BORN: 1862, Paris, France
DIED: 1921, Rueil-Malmaison, France
Fitting for Ladies (1886)
A Close Shave (1892)
The Lady from Maxim's (1899)
A Flea in Her Ear (1907)
Skillfully manipulating the conventions of vaudeville and farce, Georges Feydeau delighted Parisian audiences in the decades preceding World War I. Precisely staged, his plays are known for their wildly unlikely coincidences, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings. In addition, scholars find in his dramas an intellectual dimension generally absent in the works of other vaudevillian authors, and, although the farce has been replaced by other comedic
forms in modern theater, Feydeau's plays are still regularly performed today.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Literary Childhood in Paris Born December 8, 1862, in Paris, France, Feydeau was the son of writer and scholar Ernest Feydeau and a celebrated Polish beauty named Lodzia Selewska. The Feydeau family's wealth and position in Parisian society allowed the young Feydeau to associate with such literary figures as Theophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, and Jules and Edmund de Goncourt, who recorded in their diaries that he was an enchanting but lazy child. Growing up in a city that was one of the intellectual and artistic capitals of the Western world, Feydeau was exposed to the theater at a young age, and, encouraged by his father, he began to write plays before he was even ten years old.
The Belle Époque The period during which Feydeau grew up and attained success was known in France as the “Belle Époque,” or “Beautiful Era.” This was a time notable throughout Europe for its political stability and economic prosperity. The Franco-Prussian War, the culmination of many years of hostilities between Germany and France, came to an end in 1871; the devastation of World War I would not arrive until more than forty years later. Because of this relative peace and prosperity, the Belle Époque led to a flowering of the arts, with performance arts such as plays and music enjoying a boost as audiences sought light entertainment. Feydeau's work, which was always humorous—and sometimes later dismissed as inconsequential—was perfectly suited for the French audiences of this time period.
Comedic Monologues After his father died in 1873, Feydeau's mother married an eminent journalist, and the couple attempted to dissuade Feydeau from a career in the undignified world of the theater by securing for him a position in a law office. Nevertheless, Feydeau spent his evenings at the theater, and he often presented his original comic monologues at social gatherings. After the success of his first monologue, he composed five more, which were performed by many of the most well-known comedians of Parisian salon society.
King of Vaudeville In 1881, Feydeau wrote his first play, Wooed and Viewed, thus beginning a period of creativity that culminated in 1886 with the enormously popular Fitting for Ladies. Feydeau's acclaim was short-lived, however, as this drama was followed by seven years of critical failures with only a few mediocre successes interspersed. In the meantime, Feydeau married Marianne Carolus-Duran, the daughter of a wealthy, well-known portrait painter who helped Feydeau with the financial problems that had arisen as a result of the
playwright's succession of poorly received plays, as well as his heavy losses in the stock market.
Feydeau took a break from writing in 1890 in order to study the work of France's greatest vaudevillians, including Henri Meilhac and Alfred Hennequin. This method proved worthwhile, as Feydeau made a triumphant return to the stage in 1892 with A Close Shave, a production that ran for over one thousand performances and resulted in Feydeau's being proclaimed the King of Vaudeville. As his reputation spread, his plays were sometimes performed abroad in translation before premiering in France, with A Flea in Her Ear becoming his most popular play in English-speaking countries.
The Road to Insanity Throughout his life, Feydeau was prone to depression, a condition that grew worse with age. After an unhappy, bitter marriage, Feydeau left his wife in 1909 and moved to a hotel, living there alone for ten years, surrounded by his books and paintings. In 1916, at the height of World War I (1914–1918), he divorced his wife. As the outside world was falling to pieces, his work during these years often emphasized domestic themes, especially his last five short dramas—in which wives are depicted as irrational, unyielding shrews who persecute their husbands.
As Feydeau descended from depression into syphilis-induced insanity in 1918, he grew dependent on the assistance of other writers: The first act of one play was written by Sacha Guitry; another play had to be finished by Yves Miranda; and I Don't Cheat on My Husband, Feydeau's last full-length play, was a collaboration with René Peter. By 1919, Feydeau was having delusions of being an emperor or an animal, and his children had him institutionalized. In an asylum in Rueil-Malmaison, France, Feydeau's state of mind deteriorated even more, and he died two years later.
Works in Literary Context
Feydeau's influence as a playwright has been great, as his dramas have been adapted into novels and songs and continue to be staged almost one hundred years after his death. Some scholars view Feydeau as a predecessor of surrealism and the theater of the absurd; certainly, his impact is apparent in the plays of absurdist dramatists Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. Feydeau himself looked to the great dramatists Sophocles and William Shakespeare for guidance in matters of theatrical conventions, learning, among other things, the important rule of never letting the audience feel tricked. However, the playwright was probably most inspired by Molière, France's foremost writer of farce.
Vaudeville Variance Although vaudeville was one of the most popular forms of theater in Paris during the nineteenth century, Feydeau considered it predictable and stagnant, which inspired him to introduce new elements into the genre. Influenced by recent ideas of the naturalists, he gave greater dimension and believability to what had previously been stylized, stock characters and convoluted, contrived plots. Additionally, he drew upon the customs and morality of his own time to update the traditional conflicts of vaudeville. In doing so, Feydeau derived humor not only from the action of his comedies, but also from both his characters' realistic faults and the social satire born from them. With comic caricatures and coordinated action, Feydeau fully developed the satiric features that distinguish his work from that of other vaudevillian writers. In The Lady from Maxim's, for example, much of the comedy is derived from the desire of respectable citizens to practice what they suppose to be proper social behavior, no matter how ridiculous that behavior might be.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Feydeau's famous contemporaries include:
Émile Loubet (1838–1929): President of France from 1899 to 1906, Loubet was a factor in the break between the French government and the Vatican.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963): Du Bois was an African American social activist and writer whose The Souls of Black Folk (1903) criticizes Booker T. Washington for being insufficiently militant concerning the rights of African Americans.
John Millington Synge (1871–1909): Both the comedies and tragedies by this Irish playwright offended many of his countrymen with their ironic wit, and realism, and lewdness.
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935): American poet Robinson introduced readers to his fictitious Tilbury Town through dramatic monologues such as “Richard Cory.”
Edmond Rostand (1868–1918): Rostand, a French poet and dramatist, is best known for writing Cyrano de Bergerac, a play featuring a hero with an oversized nose.
The Controlled Complexity of the Puzzle Using what is generally recognized as his greatest talent, Feydeau constructed his comedies like complex puzzles. Many critics remark that it is difficult to summarize a play by Feydeau because he interweaves several plot lines intricately so that they cannot be separated. The result is that each piece of action and every bit of dialogue are necessary for a play's final effect, which has been carefully crafted to evoke laughter. Because even the slightest change can disrupt the delicate balance of his plays,
Feydeau's detailed stage directions, while reflecting his extensive knowledge of the theater, allow little flexibility for directors or actors.
Works in Critical Context
According to a review by critic Francisque Sarcey, performances of Feydeau's A Close Shave had to be finished in pantomime because the actors' voices were drowned out by the thunderous laughter of the audience. Despite this kind of reception, fellow playwright Catulle Mendés predicted at the height of Feydeau's career that nobody would ever read his colleague's plays, a proclamation most likely based on Feydeau's seven-year string of failures. Although his celebrity declined in the years immediately following his death, Feydeau did not fade into obscurity as did many of his contemporaries. Instead, recent critics consider Feydeau France's greatest comic dramatist after Moliére, and his work continues to be widely performed in French theaters, as well as on stages throughout the Western world. Feydeau's dramas are not only produced today, but they also are read and studied, prompting Norman R. Shapiro to call Feydeau “the [Johann Sebastian] Bach of his genre.”
A Basic Negativity Many critics believe that close examination of Feydeau's comedies reveals a basically negative approach to life. Consistently immoral and deceitful in their actions, his characters present a cynical view of human nature, and their behavior frequently causes pain and suffering. Feydeau's darker side is especially apparent in the one-act plays he wrote later in his career. Shorter, simpler, and less farcical than his earlier works, these plays deal with marriage, an institution portrayed as an ongoing struggle between two hopelessly incompatible people. Shapiro comments, “The playwright, like a master puppeteer, assumes a god-like role, creating around his helpless characters a universe of seeming absurdity in which their efforts to resist their destiny are frantic but fruitless,” and even goes so far as to call Feydeau's theater “eminently cruel.” Although some scholars claim that Feydeau was simply attempting to create a new form of comedy, most hold that the pessimistic changes in his later plays were a consequence of his personal problems.
A Flea in Her Ear One of Feydeau's later works, A Flea in Her Ear, was a success when it premiered in Paris in 1907 and has been his most popular play in both England and the United States. Peter Glenville has observed that Feydeau's dramas are “immaculately constructed” and “are largely concerned with the appetites and follies of the average human being caught in a net devised by his own foolishness.” A Flea in Her Ear is no exception. As is the case with most farces, the play is fast-paced, and its scenes are filled with slapstick comedy. Events in A Flea in Her Ear take place within the context of mistaken identities and deceptions; the characters' confusion and surprise delight the members of the audience, who know all sorts of secrets that the characters do not. One particularly innovative prop that provides for great situational humor is a revolving bed that makes people instantaneously appear and disappear, an arrangement that impressed critics and audiences alike when the play opened. Because of such dramatic techniques, Shapiro notes that A Flea in Her Ear functions as a “rigorously, logically constructed machine” by fully developing its farcical possibilities.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Feydeau's later plays present a dismal portrait of marriage based on his own marital experience. In these works, women are depicted as relentless, heartless vixens who have either resisted or totally undermined the presumed authority of their husbands. While such a view of marriage is certainly gloomy, it has been a recurring theme in literature and art. Listed below are other works that portray marriage as a source of misery:
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), a drama by Edward Albee. After their marriage becomes a nasty battle, the cynical husband and wife in Albee's play try to humiliate each other in new ways.
The Taming of the Shrew (1594), a drama by William Shakespeare. Because it portrays a husband forcing and tricking his outspoken, intelligent wife into obedience to his will, feminists and other engaged readers have long challenged this well-known tale about the battle of the sexes.
“Toward Evening” (c. 100 bce), a poem by Chinese poet Ch'u Yuan. In only four lines, the poem captures the essence of an unhappy marriage among the nobility, comparing it to a storm.
Responses to Literature
- How did French vaudeville differ from American vaudeville? How have both vaudevilles influenced comedy in America to the present day? Name a few contemporary American comedians who draw upon vaudeville for their performances and explain what vaudevillian conventions these modern-day entertainers use.
- Explore the political history of France from 1900 to 1945. Given France's situation during World World II, explain the rebirth of Feydeau's popularity in the early 1940s.
- Farce is typically defined as a boisterous comedy involving ludicrous action and dialogue intended to induce laughter through exaggeration and extravagance—rather than a realistic imitation of life. Research the history of farce in the theater. Create a time line that shows at least seven major farcical works throughout the history of theater. Make sure you include the authors' names with the name of the plays and their year of publication or performance.
- Feydeau was prone to depression—referred to as “melancholy” in his day—most all of his life. Trace the history of the word “melancholy.” What role do you believe depression has had in the life of artists? Compare Feydeau with at least one other author, examining how their respective work was affected by the disease.
Baker, Stuart Eddy. Georges Feydeau and the Aesthetics of Farce. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1981.
Esteban, Manuel A. Georges Feydeau. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Pronko, Leonard. Georges Feydeau. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1975.
Druten, John Van. “A Gem from the French Crown.” Theatre Arts (March 1958): 19–21.
Glenville, Peter. “Feydeau: Father of Pure Farce.” Theatre Arts (April 1957): 66.
Shapiro, Norman R. “Suffering and Punishment in the Theatre of Georges Feydeau.” The Tulane Review 5 (September 1960): 117–26.
Tynan, Kenneth. “Putting on the Style.” New Yorker (March 14, 1959): 80–83.
Mills, James. About the Playwright: Georges Feydeau. Retrieved April 14, 2008, from http://www.bard.org/Education/studyguides/afleainherear/fleaplaywright.html.