The Best-kept Secret in French Learning: Feydeau’s Dialogues

Tired of the stilted dialogues in your French textbooks?

Eugène Ionesco famously mocked them by writing his absurdist comedy “La Cantatrice chauve” (“The Bald Soprano”) in the same style.

Check it out if you want an even more stilted experience with French (but also a classic piece of theatre that’s not too difficult to read).

Of course, textbook dialogues, like any learning material, can be helpful for getting you on your feet.

However, if you want fun, hilarious and useful dialogues for actually learning conversational French, I wholeheartedly recommend the plays of Georges Feydeau (a farceur writing at the turn of the last century).

Now, I realize that if you’re not a theatre buff, you might feel a bit skeptical about this.

You might think that you need something more current, or that I’m talking about just sitting in a room and reading dusty and dated French fluff.

But with Feydeau, you’ll get access to useful, modern French in an engaging format that’s perfect for learning, and you can easily find audio, video and transcripts.

If you’re still not convinced, let’s take a closer look…

Why Learn French from Feydeau’s Farces?

  • As far as language is concerned, Feydeau is much more approachable than most French literature. This is a far cry from Racine or Houllebecq (you won’t find yourself learning obscure literary vocabulary that native speakers don’t know or never employ in daily life).
  • They are, of course, written in dialogue (as opposed to prose) and sound authentic, so they’re great to learn from if your goal is to actually have conversations in French. In plays like Feydeau’s, you’ll get words and phrases that you can actually use when you’re talking to people, even including filler noises like ben, ah, etc. Also, dialogues are structured like conversations; they have give and take.
  • Feydeau’s plays are free to download and read in the original, as the copyrights are expired. You can also find many performances of them online, as well as movie and TV versions.
  • Feydeau’s plays are wacky, riveting, hilarious and profound. They’re usually wildly underrated as literature because they’re comedies, but the comedy element is likely to hold the interest of and appeal to the average learner. And if you’re interested in the literature angle, one critic who frequently shows a lot of respect for the comédie boulevard (French farce) form is the New Yorker’s John Lahr, and he has called Feydeau “the indubitable master of this complex art” (subscription required).
  • Feydeau’s farces are popular and timeless, which means they are almost always being performed somewhere in Paris and other cities, so they’re pretty easy to catch whenever you happen to visit. And until then, you can have a lot of fun preparing.

How to Integrate Feydeau’s Farces into Your French Learning

There are lots of great ways you can learn French from plays, but here’s what I’d recommend specifically for farces:

  • Mix reading, audio and visuals. You’ll of course want to read the plays carefully (see the section on how to do this below), but farce is an inherently visual form, so also try to watch one of the many film versions of Feydeau’s plays, or attend a theatrical production. Better yet, you can do all three! These are tightly constructed works that merit (and are enjoyable for) repeated viewings, as things fly by fast. Like the American TV shows “Arrested Development” or “Veep,” certain jokes only reveal themselves after a couple of passes.
  • Try performing or rehearsing these plays, or scenes from them, with your partners in learning.
  • Once you get to know the form, try your hand at writing your own French mini-farce. You’ll need a few doors, suspicious lovers, mechanical contraptions, misunderstandings…
  • Try to make your life like a Feydeau farce, and it will be much more interesting. Affect a speech impediment or accent. Rig up some mechanical disasters to catch your scheming lover, and propose marriage to cute strangers on the street. Think this isn’t real advice that actually applies to language learning? Think of it this way: Those first few weeks in France—when things are moving fast, nothing makes sense, and you love every minute of it—those can be exactly like stepping into the world of Feydeau.

Recommended Plays for Learning

“Le Dindon”

This has been translated as “An Absolute Turkey.” It was made into a film in 1951. Also, a theatrical presentation was shot for television in 1969 and is available on YouTube.

I’ll let Pontagnac, one of the heroes of the play, give us his earnest summary of the plot as he sees it having transpired, from midway through Act III. Remember how I said that life abroad can at first cause a lot of consternation?

Here’s some great language for expressing those sorts of feelings:

Pontagnac : … Comment, par amour pour vous, je me suis fourré dans le plus abominable des pétrins. J’ai deux flagrants délits sur le dos !… flagrants délits où je ne suis pour rien !… Pincé par un mari que je ne connais pas… pour une femme que je ne connais pas ! Pincé par ma femme, pour cette même femme que je ne connais pas !… Un divorce chez moi en perspective !… Un autre divorce de la dame que je ne connais pas d’avec le monsieur que je ne connais pas où je vais être impliqué comme complice !… Brouillé avec Mme Pontagnac ! La femme que je ne connais pas, venue ce matin pour me dire en accent anglais que je lui dois « le réparation » ! une altercation, compliquée de voies de fait, avec le monsieur que je ne connais pas ! Enfin, les ennuis, les procès, le scandale…

“My love for you has gotten me into a huge mess! I’m up against two accusations of adultery—that I don’t know anything about! Caught by some husband who I don’t know—and with a woman who I don’t know! Caught by my own wife with the same woman who I don’t know! My divorce is now pending. Another divorce between the woman who I don’t know and the husband who I don’t know in which I’ll be cited as an accomplice! A fight with the missus. The woman who I don’t know came this morning to tell me in an English accent that I owe her some ‘reparation.’ A fight, complicated by assault and battery, with the husband who I don’t know! It’s just been trouble, lawsuits and scandal!”

It’s one of the few moments in the play when anyone is honest. Feydeau has meticulously constructed such a wild, intricate series of events that to explain reality as it transpires sounds a lot like absurdism—it’s absolutely not absurdist theatre, however, as each event follows with absolute logic from the previous.

I saw this play performed at the Comédie Française; Pontagnac’s lament comes at a breaking point in the kinetic frenzy and is such a relief that by the time he finished it every single audience member’s eyes were wet with laughter.

The full text of the play is available in PDF.

“La Puce à l’oreille”

Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear” is one of his most enduring; it continues to be translated and adapted in many languages to this day. The plot concerns a series of mistaken assumptions and schemes about who is having an affair with whom. In the archetypical three-act farce structure…

1) Plans are hatched in one bourgeois home that are then profoundly misunderstood by all involved.

2) The characters all show up at a seedy hotel hoping to have an affair or catch someone having an affair.

3) Attempts are made to sort everything out back at home.

Here’s the first part of a filmed production, and the full text is here.

“On purge bébé”

This is the play for those who love toilet humor. I do, and apparently so did Jean Renoir, who filmed it as his first talkie, promoted in English as “Baby’s Laxative.” As far as I can find, the play itself has never been translated into English (please, oh please, gods of theatre, give me this gig!). The “baby” in question is actually a seven-year-old boy, so I would probably render the masterpiece “Let’s Give the Kid Laxatives.” (Purger means to flush something out or to take laxatives.)

As you might guess, the plot concerns a constipated child. But of course, that’s not all. His mother Julie is parading about in her nightgown and absently carrying her seau de toilette (literally “toilet bucket,” a metal bucket with a lid) full of the child’s pee. This troubles the father, who is fully dressed, in his home office and awaiting an important military fontionnaire (bureaucrat) to whom he wants to sell a hundred-thousand-some porcelain chamber pots. He has a sample from his porcelain factory on his desk, and that leads to the following exchange.

Note the ways you can express marital displeasure if you ever, god help you, fall in love with a French person.

Follavoine : Mais, sacristi ! Un cabinet de travail n’est pas un endroit pour promener des seaux de toilette !

“Oh heavens! An office is no place to be parading toilet buckets around!” […]

Julie : Ah ! bien ; non tu sais, tu as du culot ! Tu me fais une scène pour mon seau et tu te ballades avec un pot de chambre !

“Oh! Well, you know, you have some nerve! You make a scene about my bucket and you waltz about with a chamber pot.” […]

Follavoine : Un pot de chambre ! Tu oses comparer ton seau de toilette… à ça ! Mais ton seau de toilette, ça n’est que… ton seau de toilette ! c’est-à-dire un objet vil, bas, qu’on n’étale pas, qu’on dissimule !… (Avec l’admiration qu’on aurait pour un objet d’art […]) Tandis que ça, c’est…

“A chamber pot! You’re daring to compare your toilet bucket…with this! Your toilet bucket is nothing but…a toilet bucket. That is, a cheap, despicable object to be hidden, not shown off! (With the admiration that one would have for a work of art) Whereas this, this…”

Julie, lui coupant la parole […] : « C’est, c’est »… un pot de chambre ! c’est-à-dire un objet vil, bas, qu’on n’étale pas, qu’on dissimule.

“‘This, this’… is a chamber pot! It’s a cheap, despicable object that we don’t show off, but rather hide!”

As you may have noticed, the seau de toilette is a bit of a translation issue; French speakers tell me that it’s more “contemporary-sounding” than pot de chambre, but we don’t really have a “more contemporary” synonym, do we? At least “toilet bucket” sounds hilarious, thanks to its T’s and K.

As you might expect, we learn a lot of vocabulary for gastrointestinal issues in this play (the bureaucrat brings in some of his own, too).

And here is a more modern filmed version that I quite enjoyed. It’s in French, of course, though the subtitles are in Portuguese. The second half is available on YouTube as well.

Finally, here’s the full text.

How to Read the Plays: Vocabulary, Stage Directions and the Set

Key Vocabulary for the Stage

Ignore stage directions at your peril! Farce is a visual form, and understanding what is happening on the stage is key to making sense of the comedy. Feydeau has a tendency to over-direct just a bit from the playwright’s chair (with very specific instructions on when to cross, for example), but many of his directions are an integral part of the plot and action.

Here is some frequent vocabulary that you’ll need and may not already know.

Pan coupé This is a “cut-off” corner; you’ll see it used in set descriptions.

Scène — The stage is referred to as the scène and être sur scène means to be onstage. Scène is also used like the English “scene,”as in a subdivision of an act. In both languages, scene divisions are generally considered to take place when a character enters or leaves; in Feydeau, this happens a lot, so there are many scenes. And, as we saw in “On purge bébé,” faire une scène is to make a scene.

Gagnant la gauche/droite — While normally, gagner means to win, in this sense it means to cross the stage to the gauche (left) or droite (right).

Remonter — This is to move upstage (away from the audience).

Character Indications

Feydeau precedes many lines with instructions as to the characters’ intonations and states of mind; these are quite useful for context if you’re having trouble with a line of dialogue. You’ll see below that just as in English plays, sometimes stage directions are expressed with the present participles, sometimes with present tense and sometimes with infinitives.

Ouvrant de grands yeux — A character who is in shock is said to be literally “opening of big eyes.”

Haussant les épaules — When people don’t know (as happens often in Feydeau’s world) or don’t care (this is more rare), they are “shrugging their shoulders.”

Sur un ton rageur Discovered that your lover is with another, or that she has discovered you are? You will then “speak angrily” or “in a rage.”

DécontenancéWith all of the misunderstandings that transpire, characters are frequently “disconcerted.”

VexéWatch out! Someone who is vexé is not vexed, but rather hurt or offended.

Contrarié — This means displeased, upset or disappointed. We don’t have a lot of happy people in Feydeau!

Faire mine de — Nobody’s honest; they thus “pretend to” do something constantly. Faire is the infinitive form, and so you may see il fait mine de… (he pretends to…) in a script.

Picturing the Stage

The first thing that greets you in most Feydeau scripts is an incredibly detailed and boring description of the set. It’s so important, though. When I first started reading him, I’d sketch out a picture to understand where the characters would be entering, exiting and hiding (doors in particular are the whole key to farce).

Now, of course, you can also just search for a filmed production on YouTube and watch the first 20 seconds to get an idea of the set.

Examples of Fun and Useful French Gleaned from Feydeau’s Farces

Here are just a few fun examples of helpful and entertaining French speech you can pick up from these plays.

  • Expressing confusion:
    • Je ne sais plus ce que je fais ! Je perds la tête ! (I don’t know what I’m doing anymore! I’m losing my mind!) — “Le Dindon”
    • C’est curieux ! (It’s strange!) — “On purge bébé”
    • Ah ! ça, qu’est-ce qu’il y a donc dans l’air aujourd’hui ? (Oh! What is in the air today?) — “La Puce à l’oreille”
    • Ah ! mon Dieu, qu’est-ce qui se passe ? (Oh! My god, what’s going on?) — “La Puce à l’oreille”
  • Explaining marriage:
    • …Pour l’amant, il faut l’au-delà. Il faut la flamme ! C’est l’artiste de l’amour. Le mari n’en est que le rond de cuir. (A lover must be so much more. He needs passion! He’s an artist of love. A husband is just a pen-pusher.) — “Le Dindon”
    • Oh ! bien ! vous savez ce que c’est !… un beau jour, on se rencontre chez le Maire… on ne sait comment, par la force des choses… Il vous fait des questions… on répond « oui » comme ça, parce qu’il y a du monde, puis, quand tout le monde est parti, on s’aperçoit qu’on est marié. C’est pour la vie. (Oh! Well…you know how it goes. It’s nice out, you get together in front of the mayor, you’re not sure how, things just lead there. He asks you questions, you say “yes,” you know, because people are watching, and then everyone goes away, and you realize you’re married. It’s for life.) — “Le Dindon”
  • What to say to your friend when you realize the woman you’ve been pursuing is his wife:
    •  Eh bien ! en voilà une surprise ! (Well! This here’s a surprise!) — “Le Dindon”
  • On the source of problems:
    • Comme il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu … il n’y a pas de feu sans allumage ! (Just as where there’s smoke, there’s fire…where there’s fire there was a spark/getting someone aroused.) — “La Dame de Chez Maxim”

There’s of course so much more to learn about French (and life) in the 60+ plays of Feydeau.

Enjoy the voyage.

I hope this gives you a starting point for your explorations of the frenetic possibilities of comédie boulevard with the undisputed master of the form, as well as a nearly endless source of material for improving and perfecting your French.

Mose Hayward is an American living in Europe. He blogs about nomadic flirting, drinking and language learning, and sometimes even the surprising machinations of the Comédie Française.

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