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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

Georges-Leon-Jules-Marie Feydeau (fay-doh) was a leading author of French stage farces at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Although influential in his own day, Feydeau conducted his life in such an unconventional manner that many important details about him remain obscure. He was born...

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Georges-Leon-Jules-Marie Feydeau (fay-doh) was a leading author of French stage farces at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Although influential in his own day, Feydeau conducted his life in such an unconventional manner that many important details about him remain obscure. He was born in Paris on December 8, but he sometimes recorded the year as 1862; at other times, 1863. His mother, a Polish socialite who had numerous romantic liaisons among the French nobility, sometimes wrote her first name in its Polish form, Lodzia, at other times in its more Latinate form, Léocadia. Similarly, her family name could be spelled Zelewska but was often rendered more simply as Slewska. Even the identity of Feydeau’s father is not known for certain. In all likelihood, the playwright’s father was his mother’s husband, Ernest Feydeau, a novelist and scholar who was a member of the noble family Feydeau de Marville. Nevertheless, at the time Feydeau was conceived, his mother was also the mistress of the duke of Morney, making it is possible that this nobleman was actually the author’s father. Even more confusingly, Feydeau was rumored throughout his life to be the illegitimate son of Napoleon III, and, in the delusions he suffered before his death, he repeatedly claimed to be Napoleon III himself. Of these many possibilities, only the last may be safely discounted.

Feydeau was only six or seven years old when he began to write his first works for the stage. He attended school at the Lycée Saint-Louis and the Collège Saint-Barbe where, at the age of fourteen, he met Adolphe Louveau, a fellow student with whom he founded an amateur theatrical group, Le Cercle des Castagnettes (the Castanets club). This group, which performed plays and concerts, gave Feydeau an important introduction to actual stage experience and to means of anticipating the tastes of an audience.

Inspired by his work with Le Cercle des Castagnettes, Feydeau began writing short scenes, drawing-room monologues, and skits, some of which also featured him as an actor. Through these activities, he came into contact with a large number of other actors, including the brothers Benoît-Constant and Ernest-Alexandre-Honoré Coquelin, and popular authors of the time, such as Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Maurice Desvallières, the latter of whom would later collaborate with Feydeau on several plays.

In 1882, when Feydeau was only nineteen, his play Par la fenêtre (through the window), first translated into English as Wooed and Viewed, premiered and was favorably received. In the following year, he went on to write two one-act plays, Call Me Maestro and Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, which pleased the critics but failed to attract large audiences. Finally, when Feydeau was twenty-four, his three-act play A Gown for His Mistress was a major success, and he seemed to be established as a writer. It would be another seven years, however, before he produced another work that matched the success of A Gown for His Mistress.

Feydeau’s financial difficulties were eased somewhat when he married Marianne Carolus-Duran, the daughter of the wealthy portraitist Emile-August-Charles Carolus-Duran, the teacher of the artist John Singer Sargent. Finally in 1892 Feydeau had double successes with A Close Shave at the Théâtre des Nouveautés and The Happy Hunter at the Palais-Royal.

From that point on, Feydeau had an unbroken string of successes throughout Europe and the United States, including Cat Among the Pigeons, Paying the Piper, The Lady at Maxim’s, The Chemmy Circle, A Flea in Her Ear, and Look After Lulu. With his popularity rising, Feydeau began spending lavishly. He would dine late into the night at either Maxim’s, the Napolitain, or Prunier and gamble extravagantly on races, baccarat, and roulette.

Financial disagreements and quarrels over the education of their children caused Feydeau and Marianne to separate in 1904. Within a few years, Feydeau had taken up residence at the Hotel Terminus, where he would live for the rest of his life. His divorce from Marianne became final in 1916, although a large court-ordered support payment maintained his financial obligations to her until his death.

After his divorce, Feydeau wrote few plays of importance. His last completed work, Tooth and Consequences, premiered in January of 1916. One play left unfinished at his death, “Cent millions qui tombent” (the million-franc windfall), was probably begun in either 1910 or 1911. In 1919, diagnosed with neurasthenia and melancholy, Feydeau was admitted to a hospital in Rueil. His condition was actually advanced syphilis and, within a short time, he began to suffer delusions. He died at the age of fifty-nine.

As a playwright, Feydeau was a master of the quick moving farce. His characters are exaggerated versions of people who are easily recognized from everyday life but who are thrust by coincidence, and their own poor judgments, into increasingly more ridiculous situations. Feydeau’s work has become synonymous with the “bedroom farce,” a high-paced comedy of mistaken identities, complicated stratagems, and elaborate, rapid entrances and exits. At times embraced by critics, at times condemned for his endless succession of vapid plots, Feydeau has consistently remained a success with popular audiences. The titles of his plays, most of which involve French puns or double entendres, are notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, many of Feydeau’s plays have appeared in other countries bearing names that have little or no connection to their French originals.

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