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Robert I. Williams PLAY AND THE CONCEPT OF FARCE Since aristotle farce has not fared very well as an aesthetic mode. His description ofcomedy was to stick for a long while, and especially with farce: the imitation of characters of a lower kind who are not bad, but defective or ugly such that their ugliness is not painful or destructive (Poetics 1449 a 32t). Reasonably enough—Aristotle was probably referring to what we would consider farcical characters, the swaggering professional soldier, the cook, courtesan, and fawning parasite ofMiddle Comedy. (What we call comedy was being developed by Menander and others at about the time the Poetics was composed.) In any event, farce has long been considered the poor relation ofcomedy, if not the village idiot of the performing arts. For instance, the 1974 Encyclopaedia Britannica describes farce as "a dramatic genre having no pretensions beyond provoking laughter ... it is good-natured, pointless horseplay and is aesthetically and intellectually inferior to comedy" (Micropaedia, IV, p. 53). Most of us would agree with Aristotle's low-life characters, and perhaps even the encyclopediast's "no pretensions beyond provoking laughter" (he could have said evoking). It is "imitation" or the representational nature of farce that raises questions. To put it another way, what is the ontological status offarce, the phenomenological nature of our response to it, and the kind of meaning arising from them? I suggest these aspects of the matter can be clarified, though not finally resolved, by seeing farce as play. While there are numerous interpretations of farce, its problematic nature is confronted most directly by Stuart E. Baker in his recent study of Feydeau.1 No encyclopediast he, Baker thoroughly understands and admires Feydeau's artistry. Furthermore, he takes play seriously. His conception ofplay and farce, however, is based on a distinction between "reality" and "unreality," and that is where things go awry. For instance, 58 Robert I. Williams59 he writes that in comedy the audience "is encouraged to think of characters as they would real people, and their problems as real problems" (p. 7). But, according to Baker, "farce dissociates itself from the real world. Its situations are no longer bound to real people outside ourselves whom we might hate, fear, love, or pity." As we know from our response to satire and political cartoons, not to mention film animation, our emotions are not geared to mimetic representation. Rather than an a priori scale of real-unreal, what is involved is a complex emotional underlayer of our response. We hiss villains and applaud heroes, stereotypical and "unreal" though they may be, just as children respond emotionally not mimetically to a puppet show. In other words, without a grasp ofplay in and ofitself—its phenomenological nature and impact on our minds—distinctions like reality/unreality, truth/fiction, and meaning/nonsense have, themselves, little sense. Interest in play appears to be a recent, proliferating development initiated by Huizinga.2 In fact, there probably has been no time in philosophy when play has not been at least considered.3 Modern interest was sparked by Schiller's "play theory of art";4 Nietzsche found play a positive force, an aspect of the will to power;5 Derrida finds play less positive but a fundamental condition of existence. Since, one way or another, Derrida has raised significant issues, his position should be considered as one among many of importance. A philosophical game player himself, Derrida nonetheless has held consistently to a stated or implied concept of play as the erratic movement of quanta in a void, rather like Sartre's concept of nothingness. Derrida's term for it is freeplay. Amid the whir oi differance, dissemination , trace, and similar coinages, an early, readable statement on freeplay (1970) has remained central to his thought: Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a significant and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the...


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