I. What is Farce?
A farce is a comedy in which everything is absolutely absurd. This usually involves some kind of deception or miscommunication. When a comedy is based on a case of mistaken identity, for example, you can be sure that it’s going to be a farce. Slapstick humor and physical comedy are also common features of a farce.
Although most farces are comedies, there is such a thing as a “tragic farce.” In a tragic farce, the humor is always very bleak, but still present – it’s a kind of “laugh so you don’t cry” situation.
The adjective for “farce” is “farcical.”
II. Examples of Farce
In ancient Greek theater, audiences were often treated to a short “satyr play” in between tragedies. These plays used very crude, but very effective, forms of humor, especially sexual jokes and physical comedy. The idea was to let the audience get some comic relief in between the difficult emotional experiences of the tragedies. Modern farces probably evolved out of satyr plays.
Sometimes, miscommunications lead to absurd, farcical situations in real life. In fact, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war could be thought of as a real-life example of a tragic farce: Israel and its Arab neighbors were posturing and bluffing in the run-up to the war, but none of them actually wanted it to happen. Then, the Soviets falsely told the Egyptian government that Israel was planning to attack its ally, Syria. Egypt threatened to attack Israel in retaliation, but Israel saw this as an unprovoked attack since they were never really planning to attack Syria. In a movie, this might be a humorous sequence of lies, confusion, and miscommunication; but in real life it led to thousands of casualties and the current bleak state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
III. The Importance of Farce
Farcical humor appeals to some of our most basic instincts. People falling down; absurd, outlandish situations; pies to the face: all these things make us laugh for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, and yet somehow universal. Everyone can recognize the comedy of a farce.
Farces are also popular because they develop in a way that seems more or less realistic, despite the fact that the results are highly improbable. That is, the characters make decisions that seem to make some sense given the circumstances, but at every turn things get more and more ridiculous. This slow build-up makes a farce seem somehow believable, in spite of the fact that the plotlines are so improbable and absurd.
This, in the end, is the very simple purpose of a farce: it makes people laugh through broad humor.
IV. Examples of Farce in Literature
Oscar Widle’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a great example of a farce. In this play, one character has invented a sick brother who lives in the country – this gives him an excuse to get out of the city for some excitement. But another character enjoys pretending to be someone else while flirting with a certain young woman. Coincidentally, both men have named their fictional characters “Earnest.” Needless to say, things get out of hand pretty quickly as the deceptions get more and more complicated due to the coincidence of names. In the end, everything unravels and the two men are both revealed as liars (but everyone seems inclined to forgive them nonetheless).
Shakespeare, in his sillier moods, loved a good farce. Many of his comedies are based on mistaken identity and the gradual piling-up of confusion and chaos. In Comedy of Errors, for instance, there are two sets of identical twins who frequently get confused for one another. (In fact, this play was so influential that “comedy of errors” is sometimes used as a general term to describe farcical stories.)
V. Examples of Farce in Pop Culture
In one episode of Family Guy, Peter loses his job, but is ashamed to tell his wife. He lies about it, and tries to cover up the problem by secretly going on welfare. Of course, in order to stay on welfare he has to keep lying to everyone, and by the end of the episode these lies have turned into a huge, tangled mess that comes crashing down on Peter and his family.
Many sitcoms, such as Friends and Coupling, rely on the farce as a staple of their plotlines. For example, in one episode of Coupling several main characters are trying to hide their true intentions by calling each other while pretending to be other people (e.g. Giselle and Dick Darlington). In the end, everyone is utterly confused about who is who, and the audience explodes in laughter when one character, who has had nothing to do with all this deception, stands up and says somberly, “No, Susan…I’m Dick Darlington.” All the confusion, deception, and absurdity makes the episode a perfect example of a farce.
VI. Related Terms
Absurdism is even more extreme than a farce. In a farce, the characters are all basically believable, but they somehow get into an absurd, highly improbably situation. In an absurdist comedy, however, the characters themselves may be nonsensical. It may be a satanic cucumber playing chess against a purple hippopotamus wearing a flight suit. Basically, everything goes off the rails in a farce; but in absurdism, there aren’t any rails to begin with.