If you ask me—and please do—who I’d like to see take home the Tony for best actor this season, it would be a genius named Mark Rylance.
There you are! Mr. Rylance’s wonderful performance in the retro farce Boeing-Boeing has been acclaimed by one and all, but his name still isn’t quite recognized in New York. Not like Patrick Stewart, who’s starring in Macbeth. Besides, Shakespeare is serious, and so is Macbeth, and Mr. Stewart is therefore the favorite to win the Tony.
Farce is only serious on the sly. It takes an actor as great as Mr. Rylance to bring the low culture of Boeing-Boeing to such unexpected and delirious heights. Like the veteran Mr. Stewart, he’s a leading Shakespearean, and both actors, needless to say, are British. (Two of the other Tony nominees for best actor are also British—Rufus Sewell and Ben Daniels—which makes Laurence Fishburne the only American nominee out of the five).
Mr. Rylance ran the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank for a very successful, sometimes controversial, decade. Now 48, his memorable roles range from a Hamlet for the ages to a beguiling Cleopatra. Some think he’s slumming because he even deigns to appear in Boeing-Boeing—but I don’t. Apart from giving the finest comic performance I’ve ever seen, he’s continuing that noble, irresistible British tradition known as Bedroom Farce.
Without Boeing-Boeing—or No Sex Please, We’re British; Run for Your Wife; or, best title of all, When Did You Last See Your Trousers?—England, I assure you, would not be England.
TRUE, BOEING-BOEING WAS written by a Frenchman. But only originally. Which must be why it’s set in Paris. Nothing wrong with that. Some of the best Feydeau farces are set in Paris. Also, Molière.
Boeing-Boeing, by the Italian-sounding Frenchman Marc Camoletti, proved so popular in its 1962 British version that it ran for a record seven years in the West End and made the Guinness Book of World Records. The reason it transferred so successfully to London is because it isn’t a clever farce in the French tradition. The British distrust cleverness, particularly in the bedroom: One does not shag wittily.
Americans, on the other hand, tend to treat farce as an acquired taste. When Boeing-Boeing first came to Broadway in 1965, it lasted for 23 miserable performances. But then, it didn’t have Mark Rylance. (Nor did the deadly film version—also from 1965—starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis.)
Puritan America has never quite appreciated the vast appetite of the bourgeois British theatergoer for sex and silliness. Farce enables the traditionally reserved Brits to jettison their inhibitions and sexual guilt—and have a good belly laugh at themselves. The antic genre revolves round spiraling panic and embarrassment about being caught with your pants down.
Home-grown farce has never been a staple of New York theater. Charles Ludlam’s utterly brilliant and subversive Ridiculous Theatrical Company used to be an outstanding exception downtown. As Ronald Tavel put it so memorably in Gorilla Queen, “Farce is seldom in good taste, but genitals always are.”
One of my favorite films is another notable exception to the puritan rule: Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) is a perfect romantic farce. Small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker—what a name!—merrily attends a send-off party for the troops, and wakes up married and pregnant—with no memory of what happened. Sturges’ taboo-breaking masterpiece remains hilariously unique, pratfalls and all.
But look at the national tradition of farce inherited by Mark Rylance and Boeing-Boeing’s excellent British director, Matthew Warchus.
For a generation, the Whitehall Theatre off Trafalgar Square was home to the company run by the legendary farceur Brian Rix, who created the nationally celebrated Whitehall Farce (the term is used to this day by political correspondents reporting on government cock-ups). In the ’20s and ’30s, the Aldwych Theatre in the Strand was home to Ben Travers and the arguably more sophisticated genre known as Aldwych Farce. Travers wrote one of the defining lines in A Cuckoo in the Nest (1925), and it goes to the heart of the matter: “How can you spend a night in a lady’s room in a way?”