Thoughts & Musings

The Cheating Game: “Sauce for the Goose”
Georges Feydeau’s The Dupe (Le Dindon) (1896)

Discussion Sunday is March 30th

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

Ah. The French. When a British politician or statesman is caught in an affair with someone not his wife or – worst of all – with prostitutes, as happened in the John Profumo Affair in 1961, the entire government topples. In America, when Senator Gary Hart was photographed merely cuddling a model, or when John Edwards fathered a love child with another woman, their political careers were toast. When Bill Clinton misbehaved with Monica Lewinsky the entire country went into hysteria and he narrowly missed impeachment. But let the President of France, François Hollande, get caught out zipping away on his motor scooter from the apartment of his new lover and cheating on his other mistress, and the ratings for his political image rise in public esteem!

Among the French, extra-martial sex is treated like (Gallic shrug here) just another aspect of civilized society, like excellent food, or fine wine. It’s not a moral catastrophe. Or is it? At least, this tolerant attitude is why we can credit the French for the perfection of the farce form in theatre. It has been noted – with some accuracy – that British farce focuses on the terror of being caught with the wrong partner and that the jokes turn on frigidity and impotence. American farce – like so much of our literature and, indeed, the national character – is about money. But French farce is about having sex with a new partner (and the accompanying thrill of the chase) and getting away with it. The “getting away with it” part is important, because the worst things are 1) to hurt or humiliate your wronged spouse and 2) to lose face or dignity in society yourself by being exposed and embarrassed. Hence, all the assumed identities, the revolving doors, and secret assignations.

Le Dindon (or The Dupe) is about the consequences of getting caught by one’s spouse. A “dindon” is a young male turkey, in Feydeau’s time a slang term for a man whose wife has played him for a fool. Hence, also, the subtitle “Sauce for the Goose,” as in the adage: “What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.” (If he does it, she’ll pay him back in kind!) The bourgeois husbands in the play have been pursuing their God-given right to stray in discreet fashion (on a faraway business trip, under false identity, etc.) but things go awry. The pursued woman turns out to be the wife of a friend. The faraway one-night stand turns up in Paris, eager for love. Enraged by their suspicions, the injured wives throw themselves on the roguish single man who has been romancing one of them for years, begging for revenge sex. Turns out, his flirtation is a game and he is happiest with a fancy-free, elegant courtesan.  Lots of delightfully funny misadventure occurs as partners change in switched hotel rooms.

Farce depends on the existence of a conventional society, preferably one that takes itself a bit seriously because the people are part of a socially rising class. The bourgeois characters in French farce care enormously about losing their position, whatever their covert behavior may be.  Farce is about the keeping of secrets potentially damaging to the individual characters – sexual promiscuity, infidelity, impotence, a birth out-of-wedlock, bastardy, overwhelming debt. The harder the character tries to conceal the secret, the more trouble he or she gets into.

Farce has actually been called a forerunner of surrealism and, if you stop laughing long enough to consider it, there is a dream or nightmare quality to it. Women of good character are encountered in a whore-house (classic male fantasy). People effortlessly exchange identities. Stereotypes are inflated. Beatings are commonplace.  One critic has labeled farce “Punch and Judy for grown ups.”

It’s one of the oldest formulae in the theatre, dating back to the Romans, who always loved a belly-laugh about illicit sex, mistaken identity, and the come-uppance of arrogance so much better than the weeping and breast-beating of imported Greek tragedies. They adored the stock clever servant (like Gerome) who manipulates his master. They whooped at the husband afraid of being a cuckold and the virtuous woman about to be pushed down the slippery slope. The hearty Plautus wasn’t a big playwright for subtleties, but he sure knew how to convulse the rough crowds who made up much of his audience.

Farce is a contrast to romantic comedy, which requires an audience with most of its ideals intact. After all, you have to be able to believe – at least for the duration of a romantic play – that the young lovers, united with all obstacles overcome, will remain in love forever. “Happily ever after” is supposed to be real. Farce, on the other hand, demands a more mature, more cynical audience, capable of laughing at love’s failures and desire’s indiscretions. It’s amoral. If the main characters escape with some secrets and some reputation intact, that’s good enough.

Farce. Get it right and the audience is howling hysterically. Get it wrong and they yawn. It’s so true, that great exit line, attributed to everyone from Edmund Keane to Donald Wolfit: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. While the acting is less demanding than in a fine character play, no comedy is more challenging to direct than farce. Timing is everything. Speed is essential. The swift unpacking of box within box, scene within scene, has to move like a well-oiled machine. The form allows no mercy to the slow actor, the stumbler, the line-blower.

Georges Feydeau (1862 – 1921) was the acknowledged master of this meticulously crafted form. 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 several youthful stage failures, Feydeau married – it would seem for her money – the daughter of Society portrait artist Carolus-Duran, a marriage he would ultimately regret. Between 1890 and 1892 he made a serious study of the great writers of farce, and then in 1892 burst onto the Paris stage with hit after hit after hit. Sixty-plus in all! He 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.

The farces that Feydeau engineered with such precision are concerned (as critic Peter Glenville put it) with the appetites and follies of the average human being caught in a net devised by his or her own foolishness. Virtue does not triumph, nor does sentimentality prevail. Every detail is logical and plausible, then pushed to an irrational level.

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 Marianne 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.

Parts of this essay previously appeared in Eileen Warburton’s “Send in the Clowns,” a 2007 2nd Story Theatre discussion essay about Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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