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farce,light, comic theatrical piece in which the characters and events are greatly exaggerated to produce broad, absurd humor. Early examples of farce can be found in the comedies of Aristophanes, Plautus, and Terence. During the Middle Ages the term farce designated interpolations made in the church litany by the clergy. Later it came to mean comic scenes inserted into church plays. The farce emerged as a separate genre in 15th-century France with such plays as the anonymous La farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin (c.1470). In England two of the earliest and best-known farces are Ralph Roister Doister (1566) and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (c.1593). Instances of farcical elements, such as broad, ribald humor, physical buffoonery, and absurd situations can be found in many plays that are not termed farces, such as the comedies of Molière. In the 19th and early 20th cent. plays called "bedroom farces," best exemplified in the works of Feydeau, were popular. Usually French or modeled on the French, they had suggestive dialogue, and they usually concerned erring husbands and wives, silly servants, and mistaken identity. In the 20th cent., farce found new expression in the films of Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops, and the Marx Brothers.
See A. Bermel, Farce (1983).
(1) A genre of folk theater and literature that was widespread in Western Europe from the 14th to 16th centuries. Farce was humorous and often satirical and was marked by realism and cheerful free-thinking. The heroes of farce were city dwellers; the peasantry and petty nobility were always satirized. The genre’s stock characters, devoid of individualized features, such as the stupid husband, shrewish wife, dull-witted judge, charlatan, pedantic scholar, and swindler, represented the first attempt to create social types. Farce made extensive use of buffoonery.
Such 15th-century French farces as The Washtub and The Lawyer Pathelin attained the greatest popularity. Farce influenced the democratic trend in French acting, as represented by the 17th-century farce-players Tabarin, Gros-Guillaume, Gaultier-Garguille, and Turlupin. Farce also influenced the plays of Molière.
The traditions of Italian farce became the basis of the commedia dell’arte. English farce was reflected in Shakespeare’s comedies, and Spanish farce, in L. de Rueda’s one-act plays and Cervantes’ intermedia. German farce, or Fastnachtspiel, was reflected in works by H. Sachs.
Farce underwent a certain revival in the late 19th century and the 20th century in the satirical plays of A. Jarry and B. Brecht. The techniques of farcical buffoonery survive in the performances of circus clowns.
(2) In the 19th and 20th centuries, a bourgeois dramatic genre unrelated to folk traditions; a superficial, frivolous, and often risqué comedy.