FARCE AND SLAPSTICK
FARCE AND SLAPSTICK
FARCE is that form of comedy in which the desire to amuse rises superior to strict probability. In comedy you are required to adhere with reasonable exactness to the realities of life. Your
story must be accepted as a humorous but fairly correct presentation of life. In farce exaggeration is permissible if there is a return in added humor. We cannot, for example, accept as true to life the man-chasing old maid with corkscrew curls. It is conceded that there may be ladies, both young and old, who will slightly exceed the bounds of strict decorum in their search for a husband, but
in real life the determined woman who grabs a man and literalf him off to the altar does not exist. She is more s ktin her methods. In a light comedy such a type would accepted. In farce she is a time-honored standby. In come fly she is tactical rather than tackling. In farce she may follow the football method.
It is an accepted rule in writing plays of any sort that the business must match the type of plot. You will not play drama with the slight exaggeration of melodrama, so in comedy you follow natural action and in farce emphasize it in a degree to suit the emphasis of the plot.
Farce is frankly created to induce laughter and not to represent life with strict fidelity. You are not required to believe the story so long as you laugh at it; indeed you are supposed to derive a part of your enjoyment from this emphasis just as you are amused and not disgusted with the impossible fables ascribed to the Baron Munchausen. You do not for a moment believe the tales of Munchausen. You love him for the ingenious liar that he shows himself to be.
But it must be understood that this latitude must not lead to the play that is merely silly or untrue. Your ingenuity must excuse your departure from the truth. It is not the extravagance alone but the cleverness of the extravagance that has preserved the Munchausen tales as a classic where so many clumsy imitations have been completely forgotten. Just because you distort you must be unusually careful to be clever. Part of the appeal of the story must come from the skill with which you transform fact and give it another semblance.
Farce must be as intelligently written as comedy. The more foolish you become, the more careful you must be not to become a fool. You must offer a well planned plot, develop your theme with unusual care and seemingly be unconscious of the fact that you are writing caricature and not fact. The chief difference is that where you state your comedy factors in straight terms you enlarge upon your farcical facts. In comedy you say that your maiden lady is anxious to find a spouse. In farce you say, instead, that she is determined to catch a husband. The action follows the same general lines, but where your comedy character will exercise all her fancied arts of coquetry, the farcical lady employs main strength and brute force. In comedy a man runs out of a houie and down a short flight of steps. In farce he is kicked through the door and thrown down the steps, but there must be found a good reason for the ejectment. This is the saving clause that keeps farce foolery and not plain foolishness.
6. Slapstick is merely the highest development or extension of farce. In farce a man is kicked through a door and thrown down the steps. In slapstick the man who throws him out falls down after him and perhaps they overturn another person coming up. If there is no one to throw the man down the steps. then he trips and falls anyway. If the ejector does not fall down the steps after the victim, then the
latter picks himself up and throws a rock at him. If the man dodges and it hits someone else, it is even funnier. In comedy you laugh most at what is least expected. If you are led to expect one thing and get all ready to laugh at that and something else happens you reach the climax of surprise. We see John kicked down the steps by Maud's father. We laugh. John gets up and throws a rock at the old man. We laugh again. But if John throws the rock at the old man and he dodges and the stone hits a third person, perhaps the elderly rival for Maud's hand, it is still more funny. Then if the rival falls against the father and both fall down the steps, upsetting John, you come close to reaching the heights of slapstick.
But no matter how rapid the developments, they should be properly spaced. This is more a matter of direction than of writing, but a little may be done by the author to suggest the delay and coax the director. If John is rushed out of the house and kicked down the steps it will come too quickly. Bring John out of the house. Wait a, second and a half before he is kicked down the steps. Then wait half a second before he throws the stone. Let the spectator see that he is going to throw the stone, and then let him see the stone thrown. Give the spectator time to sense what is coming and he will laugh all the harder. Many directors will not wait, in slapstick. It seems almost unbelievable that they should know so little of their art, but they seem to think that in slapstick the more rapidly they work the funnier the business is.
As a factor in comedy anticipation is just as important in the scene as in the plot. You begin to laugh at the kink in the plot when you first suspect it is coming. You laugh the harder if something else comes instead. In the single scene you laugh when John is placed for the kick. You laugh more when the father swings. Then you laugh even more if Father misses and himself falls down, but you must tease your spectator even in fast moving slapstick.
9. This does not mean that you can take a couple of minutes to play a scene, but just as you must have an interval between your crises so must you space your business that each point may register. You do not write:
14. Piazza—Father kicks Jack out of house and down steps—Jack
throws a rock at Father—Father falls—Jack runs.
This conveys the essentials, but it will not be as funny as a scene written and played in this manner:
14. Piazza—Father brings Jack out—places him at head of steps— kicks Jack down steps—Jack gets up—picks up a rock—aims at Father—Father yells—tries to dodge—Jack threatens—throws rock—hits Father—Father drops—Jack out.
Here there is no more essential business, but the two slight delays in placing Jack at the head of the stairs and the aiming with the rock will warn the spectator to get ready to laugh and he will laugh when
the thing happens and not a moment or two afterward. It is possible to fill a scene so full of business that none of it will be funny.
To take a concrete example : A slapstick farce was written around a policeman discovered in a saloon by his superior officer. The Chief did not get a good look at the patrolman, but he did land his fist on the man's eye and told the bartender he would identify him by the eye when the men came off beat. The officer tells his wife and with ready wit she blacks the eyes of the entire platoon. When they come off duty identification is not possible. In an effort to speed up the story, the scenes were played so rapidly and with such a dearth of business that they passed too quickly. The wife would swing into a scene, black an eye and pass on before the spectator could mentally remark that here was another victim and that presently he would get his share. Before the spectator had time to start to think the scene was over. As a result, the story failed because there was no time permitted the spectator in which to let the idea sink in.
This is true of all farcical and slapstick work. If a blow is given or a fall executed without due warning, then there is danger that it will pass unnoticed or be noticed so late that the spectator is not yet prepared to laugh. The interval of preparation may sometimes be measured in fractional parts of a second, but the author should provide this warning, however brief it may be.
Perhaps you have seen in the vaudeville theatres some illustration of this. Two comedians are on the stage. An effeminate young man comes in. If one comedian immediately grabs him and throws him off the stage again there is a laugh and the audience is ready for the next happening. Instead of this the comedians work the scene up. One man wants to tear the dude to pieces. The other seeks to prevent him. Half a dozen times the comedian may make a lunge, to be caught and held back by the other. When the attack does come it is far more striking through this preparation.
Much laughter is based upon shock, as has been said above. In some forms the appeal may fall, but in others shock may carry the laughter because of the audacity or unexpectedness of the act. This is in harmony with the fact that if you lead an audience to expect one denouement and provide another the surprise will increase the laughter. A small man attacks a larger and seemingly more powerful person. We expect to see him badly thrashed. Instead he proves the victor and puts his burly antagonist to flight. The audacity of the action and the unexpectedness of the result make the scene far more amusing than did it run to the anticipated end. We know better than to strike a man our physical superior. We are amused at the effrontery of this foolish person who does what we know we would not do. When he carries off the honors of the 'field surprise intensifies an existing laugh. It does not have to overcome inertia and start a laugh. The momentum is there and all the force of the new factor is applied to increasing the power. It is comparatively easy for the average man to draw, unaided, a fairly heavy wagon once it is put in
motion, but it may require assistance to get the vehicle started. It is the same way in getting laughs. Get them started and it is comparatively simple to intensify the laughter. To this end it is better to use anticipation to get the laugh started and realization or surprise to complete and amplify the laugh. If this is thoroughly understood it is comparatively simple to write comedy if you have the necessary sense of humor.
There seems to be a fairly regular movement from comedy to slapstick with a quick return to comedy. Most veteran theatrical managers' know that amusement affairs go in cycles, and this is very true of comedy. Starting with light comedy of high standard or farce of a polite type, directors slowly incline to slapstick. One, more daring than the rest, comes out with the old-fashioned slapstick and takes the lead. All other makers seek to follow suit and each tries to outdo the others. Presently slapstick has been so sadly abused that all sense of humor and decency is lost. There is a reaction that results in a sharp return to the high ideals and then a gradual return toward slapstick. One or two companies hold to slapstick because they realize that good slapstick, the sort with a fairly good reason, will always find a market. They keep within certain limits of restraint and make steady sales.
Slapstick takes its name from the actual slapstick, which is a pair of boards separated at one end by a small block. When one of the flat sides is brought into contact with a comedian's anatomy, the other side clashes against the first, resulting in a maximum of noise with a minimum of hurt. The former almost universal use of this device by stage comedians given to knockabout work made it almost a trade mark for that crude form of humor, and so the term slapstick has almost completely replaced the more definite and correct "knockabout" as the designation of this form of rough humor, but a use of the proper term will provide a better definition of this form of play, since the actual slapstick is seldom employed in photoplay and many students are at a loss to account for the term, where knockabout would be fully self- explanatory and is the proper technical term of the stage.
16. There are different degrees of comedy, of farce and of knockabout. It may be interesting once more to take the scene already used and in a succession of developments advance from light comedy to an extreme of knockabout.
14. Piazza—Dodds brings Jack out—they argue for a moment— Dodds drives Jack away.
14. Piazza—Dodd brings Jack out—they argue—Jack shakes his fist at Dodds—Dodds pushes aim off the steps—Jack picks himself up—exits.
14. Piazza—Dodd runs Jack out of house—gets him set—kicks him off step—Jack gets up—exits.
14. Piazza—Dodds runs Jack out of house—places him for a kick —kicks at him—misses—falls—in falling pushes Jack off of steps—both get up—Jack picks up rock—threatens Dodd throws—hits—Dodds falls—Jack runs off.
14. Piazza—Dodds runs Jack out of house—places him for kick— kicks at him—falls—falls against Jack—both fall down steps— get up—Dodds up steps—Jack picks up rock—aims at him throws—Dodds dodges—rock hits Jared, who is entering from house—Jared falls.
14. Piazza—Dodds runs Jack out of house—places him for kick swings—misses—falls—falls against Jack—both roll down steps
• both up—Dodds up steps—Jack picks up a rock—aims at Dodds—throws—hits Jared, who is entering from house—Jared falls against Dodds—both fall down steps—roll into Jack, who falls—Dodds and Jared fight—Jack exits. • • 14. Piazza—Dodd runs Jack from house—places him for a kick aims—misses—falls against Jack—both roll down steps—get up • • Dodds up steps—Jack picks up a rock—aims at Dodds—fires —misses—hits Jared, who is just entering from house—they roll down steps—upset Jack—Dodds and Jared fight—May enters from house—Jack runs up steps for a last kiss—starts down—stumbles—falls—rolls into Dodds and Jared—exits. • • 14. Piazza—Dodd runs Jack from house—places him for a kick aims—May runs from house—carries Jack's hat—sees Dodds— bangs him over head with hat—he misses—stumbles against Jack • • both fall down steps—up—Dodds up steps—Jack picks up rock—Dodds uses May for shield—Jack fires—Dodds ducks— rock hits Jared, who is entering from house—he falls forward against Dodds—both roll down steps—upset Jack—Jack up— Dodds and Jared fight on ground—Jack runs up steps—gets battered hat—kisses May—Dodds and Jared rise—start up steps to stop him—Jack turns to run—slips—falls—rolls down steps —upsets Dodds and Jared—they fall—roll down—all up—Dodds and Jared on either side of Jack—aim blows at him—Jack ducks —Jared and Dodds hit each other—they clinch—fight—start to struggle up—Jack picks up pair of tricked flower pots from steps—hits them on head—they, fall back unconscious—Jack picks up his battered hat—tips it to May—throws her a kiss stoops—picks up the flowers that were in the pots—laugh slays them on the breasts of Dodds and Jared—exits. • In these eight developments the main idea is the same. Jack is thrown from the house. The rest is all extraneous business, but so long as it is lively and all a part of the same laugh. it is permissible to continue the scene, although the last development runs the scene about as long
as is possible in knockabout. Had there been a clear division of the action into two or more parts, then it would have been advisable to have made this into two or more scenes, for it is best to work on the one-scene- one-laugh principle though permissible to build up the laugh as long as more laughter can be gained.
In the first of these scene's Jack is merely driven off. That is light comedy. In the second he is pushed off the steps. That is low comedy. It might be done by anybody at any time in the heat of anger. The probabilities are preserved. It is comedy. By the fourth development the probabilities have been stressed to the point of farcicality and from there the change to knockabout is rapid.
Comedy is easy to handle if you have a real and not a perverted sense of humor, but it must be told in comedy action if it is to be amusing. Moreover the action must directly concern the plot and
not be extraneous matter brought in merely to make the action more amusing. This is a point wherein so many beginners err. They think that they can put anything into a farce and it will be accepted. It will not be acceptable unless it is action that seems naturally to arise from the story. If this is held in mind it will be more simple to write even knockabout that is at least not stupidly irritating.