Definition of Farce
A farce is a lighthearted comedy that centers around a ridiculous plot that usually involves exaggerated and improbable events. Farces usually do not have much character development, but instead rely on absurdity, physical humor, and a skillful exploitation of a situation. Farce examples also often occur in just one place where all the events occur. This can add to the sense of a pressure cooker where all of the elements are combined to create something truly ridiculous.
The original definition of farce, surprisingly, had to do with cooking. In the fourteenth century, English adopted “farce” from the French word for “stuffing” or “forcemeat.” Thus, the word farce took on a metaphorical meaning when it was applied to “stuffing” religious texts and works with buffoonery.
Common Examples of Farce
There are numerous popular films and television series that are examples of farce. Here is a short list for each genre:
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
- Home Alone
- The Three Stooges
- Wet Hot American Summer
- The Hangover
- The Beverly Hillbillies
- Arrested Development
- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
You will note that many of these farce examples contain the common farce convention of most of the action taking place in one location, such as at the summer camp in Wet Hot American Summer, or Macaulay Culkin’s house in Home Alone. Furthermore, the situations are generally completely ridiculous, such as the predicament of piecing together the previous night in The Hangover, or the absurd machinations of the dysfunctional Bluth family in Arrested Development.
When we apply the word “farce” or “farcical” to reality, it’s usually in a derogatory or condemning way. While farce in comedy is very entertaining, it is far less amusing in politics or world affairs. For example, if someone said that it was farcical how little congress has been able to achieve, this is meant as a criticism.
Significance of Farce in Literature
The genre of farce developed in 15th-century Europe as a way to make serious things, such as religious texts, foolish. These early farce examples included features such as acrobatics and clowning, that are still present in the physical humor of contemporary farces, as well as reversal and perversion of social rules and norms. Farce, however, does not have the biting social commentary of satire or necessarily have a greater meaning. Instead, entertainment is its primary goal. Indeed, one of the most famous farcical television series of all time, Seinfeld, is often called “a show about nothing” (though Jerry Seinfeld has said that it was meant to be a show about how a comedian gets his material).
Examples of Farce in Literature
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: Where England?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: Where Spain?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: Where America, the Indies?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.
(The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is one of his most famous farce examples, and certainly one of his funniest plays. In the above dialogue, the characters of Antipholus and Dromio are talking about a kitchen wench named Nell who is quite physically unattractive. Dromio jokes that she is round enough to represent the world, and Antipholus picks up on the joke to ask which parts of her body represent different countries. This passage is quite humorous, but indeed the entire play contains many different features of farce. Even the fact that these two characters carry the epithet “of Syracuse” is notable—they are both identical twins to characters who have the same first name, and thus must be called either “of Syracuse” or “of Ephesus.” Thus, there is a clear set-up for mistaken and confused identities. There are also many examples of pun and wordplay in this comedy to add to the humor.
ORGON: Has everything gone well these last two days?
What’s happening? And how is everybody?
DORINE: Madam had fever, and a splitting headache
Day before yesterday, all day and evening.
ORGON: And how about Tartuffe?
DORINE: Tartuffe? He’s well;
He’s mighty well; stout, fat, fair, rosy-lipped.
ORGON: Poor man!
DORINE: At evening she had nausea
And could’t touch a single thing for supper,
Her headache still was so severe.
ORGON: And how about Tartuffe?
DORINE: He supped alone, before her,
And unctuously ate up two partridges,
As well as half a leg o’ mutton, deviled.
ORGON: Poor man!
(Tartuffe by Molière)
The patriarch and head of the house Orgon returns home and inquires his housemaid Dorine about how the family is doing in this early scene from Molière’s Tartuffe. Orgon is so blinded with admiration that he does not care at all about how anyone is doing besides his houseguest Tartuffe. There is much humor in this play, and much of it is due to the hypocrisy of Tartuffe, a self-righteous religious man, and Orgon’s obsession with him. Molière wrote this farce partly to criticize hypocrisy, especially in religion.
ALGERNON: [Retreating to back of sofa] But why does she call herself little Cecily if she is your aunt and lives at Tunbridge Wells? [Reading] “From little Cecily with her fondest love.”
JACK: [Moving to sofa and kneeling upon it] My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt! That is absurd! For Heaven’s sake give me back my cigarette case. [Follows Algernon round the room.]
ALGERNON: Yes. But why does your aunt call you her uncle? “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” There is no objection, I admit, to an aunt being a small aunt, but why an aunt, no matter what her size may be, should call her own nephew her uncle, I can’t quite make out. Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.
JACK: It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.
(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)
One of the funniest plays ever written, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is an excellent example of farce. Many of the expected conventions are on display here, especially the mistaken identity of who is really named Ernest (hint: no one). In the above excerpt from the play there is more humor and confused identity as Jack tries to convince Algernon (both of whom pretend at one point or another to be named Ernest) that a girl named Cecily is actually his aunt. Many ridiculous and improbable events ensue, including Cecily’s later engagement to Algernon-as-Ernest.
Test Your Knowledge of Farce
1. Which of the following statements is the best farce definition?
A. A type of meat.
B. A comedy with ridiculous plot lines.
C. A biting social commentary.
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2. Which of the following would you not likely find in an example of farce?
A. Complex character development
B. Slapstick humor
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3. Consider the following quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:
JACK: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON: Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK: [Rising] Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. [Takes muffins from Algernon.]
ALGERNON: [Offering tea-cake] I wish you would have tea-cake instead. I don’t like tea-cake.
What about this excerpt indicates that it is part of an example of farce?
A. The character development we get in learning that Algernon doesn’t like tea-cake.
B. The fact that there is horrible trouble going on.
C. Slapstick comedy in the form of two men physically fighting over muffins.
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