To explain the nature of Georges Feydeau’s lasting popularity is to analyze the sum of the many different parts that constitute the whole of his drama. Feydeau’s plays contain those farcical qualities that seldom fail to delight audiences: apparitions, cataclysmic encounters, ludicrous duels, falls, booby-trapped bedrooms, and, above all, embarrassing mishaps, all which are played with breathtaking rapidity. Yet his theater also possesses other characteristics that provide delight and release. Like Feydeau’s original audiences, modern audiences of Feydeau’s plays watch their own repressed desires acted out before them as they observe Feydeau’s hero/victims, who, in their attempts to circumvent society’s laws and to extricate themselves from embarrassing or compromising situations, find themselves struggling desperately but hilariously against unknown and overwhelming external forces.
At the same time, Feydeau is a social critic whose plays reveal the emerging cracks in the social edifice of belle époque France and the moral, psychological, and emotional deficiencies of its inhabitants. In fact, even the happy endings bring only temporary happiness and raise more doubts than they resolve. Pervasive pessimism hides behind the mask of comedy. In the world that Feydeau creates, servants are abused by their employers; army officers are depicted as dehumanized despots, robots that behave by reflex action; doctors, lawyers, and businessmen lack ethical principles; and the aristocracy is shown in an advanced state of moral decay. Patience, forgiveness, charity, and decency are seldom found in Feydeau’s characters. Envy, hate, and cruelty occur far more naturally. Even friendship and love seem meaningless. Not surprisingly, marriage is invariably hell on earth; children are odious and a source of conjugal disharmony; relatives are always inconvenient; and family life is an unmitigated calvary.
The lives of individuals in Feydeau’s world are no better. Their frenzied searches for happiness and pleasure rarely succeed. Though they constantly talk, they seldom communicate. Ultimately, Feydeau’s characters become the victims of their own doing and end up imprisoned within their own selfishness.
Feydeau’s theater also appeals to the modern taste for the gratuitous, the extravagant, and the irrational. Anticipating the Theater of the Absurd, he placed onstage a series of characters who, as they stop laughing and come to rest after their dizzying adventures, come face-to-face with what appears to be an inexorable and absurd world.
Feydeau’s theater is not, by and large, a theater of ideas. His main objective was to entertain, to make audiences laugh, uncontrollably if possible. His comedy is above all a comedy of situation. The main line of his plots is initially quite simple, but imbroglios, countless inopportune and near-catastrophic encounters, missed or delayed confrontations, chases, and incredible inventiveness and improvisation on the part of would-be adulterers soon render the simplest and most innocent situation diabolically complex.
Feydeau’s first acts are marvels of preparation. Stealthily and unobtrusively, he weaves a complex fabric in which all subplots are not only interrelated but also inseparable from the main plot, so that nothing happens to anyone without affecting the others. Every detail is carefully and meticulously orchestrated so that almost all characters introduced in the first act have a good, often inevitable reason for being where they will encounter the person or persons they least expect or wish to see.
Consequently, all of Feydeau’s second acts present situations that rebound on each other, characters who behave like possessed individuals as the wheels of their fate spin faster, and a general tempo that shifts into a madder pace, making the inconceivable acceptable and inevitable. Feydeau creates an impression of chaos and progressive madness that ensnares all involved as farce takes over and hilarity overcomes the audience.
Feydeau approaches his concluding acts with the same concern for naturalness and action. He may well begin to unravel some of the threads of the subplots, but in most plays, the action continues to mount as the main plot grows still more complex. The denouement does not actually occur until the last few scenes.
Feydeau’s theatrical production can be easily divided into three distinct cycles. The most enduring plays in the first cycle are The Happy Hunter (Feydeau’s favorite play), Hotel Paradiso, There Is One in Every Marriage, Chemin de Fer, and A Flea in Her Ear. In most of the plays of this cycle, Feydeau portrays what apparently were his favorite female characters: femmes du monde, society women of impeccable bourgeois upbringing. These bourgeoises are housewives with few pleasures and interests, plenty of free time, few female friends, and husbands whose attentions are reserved for their mistresses. As Feydeau once said, these women “breathe virtue, but they are easily out of breath.”
Despite their impeccable upbringing and professed honesty, most of these wives have already picked a lover whom they keep “on ice,” so to speak, should their husbands transgress. They are quick to retaliate when they have proof of their husbands’ infidelity. It must be quickly added, however, that most of the husbands hardly deserve better treatment. Unfaithful, vain, and self-congratulating, they are usually blind to the dangers they run by ignoring their wives and by giving them ample opportunity to fall into adulterous temptations.
A Flea in Her Ear
Feydeau’s plays are purely theatrical: They must be seen onstage; they must be experienced. The hilarity that they elicit in performance evaporates when reduced to summary. Nevertheless, a brief summary of the best known of these plays, A Flea in Her Ear, provides a good yardstick for measuring the craftsmanship and comedic talent of its author.
Chandebise, a loving husband, has recently been unable to fulfill his conjugal obligations, and the more he worries, the worse his condition gets. Raymonde, his wife, suspects him of infidelity. One day, Raymonde “mistakenly” opens a package addressed to Chandebise from the Hôtel du Minet-Galant. It contains her husband’s suspenders. She now has the evidence she needs. What she does not know is that, following Dr. Finache’s advice, and in an attempt to find a cure for his affliction, Chandebise has changed the style of his suspenders and has given the old ones to his nephew, Camille, who left them at the hotel the last time he took his lover Antoinette there.
Raymonde wastes no time in setting up a trap to catch her husband in the act. She convinces her friend Lucienne Homénidès to write a love letter to Chandebise begging him to meet her at the Hôtel du Minet-Galant. Raymonde will be waiting for him there. When Chandebise receives the letter, he is convinced that there must be an error. The woman must have mistaken him for his best friend, Tournel, a handsome man notorious for his powers of seduction and Raymonde Chandebise’s lover-in-waiting. Tournel is more than eager to keep the rendezvous.
In the meantime, however, flattered by the interest he has awakened in a woman, Chandebise shows off the love letter to his client, Homénidès. On recognizing his wife’s handwriting, Homénidès draws a huge revolver, and Chandebise barely escapes death by telling the homicidally jealous Homénidès that Tournel is the one meeting Lucienne. As act 1 comes to a close, Chandebise sends his servant Émile, Antoinette’s husband, to warn Tournel while he sets off to warn Lucienne.
In his usual fashion, Feydeau arranges events quite realistically to ensure that all those who should not meet will turn up in the same place. The proprietor of the Hôtel du Minet-Galant, knowing his clientele, has built a room with a bed attached to a revolving wall. In case of emergency, by pushing a button on the wall the amorous couple can disappear into the adjacent room as the bed permanently occupied by Baptistin, the hotel owner’s uncle, comes to take the place of the original bed. The first to arrive at the hotel is Raymonde, who, hidden behind the curtain, receives Tournel, whom she mistakes for her husband, with a monumental slap. When she recognizes her error, and Tournel explains, she wants to run to Chandebise. Tournel, however, has been waiting far too long to let such a moment go to waste. As he goes to lock the door, Raymonde, frightened, pushes the button next to the bed to call for help. She is transported into the next room, and when Tournel leaps onto the bed, it is Baptistin whom he covers with kisses.
Together once again, Raymonde and Tournel are about to leave when they come on Chandebise, “disguised” as a hotel clerk. They kneel down, implore his forgiveness, and insist that he demonstrate it by kissing them both. The hotel clerk, who happens to look exactly like Chandebise, does as he is told, though he insists that he is Poche. Raymonde and Tournel are successively shocked, disgusted, and relieved when they learn of Poche’s real identity. They are again about to leave when they see Chandebise’s nephew and Antoinette arrive. They must hide again—and so must Camille and Antoinette when they spot Poche, whom they mistake for Chandebise. In the confusion, Antoinette goes into the room of a man called Rugby, a violent sex maniac who proceeds to undress her; at the same time, Antoinette’s husband, Émile, walks in. Émile suffers the same fate Camille did when he tried to come to Antoinette’s rescue: He receives a severe thrashing at the hands of the barbaric Rugby. At one point or another, everyone ends up in the room of this violent Englishman, with similar results.
As this is going on, Lucienne comes to meet Raymonde. She is followed by Chandebise and Homénidès. The pace becomes frantic as everyone is trying desperately to escape from the homicidal Homénidès, from the brutal Rugby, and from Chandebise, who, inexplicably to them, seems to be everywhere. Raymonde and Tournel are speechless when Chandebise, who has been brutally forced to put on Poche’s uniform by the proprietor of the hotel, wants to strangle Tournel when he sees him with his wife. Like Raymonde’s, Lucienne’s efforts to escape from her husband fail. While she is being comforted in Baptistin’s room by Poche, Homénidès storms into the neighboring room and, frustrated at finding it empty, shoots at the button. To everyone’s surprise, the wall begins to move, bringing into full view Lucienne and Poche. Homénidès runs after Poche,...
(The entire section is 4392 words.)