An American Farce
November 20, 2009
There are a few elements in Irish dramatist Enda Welsh's play The Walworth Farce -- currently on tour in the US in a Druid Theatre production directed by Mikel Murfi -- that might confuse or perplex American audiences. The reference to fish fingers (commonly known as fish sticks here) is one that leaps out.
After last night's performance at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley was over, however, I ran into a British stage director friend who's been working on this side of the pond for the last three decades and we engaged in a short but lively discussion about the play and, more broadly, the subject of farce in America.
The director thinks that comedies like The Walworth Farce don't work out here because people don't understand farce like Europeans do. He says there's a tradition of slapstick in the U.S., but not farce, which is why, he claims, productions of plays by the likes of Martin McDonagh aren't as great in the US as they are in the Europe.
To illustrate his point, he mentioned's recent production of McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which he said was inferior to the London production which he experienced. The reason the London production was better, he said, was because the actors bought into the crazy circumstances of the play lock, stock and barrel and took the audiences along with them. They were completely immersed in the absurdity of the scenario. Whereas, in the States, he said, audiences and production teams can't quite go there. As a result, the actors on stage in Berkeley Rep's Inishmore were too "knowing" -- they were constantly indicating that they knew how how absurd the world of the play was through facial and body gestures as well as through the way they said some of their lines, therefore they created a bit of a comfortable distance between themselves and the play.
The difference between farce and slapstick is a subtle one. In one online dictionary, farce is defined as, "a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect." Slapstick is defined as, "a boisterous form of comedy marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes."
I don't have European productions of McDonagh plays with which to compare the ones I've seen in the US. By and large, I've found myself to be completely immersed in the farcical worlds of these American-produced experiences though. So I'm not sure I wholeheartedly agree with my director friend, though he raises a fascinating point.
I actually think this nation is great at farce. The Matt Damon movie, The Informant! is steeped in farce, as are stage works by some of our local playwrights like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Aaron Loeb. Anyone who's seen productions of Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers or Boom, or Loeb's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party will know what I mean. And wasn't the Bush Administration pure farce?