On December 8, 1862, Georges-Léon-Jules-Marie Feydeau was born in Paris to Ernest Feydeau, a man of many and varied occupations, and to Lodzia Zelewska, a young Polish woman whose extraordinary beauty had attracted many eminent suitors before she agreed to marry the much older Ernest. In fact, rumor had it that Georges’s real father was the Emperor Louis-Napoleon himself. From all accounts, the type of life the Feydeaus led and the kind of acquaintances they entertained may have provided young Georges with more than mere inspiration for his famous bedroom farces. It is perhaps relevant that the first thing Feydeau ever wrote, when still a child, was a play about a king, a queen, and her young lover—and how they learn to live happily ever after in a ménage à trois.
Feydeau made his debut in 1880 with a verse monologue. His first real success, however, came with his first full-length play, A Gown for His Mistress, in 1886. After a series of flops and a two-year hiatus during which he went back to the basics and to study the works of his predecessors, he returned to the stage with a vengeance. On April 23, 1892, The Happy Hunter opened at the Palais Royal to critical and public acclaim. On November 5 of the same year, A Close Shave premiered at the Nouveautés with resounding success. From this year on, every play this Midas of the theater wrote turned into gold.
Ironically, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between Feydeau’s professional and domestic life. The more successes he accumulated, the worse his private life became. His rather unusual daily routine did not help matters. His bohemian life was legendary: He did not get up until past midday, and then worked until around seven or eight, after which began a nocturnal pilgrimage that took him from one of the several choice cafés popular among artists and literary people to the famous and glamorous restaurant Maxim’s, his laboratory of human behavior.
Feydeau’s nocturnal escapades exacerbated the tensions already present in his marriage. Finally, in September, 1909, after an unusually violent quarrel, Feydeau left his home, never to return. For the next ten years, the Hotel Terminus became his home, where he lived surrounded by piles of books, paintings, perfume bottles, and a large suit of armor.
The creator of hilarious comedies, Feydeau was actually a retiring and sad man who never laughed and was uncomfortable with the attention he drew. He dreaded small talk and felt an aversion to extended conversation. Yet his fear of solitude forced him to seek out the company of whatever acquaintance happened to be present and awake at the early hours of the morning.
By 1916, when Feydeau obtained a divorce from his wife, his proverbial imagination and inventiveness ran dry. Although he was only in his early fifties, he seemed much older. He had contracted a serious venereal disease that led in rapid stages to his end. Feydeau, the comic genius who had made people all over the world laugh at the madness he created, had himself become a victim of madness. The king of vaudeville died in a mental institution on June 5, 1921, and with him ended the era of modern farce.
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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