By Stephen Haslam
There is a striking similarity between Desdemona’s missing handkerchief in Othello and Victor Emmanuel Chandebise’s recovered suspenders in Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear. They both give rise to misunderstandings, jealousies, and catastrophe. Othello’s mistake leads to tragedy, while Madame Chandebise’s leads to a series of unfortunate but hilarious coincidences–and nobody dies.
It is precisely the discovery of her husband’s suspenders that puts “an enormous flea in her ear” (like a bug in her ear, or maybe, in this case, a bee in her bonnet, in English) and sets the wheels in motion toward the play’s abundant farcical complications. Monsieur Chandebise has been a loving husband, but of late has been unable to fulfill his conjugal duties. The more he worries, the worse the condition gets. Raymonde, his wife, suspects that since her husband has heretofore been a “raging torrent,” the current “drought” must be due to his infidelity. She moves from suspicion to certainty when she mistakenly opens a package addressed to Chandebise. It comes from the sleazy Hôtel Coq d’Or located in the Montre-Tout (“Reveal-All”) district and contains her husband’s suspenders. What she doesn’t 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 his old ones to his nephew, Camille, who left them at the hotel during a recent tryst with the married Antoinette.
Thus unaware of her husband’s innocence, Raymonde and her childhood friend, Lucienne, conceive a plan to catch him en flagrant délit. In so doing, her behavior resembles that of most of Feydeau’s female characters. They are usually more assertive, self-confident, and clever than the men. While she happens to be wrong about Chandebise’s infidelity, she does have the courage to try to expose him and satisfy her feelings of vengeance.
Perhaps most women in French bourgeois society would not have reacted so boldly. After all, during the period of this play, la belle époque, French women were still reeling under the vestiges of the Napoleonic era when women were second class citizens–politically, socially, and economically. Divorce had only recently become an option for women. In addition, the creation of a baccalauréat for women (similar to a high school diploma) wasn’t instituted until 1919, and women wouldn’t legally spend their own earned money until 1907, the year this play was written. Raymonde could have easily chosen to be a dutiful, bourgeois housewife and swallow her pride, but this Feydeau character is cut from a different cloth.
We learn, for example, that before her husband’s bout of impotence, she had entertained the idea of taking a lover because her marriage was so problem free and uneventful as to be boring. Here she takes a cue from a popular nineteenth century French novelist, Stendhal, for whom boredom is the only unredeemable sin. Nevertheless, this propensity she has toward taking a lover is only reinforced at the Hôtel Minet-Galant when she discovers from her lover-in-waiting, Tournel, that her husband is, in fact, innocent. She advocates a double standard usually attributed to men. She can understand and rationalize her cheating on her husband, but would not stand for it if the reverse were true! Her reason for even considering taking a lover is as curious as it is illogical. According to her explanation to Lucienne in Act 1, her life with Chandebise has been a perpetual bliss, an “endless love,” a “constant spring.” But the lack of any “clouds” or obstacles made it all so monotonous that she seriously considered turning to Tournel, a notorious womanizer and her husband’s best friend. But as soon as she gets the “flea in her ear” about Chandebise’s unfaithfulness, her fantasies about extra-marital dalliances shut down.
Equally odd is her behavior at the Minet-Galant. The happier she becomes about learning of Chandebise’s innocence, the more she kisses Tournel and allows him to kiss her. Moral protocol is turned upside down; and, yet, as Tournel maneuvers her closer to the bed, she reacts:
“RAYMONDE: Are you mad? What do you take me for?
“TOURNEL: But I clearly understood that you agreed . . .
“RAYMONDE: To be your mistress, yes! But not to go to bed with you! Do you think I’m a prostitute?” (Trans. by John Mortimer [London: Samuel French, 1960], 39).
Raymonde’s idea of a lover is a naive one. She seems to believe that a lover would be satisfied with the gift of her mind and heart. But Tournel’s behavior at the hotel should easily disabuse her of such notions. He aims at other parts of her anatomy.
One might be inclined to concur with Chandebise that this woman is a “remarkable creature.” On the other hand, she may simply be as fickle as most men and as changeable as most women.
Finally, it should be pointed out that this three-act play by Feydeau is above all a masterfully written farce. Once the action gets moving, there is little time for the audience to reflect on cause and effect, personalities and philosophies. There are no fewer than 274 comings and goings on stage! This production can aptly be called “the theatre of a hundred doors.” Feydeau has acquired the equilibrium of a tight-rope walker to balance the myriad aspects of his tightly wrought imbroglios. The pace, particularly in Act 2, is simply breathtaking. Spectators are subjected to viewing so much chaos, so much movement, so many complications, so many breakneck chases, so many gasping and panting characters, that at the end they are left breathless and physically exhausted themselves—certainly a great tribute to Feydeau’s genius.