Farce, in and out of the Bedroom

When it comes to representing our world in fiction, what genre is most suitable? A perfect mix of thriller, tragedy, literary fiction and comedy, reckons author Toni Jordan – in other words, farce.

Photograph of Toni Jordan by James Penlidis

The British actor Edmund Gwenn, best known for his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle in  Miracle on 34th Street, was on his deathbed, or so the legend goes, when a visitor commented that dying must be very hard.

‘It is,’ Gwenn said. ‘But not as hard as farce.’

This may be apocryphal, but it seems right to me. Farces generally start like this: in order to save face and get out of minor trouble, a character tells a little lie. Then, facing the discovery of that lie, they must tell a bigger one, then a bigger one, in an escalating cascade of panic-induced pandemonium. Despite the ridiculous nature of the plot twists, the characters must be believable enough for the audience to care what happens to them, and complex enough for particular plot points to be resonant in their lives. So, basically, a farce must have the serious underpinnings of a tragedy mixed with the perfect timing and physicality of a thriller and the authorial restraint of literary fiction, all driven by complex characters in absurd situations. And a farce must be laugh-out-loud funny, that too. It’s a big ask.

The first farce I ever saw performed live was Nobel-winner Dario Fo’s We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay. I was fourteen or fifteen, and I laughed so hard I almost wet my pants. It’s a political farce about two women who go to escalating lengths to hide looted groceries from their husbands, and it’s the perfect example of farce underpinned by serious thinking – in this case, the changing nature of morality in a severe economic crisis. I’d reckon that We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay has made more people consider civil disobedience and socialism than any number of po-faced articles in Marxist Left Review.

These days, most political farces are on television, like Utopia or The Daily Show, while the most common type of farce is a bedroom farce – a sex comedy set largely in bedrooms and featuring the semi-clothed hiding in cupboards and passing through doors in a series of misunderstandings. A bedroom farce also needs to be underpinned by peril or tragedy, but overall it can be light and joyous, or dark and twisted. Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is black bedroom farce, if there’s such a thing. It’s ludicrous from the beginning, where the pompous, creepy Dr Prentice is interviewing winsome young Geraldine for the position of his secretary. When she admits she doesn’t know who her father is, he’s aghast.

So, basically, a farce must have the serious underpinnings of a tragedy mixed with the perfect timing and physicality of a thriller and the authorial restraint of literary fiction, all driven by complex characters in absurd situations. It’s a big ask.

‘I can’t employ you if you’re in any way miraculous,’ he says.

Things proceed rapidly downhill from there: adultery, blackmail, incest, straight jackets, anonymous sex in linen cupboards, naked people hiding from unsuspecting spouses until, finally, a huge (statuary) penis belonging to Sir Winston Churchill is held triumphantly aloft in all its British glory. My favourite line among all this absurdity comes toward the end, when everyone is happily reconciled. It is delivered with bonhomie and generosity of spirit, and it’s this: ‘Double incest is even more likely to produce a best-seller that murder, and that is as it should be, for love must produce greater joy than violence.’

Bedroom farce works best when it’s happening in, or close to, real time, so its natural home is the stage and that’s where it began, with works of genius like Moliere’s Tartuffe (written in 1664). Georges Feydeau wrote A Flea in her Ear in 1907, and though I’ve never seen it performed, the set-up (wife suspects husband of affair so lures him to hotel by pretending to be another woman, only to have faithful husband pass the invitation to his lecherous friend) seems timeless. Alan Ayckbourn wrote a play called Bedroom Farce in 1975, yet despite its popularity I’ve never found it funny. Better, I think, is Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years, about a posh college reunion and the hi-jinks of grown-ups who revert to behaving like undergraduates. Frayn’s best-known work, Noises Off, is a complex and brilliant play-within-a-play. It’s a work of such structural and comic genius that it’s almost impossible to describe.

To truly represent our world in fiction, simply look at the news, or at social media, or listen to people on public transport or at the desk next to you. Much of what you see and hear will be farcical.

Frayn is one of the few people to have attempted farce in narrative form; he’s an accomplished novelist who’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (though not for a farce). I met him once, when he was visiting Australia in the company of his wife Claire Tomalin, the legendary literary editor and biographer. In some fluke I was alone with him for a good two minutes. I could have confessed how much I admired his work. (I didn’t.) I could have asked him anything.

But what? 'How do you write characters that are recognisable and true, but that readers will be happy to follow when absurd things start happening?' Or, 'That fine line between tragedy and comedy: where is it exactly?' Or perhaps, 'Tell me the secret to making people laugh so that they forget their troubles for a little while, please?'

Of course, I asked him none of these things. The nuances and complexities of bedroom farce cannot be wedged into a serendipitous chat between strangers.

My own attraction to farce is simple. Some novels are very sad and dark, but this isn’t the way life actually is. Life is often hilarious, sometimes joyous, frequently funny. Other novels are light and happy, but this isn’t the way life is either: it can be depressing and difficult beyond measure.

To truly represent our world in fiction, simply look at the news, or at social media, or listen to people on public transport or at the desk next to you. Much of what you see and hear will be farcical. Tom Lehrer may have said, ‘Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize’, but farce is all around us.

Portrait of Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan is the author of four novels. The international bestseller Addition (2008) was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Fall Girl (2010) was published internationally and has been optioned for film, while Nine Days (2012) was awarded Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards, shortlisted for the ABIA Best General Fiction award and named in Kirkus Review’s Top 10 Historical Novels of 2013. Her latest novel is Our Tiny, Useless Hearts (2016). Toni has been published widely in newspapers and magazines.

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