Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Dramatic Farce: History, Examples and Playwrights
Curly, Larry, Moe - most of you probably know who they are. You can see them in your mind's eye, bopping each other over the head, poking each other in the eyes, and making noises that are even unnatural for babies. But can you recall the plot to any episode of The Three Stooges? Probably not. And that's because the plot of a farce isn't as important as its purpose: to make you laugh.
Origins and Definition
The history of dramatic farce is one of debate. We do know that the word comes from the Latin farcire meaning 'to stuff or fill.' During the Middle Ages, the audience would be treated to a sort of interlude during the mystery and morality plays that were popular at that time. Often those interludes, or fillers, were intended to bring a light-hearted alternative to the very serious and somber morality plays. It's likely that these were the beginnings of farce as we know it today, a low comedy that uses base characters and improbable circumstances to entertain the audience.
Characteristics of the Dramatic Farce
This sub-genre of dramatic comedy called farce sets itself apart from the other forms because its purpose is to make the audience laugh. And that's it.
So, how does a farce ensure that the audience will laugh and leave with a lighter heart? It begins with some low comedy, or comedy that uses bawdy jokes, physical humor, drunkenness, and silly visuals just for the sake of getting people to laugh. Actually, these elements can be found in many plays that are not considered farcical. It's the plot, or lack thereof, that makes a true farce. The plot in a farce is likely to be improbable, and maybe even incomprehensible. In fact, it's up to the audience to accept that the physical and verbal humor runs the show, not the plot. The physical humor, which is high-energy horseplay, reinforces the exaggerated, stereotypical characters. These base characters - base meaning ignorant or of low social class - often find themselves in a mix-up of sorts, sometimes even with a mistaken identity, that results in furthering a ridiculous situation.
The Importance of Being Ernest
Given that the farce form has been around for quite some time, it's no surprise that there are plenty of examples to choose from. Brandon Thomas's 1892 play Charley's Aunt often appears on lists of farces. But even further back are Molière's Tartuffe from 1664, and even Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors from 1594 is sometimes given the farce label.
The problem with trying to give a good example of a farce is, well, the fact that its plot doesn't make much sense, and you spend a good deal of time trying to get someone to understand that it just doesn't make sense, but is still worth knowing! Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest takes us on a roundabout trip of puns, wits, and mistaken identities to create a quite fun, albeit confusing, story about two couples who are attempting to court each other during the Victorian era in London.
Jack Worthing is our lead character. He is a man of responsibility and even is the guardian of an orphan named Cecily Cardew, a beautiful, 18-year-old girl. For quite some time, Jack has told people about his brother Ernest, who is a rather irresponsible person, unlike Jack. And Jack often has to leave his responsibilities in order to get Ernest out of trouble. In reality, Jack is Ernest and uses the name when he goes to London.
Algernon Moncrieff is the nephew of a stereotypical aristocrat named Lady Bracknell. A bachelor, he spends most of his time out with friends. One of his friends is Ernest.
As Ernest, Jack plans to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax, the cousin of his friend Algernon.
Hopefully you're following so far.
Trouble arises when Algernon finds an inscription on Ernest's cigarette case that says, 'From Cecily, with her fondest love, to her dear Uncle Jack.' Jack tells Algernon about leading a double life, and admits his real name is Jack, not Ernest. Algernon admits that he, too, has created a fake friend named Mr. Bunbury, a sickly man who often needs his assistance.
Algernon's aunt, Lady Bracknell, arrives with Gwendolen, and Jack, as Ernest, proposes to her. Lady Bracknell denies the engagement, because Jack reveals that he does not know who his parents are. We learn that a man named Thomas Cardew found Jack as a baby in a handbag at the train station and became his guardian.
Nevertheless, Gwendolen is very much in love with Ernest and tells him that what she loves most about him is his name.
All right. So far we have some clearly improbable situations: two men who are leading double lives and one man who was found in a handbag as a baby. Are you ready for more? Okay, let's move on.
The scene changes, and we see Cecily with Miss Prism and Reverend Chausible. The older couple leaves, and Cecily is alone when a servant announces that Jack's brother, Ernest Worthing, has arrived. The Ernest on the stage this time, however, is Algernon pretending to be Jack's non-existent brother. He and Cecily flirt and exit the stage.
In comes Jack, who announces he's just received word that his brother Ernest has died. He also decides to legally change his name to Ernest.
Can you see where this is going? Not much plot, but lots of silly chaos!
Of course, at this point Cecily enters and tells everyone that Jack's brother Ernest has arrived. Everyone is stunned, including Jack. Algernon enters, and once the two men are alone, Jack tells him he must leave.
Though Algernon cannot leave because he is now in love with Cecily. He proposes marriage, and she accepts. She is especially excited because she loves his name, Ernest. Algernon decides he will change his name to Ernest.
Now surely you can see what trouble is coming for the characters. Two men are now pretending to be Ernest. And they both are trying to legally become Ernest. The only thing that could make this more chaotic is the arrival of Gwendolen, which is exactly what happens next.
Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily. Quite quickly they both realize they are engaged to marry Ernest Worthing. Luckily this is cleared up as soon as Jack and Algernon enter, both of whom confess to not being named Ernest.
The women, who are now angry, leave.
In the next act, nearly all of the characters are present. Miss Prism arrives again, and Lady Bracknell asks, 'Where is that baby?' It transpires that while working as a nanny, Miss Prism accidentally left a baby in a handbag at the train station. Upon hearing this, Jack retrieves the handbag in which he had been found, and Miss Prism verifies that it is her bag. Lady Bracknell explains that Jack is the son of her deceased sister, which means Algernon is actually his brother. He also learns that his given name was that of his father, Ernest. Now both couples can marry and have their happy ending.
The high-energy play ends with all chaos resolved, and all identities revealed. Wilde uses clever retorts, puns, and wit to add to the high energy and confusion. Even though there is little character development, and the plot is quite improbable, the audience can laugh all the way through his farce.
While the origins of dramatic farce are not quite clear, we do know the derivation of the word itself means 'to stuff or fill.' This isn't surprising since the farce doesn't have much substance; it is a low comedy with a chaotic plot, very little character development, but lots of horseplay, exaggeration, and high energy. It's just a lot of stuff. And just like in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, we can still be provoked to laugh simply through the playwright's use of puns, clever retorts, and wit.
Completing this lesson could enhance your ability to:
- Understand the facets of dramatic farce and discuss its history
- Realize that plot is least important in farce
- Emphasize the plot, characters and farcical points in The Importance of Being Earnest
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