Mishunderschtandink on Speed:
Georges Feydeau’s The Ladies’ Man (1886),
translated and adapted by Charles Morey from Feydeau’s Tailleur pour dames
Sunday, October 2’s matinee performance.
© 2016 by Eileen Warburton
“Whenever two of my characters absolutely, positively under any circumstances shouldn’t meet, I put them in the same room together.”
Many winters ago, when 2nd Story Theatre performed over a bar on Long Wharf in Newport, I asked Pat Hegnauer her secret for directing comedy. Pat, who’s been my dear friend now for 30-some years, was the co-founder of the theatre company with Ed Shea. In a single season I had decided she was the best comedic director I’d ever come across. “What’s your secret?” I asked. “Speed,” she grinned, “You have to move the action along so fast that the audience is always laughing and never has time to even consider whether the line is actually funny or not.”
If ever there was a genre that proves Pat’s observation, it’s farce, specifically French farce and, in particular, the 60 farces that made Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) the unchallenged master of the stage farce in the late 19th century and pre-World War I period. Feydeau studied and perfected the ideal form to present an exaggerated, irrational, hugely funny version of what happens when the appetites and follies of some stuffy bourgeois people—usually men—lead them into a net of lies, disguise, and mistaken identities. Terrified of the loss of a starchy middle-class social reputation and the unquestioning respect of one’s spouse, characters in French farce wade into lunatic deceptions and silly deceits, until they are buried in unnecessary complications that could do them in indeed. In serious drama, the arrogant guy who can’t be wrong (King Lear? Juliet Capulet’s father? Torvald Helmer?) can become a tragic figure. But in farce—with misnamed characters in bed with the wrong partner, narrow escapes, doors opening and slamming shut, double entendre exposing the depths of naughtiness, and double lives exposed by innocent stumblebums—and all ticking over with the meticulous precision of a Victorian pocket watch– he’s only the hilarious butt of our laughter.
In the case of The Ladies’ Man, Dr. Moulineaux, our newly-wed, middle-aged husband, fears losing his sexual edge with Yvonne, his very young, very pretty wife. This simple, quite honest, embarrassment leads him to, first, to isolate himself from her, then to try to doctor himself by a little fling with a sexually predatory patient. But, no. All he can think of is how he loves Yvonne. The one thing monogamous Hercule is not is a “ladies’ man.” By pretending to be one, then covering up his stupidity, Hercule unleashes all the suspicions and obstacles of a gorgon of a mother-in-law, a pair of frisky servants, a seductive cougar patient and her explosively jealous husband, and a friend with a marvelous lisp that twists dialogue and foments misunderstanding.
Georges Feydeau was born in Belle Époque Paris when it was the cultural center of the western world. He thrived in the edgy tensions of fin de siecle France, a time that gave the world the Decadent Poets and the Symbolists, Escoffier’s cooking, the ugliness of the Dreyfus Affair, the Eiffel Tower and the Moulin Rouge, and the exuberant romanticism of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. After his first stage success in 1886–Tailleur pour dames (The Ladies’ Dressmaker, here renamed The Ladies’ Man) Feydeau married the daughter of Society portrait artist Carolus-Duran. Marianne’s money supported his playwriting until he was dominating the Paris stage with hit after hit after hit. Sixty-plus in all! With his matinee idol good looks and his jaunty moustache, Feydeau rapidly became the most popular playwright of the boulevard theatre. His plays were so successful abroad that some were performed in foreign translation before they were produced in French. He lived the high life, kept a table reserved for himself at Maxim’s, collected art, gambled heavily, and dressed in sartorial elegance.
Like so many clowns in all times and all places, Feydeau was a melancholy man. Trouble haunted him. His marriage failed, he separated from his wife in 1909 and divorced in 1916. He moved to a hotel. His gambling left him with enormous debts that even his dramatic successes could not cover. In 1918 he contracted syphilis and descended steadily into madness. In 1919 he entered an insane asylum, where he died in 1921. As in Feydeau’s great farces, the anarchy within finally conquered the success of the exterior. The talented adaptor of Feydeau is Charles Morey. With more than forty-five years of experience in American theatre, Morey is the playwright of eleven produced plays, adaptor of many classics, director of hundreds of productions, and veteran director of regional American theatre coast-to-coast. When he finally retired in 2012 as Artistic Director of the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, his last gig, Morey was the longest-tenured sitting artistic director in any regional American theatre. He continues to write and direct for theatres around the country.
Did you know how the comic stage form, swiftly timed, using horseplay, buffoonery, disguise, social satire, and sexual innuendo came to be called a “farce”?
When farce first appeared in English, it had to do with cookery, not comedy. In the 14th century, English adopted farce from Middle French, retaining its original meaning of “forcemeat” or “stuffing.” Like sausage or turkey stuffing. The comedic sense of farce in English dates from the 16th century, when England imported a kind of knockabout comedy already popular in France. This dramatic genre had its origins in the 13th-century practice of augmenting, or “stuffing,” Latin church texts with explanatory phrases. Predictably, listeners and lay readers eventually became irreverent and satiric. By the 15th century, the practice had arisen of inserting unscripted buffoonery into religious plays. Such farces – which included clowning, acrobatics, reversal of social roles, and ribald indecency – soon developed into a distinct dramatic genre and spread rapidly in various forms throughout Europe.
So, now you know.
The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.