Farce is tragedy played at about a hundred and twenty revolutions a minute. The story of Othello and the plot of Feydeau’s Puce à l’Oreille have a striking similarity. Desdemona’s lost handkerchief and Victor Emmanuel Chandebise’s missing braces both give rise to similar misunderstandings, undeserved jealousies and accumulating catastrophe. Othello’s mistake is the stuff of tragedy, Madame Chandebise’s leads to events which move so quickly that we are left helpless with laughter and nobody dies.
—John Mortimer, Introduction to Georges Feydeau: Three Boulevard Farces
Georges Feydeau is the modern master of farce. Regarded by some as the greatest French dramatist since Molière, others have only granted him the dubious achievement of perfecting the commercially seductive bedroom farce, that somewhat tawdry drama of quick entrances and exits and bed-hopping run amok. Historically no French playwright dominated or better represented his era—France during la belle époque—than Feydeau, capturing in his plays the pleasure-loving, halcyon years before the cataclysm of the Great War. Although his plays can be read as period pieces, their persistence suggests a greater appeal and relevance. Feydeau’s dramas are, first and foremost, marvels of dramatic and comic construction that continue to perform wonderfully well. While hilarity is certainly its own justification, it can be argued that his farces anticipate the concerns that would dominate 20th-century experimental theater, particularly the theater of the absurd. For the existentialists Feydeau’s often blameless characters trapped in ridiculous situations beyond their control seemed emblematic of the absurd. Eugène Ionesco claimed a kinship. “I was astonished to see there was great resemblance between Feydeau and myself,” he observed, “. . . not in the themes or subjects of the plays, but in the rhythm and their structure. The development of a play like La Puce, for example, demands a pace that rapidly quickens to a dizzy climax, the movement lies in a kind of lunatic progression; there I seem to recognize my own obsession with proliferation.” As critic Manuel A. Esteban has observed,
Well before Ionesco and Beckett, and in similar fashion, Feydeau had underlined the absurdity of social institutions, the stupidity of ordinary speech and small talk, the impossibility of true communication despite constant talking, the incompatibility of the sexes, as couples destroy and strip each other of their dignity, the ultimate isolation of the individual and the fate of man as a simple puppet, the plaything of inexorable forces and a capricious fate.
While never daring the more radical violations of audience expectation and coherence provided by absurdist dramatists, Feydeau’s farces—particularly his most performed and best-known play worldwide, Une Puce à l’oreille (A Flea in Her Ear)—manage to reach beyond sheer entertainment and justify representation in a listing of great drama.
Georges-Léon-Jules-Marie Feydeau was born in Paris in 1862. His father, Ernest, was a stockbroker who gained notoriety by writing the sensational novel Fanny. His mother was a Polish beauty who became the subject of rumored affairs. She would deny the allegation that Napoleon III was the real father of her son by saying, “How could you believe that such an intelligent child could be the son of that imbecile!” Influenced by his father’s literary interests and association with such notable writers as Théophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, and Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Feydeau began writing plays by the age of 10. Submitting an early effort to the French dramatist Henri Meilhac, he was allegedly told, “My child, your play is stupid. And it is theatrical. You will be a great man of the theater.” After his father’s death in 1873, Feydeau’s mother remarried a well-known journalist, and the couple, to dissuade Feydeau from pursuing a theatrical career, secured him a clerical position in a law firm. Feydeau persisted in his theatrical interests, however, attending the theater regularly and writing. He performed a comic monologue, “The Rebellious Young Lady,” at a social gathering, and it proved so popular that he wrote several others that were performed by leading comedians of the day. His first play, the one-act comedy Par la fenêtre (Wooed and Viewed), was produced in 1881; his first full-length play, Tailleur pour dames (Fittings for Ladies), appeared with great success in 1886. Several poorly received plays followed, and in 1890 Feydeau stopped writing for two years to study the techniques of the leading French dramatic masters and discover a formula for success.
Feydeau’s theatrical options in the 1890s included the experimental symbolist dramas provided by Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de Œuvre, which opened in 1893 with Maurice Maeterlinck’s hauntingly symbolic Pelléas et Mélisandre and would cause a scandal with Alfred Jarry’s shocking King Ubu in 1896. Naturalistic drama was on display at André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, founded in 1887. Both experimental theaters were alternatives to the dominant commercial theater of the boulevards that still specialized in well-made plays mastered by Eugène Scribe and his successor, Victorien Sardou. Scribe had transformed vaudeville, the unsophisticated French popular entertainment that mixed sentiment, comedy, and song into an ingeniously constructed dramatic form that dominated the French stage from the mid-19th century. Critic Leonard C. Pronko summarizes:
Essential to the well-made play is its logical structure—indeed, the well-made play in Scribe’s hands at least is almost nothing but structure, and action is its focal point: not action in a philosophical sense, but intrigue neither pure nor simple. Beginning at a point near its climax, the action rises and falls in a ceaseless movement following the fortunes and misfortunes of the hero and heroine, punctuated by reversals and surprises, and ending in a moving or thrilling “obligatory scene” (scène à faire) in which a secret, known to the audience but withheld from certain characters, is finally revealed, and the true character of one or more personages is made clear.
Feydeau would master the construction principles of Scribe and his imitators for his return to the stage, infusing the stock characters and situations of the well-made play with a new freshness and frisson by drawing both more directly from life. “I noticed that vaudevilles were invariably built on obsolete plots,” Feydeau recalled, “with conventional, ridiculous, false characters, puppets.” Feydeau would base his comedies on believable characters in outlandish, but at least identifiable situations. “Each of us in life,” Feydeau explained, “gets mixed up in farcical situations without necessarily losing our individuality in the process. That was all I needed. I started to search for my characters in real life, determined to preserve their personalities intact. After a comic explosion, I would hurl them into burlesque situations.” Feydeau emerged from his hiatus with a dramatic prescription—“a gram of imbroglio, a gram of libertinage, a gram of observation”—that he used in a unbroken string of highly successful plays, including Champignol malgré lui (1892; Champignol in Spite of Himself), Un Fil à la patte (1894; Not by Bed Alone), L’Hôtel du libre échange (1894; Hotel Paradiso), Le Dindon(1896; The Dupe), La Dame de chez Maxim (1899; The Lady from Maxim’s), Le Bourgeon (1906; The Sprout), A Flea in Her Ear (1907), Occupe-toi d’Amélie (1908; Keep an Eye on Amélie), and Je ne trompe pas mon mari (1914; I’m Not Deceiving My Husband). Feydeau reigned as the king of the boulevard theater until World War I altered the dramatic landscape. Despite enormous success from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of comedy, Feydeau’s personal life was marked by considerable sadness and setback. His marriage was unhappy, and in 1909, he left his home to reside in a hotel for the next 10 years, living a largely nocturnal and increasingly isolated life. In 1919, after contracting venereal disease, he was institutionalized for madness. He died in 1921.
A Flea in Her Ear perfectly represents Feydeau’s dramatic genius and the satisfying formula he employed to produce his breathlessly energized comedies. The comic explosion that ignites the farce is the “flea” of jealousy that infects Raymonde, whose loving husband, Chandebise, has recently been unable to fulfill his conjugal duties. When she opens a package addressed to her husband from the Hôtel du Minet-Galant containing his suspenders, Raymonde is convinced that Chandebise is having an affair. She devises a plan to catch him in the act by having her friend, Lucienne, write an anonymous letter to him requesting a rendezvous. When he comes to the hotel for the assignation, Raymonde will be waiting for him. What she does not know is that Chandebise is under doctor’s orders treating his condition and that the suspenders had been given to his nephew, Camille, who left them at the hotel when he was last there with the maid Antoinette. Marital deception is the staple of Feydeau’s comedies with infidelity (real or imagined) of either husband or wife fueling mounting complication that turns on some secret, mistake, misjudgment, or lie. When Chandebise receives the note, he assumes it has reached him by mistake and shows it to his friend, Tournel, a dashing young man secretly attempting to seduce Raymonde. Later Chandebise shows the letter to Lucienne’s fiery-tempered husband, Homenides, who recognizes his wife’s handwriting and threatens Chandebise. He defends himself by reveal-ing that it is Tournel who is going to the assignation, sending the murderous Homenides in hot pursuit and his servant, Emile, Antoinette’s husband, to warn Tournel.
In act 2, all converge at the shady Hôtel du Minet-Galant. “When writing a play,” Feydeau stated, “I seek among my characters the ones who should not run into each other. And they are precisely the ones I bring into a confrontation as soon as possible.” Here the confrontations are further complicated by two special features of the hotel. To cater to their clientele’s illicit affairs, a room in the hotel is equipped with a bed on a turntable in which, in case of the unexpected arrival of a suspicious spouse, when a button is pushed, the bed and a section of the wall turn and are replaced by the bed in the next room, occupied by the owner’s old uncle, Baptisin, whose job is to lie in bed reading. The other feature is the uncanny resemblance between Chandebise and Poche, the drunken hotel porter (both parts are played by the same actor who astounds the audience with quick costume changes and precisely timed entrances and exits). Raymonde arrives in the room, and while she is in the adjacent washroom, Tournel enters and sits on the bed, hidden by a curtain. When Raymonde returns, she slaps Tournel, believing he is her husband. Once he is recognized, Tournel tries to convince her to become his lover, but she resists. As he goes to lock the door, the frightened Raymonde presses the button to summon help. Tournel turns back from the door and leaps onto the bed, showering Baptisin with kisses. Next door, Raymonde flees, seeing Poche in the hall and believes he is her husband. When the button is pushed again, the original bed returns with Poche sitting in it, indifferently hearing the pleas of both Tournel and Raymonde for forgiveness, in a perfect reversal of the initial situation in which Chandebise’s infidelity was to have been exposed. Both are shocked when Ferraillon, the hotel owner, comes in and repeatedly kicks “Chandebise.”When Camille arrives with the maid, Antoinette, they flee from Poche, also thinking him Chandebise. Camille winds up the next occupant on the revolving bed, while Antoinette seeks refuge in another guest’s room, that of a violent, sex-starved Englishman who proceeds to undress her. Etienne, who has come to warn Lucienne about Homenides, enters to discover his wife with the Englishman. Lucienne arrives, having agreed to help Raymonde confront Chandebise, who follows in advance of the murderous Homenides. In the escalating chaos of Feydeau’s masterfully timed entrances and exits and escalating misunderstandings, Ferraillon mistakes Chandebise for Poche, kicking him and forcing him to wear Poche’s livery. Poche puts on the clothes dis-carded by Chandebise. Raymonde, encountering her husband, believes him to be Poche; Lucienne runs into Poche believing him to be Chandebise, and they take refuge in Baptisin’s room. When the furious Homenides arrives in the empty room next door, he shoots at the button, and the bed turns, revealing Poche (whom he takes for Chandebise) and his wife together as he first suspected. The act ends in magnificent chaos as everyone flees from the hotel.
In act 3, in a kind of distorted mirrored version of the previous act, Antoi-nette, Raymonde, Lucienne, and Tournel have returned to Chandebise’s home and anxiously await his arrival. Instead Poche arrives to deliver Chandebise’s clothing. They believe him to have gone mad since he insists he is not Chandebise but Poche. When the actual Chandebise appears, Camille thinks he has gone mad since he has just put his uncle to bed. Ferraillon next appears and again begins to kick Chandebise, believing him to be Poche. After Homenides threatens him with his gun, Chandebise is finally convinced of his own mad-ness when he sees “himself” in his own bed. Poche finally jumps out of the window to avoid being shot by Homenides. Having pushed his characters and their situation to lunacy, Feydeau next restores order by clearing up all the misunderstandings and mistaken identities. Finding the first version of his wife’s love letter to Chandebise written by Raymonde, Homenides is now prepared to believe her explanation, forgive his wife, and help convince Chandebise why he found Raymonde in the arms of Tournel at the hotel. Raymonde fi nally confesses her suspicion of Chandebise’s infidelity, to which he replies:
Chandebise: Good heavens! Why? Whatever gave you that idea?
Raymonde: Well, because you—because . . .
Chandebise: No! Not for such a little . . .
Raymonde: But because there was such a little . . .
Chandebise: Oh—well!Raymonde I know. I was very silly. The fact is—I had a flea in my ear!
Chandebise: [putting his arm round her] All right! I’ll squash that fl ea, tonight!
Chandebise: Yes. That is—[he lets her go]—well, at least I’ll try!
Like an amusement park thrill ride, A Flea in Her Ear leaves its audience breathless as spectators to a nonstop series of barely averted catastrophes in which our most trusted assumptions about identity, time, and space are comically undermined. Feydeau’s farces expose the chaos underneath the conventional. Paradoxically the playwright’s meticulously logical dramatic construction of finely timed entrances and exits demonstrates ultimately the underlying absurdity and irrationality of life. Feydeau’s comedies ultimately affirm not order but our often tenuous grip on normalcy. All comedy takes aim at our pretensions, but few comedies mount a more effective assault on our most sacred assumptions that we are in control of our destiny than A Flea in Her Ear.