By Robert Burgan
My title seems to imply something about Act 1 and Act 3 of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Okay, it does. But before you decide what that is, let me write a bit about the perfect Act 2.
That discussion must start with form in general and farce in particular. Theatrical form allows organization, structure, cohesiveness, and a view of our world, our humanness. Farce is in a sense a challenge to form; farce mates chaos to organization, disarray to structure, and divisiveness to cohesiveness and promotes a view of our world that gives prominence to the follies of our humanness.
I once heard farce described as a comedy about the things that go wrong on the worst day of your life.
In Act 2, the cast and director of Nothing On (the play the characters in Noises Off are presenting) want to be a success--it is very important to them to be professionally successful. They will face a terrible obstacle in accomplishing that professional goal--the fact that it is more important to them to be personally successful--if you will, a happy private life battling a successful professional life.
Battles are known for their disarray, especially for those on the front lines. Actors on the front line of the theatre are in a battle to subdue an audience. These actors are obsessed with the disarray of their private lives; are—since this is a comedy—deliciously vulnerable. That vulnerability will lead to chaos, and that chaos is the essential ingredient of farce.
As Frayn writes in his instruction to Plays: One: “The actors in Noises Off have fixed the world by learning roles and rehearsing their responses. The fear that haunts them is that the unlearned and unrehearsed—the great chaos behind the set, inside the heart and brain—will seep back on the stage. The prepared words will vanish The planned responses will be inappropriate. There performance will break down and they will be left in front of us naked and ashamed” ([London: Methuen, 1985], xiv).
And now Act 2: To begin with, the perspective we have on this world dramatically (pun intended) changes: literally by 180 degrees. So we begin with the playwright insisting that we see not the scenic illusion of the theatre but rather the scenic reality, backstage—the construction site if you will. He furthers our insecurity about the illusion of structure and order by taking the disorder beyond the proscenium to the house calls that bring us to our seats. As Lloyd. the director of Nothing On says, “The curtain will rise in three minute—we all start for the gents. The curtain will rise in one minute—we all come running out again. We don’t know which way we’re going!” (Michael Frayn, Noises Off [New York: Samuel French, Inc.], 83). Chaos on stage and in the audience
If chaos is one essential element of farce, then certainly anarchy is its companion. In Noises Off the authority figure that anarchy rebels against is the director of Nothing On: Lloyd Dallas, whose credits include a “highly successful season for the National Theatre of Sri Lanka” and “his brilliant series of ‘Shakespeare in Summer’ productions in the parks of the inner London boroughs” (11). Poor Lloyd soon discovers in Act 2 that madness is everywhere in the production he struggles so determinedly to guide in Act 1 His production becomes a dream--another key word in farce--more aptly a nightmare. And Frayn even manages--in Act 3--to have Lloyd enter the dream as the anarchy becomes complete and he becomes in mid-performance one of the characters on stage in his own production.
The personal problems lead to an acceleration of recrimination (“Freddie have you even thought of having a brain transplant”) (88) and an acceleration of mistrust, which Frayn is masterful at orchestrating both verbally and physically. And that may be the key. Frayn understands the essential element of writing for the theatre: it is for the stage, not for the page.
Frayn’s orchestration of the verbal and physical in Act 2 is most obvious in his stage directions. Unlike any other play I know, there are in fact more stage directions than dialogue, more specific things for the actors to do than specific things for them to say. A typical example: “Garry snatches the flowers from Dotty. She snatches them back. Lloyd parts them with the axe. He gently takes the flowers from Dotty and hands them to Frederick while he gives the axe to Belinda [who] uses the axe to keep Dotty and Gerry apart. Frederick hands the flowers to . . .” (116).
The simultaneity of the verbal and physical becomes a tennis game in which the play is the net and we (the audience) are the ball. This orchestration of physical and verbal, which Frank Rich, the principal theatre critic for the New York Times when Noises Off opened on Broadway, calls “one of the most sustained slapstick ballets I have ever seen . . . ingeniously synchronized” (Hot Seat [New York: Random House, 1998], 281), would be merely a writing exercise if Frayn had not built it on an inspired comic premise (ironically inspired when he saw the events backstage at a production of one of his own plays). And of course there is craft, skill, and talent, topics for another article.
And what does this praise for Act 2 say about Act 1 and Act 3? Perhaps the most appropriate metaphor is a trip on an airplane. The best part of our journey is high up in the air, traveling above the clouds, enjoying the exhilaration of flight. To get to that we need the take-off; to return from that we need the landing. Act 1 of Noises Off is exactly the right take-off: we sense the increasing momentum as we approach lift-off, we anticipate that moment with enthusiasm: Frayn prepares us as he entertains us and entices us with the world he’s created. And the landing: Act 3 resolves the dramatic questions and deposits us at a new destination.
And thus order and harmony are restored. Or are they? This is, after all, a farce; and sometimes our plane trip ends with a new adventure that begins with getting someone else’s luggage, and having clothes that don’t fit and—I’ll let your comic imagination work out the details of this farce.
The popularity of farce to us—to audiences today as we begin this new millennium—should be noted. Farce—second only to the musical in terms of popularity—is as vital to the theatrical body as blood is to the human one. Some scholars dismiss farce as somehow a lesser theatrical form. Columbia University’s Dr. Albert Bermel noted that “general critical literature about farce is scarce. . . . The best discussion of the psychology of farce is in The Life of The Drama (1984) by Eric Bentley” (The Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama, ed. John Gassner and Edward Quinn [New York: Crowell, 1969], 265). But farce continues (as it has for over 2,000 years) to give us both entertainment and insight. When we have in our theatrical firmament a play so “ingeniously synchronized” as Noises Off we have undeniable and vital proof of (to use Frank Rich’s phrase) “a forceful argument of farce’s value as human comedy” (Rich, 281).