By James Mills
From Midsummer Magazine, 1994
Georges Feydeau (1862 1921) was a farceur par excellence who wrote thirty-nine works spanning a career of thirty-six years during la belle époque, the period in French history dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War I. At a time when the French were faced with the morbid realistic theatre of the naturalists and the idealistic theatre of the symbolists, Feydeau offered a more mundane theatre, which Raymond Rudorff has described as “good-humored libertinism that was the decadence of the moment” (The Belle Epoque [New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973], 222). He came to dominate the Theatre of the Boulevard, which demanded a well-made play with violence, shock, and the eternal triangle. His was a bourgeois world of middle-class marriage and the demimonde, or what Leonard Pronko has called “the underside of the belle époque” (Georges Feydeau [New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1975], 5).
French vaudevillian farce was a light, amusing, and skillfully constructed comedy quite unlike the American vaudeville, which was more of a variety program (Norman R. Shapiro, Introduction to Four Farces by Georges Feydeau [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970], xiii-xiv). Peter Glenville has observed that Feydeau’s plays are “immaculately constructed,” and “are concerned largely with the appetites and follies of the average human being caught in a net devised by his own foolishness” (Feydeau: Father of Pure Farce” Theatre Arts, [April, 1957], 66). He was not an experimenter or an innovator, but exploited fully the farcical possibilities inherent in the dramatic conventions which he adopted and used with standard plot formulae and patterns (Stuart E. Baker, Georges Feydeau and the Aesthetics of Farce [Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981], 25). Every word, every motion is important in the Feydelian farce with the typical boudoir comedy functioning as a “rigorously, logically constructed machine” (Shapiro, Four Farces, xiii).
After his first real success, a three-act play titled Ladies Dressmaker (Tailleur pour dames, 1886), he had about a dozen failures or only partial successes. In 1890 he retired for two years to study other farceurs who had been successful, including Eugène Labiche, Henri Meilhac, and Alfred Hennequin. In 1892 he found success with Monsieur Has Gone Hunting (Monsieur chasse) and Champignol in Spite of Himself (Champignol malgré lui), the latter establishing his position as a great vaudevillist.
As his work evolved it took a binary thrust, with his early plays emphasizing the comedy of action while his later work is more subdued and restrained with realistic décors and characters and plots that are usually plausible. This metamorphosis may be explained in part by difficulties in his private life such as the lengthy separation from his wife, their divorce, his melancholia, and his eventual admission into an institution, where he died insane in 1921. He has in fact been described as a melancholy man of great refinement seated in a lively café but quietly listening and observing life about him through half-closed eyes, his ever-present cigar in his hand. To some he seemed cold and aloof, but to others he was gracious, gentle, and natural (Pronko, 10 11). Among his well-known works are The Lady from Maxim’s (La Dame de chez Maxim), Hotel Paradiso (L’Hôtel du Libre-Echange), Keep an Eye on Amelia (Occupe-toi d’Amélie), and A Flea in Her Ear (Une Puce à l’oreille).
On March 2, 1907, Feydeau returned to the “jack-in-the-box constructions of earlier triumphs” with a renewed emphasis on comedy of actions in his celebrated work, A Flea in Her Ear (Shapiro, Four Farces, xxxix). Michael Billington calls the play superb because of its mathematical perfection and flawless economy of plot (The Listener, [3 March 1966], 315). He further notes that the plot reaches the heights of artifice, but the characters themselves have a basic reality, which is exactly what Feydeau hoped to achieve because he saw his first task to find his characters in reality and to preserve their true nature; then, after a comic exposition, to throw them into burlesque situations (315).
A Flea in Her Ear is a farce-comedy in three acts which follows the pattern based on deception. It is a comedy of situation involving marriage and deception. Raymonde, for example, feels betrayed when she surreptitiously opens her husband’s mail to find a strange pair of suspenders, whereupon she convinces her friend, Lucienne, to fabricate a letter from a supposed admirer of her husband, Victor Emmanuel, requesting a rendezvous with him at the Hôtel Coq d’Or. Then there is the massive confusion between the identities of Poche and Victor Emmanuel at the hotel, both parts played by the same actor, and the subsequent flood of accusations and charges levelled by the various parties during the hilarious chase scene.
Surprisingly, Raymonde, once convinced (erroneously) of her husband’s infidelity, no longer throws herself at Tournel, her would-be lover. In fact, by the end of the second act, she is seeking forgiveness for having merely been in the hotel with another man. Ironically, unlike most of Feydeau’s women, she insists that she cannot betray her husband because she is too upset.
Instead of dwelling on the mystery of the suspenders, the emphasis is placed on the perplexities of the double identity of Victor Emmanuel and Poche. Meanwhile, the deceived Latin husband, Carlos Homenidès de Histangua, hysterically runs in and out of rooms in pursuit of suspected rivals. Then there is Camille Chandebise, Victor Emmanuel’s nephew, who adds to the confusion by reserving a room under his family name, causing some of the characters to believe that the room is reserved for Victor Emmanual. Meanwhile, Camille, who can only experience himself in vowels because of his speech impediment, is misunderstood by almost everyone until he inserts an artificial palate into his mouth, which he promptly loses and does not get back until the end of the play.
The farce opens with meaningless syllables uttered by Camille, “Hare foo. Please be careful!” (John Mortimer, trans. [New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1968], 1). While the mumbled speech may anticipate the complete breakdown in communication that is to follow, the intent of his words similarly seems to allude to the possibility of difficulties ahead. This is immediately followed by the comforting admonition of Antoinette, the maid, “Calm down. The family’s out” (1), which is designed to lull both Camille and the spectator into a false sense of security, when, in reality, the nightmare is just about to begin. The play ends with Victor Emmanuel, the principal victim, with a painful look, saying: “Yes. That is—well, at least I’ll try!” (87), perhaps hinting that trying is the best that one can do to survive in an absurd world.
A Flea in Her Ear is Feydeau’s most complete picture of love. The actual production can be difficult not only because of the large cast and the complicated action, but because of the numerous extravagant incidents involving the world of the cuckold. The French farce, after all, was not for a family audience. Feydeau’s portrayal of love includes conjugal love; adultery; the homosexual proclivities of Doctor Pinache; the sadistic penchant of Ferraillon, the hotel-keeper; and the masochism of his wife, Olympe. Then there is Poche who derives a certain masochistic pleasure from being kicked by Ferraillon (Pronko, 73). It is a world of bourgeois marriage with its infidelities and revolving bed. It is a world that borders on the edge of madness (“Forms of Shock Treatment for a World out of Plumb,” Times Literary Supplement [18 June 1971], 690).
The play is well-constructed and a geometrical triumph with a number of secrets hidden from most of the characters until the conclusion, but shared with the audience. Victor Emmanuel’s lack of passion, for example, remains unexplained until the end, as well as the identity of the author of the anonymous letter. And, of course, the confusion involving the identities of Victor Emmanuel and Poche and Victor Emmanuel and Camille remains until the final scene.
The characters are ordinary people who are at times deliberately cruel. Hervé Lauwick has noted that Feydeau’s work consists of “décors psychologiques” that are imbued with a certain “fatalité” (D’Alphonse Allais à Sacha Guitry [Paris: Librairie Plon, 1963], 81). A Flea in Her Ear reveals a certain disillusionment and reflects a somewhat negative look at life as mirrored in the irresponsibility that pervades the bourgeois world.
This realism is underscored by Tournel’s lustful desires, Camille’s physical impairment and the cruel jokes that life plays on him, and pervading deceit, cruelty, manipulation, and infidelity. The characters move toward insanity as the plot reveals itself, particularly during the absurd nightmare found in the latter part of act 2. Furthermore, there is attempted rape, a major lack of communication, and the suffering of Victor Emmanuel for reasons which he cannot comprehend. Henri Bidou has correctly described Feydelian trauma as “violence mécanisée (in Lauwick, 83).
A Flea in Her Ear is the most performed of Feydeau’s works in the United States and Canada. Its continued success serves as a reminder that vaudeville still holds its appeal more than a century after its inception. For this we are much indebted to Georges Feydeau.