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It's a farce, I tell you!

Your Humble Blogger has been thinking about farce. About actual farce, that is, not travesty or debacle or Senate Hearings. Farce.

It occurred to me that the reason there are a lot of backstage farces is that in order to write a farce in a particular setting, it helps to know that setting very well, and most playwrights have a good deal of backstage experience. Oh, and it’s a farcible setting to begin with, of course, but there are lots of those. For a setting to be farcible it must have a) at least three doors/exits, and the more the proverbial; II) a reason for lots of people to come in and out fairly frequently, and 3) a plausible way to ratchet up the speed and the stakes so that the play builds in intensity and excitement. Backstage during a play does that very nicely. Also a house, particularly a dinner party or country weekend, and there are plenty of those. Hotels, particularly in a suite with connecting rooms, plenty of those. I was trying to think of other farcible settings.

The front office of an elementary school seems to me to have possibilities, although one would want to avoid having actual children on stage for very long. Still. Door to a bathroom, door to the corridor, door to the outside, door to the Principal’s office. Easy to come up with ways to build pressure. The usual way is the visit from Outside Authority, so the superintendent, possibly with a parent activist of some kind, or possibly coincidental with an opposed parent activist. The whatsit, a term I’ve just invented to describe the prop that goes from hand to hand faster and faster as the farce descends, is a bit tricky, as it’s likely to be a file folder or envelope. The whatsit, of course, is usually a set of identical or near-identical whatsits; the epitome of this is the three identical suitcases, one full of money, one with a bomb, and one filled with lingerie or something similarly embarrassing. Having a file folder as a whatsit is all right, as there are a nice variety of potential contents, but they aren’t intrinsically funny. The ideal whatsit is a costume piece, a policeman’s helmet or a priest’s collar, worn by a succession of characters impersonating, increasingly pathetically, their proper owner.

A restaurant kitchen, for instance, is a lovely spot for a farce, and the whatsit can be a chef’s hat or a maitre-d’s jacket. Door to the dining area, door to the street, door to the meat locker, door to the pantry. A restaurant in a hotel is even better, as you can have a separate entrance for the room-service carts, and of course the uniformed bellhops. I don’t know of any farces set in hotel restaurants, but I’m sure there are some. But to write one, you would have to either have worked in one yourself or do some research. And who wants to do that?

My last idea before I throw the floor open to suggestions is a chemistry laboratory. Here’s what I’m thinking: two researchers, rivals at the same R&D co., he’s … let’s see … Simon Sillicothe, and she’s Blair Brophy. Each has a crush on the other, but they won’t admit it. Blair’s research assistant is Marcus Mondebourg, Simon’s is Wendy Weisenzweig; they are actually having an affair, but neither of their bosses know. Also, Wendy is a spy for a rival R&D co, and Simon a fraud of some kind (fake CV? Criminal record? Nephew of owner?). The outsiders who come in are a beautiful but very confused animal rights activist and a representative from a funding foundation. Also, they are expecting a … postdoc? Some sort of temporary colleague from overseas, who neither Simon nor Blair has ever seen. I’m also thinking there is a super-efficient administrator (playing against type) who instantly comes up with explanations for every ludicrous situation the funding-wallah walks into. The whatsits are a lab coat, of course, and a set of test tubes (or whatever is actually used in chemlabs), one with a ludicrously expensive something-or-other that is the last of the substance in the country and is needed for the display for the funding-wallah, one brought by the animal activist which she says has a virulent nastythingy to show the sadistic vivisectionists what it’s like to be experimented on, and one with … I don’t know. Maybe only two of them, but with a whole stage full of empty and/or harmless ones. The actual set would be a display lab, set aside for impressing funding-wallahs and administrators, with a door to the corridor leading eventually to the outside, a door to the administrators’ offices, a door to Simon’s lab, a door to Blair’s lab, and a door to a supply room. Possibly all three lab rooms are on stage, with a portion of the two labs shielded by a screen (perhaps Blair’s has a cot, as he works late, and Simon’s has an illicit garden or a kitchen or some such).

My point is that if I were trying to write that farce, I would have to do some research. Not that such a setting is realistic, and I would have to make the whole thing realistic to go with it. Far from that. No, I’d have to know a lot of vocabulary, know what people would carry themselves and what their flunkies would carry, know about ID badges and lab coats, know whether it would be funnier to have an stupid funding-wallah or a clever one, know whether it would be funnier to have the lab experiments work or fail, and if they fail, what’s the funniest way to have them fail, and if they work, what’s the funniest way to make the working unexpected. To know what would make the characters comically surprised, and what preposterous nonsense they would comically accept. Oh, and mobile phones. It would be good to have a reason to get people’s mobile phones away from them. Anyway, it would be far too much work for a playwright to bother with, so that one will have to wait for a lab techie with time on her hands.

So, Gentle Readers, what’s a farcible setting in your life?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, I work in a cube farm, which just SCREAMS for a farce.

But it's a scream of desperation and anguish, not a scream of delight or embarrassment, which does put rather a damper on things.

No, no, it's not as bad as all that, but it could be. It could be.

Also, at one point, I worked at a high-volume, ecologically-friendly conference center, which would have been extremely farcible, in itself, had it not been for the fact that it sucked donkey balls on ice.

Which is probably an excellent reason for it to be rendered a farce.


I love the lab farce! Unfortunately... I've done live demos for important guests. There is no funny way for them to fail.

More seriously, the funny in farce comes from incongruity between what the audience knows and what someone else in the scene believes, no? The most realistic funny lab experiment outcomes I can think of offhand are all slapstick, with mixups in chemicals leading to explosive fizzing, people getting sprayed/dyed/set on fire, generation of noxious fumes, etc. I can't really see how you'd get into the territory of "acceptance of preposterous nonsense" without getting really technical and obscure. Hrm, no, what you do for the farce, I think you need something like a lab working on pheremone research, and they've got a sex formula and a violence formula (or something)... that gets you the administrator lecturing with their back to the cage of test subjects doing the highly inappropriate response, having translated the science back into something everyone can appreciate.

That was me Amy. I tried to use the lj thing but I guess it did not work.

that's very funny

moonbase. inspector: socialist world minister who wants to make a lab out of the successful restaurant. mistaken ID: manifestation of hyperdimensional ambassador; alien invader scout; stowaway octopus. whatsit: ancient portable time machine; w'reotkeji delicacy that can be prepared only in low gravity; base's mascot animal, sucked inside out by anomolous gravitational whirlpool caused by ambassador's arrival.

stew. inspector: pot covered, heated for 45 minutes. ID: bell pepper, habanero chile, plastic vegetable. whatsit: salt, sugar, washing detergent. none of the vegetables have lines; you kind of have to know cooking to get the jokes.

eternity. inspector: eternity. ID: self, other, stowaway octopus. whatsit: time, space, time-space.

there's nothing funny about my life, though

Amy wrote: There is no funny way for them to fail.

It's very interesting to me that you say this as (and correct me if I'm reading you wrongly) a factor against a farce around a lab demo for an important guest. To me, it seems like most farces get their energy out of being a situation which, if it were real, would be quite the opposite of funny: actors fouling up their performance beyond recognition, POWs in a Nazi camp, one's job, engagement, and life all endangered by the actions of a stranger who won't listen to a word you say... Of course, to quote Hugh Grant as Frederik Chopin, "I have no stomach for farce," mostly because I find the 'pain' half of the pain-and-narrow-avoidance formula more uncomfortable than it seems most people do, so I might be over-emphasizing the importance of this factor. Still, it seems to me like an instance where failure could not possibly be funny to the people within it might in fact be prime territory for classic farce.

I agree with Dan P. in that I find a lot of farce more painful and irritating than it seems a lot of others do.

Having read this while I am doing nanowrimo is doing pain to my brain as well. My previous "novel" had a lot of farcical elements, mistaken identities, missed phone calls, etc., and this one might as well, although neither are actually designed to be funny. I don't know how I feel about this.

DanP: I think you are quite right about farce and the opposite of funny, although perhaps this speaks against a bored lab tech as the ideal author... I suspect it's not the POWs writing those farces either. Although when I said there was no funny way for lab demos to fail, I did partly have in mind that it is upsetting when they do, but also that it can be pretty boring. "Oh look, Doctor Potential Customer Sirorma'am ... huge error bars and a muted response again. Sigh. Alrighty then, back to the conference room."

The great thing about "a whole stage full of empty and/or harmless" test tubes (as I imagine you had in mind when you wrote that phrase) is the potential for almost shattering them, dropping and catching them, throwing them and seeing them almost break, people almost stumbling into a rack of them, and so on. Until, in true Chekhovian fashion, in the third act (just after the most preposterous save yet, as everyone is wiping their brows) the entire stagefull of test tubes are all unexpectedly destroyed by accident, showering sugar glass all over the stage.

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