Perfect Wedding is a concoction brimming with stereotypical characters, improbable circumstances, and lots of laughs. This is what makes it a great farce and has audiences in stitches while doors are being slammed, identities get mistaken, and a heart warming moment or two usually ties it all together.
The first farce-like shows and scenarios were during the early days of western theatre, when the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote comedies in 5th century BCE. His plays included larger-than-life characters, ridiculous situations, and lots of vulgar humor. These plays, while containing all the characteristics of a farce, also carried serious social messages through satire.
As theatre entered the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the term “farce” was first applied to comic plays. The word farce derives from the Old French “farcir” meaning “to stuff, cram.” During religious plays, there were comic bits inserted in between scenes to provide a bit of relief during these heavier shows. In the late 19th century, a new sub-genre emerged known as the “bedroom farce.” The plot of these plays mainly consisted of affairs and attempted ones. Much of the humor arises as one character enters through a door and just misses another character exiting though another. Because doors are so central to the humor in these plays, they are also sometimes called “door farces.” I spoke with Graham Shaffer who plays Bill in our production of Perfect Wedding in addition to being the technical director at GLT. In a Greenville Journal article on the production, Neil Shirley wrote about Shaffer, “So not only does he have to worry about his performance, he has to make sure all the doors slam correctly.” And indeed he does! Shaffer informed me that it’s all about really strong doors and a set that is built to last. “We picked doors that look good and are sturdy. Especially for shows like this, you don’t want flimsy interior doors. You want to make sure you are able to get that good slam since it is so vital to the comedic timing.”
Today, many of the farces written are still door farces; like those that came before, we find exaggerated characters placed in ridiculous situations where we witness them fall down a lot as they pursue their desires. Farces are also prevalent in film today. Movies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and The Hangover (2009) emulate all the qualities of a successful farce. We can even find these traits in TV shows such as I Love Lucy (1951-57) and 30 Rock (2006-13).
But farces can sometimes be a complicated mixture. Ray Cooney, an English playwright, actor, and author of the successful play Run for Your Wife (1983) - which ran for nine years in the West End as one of its longest running comedies - has a personal formula for what makes the best kind of farce.
1. First there is a plot. Cooney notes that many farces are actually rooted in something potentially tragic; in the case of Perfect Wedding, that would be the conundrum of the groom waking up with a woman that is not his bride. Cooney says that a farce is more closely related to a tragedy than a comedy.
2. Second are the characters. The characters must be truthful and recognizable. They are ordinary people who are out of their depth in a uncontainable predicament beyond their control.
3. Third is the cast. The actors working on these particular pieces of theatre must have generosity of spirit. A farce is pure teamwork and there is no space to hide behind beautiful monologues. You will never see the characters “center-stage, spotlit, intellectualizing about their predicament. They’re rushing about dealing with it.” I asked Graham Shaffer about teamwork and what his experience with the cast of Perfect Wedding has been. “You want a group of people who can work really well together and who are all excited about working on this show. This cast has been really great because everyone is very open and excited about trying new stuff, overcoming obstacles, etc. It’s similar to how crisp and clean you want dance numbers to look during a musical, and this is the same thing. It’s just not dancing, it’s booking it across stage and being in the right spot at the right time.”
4. Fourth, there is time. Farces happen in “real time.” The two hours the audience spends in the theatre watching the show are the same two hours in the existence of the characters in the play. There is no passage of time between Act I and II. When the curtain rises on the second act, the character are exactly where we left them at the end of Act I and it all continues. This poses the challenge for the playwright of a farce by limiting them to one setting.
5. The fifth and final thing is intelligence. Cooney writes “never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. I believe that the audience likes to work for their laughter”
After all this research, I asked Shaffer what was his favorite thing about doing a farce. He responded, “It’s the rush, focus, and the fact that you don’t get a break. It’s two hours of go, go go! The timing and precision it takes to make it a success is an exciting challenge to be a part of. If it's not precise, then it’s sloppy and if it’s sloppy, it’s not funny which defeats the purpose. It also has to look like everything happens by accident, when really we’ve rehearsed it a hundred times. There is a moment when I have to run up to three different doors and as I do so somebody opens them and I get trapped behind them. Well, if I get there half a second early it doesn’t make any sense that my character would run up to the door and not open it, when in actuality, I am waiting for another actor to do so. The speed at which they open those doors is really important - that really adds the effect.”
From ancient Greece to the Middle Ages and all the way up to modern day, farces have inspired laughter by providing respite from everyday life, featuring outlandish scenarios with an ultimately comedic outcome. But behind the scenes, farces are quite the complicated recipe. Next time you see a farce, perhaps you will think about how far this type of theatre has come and the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into creating the perfect show with such perfect comedic precision and timing. *Door Slam*
Be sure to see Perfect Wedding running only one more weekend, April 26th- April 29th. Call (864) 233- 6238 or click here to buy tickets online.