For Better or Worse
Based on plays by Georges Feydeau
Translated and adapted by Geoff Hoyle
Directed by David Ira Goldstein
Main Season · Thrust Stage
March 11–April 24, 2005
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
It has all the components of classic comedy: an unhinged husband, his wife, her lover, a constipated brat and a military contract for unbreakable chamber pots. In this world premiere production, comic genius Geoff Hoyle outdoes the outrageous as a hapless husband in the midst of a matrimonial hurricane. Don’t miss “one of the great and unique performers of our time” (San Francisco Chronicle) as he helps himself to a dose of inspired lunacy. It’s Hoyle’s own adaptation of the comedies of Georges Feydeau, master of farce and author of A Flea in Her Ear. He and his hilarious castmates are serving up a heaping helping of laughter!
Geoff Hoyle · Translator and Adaptor
David Ira Goldstein · Director
Kent Dorsey · Scenic Design
David Kay Mickelsen · Costume Design
York Kennedy · Lighting Design
Brian Jerome Peterson · Sound Design
Fitz Patton · Composer
Kevin Johnson · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Sandrine Bourrie · Production Assistant
Jamie Keller · Studio Teacher
Carolyn Crimley · Studio Teacher
Lynnda Ferguson · Mme. De Champrinet / Mme. Chouilloux
Austin Greene · Toto Follavoine
Rudy Guerrero · M. de Champrinet / Horatio Garcia Zarzuela de Zaragoza y Pau
Geoff Hoyle · Bastien Follavoine
Gideon Lazarus · Toto Follavoine
Sharon Lockwood · Julie Follavoine
Jarion Monroe · Adhéume Chouilloux
Amy Resnick · Clémence / Rose
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Where do you fit on the comedy scale? What defines your sense of humor?
Are you a Charlie Chaplin fan (a clown of unending grace and lovelorn, sentimental charm) or a devotee of Buster Keaton (defined by his opaque, stoic attitude coupled with phenomenal athletic daring)…or do you simply hate slapstick?
Do you love the anti-PC verve of Chris Rock, the incendiary monologues of Lenny Bruce, the confrontational insanity of Andy Kaufman or the warming stories of Bill Cosby?
Do you like your comedy to poke fun, to make you feel good about being alive or to ascribe to Samuel Beckett’s dictum that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
In short, what in the world do you think is funny?
As it turns out, we each have a different answer to that question. For all its capacities to create a unified, collective response, comedy is the most subjective of art forms. In the storied history of mankind, no one has come up with a unified field theory as to how it secretly and surprisingly operates. A few academics and art critics have taken turns trying to describe the function of humor in our psyches, but when it comes to explaining the science of exactly how comedy works, most of us would have to agree with Stan Laurel’s succinct response: “I have no idea.”
For Better or Worse is our new foray into the world of comedy. Adapted from two one-act plays by the famous French author Georges Feydeau (one of which, Purging The Baby, is the second most produced of all Feydeau’s works), the story focuses on the titanic struggle between a husband and wife that plays like a cross between The Honeymooners and Endgame. Replete with bathroom humor that would make Mel Brooks proud and an ornery spirit that rivals that of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, it frames the battle of the sexes around the phrase “till death do us part.” Master comedian Geoff Hoyle brings his talents as a performer and a writer to the table, and the rest of the cast, headed by the divine Sharon Lockwood, forge head-on into a comic terrain that takes no prisoners.
Hopefully you will be held delightfully captive and discover funny bones you never knew you had. If not, try to get your partner to explain why he or she thought it was funny. That might prove to be most amusing…
By David Gaffney
Georges Feydeau (1862–1921), one of the most successful playwrights of the Belle Epoque, was born in Paris to Lodzia Zelewska, an infamous Polish beauty in Parisian high society, and Ernest Feydeau, a poet and journalist who had had a fleeting literary succes de scandale with his novel, Fanny. It was rumored at the time, and Feydeau played on this rumor later in life, that he was in fact the son of either Napoleon III or the Duc de Morny.
Of the 39 plays written by him, A Flea in Her Ear (La Puce à l’Oreille, 1907) is one of his most celebrated works. Feydeau’s bedroom farces, telling of the high life of the low life in Paris’ “demi-monde,” are noted for great wit and complex plots, featuring misunderstandings and coincidences, and what one critic called “jack-in-the-box construction.” His dramas were highly popular at the time, foreshadowing and influencing Ionesco and Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd, and he is now considered to be the greatest French comic dramatist after Moliere.
His most notable farces are probably Heart’s Desire Hotel (L’Hôtel du libre échange, 1894), Sauce for the Goose (Le Dindon, 1896) and The Lady from Maxim’s (La Dame de chez Maxim, 1899).
In 1889, Feydeau married Marianne Carolus-Duran, the daughter of the famous and wealthy portrait painter, Carolus-Duran. After 15 years, the couple underwent a judicial separation and were formally divorced in 1916.
Despite being a phenomenally successful playwright, his propensity for high living (he had a table permanently reserved for him at Maxim’s, an expensive restaurant), gambling and the failure of his marriage were to lead to financial difficulties.
During the winter of 1918 Feydeau contracted syphilis and his children were eventually forced to have him committed to a sanatorium where he slowly descended into madness before his death in 1921. He is buried in Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris.
Originally written for Arizona Theatre Company. Reprinted with permission.
It’s not about the doors
By Geoff Hoyle
Say the words “French farce” and most of us think of a saucy sex-comedy with a dizzyingly intricate plot unfolding in and around bedroom or boudoir. We even call it “bedroom farce.” We think of suspicious husbands, wives and lovers scheming against each other in a gathering crescendo of hairsbreadth escapes, mistaken identities and unexpected encounters. Characters hide under beds and in wardrobes, barely avoiding bumping into each other, running in and out and desperately slamming doors. These comic whirligigs are sometimes referred to in the business as “door-slammers.”
Georges Feydeau, whose work is the basis of For Better of Worse, wrote a fair number of “door-slammers.” Masterpieces of clockwork invention, his best-known is perhaps A Flea in her Ear (La Puce à l’Oreille), a seamless and brilliant piece of mania, featuring, among many other comic inventions, a suspicious wife, a husband who is the spitting image of a hotel bellboy and a revolving bed. Say no more…Feydeau wrote his plays for the French vaudeville stage, which meant something quite different from what we in America understand by vaudeville. “Théâtre de Vaudeville,” or “boulevard theatre,” is closer to what we might call “light comedy.” American versions of his plays have even pushed them over the edge into musical comedy, adding songs and scenes that Feydeau never wrote.
But a few years ago, I came across a group of bitter marital comedies written late in his career at the turn of the 20th century. I was struck by how contemporary they felt. The bickering married couples in the plays felt like Basil and Sybil Fawlty (John Cleese and Prunella Scales) in the television series Fawlty Towers. Written just after the Belle Epoque imploded, as the survivors of the war to end all wars were about to reap a devastating social, psychological and economic harvest, these short plays also mirror Feydeau’s own tragic life. His marriage was falling apart, he had most likely contracted syphilis and was soon to be consigned to an asylum and an early death.
Perhaps Feydeau felt compelled in a parting gesture to this mad world to pen these few short plays, taking the form of light boulevard comedy and giving it a stinging psychological twist. Achard eloquently describes them as “Strindberg through a distorting fairground mirror.” All five paint a picture of marriage as a battlefield where two egos stubbornly struggle through a series of never-ending disputes over trivialities. He had intended to publish them under the title, From Marriage to Divorce.
I thought that if I could create a version that managed to keep the bitter realism underlying these pungent comedies and also reveal the modernity within the period setting, I would have something to play with, something slightly outrageous, unsettling and hilarious.
All of Feydeau’s plays deal in love and its frustrations, as he casts a witheringly ironic eye on human deviousness, poking holes in the fabric of bourgeois respectability, pretention and conformity. But he never lost his touch as a comic playwright. In the final plays, the usual serpentine and frantic plot of the “door-slammers” is replaced by a single situation that spirals out of control causing frustration, general confusion and eventually, in Bastien Follavoine and the “heroes” of the four other plays, something close to mental breakdown. There is hilarity and absurdity but there is also the pain of dysfunction verging on madness. The only door slammed in these comedies is when wife or husband leaves in a rage of self-righteousness or a fit of despair.
What is farce?
From Manuel A. Estaban’s Georges Feydeau
“Although perpetually scorned by those who would confine our vision to loftier things, traditional farce has maintained its popularity by unashamedly exploiting our most basic and primitive emotions. It is not afraid to use simple and universal images to reach us at this most elemental of levels, where our responses are strong, automatic, and virtually instinctive. Pratfalls and sudden blows, frantic chases, and lost trousers are all images to which we react almost without the intervention of thought. They are humiliation. Farce is not limited to such things, but because it is alone in its acceptance of them, they have become its most distinctive and obvious feature. They are basic to farce not because farce is crude and physical, but because it is shameless. It freely accepts all that we dislike, fear, and censor in ourselves. It includes our elementary responses to violence and sex, our basic bodily needs and functions, although it is capable of going well beyond them. It permits us to look at aspects of our lives that we cannot yet bear to view both seriously and honestly. It allows us to acknowledge the baser side of ourselves, our laws, and our institutions, and lets us admit how much lower than the angels we really are.”
From Nicole Galland
Farce in its many forms is as old as theatre itself. As far back as the Greeks, satyr plays provided indecorous comic relief between the great tragedies at festivals, and Aristophanes (among others) subjected mythical material to burlesque sensitivity and scatological humor. Plautus, in Rome, was famous for comedies based on puns and other wordplay, as well as slapstick treatment of characters and circumstances, such as Menaechmi, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.
The word “farce” comes from the Middle Ages, an Anglicization of a French culinary term based on the Latin word for stuffing (farsa). There are two theories regarding the terminology: one, that cooks and therefore kitchen imagery were commonplace in early farce; the other (and more likely) that farces—like their satyric predecessors—were originally comic relief “stuffed” in between morality plays sponsored by the church. In either case, such early farce may have been intended to be not only diverting but instructive, cautioning the audience about what to avoid (or perhaps this was just an excuse the theatre troupes used to convince the church to let them horse around between the religious dramas). The earliest extant farce of this era, The Boy and the Blind Man, is about a deceiver who is in turn deceived—this theme, and that of the cuckolded husband, were the main preoccupations of the medieval farceur.
French scholars have a heyday categorizing the examples and subgenres of French farce that flourished throughout the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, all of which influenced English and German playwrights. The French themselves, however, are in turn indebted to the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, a comedic performance style made up of stock characters in raucous circumstances improvising often-bawdy dialogue. Englishmen including Shakespeare dabbled in farce (most notably with The Comedy of Errors) but the master of the genre is generally held to be the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known to us as Moliere, writing in the 17th century. His greatest works—including Tartuffe, The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Imaginary Invalid and The School for Wives—incorporated scathing social critiques and withering irony into the ribaldry of farce.
Farce continued to flourish in the 18th and 19th century, reflecting (especially in the 175 plays by Eugene Labiche) the pleasure-oriented preoccupations of the rising bourgeoisie. As you will see in this evening’s performance, Georges Feydeau took farce to new heights of cynicism. He also upped the ante on both its slapstick elements and its psychological insight. These impulses crossed the channel and then the Atlantic, and have continued to develop for the past century in work by a broad range of artists from Jerry Lewis to Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther) to the Farrelly Brothers (Kingpin) to Monty Python to Michael Frayn (Noises Off).
The naughty bits…
Hunyadi Janos was a 19th-century bottled spring water mixed with magnesium sulfate to produce a gentle laxative quality. It was invented by Andreas Saxlehener and named after a hero who protected Hungary against invading Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries (an early example of using a celebrity to market a product). Constipation was a particularly prevalent problem for children in Victorian-era Europe due to the extremely bland diet: porridge, milk puddings, steamed fish, boiled potatoes and excessive quantities of tea served with bread, butter and a spot of jam.
Following meals, children were frequently served laxative medications including “Godfrey’s Cordial,” “Infant’s Quietness” and “Daffy’s Elixir,” all of which consisted primarily of alcohol and opium derivatives and had the power to sedate children for hours.