Dramatic Farce: History, Examples and Playwrights

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Would you believe Curly, Larry, and Moe, The Three Stooges, are simply practicing a centuries-old form of drama? Learn more about how horseplay and high energy contribute to the dramatic comedy sub-genre called farce.


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.

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