The Rules of Farce
Being asked to write the Rules Of Farce is akin to being asked to describe the Rules Of Life - where do you start and what do you leave out? Also, it implies that Farce - or any other kind of theatrical endeavor - can be learnt by studying some kind of manual. However, having written in this particular genre for over thirty years, a certain amount of introspection is inevitable, so I will attempt (for the very first time!) to unravel what goes into my work - and why.
However, before laying bare my formula, I should say that 'Farce' covers a wide area. There would seem to be a point at which 'Comedy' becomes 'Farce' and, having become 'Farce', it then flows into several farcical tributaries. Therefore, you, the reader, could well be presented with a totally different set of rules by, say, Alan Aykbourn, Michael Frayn or Neil Simon - if I may allow myself to be placed alongside my three colleagues.
i believe I can see the roots of my kind of Farce in Shakespeare's comedies, through Feydeau, Pinero, Ben Travers, Vernon Sylvaine, Philip King and, finally John Chapman's Whitehall farces. This is not surprising as I was a young actor who had the benefit of spending his early years in various Repertory companies, appearing in the comedies of these masters and, without realising it, soaking up the wealth of theatrical experience handed down over the years by these writers and the artists who appeared in their plays. After all, I was acting with actors who had, in their youth, acted with actors who had acted with actors who had acted with actors who had appeared in the original productions of "The Comedy of Errors" and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Over these thirty years what seems to have developed into a 'ray Cooney' Comedy is, I hope, a well structured piece of drama that would have satisfied those early craftsmen with the addition of my own convoluted yet chess-like, almost Algebraic development of plot.
And so, to my rules - for my kind of Farce:-
1. In the beginning there is - the Plot. I'm not searching for a 'comedy' plot or a 'funny' story-line. I'm searching for a Tragedy. Farce, more than comedy is akin to Tragedy. In 'Run For Your Wife' the 'Hero' is a bigamist; this situation in real life is an absolute tragedy for those finding themselves involved in it. My play doesn’t dwell on the tragedy (a farce is intended to get laughs!) but the audience instinctively understand what is at stake. In my latest piece, 'Out of Order', a Cabinet Minister's illicit evening in a London Hotel is brought to an abrupt halt when he and the young lady discover a dead body in the bedroom. The Government could fall ('one more scandal for the Conservatives and they'll fall below the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls') and so he embarks on a cover-up which risks both his marriage and his political future. In real life - as politicians know! - this situation brings tragedy. In "Out of Order" it also brings laughter - because the audience know what is at stake for the characters in the play.
2. The Characters must be truthful and recognisable. Again, this is why the audience laughs. The characters are believable - it is the situations that are slightly out of the ordinary. Ordinary people who are out of their depth in a predicament which is beyond their control and they are unable to contain. Tragedy again.
3. The ability to re-write is essential. My farces are pure concoctions. I never get it exactly right the first time. The original script is comparable to a middle-of-the-range Ford motor car. By the time it appears on the West End stage it must have acquired the precision, the elegance and the comfort of a Rolls Royce. I attempt to achieve this by, initially, having a play-reading of the first draft script to a small invited audience. Then having learnt if the basic premise holds good and how the various comedic ramifications have amused the audience, I take the play back to the drawing board. Huge areas of the play are then re-structured, re-written and generally re-shaped prior to the next step, which is a 'try-our' production in a Regional Repertory Theatre. Characters may be added or removed in order to serve the requirements of the play. Once I know from the initial play-reading that the basic of the play is sound no amount of time and effort is spared to get the play right for it's Regional try-out. Shakespeare said it - "the play's the thing". After the try-out, more re-writing. Every single moment has to work. Sometimes another try-out in the regions - and then back to the drawing board again. A West End production is not mounted until I know for sure that the play is perfect as I can get it to be.
4. Casting is vital. Because of the laughter my kind of play evokes, it is sometimes thought that 'Comedians' serve Farce well. Invariably, disaster! With due deference to the gentlemen who make me fall out of my seat with laughter when watching them perform their 'Acts', Farce needs actors and actresses who can play tragedy - and that's only the first requirement! The leading actors in 'Out of Order', Donald Sinden and Michael Williams have both played with distinction for the RSC. So, firstly, you need actors who are home in Tragedy but, also - and here's the rub - they must have the technique, the stamina, the precision and dexterity that farce demands. and, almost above all, they must have that wonderful gift - a generosity of spirit. Farce is teamwork. You can't have selfish actors pulling attention at the wrong moment. Focus is vital. The actors need each other - desperately - in my plays. Eye contact. It all looks so easy when you're in the audience - and so it should - but many an established actor has come unstuck playing Farce. There are no beautiful monologues to hide behind. It's mundane language. The characters aren’t standing centre stage, spot-lit, intellectualizing about their predicament. They're rushing around dealing with it!
5. A Rule personal to me is 'Real Time'. The two hours spent in the theatre by the audience is two hours in the existence of the characters in the play. No trade-outs. No Passage of time between acts One and Two. When the curtain rises on the Second act, the characters are exactly how we left them at the end of Act One, and the action is continuous. This imposes huge demands on the playwright. Only one setting and two hours of continuous drama/laughter - but the rewards are well worth it. And the conjuror has done everything before your very eyes!
P.S. – After this article was written in the 1980’s I learnt that many original Greek plays were set in ‘Real Time’!!
6. Finally never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Several people who first read "Run For Your Wife" (including my own wife!) said "It's very funny but the complications become so convoluted that I had to keep going back in the script to check what was what, who was who and who'd said what to who". That, of course, was reading the play. Farces have to be performed not read. The audience is always the missing ingredient. This is who they are written for. As it turned out the audience never miss trick in "Run For Your Wife". They remember everything. Moments that are set up in Act One and pay off in Act Two are taken up by the audience without a pause. I believe that the audience like to work. Anybody who has paid upwards of £10 for a ticket, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous British Rail and been placed in penury by parking in a West End garage deserves respect. The audience has had the intelligence to leave their TV sets and the least a playwright can do is set before such a group of people the very best that can be mustered. Long may they live - and laugh.
P.S. £10 for a ticket!!!