Monday, June 24, 2013

What Makes Us Cry: Farce, Laughing to Keep from Crying

Farce is a tricky genre, along with satire it evolved from the Greek Satyr play that came immediately after a tragedy trilogy. I said last week that I'd speak more about Greek Satyr plays this week and ye shall receive what was promised as well as find out why the heck I put it in the "What Makes Us Cry" series. You'll find out why, I promise you.

Even pumpkins do it.
So let's do it.
In terms of structure it has some similarities with Satire in that it attacks something, but instead of aiming high like Satire, it hits low. Very low, right in the... well, you know. Its humour is based primarily off of the body and all the things it can do. The thing about Farce is, it's really the only genre to put it all out there. What do I mean by putting it all out there? Well no other genre manages to worship a specific body part more than farce, nor does any other genre really go for the type of body humour that would make Emily Post or some other Miss Manners cringe in horror. I'm not just saying poop jokes, I mean, vomit, piss, snot, cum, mucus, bile, etc. All those nasty disgusting fluids inside our body that like to come out from time to time. In a farce expect to see these fluids at least once, with the more lowest brow farces not going more than five minutes without referencing some type of fluid or other. However largely though, farce likes to focus its attention on a specific body organ.


A comedy gets away with the occasional fart joke, sweat comments, hunger pains, slap stick, pie fights, and may on occasion throw in some poop jokes as the ultimate limit, but beyond that is relatively contained on what it likes to think funny about the human body. Farce makes fun of all the utterly disgusting parts that comedy won't touch. The only body fluid that doesn't really get utilized that much in a farce is blood, and that's because Farce's brother Horror holds the monopoly on blood that it inherited from classic tragedy. What do I mean by the fact that Farce and Horror are brothers? Well, let's stop for a moment, anthropomorphising the genres and look at their "family".

Imagine, if you will, that Tragedy, Horror, Farce, and Satire are four brothers. Tragedy is the eldest and most serious older brother. Horror, is Tragedy's twin brother who later in life went off and did his "own thing" and tried his hardest to disassociate himself with his twin brother. Satire is the youngest and the most spoiled, but at the same time feels it got the "hand-me-downs" and so had to fight to survive competition with the older siblings--not to mention the one who feels like they've got to "take on the world" head on. Satire's the biggest risk taker of the bunch and it's the one that met Romance, married her and together they had two kids a boy named Comedy and a girl named Romantic Comedy--by the way Romance later cheated on Satire with his older brother Tragedy and that's how Melodrama was born. *cymbal crash* Meanwhile amongst all this commotion Farce is the middle child who often gets overlooked and is forgotten and says wild and crazy things from time to time to remind everybody that it exists. Farce isn't the black sheep of the family (Irony is, and that'll be covered in next week's post), but it's quite close to being so--it's more the "creepy uncle" who says and does whatever he feels like without anyone else commenting on it. And quite honestly I'd hate to attend their family reunions, I mean wouldn't you?

They're all there, every single last one of them.
But returning to the world of Farce, I have to say that of its characters, it's the only genre where everyone is equally despicable and nobody cares a lick. It's the genre where we throw caution to the wind and allow ourselves to indulge in our selfish, greedy, and lustful sides. It's properly full of all the vices, and they are all out and on for display, but mostly the genre is about getting what you want, and not having to pay the piper for doing so. It's a consequence free world, so you can "do what you want". If you want to bang the girl, steal some money, commit matricide, have an incestuous relationship, or murder someone and get away with it without any consequences--then you should move into the world of farce.

You're sick, I'm sick, we're all sick together.
Having said all this, I need to make a small note here, while it's willing to celebrate the individual's wants, there's not focus on what an individual needs (tragedy conflicts needs and wants, and comedy as well to a lesser degree). Another thing, the reason it focuses so much so on all those disgusting body fluids? Well, why do most of those body fluids occur--usually when we are sick. That's right excess snot usually means you're suffering from the cold or a flu, vomiting and diarrhoea could be many things from gastroenteritis to poisoning, extremely yellow piss is dehydration, etc. The only fluid that it likes to focus about that aren't involved with any kind of sickness is cum--although I'm sure someone could argue there's something about it that I'm forgetting. As such the world inhabited by farce are by selfish people who through their own selfish desires and don't realize just how sick they are. Satire has a similar set up, except there's usually someone trying to "cure" the sick society. In a farce, everybody's sick and no one attempts to heal anything at all. Comedy makes a point to heal the sick--Romantic Comedy is about two people healing each other--Satire tries to beat the sickness into submission. Farce doesn't give a fuck and just lets everything run its course, and if that leads to death, then so be it. For the large part that's all there is to farce as everything else about it is incidental or subject to the tastes of the period from which it originates. So where did this world of "indulge everything" come from?

Farce as I said developed from the Satyr plays which proceeded to be performed immediately after a tragedy trilogy. They were written by the same playwright who wrote the tragedy trilogy and it is from that trilogy that these plays were in reference to, and they were a required part of the play competition at the City Dionysia--thus a tragedy trilogy was thought incomplete if a satyr play didn't follow. Even when Tragedy was shortened from its trilogy format to a single play, a satyr play was still required to follow thereafter. I once read an academic article (I forget which to be honest) which put it in terms which have stuck with me ever since: that farce is tragedy's younger brother that's given birth a few minutes after the tragic moment when you suddenly burst out laughing at the tragic idea. Sometimes the connection isn't immediately obvious, but is more often a thematic look. For example the one completely intact surviving Satyr play we have, The Cyclops, we can tell that it probably followed a tragedy about cannibalism, as the whole play is filled with references--especially from the Cyclops himself--about chopping people up, crushing them, cooking them, chewing on them, and consuming them. As was mentioned before the plot to a satyr play is pretty simple, Silenus and his merry band of satyrs get themselves into a pickle and a hero saves them. In this case Odysseus tricks the Cyclops into getting drunk so that it passes out so that they're not eaten by the monstrosity. And it is here where we get the core of farce, it takes an idea that we'd otherwise be shocked, horrified, scandalized, and cry over (whether in fear or pity) and it makes it laughable. Only farce can make incest, cannibalism, murder, rape, and all other human crimes seem almost innocently laughable. It takes us a while to realize what we just laughed about--some never realize it--but when you stop to think about a truly farcical situation seriously, you can't not cry about it a little. And it's not just in Greek tragedy where you have a serious examination of a subject followed by a farcical exploration of the idea, you can find it in the Japanese tradition of alternating Noh plays and Kyogen farces.

Arguably after the foundation of Greek New Comedy, farce (along with what would become satire) disappeared or diminished in quality in Greek culture--it lingered but no longer was AS prominent as it had been. The next stage of development arguably came from the Romans. Casina, a play by Plautus that would but for one thing be called a comedy, has arguably had a tremendous influence on farce. The only thing that keeps me from calling it a comedy outright is that the two "lovers" are absent the entirety of the play. They're talked about, connived for, and made much ado over, but you never ever see them on the stage. Instead the play is about how everyone else tries to arrange their lives for them behind their backs, without any thought but their own gratifications. And that arguably is probably the best way to divide comedy from farce--in a comedy two lovers get married and go about healing the society they're in somehow, while in a farce they are completely absent and their actions have little impact on the lives of the rest of the characters in the play. Essentially farce is a world where the doctor is out to golf somewhere and the sick people go around untreated.

Farce survived the Medieval period where satire did not--the farcical humour of some of the cycle plays in which to play to the audience scenes of the bible would be performed with an extra focus to body humour or gross-out humour. One of our earliest plays from Medieval times, written by a nun, involves a priest getting involved in some rather hilarious examples of body humour. The Second Shepherd's play, while a "romance" over all has some definite touches of the farce about it when the shepherds are all talking. And Noah's wife during the cycle of plays which focused on stories of the bible turns into quite a funny character, giving us the origin of the shrew as an archetype. But even so, it was mostly touches here and there of farcical humour meant to please the average peasant viewer in the audience.

However Farce really didn't emerge fully again until the Renaissance, where it arguably was brought to life again by Italian Renaissance playwrights and actually given a strong sense of intelligence. And this time it became, like everything else during the Renaissance, a bit more cynical.It's like one day everyone woke up and decided to be a little more pessimistic about life--that's the easy way to describe the Renaissance.


What he doesn't know is she's doing the angel.
For those of you looking at the above video and asking what's all the fuss about putting this highly intelligent, witty, and relatively disgusting-free play in with the crud? Well, the answer is easily explained once one knows what a mandrake root does, in fact what it looks like even... it's to increase fertility and most mandrake roots vaguely resemble either a little man or a penis. For a Renaissance audience, while it would be hilarious to see a husband to be cuckold--how it would be treated seriously in a tragedy is the consequences of cuckolding with children wrongfully being disinherited thanks to their mother's woeful indiscretion. The big issue that Machiavelli (of The Prince fame) is dramatizing was a big concern for the Renaissance in general--cuckolding a husband. Nowadays we find infidelity tragic (due to our notions of "romantic love"), but in the Renaissance they found it absolutely hilarious it seems as references to cuckolding a husband can be found in practically every piece of literature of the period. Additionally it was thought a cuckold grew horns--like that of the satyrs of old--when discovered they had been cuckolded, so all those references to husbands having horns should make more sense and is probably the origin of the word "horny" in its sexual context. It makes sense when the society had marriage more as a business arrangement for the provision of children than a love match--after all if the wife were to have children from the adulterous relationship and the husband wouldn't know--it would be like the Reed Warbler raising the parasitic Cuckoo bird that pushes its actual children out of the nest as it grows, or in this case keeps them from rightfully inheriting. That's a big issue for an emerging middle class, like the Renaissance featured. What was one thing the aristocracy had that the artisans and merchant classes didn't? Lineage, and so making sure your children are actually your own so that you can hand down your own self-made empire to them becomes of vital importance. Most Renaissance farces and comedies thus are about cuckolding, with the farces actually having the cuckolding occurring and the comedies merely the thought of it plagues the play and is proven to be an illusion later on (see Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor). In an actual farce from the Renaissance, the cuckolding just won't happen once, but it will be arranged to ensure that it will keep on happening far into the future, which is where we are in The Mandrake Root at the end of the play. Machiavelli here has almost everyone in the town arrange to help this young man sleep with the lawyer's wife and then after doing so once she arranges to find a way to keep the young man around to make sure she is satisfied from that day forward.

Doors, lots and lots of doors.
It's also from this period that the tradition of "slamming doors", all too common in farce, comes into existence as Renaissance (and later) playwrights based their stage designs off of the three door structure of Comedy. In a comedy a door may slam once, maybe two or three times at most. In a farce doors are constantly slamming, people are peeking out of them, hiding behind them, shouting from them, etc. If doors are slamming, one can bet that you got taken to a farce. Beyond slamming doors, you can be sure various states of dress and undress are to be seen in a farce. Cross-dressing isn't completely out of the question either (though comedy dabbles with that plenty enough--but in a comedy the cross-dressing isn't for a sexual reason, but rather a disguise all its own to give freedom of mobility to a character otherwise limited from pursuing an action due to their gender) In farce if the cross dressing isn't for a sexual reason it's to poke fun at stereotypes of gender and how a manly man pretending to be a woman can easily fall prey to acting overtly feminine when put in the role). Small white lies snowball into the greatest of avalanches and create the most ridiculous scenarios of liars attempting to "keep up with the growing lie" in a farce. From the Renaissance until the twentieth century I'd say European farce as descended from The Mandrake Root was at its most intelligent and most highly developed. The pinnacle of the farce came in the late 19th Century in France with Georges Feydeau--his most celebrated play being A Flea in her Ear. Since satire took over after WWI, farce has been relegated as a more minor genre to be derided as a "lower form of satire" than as a genre in its own right and to some extent has been denied having little to any intelligence, when looking at farces prior to WWI one can see that was anything but the case. There are of course notable exceptions to this, the roaring twenties still had Noel Coward, and the swinging sixties had Joe Orton, but they were blips on an otherwise occupied stage of modernist, Brechtian, experimental, or socialist (see Angry Young Men) theater.

The scariest thing about it is...
there are four sequels to it.
Farce actually quite recently had a revival in film (finally making the transition since its hundred year peak) and has is nowadays in film referred to as either "gross out comedies", "parodies" or "stoner comedies". It first came to prominence in 1990s with films such as Flirting with Disaster, There's Something About Mary, American Pie, and Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. As you can tell there was an initial intelligence to them which gradually decreased as the decade wore on until in the 2000s the genre turned into Scary Movie, Not Another Teenage Movie, Idiocracy, Date Movie and the cringe worthy Epic Movie. Currently there are two films set to be released this year based on the end of the world scenarios that I'd qualify as definite farces: This is the End (where a bunch of Hollywood actors play themselves in an end of the world scenario) and Rapture-palooza, which goes to town on the more modern idea of the "rapture" in Christian theology. Usually though when a subject gets to this low-end side of farce one knows that the ability to take it seriously as film fodder usually has run its course and the genre's audience has either "moved on" or "died out." That's why decent horror films aren't made any more in the United States--well traditional horror films as more experimental stuff has come out since then as the genre tries to reinvent itself.

From this revival in farce in film I'd argue that it has been pushed as a genre to go beyond its tragic origins and attempt to cover other genres (new and old) alike--and as such it doesn't always work. Of the lower-end stuff from the 2000s and now, Scary Movie, Idiocracy, and the two end of the world scenario films are probably the best farces because they actually take things we'd fear or pity (and thus cry) over and turn them into something laughable. While films like Date Movie or Epic Movie completely fail as films because they lack that serious origin. Not Another Teenage Movie has its moments, when it looks at the "teenage psychological issues" we're supposed to take serious in a teenage film and goes to town on them, but beyond that it gets stuck in the mud by making the already ridiculous scenarios of teenage films even more ridiculous to the point where they start getting uncomfortably unreal. Not only that but American farce has tried to take the poking fun of American popular culture (a realm normally reserved for the more intelligent satire) too far to the point where if you watch the films almost a year or so later you forget at first what was so funny until you try and remember the reference. And that's the state of modern American farce--trying and re-learning the hard way it can only make fun of what we'd otherwise take far too seriously.

Who's the best at farce? I'd argue the Europeans. They've figured out the right balance of intelligence, wit, vice, and the ridiculous that goes into making a farce that one feels you don't have to bathe after watching. Compare European farces versus American farces if you doubt me, and if you disagree give a reason why below.

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Next week we're taking another break from the What Makes Us Laugh & What Makes Us Cry series and we're going to ask the question: What is Irony? Think you have a clue? Leave a comment down below.

~LCC