"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries
Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English
2011 | 496 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $29.95
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Table of Contents
On Abbreviations Short Titles, Notes, and Bibliography
—History, Development, and the Actors of the Basoche
—Performance and Performance Records
—The Question of Genre
About This Translation
—Editions and Printed Sources
—Prose, Verse, and Music
—Repetition and Repetitiveness
—Language and Style
Brief Plot Summaries
1. The Farce of the Fart [Farce nouvelle et fort joyeuse du Pect]
2. The Edict of Noée, or, Shut Up! It's the Farce of the Rights of Women [Farce des Drois de la Porte Bodès]
3. Confession Lessons, or, The Farce of the Lusty Husband Who Makes His Confession to a Woman, His Neighbor, Who Is Disguised as a Priest [Farce de celuy qui se confesse à sa voisine]
4. The Farce of the Student Who Failed His Priest Exam because He Didn't Know Who Was Buried in Grant's Tomb [Farce du Clerc qui fut refusé à estre prestre]
5. Blind Man's Buff, or, The Farce of "The Chokester" [Farce du Goguelu]
6. Playing Doctor, or, Taking the Plunge (The Farce of the Woman Whose Neighbor Gives Her an Enema) [Farce d'une Femme à qui son Voisin baille ung clistoire]
7. At Cross Purposes, or, The Farce of the Three Lovers of the Cross [Farce de trois Amoureux de la Croix]
8. Shit for Brains, or, The Party Pooper-Scooper [Farce de Tarabin-Tarabas]
9. Monk-ey Business, or, A Marvelous New Farce for Four Actors, to Wit, the Cobbler, the Monk, the Wife, and the Gatekeeper [Le Savetier, le Moyne, la Femme, et le Portier]
10. Getting Off on the Wrong Foot, or, Who's Minding the Whore? for Three Actors, to Wit, the Lover Minding the Store, the Cobbler, and His Wife [Farce de Celuy qui garde les Patins]
11. Cooch E. Whippet, or, The Farce of Martin of Cambray [Farce de Martin de Cambray]
12. Birdbrain: A Musical Comedy? or, School Is for the Birds [Farce joyeuse de Maistre Mimin]
Appendix: Scholarly References to Copyrighted Materials
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
It all began in the fall of 2007 when I could take it no longer. Was I really going to teach comparative medieval drama one more time without teaching the anonymous fifteenth-century Farce of the Fart? Was I really?
My undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were mostly theater majors and English majors. At best, they had perhaps read Everyman and the Second Shepherds' Play. They might even have heard vague rumblings about everybody's beloved Shakespeare having drawn heavily on medieval traditions of farce (as M. L. Radoff had noticed as early as 1933). Sure, there were plenty of English plays available in a variety of anthologies: unfortunately, David Bevington's marvelous Medieval Drama was out of print, but there was now Greg Walker's Medieval Drama: An Anthology, a hefty tome of over six hundred pages. And yet, the rest of the medieval dramatic picture—that vast and vastly enjoyable repertoire of French farce—was virtually unknown in the English language. Although scores of French plays had first been edited in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by some of the greats of French theater history—Gustave Cohen, Eugénie Droz, Édouard Fournier, Emmanuel Philipot, M.Viollet le Duc, and, later, André Tissier, Bernard Faivre, and Jelle Koopmans—those painstakingly preserved farces had yet to reach the larger audiences that they so richly deserved because, for one thing, the vast majority had never been translated. What about all the English speakers out there? We weren't going to leave all the fun to the French, were we?
I think not. So let's start with a dozen in English.
To be fair, there have been some pioneering translations of medieval French farce—of about a dozen from the hundreds extant—most notably by Barnard and Rose Hewitt, Oscar Mandel, and Alan E. Knight. These are listed in the Bibliography, and I'll be alluding to them briefly in About This Translation. But, for the moment, what about my pedagogical dilemma about The Farce of the Fart? I wondered: What if I just translated it myself?
What do you know! The students liked it. So much so that, as their final project, four of them acted it out—Jeremy Cowan, Jessica Fleitman, Joey Axiaq, and Travis Wong—bringing the dialogue and the laughter to life. The next thing I knew, a graduate student, Andrew Henkes, was proposing to stage the play at our yearly Medieval Studies Conference. On 3 May 2008, the superb cast of Dakotah Brown, Michael Ruesga, Courtney Ryan, and Annika Speer acquitted themselves so well that students, colleagues, and friends inquired: What would we be doing next year? It was The Farce of Master Mimin (published here as Birdbrain), also directed by Henkes and featuring Jason Bornstein, Melani Carroll, Beth Faitro, Andrew Fromer, Jordan Holmes, and Sigmond Varga. One thing led to another, and then there were twelve. To my knowledge not a single one of the plays here assembled has ever been translated into English.
Why these plays? Why now? Humor is an important mechanism that perks us up, all the while teaching us to beware of those who would use it to keep us down. Mostly, we can laugh, we can learn something, we can do both. If nothing else, the farces demand that we take humor seriously: seriously enough to read them, act them out, watch them, and restore them to the larger conversation about the arts from which they have often been wrongfully marginalized (if not downright excluded) thanks to centuries of antitheatrical polemic. Predating the standard comic structures that we have come to know and love in Shakespeare, the commedia dell'arte, Molière, and beyond, the medieval French farce offers up a literal song and dance about what unites and divides us. From politics and religion, to learning and litigiousness, to marriage and social class, to theology and sexuality, each play satirizes social life through that most present of literary media, the theater. These plays are funny, and they have withstood the test of time, mostly by providing lots of laughter when things are tough. When it comes to human foibles, the farce is transcendent: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Walter Kerr might well have summed it up best in 1967 when he endeavored to reelevate the farce to its heights—not depths—of days of yore. Disputing the commonplace of the so-called lowly farce, he extolled its considerable virtues by comparing it instead to the noblest of tragedies:
Its purpose, of course, is to render [tragedy's] such high aspiration absurd; but it acquires a height of its own in the process of stretching to mock. Farce is the largest comic form we know, potentially the most dimensional; it offers us the greatest spaces to be filled in. If a playwright, or a period in history, fails to fill in the spaces and chooses instead simply to reproduce the cartooned outlines in a mechanical way, that is not the form's fault. It has matched the thrust of tragedy as best it could and left us the directions for making lunacy out of nobility; what we do with the legacy will depend upon our own capacities. (Tragedy and Comedy, 312)
Do something with the legacy we must. In fact, I keep telling my graduate students that there are umpteen dissertations just waiting to happen if only someone would turn seriously to these comedies. Perhaps they'll listen now, if not to me then to Mikhail Bakhtin, who cautioned, in Rabelais and His World, that "to ignore or to underestimate the laughing people of the Middle Ages . . . distorts the picture of European culture's historic development" (6). So let's bring that picture back into the focus, shall we?
I've fashioned the present collection with students, theater practitioners, theater aficionados, and general readers in mind. To them, I say now: If you think that medieval literature is esoteric, inaccessible, and endlessly enmeshed in scholastic debates about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, this is not your mother's Middle Ages. From the outset, I must state a number of issues baldly—four, to be exact.
First, a curious thing: As many of my fellow pedagogues can attest, something odd seems to happen when you teach a farce. Reading one is fine. So is seeing one. Everybody cracks up. But just try to have an intellectual discussion about one, and you suck the humor right out of the thing. The silence is deafening. Once the guffaws are over, the students have nothing more to say. Is it that the laughter is so cathartic that literary analysis just plain ruins it? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe Eric Bentley got it right when he asked: "Why do we laugh at jokes? The point of a joke can be explained, but the explanation is not funny" (LD, 229). I hope not, because I've done my best to make some of my explanations funny, walking a fine line between scholarly interpretation and pedantry. Farces are meant to be fun; so I've had some fun with them. This includes writing with a chattier, colloquial tone such as the one I'm using right now, which I temper a bit only in the Introduction—and only a bit.
Second, it is impossible to understand a medieval play independently of performance, my guiding principle throughout this volume. Without performance, medieval culture makes no sense. Epics and romances were declaimed by jongleurs in public squares; poetry competitions were waged and won before enthusiastic crowds; students and faculty filled the streets surrounding the Sorbonne for oral exams in theology (the quodlibet); crazed dancers processed through towns in the sexualized antics of the Feast of Fools. André Tissier is explicit: "The farce is originally written for performance, not for reading" (RF, 1: 55). And, difficult though it might be to reconstruct the full scope of medieval playing, I have drawn on every resource I could find to help make that happen. But please be forewarned that casting a farce will prove more challenging than you might think. Although one needn't necessarily second Susan Morrison by invoking "fecopoetics" as the ultimate medieval habit of thought—yuck! —the sights, sounds, and smells of the body are everywhere (Excrement in the Middle Ages, chap. 10). When the stage directions of #5, Blind Man's Buff, call for the serving girl Thomasina to pee in a cup in one scene and for her employer to "shit himself all over" in another, it makes Rabelais look like child's play.
Third, there are aspects of this repertoire that are distinctly unfunny and worthy of our serious exploration. The recurring theme of domestic violence is one of them, in which many a playwright goes so far as to make the preposterous suggestion that women were the ones who regularly brutalized their husbands. If these plays are any indication, medieval men were always trying to put women in their place and with a plethora of misogynistic literature to back them up. To evoke a signature essay by the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, that place was not exactly "on top" ("Women on Top"). The female characters, however, are having none of it; and in at least a few instances, one might even say that they emerge victorious, Pyrrhic though their victories might be.
Finally, my twelve favorite farces, all anonymous, are not exactly politically correct, hence my humble offering of an Actors' Prologue that any company may recite prior to performance, the better to prepare its audiences. Allow me to speak plainly. I am not one of those historians who think that offensive language and content must be stricken from the record. Quite to the contrary, I firmly believe that we do a disservice to history by electing to ignore past scenarios that we now dislike and that we understand even less. I can only hope that the reader will adopt Bentley's sensible philosophy that "in farce, as in drama, one is permitted the outrage but spared the consequence" (LD, 222). Otherwise, I can best characterize my approach like so: If feminists can specialize in pornography, then I think I can translate farces. My wish is that this collection will provide a lot of laughs along with a heavy dose of serious reflection—all with a spoonful of sugar to help the good and bad medicine go down. No saccharin, folks. Have the courage of your convictions and read on! But not without one last caveat and one first parody. If these plays were movies, the following rating would probably apply:
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
May contain moderate language, minimal strong language, some explicit nudity, intense
violence, gore, or mild drug content.