A farce (FARSS) is a literary work that contains ridiculous plots, exaggerated characters, and over-the-top situations for comedic effect. Farces are most associated with theatre; many comedic plays, from antiquity to the modern day, are farces because of their overstated humor and buffoonery. Other types of literature, like novels, short stories, and poems, can include farcical components. Film and television writers also utilize farce to tell lighthearted and entertaining stories, most commonly in slapstick comedy movies and children’s programming.
The word farce comes from the 15th century French word farcir, meaning “stuffing” or “forcemeat.” In the 1520s, the English adopted the word as a metaphorical description of the frivolous “stuffing” that filled the plots of comedic absurd plays.
The History of Farce
Farces have their roots in the theatres of Ancient Greece and Rome. Satyr plays were tragicomic burlesques that employed bawdy humor, while Phlyax plays were farcical burlesque tragedies that reimagined the lives of Greek gods and goddesses. The Atellan farces of Rome were mostly improvised and performed while wearing masks.
The first recognized farce was the anonymously written French play Le Garçon et l’aveugle (The Boy and the Blind Man) from 1266. The theatrical genre didn’t come into its own, however, until the 15th and 16th centuries, when writers began identifying it as a distinct type of comedy. Early farces include La Farce de maître Pathelin (The Farce of Master Pathelin), also anonymously written; The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.
Farces have only grown in popularity since then. By the 19th and 20th centuries, farces by masters like Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward became some of the most popular theatrical works in history. This trend continues into the 21st century, with such works as Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies; Justin Butcher’s The Dubya Trilogy; and Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.
Perhaps the most obvious places to find farces today are on the big and small screens, where the form has become an integral part of popular culture. Look no further than TV programs like South Park, Three’s Company, and Absolutely Fabulous; and films like Airplane!, Clue, Wet Hot American Summer, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The naturally silly quality of farces makes them an ideal vehicle for children’s programming. They can capture a viewer’s funny bone with their daft humor while imparting a few lessons along the way. SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo, and Sesame Street all contain heavily farcical aspects that shroud subtle teachings on things like friendship, cooperation, and acceptance.
The Elements of Farce
All farces rely on a sense of the absurd. Humor is the primary objective of the form, even if it means that certain plot points or specific characters are totally improbable or illogical. To amplify the comedic elements, characters are often painted with broad strokes. Thus, stereotypical and stock characters—like the femme fatale, the evil stepparent, the dumb blonde, and the cruel boss—are a common feature of farcical works.
Bawdy humor is a central feature of many farces. This includes low humor or potty humor; sexual jokes; double entendres; and “drunken” behavior. Bedroom farces, which center on sexual humor, are a popular subset of farcical plays. Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing, and Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife are much-loved bedroom farces with abundant bawdy humor.
Physical comedy is another frequent element in theatrical farces, using pratfalls, spit-takes, stunts, clowning, and any extent of exaggerated physical activity as sources of humor. This can be found in virtually all types of farce, from the classic plays The Comedy of Errors and Tartuffe to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Jim Carrey, Molly Shannon, and Miranda Hart.
Most of the action in a farce takes place in one precise location. This approach helps create dramatic tension as all the characters share the same physical space; as the piece progresses, their relationships change as a result of being in such tight confines. A single location also allows for plenty of confusion, near-misses, mistaken identities, and chaos as the plot builds to a frenetic and hilarious climax. Examples of single-location farces include the plays Noises Off by Michael Frayn, Rumors by Neil Simon, and Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig.
Many farces mock the upper class, with central characters illustrating the author’s views on the idiocy, ineptitude, or corruption of the wealthy and powerful. This is yet another way that farces subvert the boundaries of conventional thought, since some readers/viewers might assume the economically influential possess a certain level of taste or intelligence. Examples of these characters include Horace Vandergelder in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker; Stanley Stubbers in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors; and The Judge in David Mamet’s Romance.
The Function of Farce
The primary function of any farce is to make the audience laugh, so every element is in service of this goal. Wild plots, extreme characters, and silly jokes and gags ensure the audience focuses on the comedy and doesn’t get too involved or lost in the extremely convoluted plots.
There is a freedom at work in a farce. People can escape from reality by going to the theatre to see a farcical play or reading a book with heavily farcical elements. Farces offer a chance to laugh—an important responsibility in any society.
Farce and Satire
Farces can and often do include commentary about larger social themes, especially regarding class and economic divisions. The authors veil such references in heavy-handed humor, but the observation remains. There is, however, a difference between farce and satire.
A satire uses hyperbolic humor to expose the shortcomings of specific groups, classes, businesses, or governments; ultimately, it is a form of social criticism. One of the more famous examples being Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal, wherein he suggests that, to make ends meet, poor parents sell their children to the rich as food.
Farce isn’t nearly so serious in its aims; its main goal is to entertain. If the author slips in a few personal comments on society, they do so without the piece becoming overly political, didactic, or polarizing.
Prominent Writers Known for Farce
- Noël Coward, Hay Fever, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit
- Christopher Durang, Beyond Therapy
- Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist
- Philip King, See How They Run, Big Bad Mouse, Pools Paradise
- Neil Simon, Rumors, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, Plaza Suite
- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Examples of Farce in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare’s famous comedy is about the crazy courtship between wild Katherina and her eccentric suitor Petruchio. Katherina’s younger sister, Bianca, cannot marry until Katherina marries, so the latter reluctantly agrees to marry Petruchio. Throughout the play, he comically torments Katerina until he “tames” her and wins her heart. Meanwhile, Bianca marries Lucentio; in the end, she and Katherina compete to see who the most obedient wife is.
2. Jean Poiret, La Cage aux Folles
Poiret’s 1973 farce tells the story of a gay Saint Tropez couple, Renato and Albin, who attempt to pass themselves off as husband and wife to fool the uber-conservative parents of their son’s fiancée. The two men have been together for years and raised Laurent, Renato’s biological son from a previous heterosexual relationship. Laurent brings his fiancée and her parents to meet Renato and Albin, but to ensure the wedding goes off as planned, they decide to have Albin dress in drag and pose as Renato’s wife. This leads to plenty of confusion and downright madness—and a happy ending that sees Laurent’s future father-in-law donning drag.
This play is the inspiration for the Robin Williams-led film The Birdcage, as well as a Broadway musical.
3. Terrence McNally, It’s Only a Play
McNally’s 1982 play centers on a group of theatre professionals waiting for the reviews of their recently opened play. There is a wide and eccentric cast of characters, including Julia, a wealthy but totally inexperienced producer; Frank, a neurotic wunderkind director; Gus, a coat check attendant with dreams of Broadway stardom; Virginia, an aging, drug-addled star; and James, a successful TV actor relieved to have turned down a role in the play. When the bad reviews roll in, the assembled party descends into chaos. Ultimately, however, their love of the theatre triumphs, and they optimistically look toward their next project.
Further Resources on Farce
YouTuber Sarah Cordingley has a detailed presentation on farce, using Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as an example.
TV Tropes looks at farce across several categories of popular culture.
The Guardian delves into the enduring appeal of theatrical farces.
Backstage offers actors some tips for performing farce in the 21st century.
Dario Dalla Costa provides an in-depth look at The Complexities of Farce, with a focus on the classic Brit-com Fawlty Towers.