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Enders, Jody. "The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English.

Enders, Jody. "The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. xv + 477. $49.95 cloth, $29.95 paper, $29.95 eBook.

It is a little-known fact that medieval French farce played a major role in the making of modern drama. In striving to break with neoclassical aesthetic canons, avant-garde playwrights often drew inspiration from the medieval genres that their predecessors had considered crude, seditious, and immoral, with farce being the most obvious offender against bienseance. Dario Fo's link to the farceurs (and other "jesters who defame and insult") is well established, largely because Fo himself has so often emphasized the deep historical roots of "the tricks of the trade." But how many people will realize, or bother to recall, that J. M. Synge's The Well of the Saints (1905) is loosely based on Andrieu de La Vigne's L'aveugle et le boiteux (1496); that the delirious nonsense speech in Eugene Ionesco's La cantatrice chauve (1950) and La lemon (1951) is indebted to the fantaisie verbale of medieval tricksters and fools; that in 1969 the San Francisco Mime Troupe toured a production of the mid-fifteenth-century farce Maistre Pierre Pathelin and, in one instance, was able to perform it only thanks to an ACLU lawsuit and an anticensorship demonstration; or that Zulu Sofola's The Wizard of Law (1975) rewrites Pathelin to depict the corruption of contemporary Nigerian society and the capacity of the poor to resist economic inequality using farcical antics ("wizardry")? Indeed, one has only to scratch the surface to discover that many of the aesthetic innovations and political strategies that characterize twentieth-century drama are either directly or indirectly tied to the medieval French stage, and are therefore deeply beholden to scholars like Louis Petit de Julleville and Gustave Cohen, who brought to light hundreds of French plays that had been forgotten in the archives, as well as to thespians like Cohen and his troupe the Theophiliens, who performed some of those plays, usually for the first time in centuries.

Expressly written with the stage and classroom in mind, and now available in affordable paperback and eBook formats, Jody Enders's The Farce of the Fart and Other Ribaldries aims to make a similar contribution to modern theater practice and performance studies by offering access to twelve of the most ingenious and spirited medieval farces to English-speaking scholars, students, playwrights, directors, actors, and spectators. With Jelle Koopmans's recent rediscovery and publication of the Recueil de Florence, a collection of fifty-three medieval plays that mysteriously went missing in the 1920s, French scholars can no longer complain of a lack of reliable critical editions. But, to quote Enders, "What about all the English speakers out there? We weren't going to leave all the fun to the French were we?" (xi). With thirty years' experience in the field and an apparently irrepressible comic flair, Enders allows her readers to "take [farce's] humor seriously" but without for a second allowing intellectual concerns to "suck the humor right out of the thing" (xii, xiii). In her breezy but incisive prefatory material, production notes, and endnotes, she attends to many of the vulgar, provocative, and gut-busting ways in which farce "satirizes social life," with her twelve plays exploring themes ranging "[f]rom politics and religion, to learning and litigiousness, to marriage and social class, to theology and sexuality" (xii). Enders has wisely chosen the route of "adapted" rather than "literal" (33) translations, preserving farce's characteristic exuberance by inserting, where appropriate, "an extra line, an extra term, an extra mimed scene, an extra nonspeaking character, an extra possible musical number, or an extra name (especially for the many unnamed female characters)" (35). Her aim throughout is to make farce a living tradition again, one that remains imbued with the "precious essence" of a medieval genre but that also merges gleefully and ironically with contemporary idioms and themes: "sitcoms, stand-up comedy, Saturday Night Live, political gaffes, widespread litigiousness, the excesses of university life, twentieth- and twenty-first-century slang, and whatever music rises and falls on the pop charts, especially country music" (34).

As improbable and unscholarly as all this may sound, The Farce of the Fart manages to be both uproariously funny (I regularly disturbed people around me by laughing out loud) and intellectually rigorous (my copy is filled with marginal notes, even though I have read these plays many times in the original language). Those who cannot read Middle French should certainly heed Enders's warning that her translations frequently depart from strict literalism. But these departures are not only wildly obvious; they are also nearly always flagged with an endnote. And at the end of the day, what really matters is that Enders is capable of striking a balance between farce's historical specificity and issues of contemporary relevance. I regularly marveled at her ingenious strategies for incorporating references to today's lived realities into her farces while remaining essentially true to the medieval theatrical world from which those farces emerged. A couple of examples will hopefully suffice to illustrate the formidable challenges she faced and the wit and skill with which she faced them.

First, consider the joke at the heart of the Farce du Clerc qui fut refuse a estre prestre: a clerical examiner poses an idiotic question regarding the name of the father in the Carolingian legend of The Four Sons of Aymon to an equally idiotic student who hopes (against hope) to pass the entrance exam for the priesthood. The play's success depends entirely upon the viability of this gag, which would have been wholly transparent to medieval theatergoers but is now abstruse even to medievalists. Fortunately, Enders comes up with a brilliant trouvaille: referencing Groucho Marx's absurd stumper from You Bet Your Life, she translates the play as The Farce of the Student Who Failed His Priest Exam because He Didn't Know Who Was Buried in Grant's Tomb. The anachronism is entirely in keeping with medieval theatrical practice, and if anything, it makes the joke and its subsequent elaboration (which anticipates not just the Marx Brothers but Abbott and Costello) all the wackier and more entertaining. At the same time, the translation loses little of the farce's critique of medieval institutions, especially if we read the play along with Enders's commentary. As she informs us, the original author and performers were almost certainly Basochiens, law clerks who toiled in onerous and poorly remunerated positions, often because they lacked the resources to complete an advanced degree. Comic theater offered them opportunities to express (both overtly and covertly) their resentment of solicitors, barristers, and magistrates, whose diplomas signified professional and social, if not necessarily intellectual, distinction. Modern audiences can easily grasp this kind of barbed satire, and the translated farce, with its cleverly updated joke, seems as relevant and accessible to me as Richard Wilbur's translations of Moliere.

Indeed, while Enders is a very different kind of translator from Wilbur (preferring, among other things, prose to verse), she is no less successful in capturing complicated intrigue, insinuating wordplay, and witty repartee. Her dexterity is particularly obvious in At Cross Purposes, or, The Farce of the Three Lovers of the Cross (Farce de trois Amoureux de la Croix), which ends with the eponymous lovers appearing late at night in disguise under a crucifix in a graveyard. Each awaits an assignation with the same married lady, not realizing that she has offered a rendezvous to all three in exchange for large sums of gold. The lovers, who are dressed up as a priest, a dead man, and the devil, fail to recognize and therefore terrify, antagonize, and thwart one another in hilarious and astonishing ways. When they are at last unmasked, they realize that they are rivals in love and have expended a great deal of money and effort only to make fools of themselves. The farce concludes with a feisty, misogynistic song for which no music has been discovered: each of the lovers vents his anger in turn and then warns the men in the audience to be careful of women's tricks. Faced with the problem of an unnotated but dramatically indispensable song, Enders once again finds an inspired solution. She sets the song as a rap (with a rhyme scheme matching the original) and aptly replaces the untranslatable proverb garder la lune (des chiens et des loups) ("to protect the moon from dogs and wolves"), which serves as the song's refrain, with a more familiar one: "to burn the candle at both ends" (250). Not only do the two proverbs both refer to waste and dissipation, but the candle metaphor matches well with the play's other major themes: the lovers' flaming lust for the lady, their nocturnal ordeal, and their smoldering anger at being deceived: "Now let her burn," raps the man disguised as the devil, perhaps referencing the ardor of love but more likely (and more ominously) the stake or hell (250).

If space allowed, I would go on at length about the many moments in The Farce of the Fart that made me LOL in public spaces or scribble furiously in the margins. Since space does not allow, however, let me simply say how generous it was for Enders to dedicate the volume to her students, some of whom were involved in live productions of her farces. This was undoubtedly a significant labor: the staging of Birdbrain: A Musical Comedy? or, School Is for the Birds, a play whose absurdity reaches Ionescan proportions, seems to have required the construction of a human-sized chicken coop and the loan of a number of chickens! These student thespians deserve kudos for bringing an undeservedly neglected work to the stage, as of course does Enders, who has produced translations that not only modernize medieval farce but also allow us to discern the medieval roots of modern drama.


University of California, Davis
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Author:Guynn, Noah D.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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