The farce, as we know it today, has a long and interesting history. From Greek Theatre, thousands of years ago, to France in the 19th century, to the classic British pieces of the mid - to - late 20th century, farce now finds its way into modern American Theatre.
Our belief is that, of these three, by far the most important, is the circumstantial. Given that the circumstances in which the characters find themselves are usually somewhat unreal, it is vital, therefore, that the characters themselves remain very real. If we put unreal characters in unreal circumstances, the result is invariably shallow, trite, and silly. Classic farce’s humor should be clever and subtle, never total slapstick.
No actor should ever be encouraged, or ever allowed, to go “over the top.” No actor should be allowed anywhere near the top, in fact no actor should be allowed halfway up the hill. (Have we made our point?) Actors discover very quickly that they can do something on stage, which, while making their character unreal, creates a laugh. They discover the power they have, but they must never be permitted to do this. If a director allows this to happen they will, of course, get lots of cheap laughs, but they will cheat the audience out of the subtleties of circumstantial humor, and leave them only with the visual.
As directors, we spend the first thirty minutes of the first rehearsal, talking with the cast about this. We tell them, “There are no comedians in this cast, only good actors and actresses, who should play the roles as if they were appearing in the most serious tragedy or drama of their lives.” We tell them, “If anyone starts trying to be funny, we are all dead in the water, and as your directors, we will not allow it to happen.” We discuss together, how visual “shtick”, the one-liners, and above all, the circumstances, will create the laughter without any actor trying to do anything other than to play a straight character.
Many directors appear to be afraid that they will not get enough laughs without “going over the top.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The “over the top” productions, which we have seen (far too many times), have never approached the volume of laughter achieved when the play is directed in the classic manner. Have faith, a good farce has enough content in its plot, its characters, its circumstances, its sight gags and its one-liners, that it does not need any further help. If it does, it is simply not a good farce.