(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Movement and timing are fundamental to the success of Eugène Labiche’s comedies. The fast-paced rhythm of a performance distracts an audience from any prolonged consideration of situations that would not be so amusing if removed from their comic vehicle. It is only when Labiche’s plays can be examined at leisure in their written form and the visual comic elements recede that a critical view of bourgeois society and men’s egotism emerges. Some critics have concluded that the laughter of these plays conceals what is actually a very harsh and cruel attitude. Certainly Labiche’s characters and the society they inhabit embody many negative qualities. One cannot fail to observe, however, that although the stupidity of these characters may be great—since they rarely provide the solution to their problems by themselves and only occasionally seem to have learned anything constructive or helpful from their experiences—their creator consistently treats them in a good-humored manner, never overtly judging them. As much as the audience may believe that these creatures deserve chastisement for their foolish actions and attitudes, the playwright himself always extricates them from their predicaments in the end. It is left to the audience to decide if any moral conclusion is to be drawn. Seen on the stage, Labiche’s plays continue to offer diverting comedy; perused at home in the armchair, their overtones of social criticism add an appealing intellectual depth to situations still pertinent to today’s society.

The Italian Straw Hat

The Italian Straw Hat was the first example of Labiche’s new kind of vaudeville. The manager of the Palais-Royal Theatre, where this play premiered, judged it to be so stupid that he left Paris to avoid the opening-night reviews. Audiences, however, were delighted. (In 1927, René Clair transformed Labiche’s script into an equally successful silent film.) The play’s appeal rests on a combination of elements: the comic devices, the incongruous situations, and Labiche’s choice of a popular target for his humor.

The comic procedures and devices employed do not differ notably from those that can be found in almost any comedy. Bergson’s Laughter discusses most of them. The characters of The Italian Straw Hat are perfect examples of the mechanical inelasticity that Bergson asserted was basic to provoking laughter. They go charging blindly and unthinkingly after the hero. A pair of tight shoes or a pin stuck in a dress causes the victim to jerk like a marionette. The characters repeat words and actions to the point that the audience anticipates them; laughter begins to swell with the anticipation. Nonancourt’s myrtle tree, which he insists on carrying everywhere, and his now proverbial exclamation that echoes throughout the play—“Mon gendre, tout est rompu!” (“Son-in-law, it’s all off!”)—are two memorable instances of such repetition. Labiche’s talent for comedy lies not in the fact that he employed these devices but rather in the appropriateness of his selection and in his sense of timing when applying them to particular situations.

Essentially a comedy of complications, The Italian Straw Hat depicts the escapades of Fadinard, a man who is pursued around Paris by his own wedding party as he attempts to replace a lady’s straw hat, which was ruined by his horse. This situation is delightfully incongruous and is exploited in each act in a similar manner. The scene is set, and Fadinard, the impatient groom, enters and attempts to explain his unusual quest. The wedding party inevitably arrives in pursuit, convinced that they are somewhere that they are not. They mistake a milliner’s salon for the mayor’s office, a baroness’s dining room for the restaurant where the wedding feast is to be held, and someone else’s apartment for Fadinard’s. The confusion they perpetrate in one scene adds to the expectation of what they will do in the next one. One hilarious episode follows another before Fadinard is able to replace the hat with one he accidentally discovers among his own wedding gifts.

A salient characteristic of Labiche’s comedy is the sense of movement it carries. The comic motifs accumulate with dizzying rapidity, and even the situations themselves can contribute to the impression of movement. An important factor here are the four or five doors commonly found in a Labiche stage setting. These multiple doors can create an accumulation of characters onstage (such as the wedding party) or they can control the speed with which characters appear or disappear (multiple entries or exits). They can conceal characters (the wedding party in the bedroom of the wrong apartment) as well as produce unexpected and compromising encounters when the wrong character opens the right door at the right moment (Fadinard meets an old girlfriend, and the adulteress Madame Beauperthuis, her maid). The viewer is whisked along from one situation to the next by the opening and shutting of the doors and by the characters who enter or exit through them.

The target of Labiche’s humor is the lower middle class—their material concerns and their basic inability to function outside their own limited circles without creating embarrassing situations. The details by which he creates his characters and their situations are astutely chosen. The unaccustomed and uncomfortable clothes that characters wear in order to appear properly dressed for a special occasion, for example, bring a smile of recognition to the viewer. Labiche was not alone in his generation to single out the bourgeoisie as a humorous target; Flaubert did so as well. Unlike Flaubert, however, Labiche does not assume any obvious attitude of superiority, although the occasions to do so are frequent. Middle-class social idiosyncrasies are dismissed with a bemused shrug.

All the playwright’s favorite themes—marriage, adultery, family, and middle-class dull-mindedness—are to be found in The Italian Straw Hat. Marriage represents a highly desirable status. Not least among its attractions is the financial well-being it may bring. Suitors and prospective fiancées are initially judged acceptable or not on the basis of their monetary worth. Perhaps not surprisingly, the outcome of such unions is not always happy, as the adultery of Madame Beauperthuis proves. In this exuberant comedy, however, adultery and unfaithfulness are treated lightly: The cuckolded husband acts in such a grotesquely comical manner that his blustering attempts to catch up with his wife gain no sympathy, and the discomfort and embarrassment that she must endure in the course of the play seem sufficient punishment for her transgression. For the most part in Labiche’s plays, adultery constitutes an unimportant event in a marriage, an incident best taken in a philosophical manner should it be discovered.

The family that Fadinard will join by his marriage merits close observation. Certainly the mechanical inelasticity its members exhibit in all situations provokes laughter, but this same inability to bend can be seen in another light as well. Nonancourt is amusing, but he is also a domineering and authoritarian patriarch. He is even the ultimate obstacle that Fadinard must conquer—it is the father, not the daughter, who in reality must be courted. This family knows little of the...

(The entire section is 3017 words.)