Saturday, December 8, 2012

Joyeux anniversaire, Georges Feydeau!

Not only did Georges Feydeau (born December 8, 1862) turn the boulevard farce into an art form, he was a historical hottie. See photo at left. (Although his wild ways mean you should probably not sleep with him if you should find yourself traveling to Belle Epoque France in a time machine or through a Woody Allen movie.)

You may know M. Feydeau from Hotel Paradiso, AKA A Little Hotel on the Side (L'Hôtel du libre échange) or A Flea in Her Ear (La Puce à l'oreille), both often produced at colleges and universities, or one of the other sixty some plays he wrote between 1882 and 1916. His plays have been translated into countless languages and made into more movies than you can throw a Coq at.

A portrait of Feydeau painted by his father-in-law.
On the books, Feydeau was the son of Ernest Feydeau, a Parisian writer and scholar, but rumor had it he was the love child of Napoleon III or some other aristocrat. Royal or not, he had money problems and romantic complications most of his adult life. He married Marianne Carolus-Duran, the daughter of a famous painter, when he was 27, which kept him afloat financially for awhile, but certainly didn't make him happy on the home front.

They separated and eventually divorced, but that didn't stop him from writing some very unpleasant female characters late in his career that some feel were patterned after his wife. His plays were hugely successful, quickly garnering him a reputation outside France as well as in, but his gambling habits and predilection for wiling away his time at Maxim's, the seductive and beyond fashionable late-night Paris restaurant, kept him continually on the brink of financial disaster.

And if farce has never been considered as important as other, weightier forms of drama, Feydeau's farces rose above. Given the way his middle-class characters are tossed around by the whims of fate, battered by a crazy world they can't control, Feydeau is considered a forerunner of Theatre of the Absurd and surrealism.

Georges Feydeau died at the age of 58, probably from complications from syphilis.


  1. I'd know that face anywhere! In fact it popped up yesterday in the daily Birthday Boy (and Girl) challenge in the Forgotten Musicals facebook group to which I belong. He really had a flair for these farces, and wrote a ton of them -- not QUITE as many as might at first appear, because several of them have acquired new English-language titles each time a new translator took them on.

    I've seen "A Flea in Her Ear" onstage twice, but I wish they would release the movie of it on home video. It doesn't quite work in the end (NOT because, as some initial reviews predictably said, French farce can only work in live performance -- it just missed the mark in certain respects), but there's considerable pleasure to be had from it. It was directed by Jacques Charon of the Comedie-francaise, and it has Rex Harrison (hard to beat for witty farce), Rosemary Harris (one of very few movies she got to make in her earlier years, and she's delightful), Rachel Roberts, and Louis Jourdan. After that, the cast seems to be filled largely with French actors (it was filmed in Paris), and I suppose that's where the quality suffers, as their speech probably had to be dubbed. And the raft of supporting parts are very important. Still, fun times.

  2. I saw it on Forgotten Musicals and totally lifted the idea.

    I think I've given up on ever seeing a decent Feydeau farce. The only productions I've seen were at colleges, and it's very hard for youngish actors to get the right mood and feel and keep the pace moving. I'm hoping some professional company takes up David Ives' version of one of these plays. Or maybe I need to fly to Paris to see it in the right environment. Yeah, that's the ticket! I'll go drink champagne at Maxim's to get in the proper mood for Feydeau.

    1. Sometime around 86-87 a student at ISU did a fresh translation of Flea. It was a great production. I'm addicted to the show, but unfortunately haven't seen another good production since ISU.

  3. Our PTTP/REP company did a good "Flea" here several years ago. Of course the premise of the MFA program is that all the students have been at least somewhat out in the biz and acquired some professional experience, and they do represent a variety of ages.

    The movie "A Flea in Her Ear" has a special place in my heart because it was the one breath of civilized life-as-I-knew-it in the week of pure hell that was our introduction to boot camp in Ft. Campbell Kentucky. We'd been getting training of all sorts during the week, getting our uniforms issued, etc., and then on Sunday we actually got a half day off. We had the option of baseball ("or either football") on the lawn, or being shown a movie in one of the quonset huts nearby. We were told it was "A Fly in da Hand." I'd never heard of it, but of course that was my choice anyway. And it turned out to be this French period comedy, which bored the pants off all the grunts around me, but put me in heaven. I've always wanted to see the whole thing again, and never have -- though I caught pieces, when I would stumble on it in the early days of AMC.

    Here's a short scene: It shows how appealing Rosemary Harris was at that age, and at the same time suggests that the adaptation gets too sentimental for this sort of farce. (This is presumably where she gets the idea that he must have a mistress, because he's not interested in her.)

  4. She *is* lovely! And she looks a little like Laura Benanti, which I'd never have guessed.