I’m opening a space in which I want us to think about Farce. Part of this is my attempt to pick brains as I prepare for this summer. I want to offer something to the GHP Theatre minors called Farce Factory, an opportunity to write and produce short (and why not as short as five minutes) farces. My wager is that the students will have an appreciation of farce as a structure, and will “know it when they see it,” but they will lack an understaning of how difficult it is to construct. I could, in fact, propose that the ability to construct farce is on its way out as an imaginative capacity. If this is true, can it be resurrected? Or am I just going through the middle-aged pining for some non-existent golden age? Am I just focusing on my own agalma by recognizing something in my own appreciation for farce?

At any rate, the students and I will take a look at some examples of farce form and try to be very Aristotelian in identifying the defining elements. So suggest some examples, please. Feydeau’s plays (including speculation of why the revival of Hotel Paradiso had its own ring in the Inferno,–and how was Lend Me a Tenor ?), Fawlty Towers, and the plot mechanisms of The Court Jester (the whole story arc is more comedic than farcical, I think, but the specific situations played out are farce)–these are some obvious examples. What I’m hoping is that we can isolate enough traits to create our own handbook on farce construction. If you have your own ideas about necessary strategies, let me know. I’ll throw out a principle to get the discussion going. Farce requires what I call “the eyes of the Law.” Anyone want to take up that provocative assertion? Also, is farce less tolerated (and more difficult to consciously fabricate at a high level of complexity) in a culture of increasing religious conservatism and concern for “traditional family values?” Farce, after all, acknowledges our divided nature as beings who want the Good and want to get off. Such a view of the human predicament is too ambivalent to be tolerated in this current climate.

Catching up with comments…

Continue offering definitions. Part of the fun of the form game is to make an assertion, such as there is a form of drama called farce, and let the nature of the form take shape as people offer definitions. Do I have a definition? I, like anyone, have my notions.

I would agree that there is an element of the excessive that is crucial, not only in the situations depicted but also in the aspects of character portrayed. The Braggart Soldier is a farcical character. The Zealot, the Lecherous Old Man. Yes, I think Seinfeld operates in the world of farce not only through the way it cuts away to the “worst case scenario” (a type of exaggeration) with any notion, but also in the way it will isolate a trait in a character and generate the humor from the isolated trait in play (exaggeration of focus).

It’s ironic that the playing out of an overblown situation and the presence of impossible complications can only happen through an attention to detail. I assert that farce is most dependent on a detailed knowledge of how things work, and I am not only referring to mechanical things but also to institutional things and social things (ettiquette, custom, etc). Those aspects of our world that can be described in formulas are the richest for formulaic manipulation and complication. And the essence of farce is recognizing that the formulas are at work and in play in every aspect of our existence. They control us; autonomy is an illusion. And it is only in the presence of formulas that we can contend with the possibility of making mistakes, another crucial feature of farce.

I also agree with the notion of farce depicting a drive for satisfaction which exceeds all bounds of restraint. Feydeau and company were Freudians before Freud (or with Freud) and their plays were laboratory experiments using Civilization and its Discontents as subjects. But farce is not modern, per se, since the notion of appetite is timeless.

And there’s another irony, the farce as art form requires a huge amount of differed gratification in the act of preparation. A complicated farce implies that an artist has thought deeply and analytically about the terrain and chased down the worst implications of the existing order of things. And the result has to be accurate, overwhelming, and remorseless. And there has to be at least one final twist more than you could envision in your worst nightmare.

Aha. Relationship between farce and horror. So the only decent farce I’ve seen in the past year or so may be Saw. It’s all about what the writer does once the anxiety has been created. Does it have to resolve in laughter?


When a farce is successful, you invariably hear comments about the beauty of its construction, about its meticulousness. And in the enjoyment of the farce, aren’t we both inside withthe anxiety of events whilealso outsidecontemplatingthe perfection of the abstract structure? It is this aspect of farce, this notion of plotting as sublime triumph, that compels me to think that the beauty of farce lies in the beauty of a mathematics. There is also the sense of a farce being a perfect clockwork physical system in action, but every physicist will tell you, it’s nothing until you get the equations right.

Can we say that farce is a branch of mathematics? Could one, perhaps, do “farce” on any set of propositions no matter how abstract as long as certain terms and operations are brought into play? Ives’ All in the Timing is, it seems to me, a farce made with certain propositions about time and the stuff of language. Beckett’s “minimalist” scripts are instances of farce operations at work with severly circumscribedsets of material. Stoppard’s preferred mode, child of Wittgenstein that he is, is farce since he, in his plays, in usually examining a set of propositions posited as truth. These propositions are subjected to farce operations.

Farce posits a situation (which implies a temporality, a necessary proposition for a farce operation to proceed?–a spacing, perhaps, not reducible to a symbol–a temporal frame, perhaps) and defines the situation with a number of propositions, equations, givens, the stuff of the initial situation set. What elements are essential to a farce operation? A farce set, perhaps, is a potential identity set. Some entity seeks to define itself with respect to the propositions of the set. But its a particular kind of identity–notA is A, or A is B. Here’s the need for a temporality: in farce, an agent seeks identity by passing through the propositions of a set to a position of A is Not the Set A. Another name for Set A is The Law. The farcical agent seeks identity with what is not The Law, but can only achieve this by passing through The Law and actually scrambling its propositions within the temporal frame. Simple example: An agent, a, is to establish identity with set A (The Law) through a farce operation, f. A=(2+2=4), therefore you could saya = not (2+2=4). No farce, however, just identity by negation. And in theory, there is no temporal frame, t, because simple negation is instantaneous.A farce operation with agent a is a(f) =t[ 2+2(n)=4] where n is any damn thing and t[] defines the temporal frame. There are more than one answer to a(f) if A is given as (2+2=4), but there is not a set of infinite answers. Just a bunch. t[2+2=5] is a potential a(f) of a, as is t[2+2=onion]. a(f)=t[oops I spilled my coffee] is valid so long as set A [2+2=4] was active in the temporal frame,t[], at some point. In other words, we have to trust that the operation is being honest with us. So is this the farcical operation at its most abstract? Discuss.

Identity implies two things: desire for completion and the possibility of deception.

Farce operations explore, therefore, for some agent,all manner of relationships to identity within the temporal frame which involve manipulating the elements of a potential identity set. Farce theory, therefore, is concerned with describing all possible events within the temporal frame as the agent passes through The Law in the quest for identity. The propositions within the set, The Law, are both identity elements and obstacles to identity (necessary obstacles–the agent meets resistance from the elementsin the very act of carrying out the farce operation).

There are only so many ways to scramble a number of given propositions within a temporal frame. It depends to a certain extent on the initial propositions in the set and the count of the temporal frame. Remember, the farce operation is not instantaneous, so its duration implies a count, a succession of moments within the temporal frame. How to best represent this symbolically is one of the great still unsolved challenges of farce theory. The blink is still our best bet.

The blink, b,is the timing of the temporal frame. Let’s return to our Set [2+2=4]. Toplace this set within a temporal frame, t[], and begin farce identity operations, here’s what you do:


now, blink…


you have accomplished the minimal farce operation on the set and have achieved a(f)…the rest is gravy…blink…


now, blink…


now, blink…


and, blink…

t[slowly I turn step by step~#%$4]

and, blink…

t[two plus two equals four]

and, even, blink…

t[for team blequals plush]

to ultimately, blink…

t[like sands through the hourglass so go the days of our lives]


Okay, I got a little silly.

But, many of the notions I just toyed with do play their part in farce: an agent with desire or drive (not necessarily for “completion”–but why do we go after things?), the rules or governing principles of The Law (yes, not necessarily “The Law,” more an absolute principle of “the way things are” and statements about what will happen if you try to subvert or ignore “the way things are”), a possibility of deception, a chance that things will not work according to expectation, a chance that things will work beyond expectation, obstacles, a sense of time being marked by twists and turns, and details of the established universe combining and working into a perverse arrangement. And a sense of it being a beautiful arrangement.

I come back to the idea of analysis. Only by knowing the full implications and workings and laws at work in a given universe, can you fully realize the creation subversions and problems in that universe. Fedeau: determine the two people who should not meet under any circumstances and then bring them together as quickly as possible. And usually this meeting is going to function as some kind of obstacle to someone attempting to get something greatly desired. And if the explosion unfolds beautifully (every i dotted and t crossed), so much the better.

So what are the implications for composing farce? And what are the implications for improvising farce?

Establish the Situation Set . And decide if the audience is privy to every element in the set at the outset. The full set only has to be revealed by the end.

Determine an agent who has a drive or desire possibly prohibited by the Laws at work in the Situation Set.

Determine which elements of the Situation Set to withhold from the agent.

Develop elements of the set as obstacles to the agent and implement those obstacles.

Does the agent enlist other agents to help obtain a desire?

A variation on this plan might be to envision an agent and a desire first, then construct a situation set which contains and prohibits the realization of that desire.

Can an agent’s desire be modified to overcome the elements in the situation set? (I have a sneaking suspicion that overcoming through modification is closer to comedy than farce. Love allows for transformation.)

Part of the game in farce is distribution of knowledge. The complete Situation Set only exists without gaps and questions in the mind of some abstract entity; the audience occupies the position of that entity only in the last temporal blink. Till then, everyone, audience included, has incomplete knowledge. The irony for the agent is that it is the incompleteness of knowledge that makes desire possible (if you know everything, you know you can’t win).

Everything must be deduced from the propositions in the Situation Set in a way that seems inevitable. That’s part of the beauty. Everything comes about through what is given. The arbitrary can only operate if the Situation Set holds a place for the arbitrary.

15 thoughts on “Farce

  1. The revival of Hotel Paradiso failed for one major reason: my leads did not believe what I said on the very first night of rehearsal, that they had to know their lines verbatim. Farce is clockwork, and you cannot be sloppy about its rhythms. My main lead apparently came from a performance ethos where as long as you were “in the ballpark,” sloppy line-learning was acceptable practice. He literally could not understand why I was ranting.

    On the whole, however, I think society doesn’t have the patience for true farce any more. They think the set-up is just lost time, not appreciating that the infernal machine set loose in Act II can’t function without the meticulous winding up of Act I.

    And writers certainly don’t seem to have the gift of the elaborate constructions of Feydeau these days. We always see them sweat. We never saw Feydeau sweat.

  2. However, to respond to your original prompt, yes, I agree that the “eyes of the Law” are necessary for Farce. I don’t think this necessarily means the Justice System. The Law could easily be, and usually is, Offenbach’s Opinion Publique, that tyrannous bitch who drives the feckless Orpheus to Hell and back in order to retrieve that minx Eurydice.

    My point being that without a sense of shame, structured and enforced by the eyes of the Law (the Other?), farce can hardly exist. (And I don’t think Orpheus in Hell is a farce, it’s a satire.)

  3. farce

    n 1: a comedy characterized by broad satire and improbable situations [syn: farce comedy, travesty] 2: mixture of ground raw chicken and mushrooms with pistachios and truffles and onions and parsley and lots of butter and bound with eggs [syn: forcemeat]

    Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

    Which do you mean?

  4. With that out of the way, I will readily admit that I needed to look that up to make sure I got the thing right. And it typical Socratic (back atcha, Aristotle) style, I will respond with a series of questions:

    1. Is farce still farce if its bad?
    2. Is there not a significant incursion upon farcical territory by Chevy Chase and Jim Carey?
    3. Did Seinfeld qualify as farce?
    4. If so, was it good?

  5. Backing up to your definition post…

    While the definition you posted is the one most people mean when they say “farce,” I (and I think Marc in this case) are meaning a stricter, more technical definition.

    In this definition, a farce is an increasingly hectic, complex, and even dangerous series of events, triggered by a character’s illicit desire and decisions based on that desire. He (almost always a he) faces ever-increasing, if improbable, encounters which threaten to expose him to the “eyes of the Law.”

    For example, Rumors, despite its playwright’s subtitle, is not a farce. The movie Fargo, on the other hand, is a flawless example.

    The TV show Coach was often a farce as Hayden, Luther, and Dauber struggled to cover their bungled idiocies.

    Current administration attempts to deal with the Plame affair are farcical. You can see that most farces skate on a surface of very black ice indeed.

  6. Is there a bad farce? Used to play that game in school with tragedy. Can there be a bad tragedy? Yes, there can. Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, his fall. Bad farce? Ishtar. And that thing with Warran Beatty and Gary Shandling. But Beatty was also in Shampoo, Robert Towne’s excellent rip off of The Country Wife…and so it goes.

  7. So taking Dale’s definition and my followup post, I would argue that Seinfeld (at least the better episodes, anyway) generally serve as a decent example of what farce is. While “danger” is in the eye of the beholder, you could often feel the escalation of things thoughout the episode, with the remarkable series of consequences being exposed in the final scene of the show. While I found the show funny most of the time, it was absurd complications, and the way they always came home to roost that fascinated me.

    Is that the basic nature of farce as you mean it? And is farce dying because of the tremendous amount of “not quite farce” that Neil Simon and mid-week sitcoms have been dosing out to the point of oversaturation?

  8. Yes, why is “situation comedy” not necessarily farce? And why doesn’t the current trend in hip humor which involves, it seems to me, creating a series of ironic non-sequiturs, often with a touch of cruelty, pointing ultimately to a kind of enlightenment operating in the writer (and I like Family Guy, actually, and think it’s pretty funny–its designed to flatter the sense of enlightenment in the viewer, too)not really function with sustained farce?

    I think farce requires a community response. And a certain relationship to time which the conventions of tv comedy can’t usually accomodate. Much humor is moving toward the (coining term here) onanomatic.

  9. Just thought of a simpler way to state it. Key to farce composition or improvisation. Given a Situation Set, what is the most impossible thing you can think of in relation to the Set, that which could never come to pass? Once you determine this, make it the agent’s fantasy, the root of his or her desire, and have the agent act in the Situation Set as if the fantasy can be realized by somehow contending with the elements of the Set. Then decide how much knowledge to give to the agent and the audience so that a fragile link between the two can be maintained for as long as possible. You don’t want the audience to know the desire is impossible, after all. Stir and bake.

  10. This is Feydeau’s Rule, which states that if any two persons must not under any circumstances meet, then they must be brought together as soon as possible.

  11. Yeah, I added stuff to this one on April 11, so don’t forget to go back and check. Talk about onanomatic.

  12. Touches on the great “Pinter Debate.” In Pinter, the audience does not possess absolute knowledge in the last temporal blink. And yet, the Dumb Waiter is a farce. And in the later “memory” plays, because memory itself has perpetual holes, there is no point of absolute knowledge from any perspective. The Birthday Party, anyone? Of course my sentimental favorite is No Man’s Land, but it’s sooooo English (all the characters’ names come from famous Cricket players). Old Times, maybe?

  13. What about the difference between Farce and Satire? It is a fine line, but I think it makes all the difference in the world. The meaning of the piece is changed by definition. Also I like to think of the structure as a necessary tool to the success and freedom of Farce. It is just like in Improv games, you know the rules and the game moves and you use those as a catalyst for the work.

  14. I think we the interested should write very short farces revolving around some simple activity. Tying shoes is taken. I’ll keep you posted.

  15. I have no idea why your comment did not appear. Perhaps powers wholly greater than ourselves who ultimately arbitrate these things can offer insight. Then again, I, too, have been in your situation many times and it certainly participates in the essence of farce. I’m sorry.

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