious man reduced to an automaton is funny; a scrubwoman who slips on a banana peel is less funny than a bank president in a silk hat.

Freud says our laughter is a release of a grudge against a universe which has since infancy crossed our ambitions and defeated our egocentric wishes. Civilization, however, has educated us; we do not wish, even in our own eyes, to be transparent in the revelation of our wounded pride. We cannot give vent to our animus until incongruity or the verbal ingenuity of wit gives us the pretext and the permission.

A lady who had forgotten that Whistler hated Turner said to him: "Oh, Mr. Whistler, my husband has discovered in a secondhand shop what he thinks are two real Turners. Will you come and tell us whether they are real Turners or imitation Turners?" "Well, ma'am," replied Whistler, adjusting his monocle, "that is a fine distinction."

Wit is the permitted suspension of decorum and the retaliation of the underdog.
There has never been a "pure" farce. Terence's Andria is crossed with melancholy; Goldoni's The Liar is perfect in ingenuity and design, but is forever straying off into psychological finesse; Nestroy's The Talisman delays in Dutch genre-painting of three social strata. Perhaps-as with the "pure" detective story-it would not be so desirable after all. Perhaps a wavering among other elements makes it bearable: toward humor, its natural enemy, for humor is the acknowledgment of one's kinship with frailty; toward character-drawing; to-ward picturesqueness, a static quality; even toward pathos-perhaps all these are necessary to keep it from the ultimately empty triumph of its two fundamental drives: logic and objectivity.

© Tappan Wilder. Reprinted from The New York Times, January 8, 1939.

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