Last year Kevin Spacey (film actor and Artistic Director of the Old Vic in London) led a revival of A Flea in Her Ear to rave reviews. The press had one complaint however. It was long. At the time Feydeau premiered the play in 1907, spending three and a half hours watching a play was a regular night out. But times have changed in a hundred years, and we thought we’d best address that issue. Then, we saw another problem with the play. All the best translations are British. And we just didn’t see the point in a bunch of American college kids talking like Brits while at the same time playing a bunch of French people.
So we decided to fix both problems at once by writing our own translation! Our goal was to Americanize the language and cut down the length to a more (may we say?) Fun-Size!
We’ve moved the time of the play forward a decade to post-World War I, 1918. That’s when the Parisians began a love affair with Yanks; with entertainers like Josephine Baker, and American music, thanks to James Reese Europe, leader of the 369th Infantry Jazz Band, with the rhythms of Ragtime. There is something surprising, unexpected, and crazy fun in those notes. And fun is what farce is all about. In farce, the craziness usually stems from mistaken notions, confusion, and coincidences. But like the contrapuntal rhythms of ragtime, farce involves surprise and a wildness of unleashed energy. We think, as Americans, we’ve got a pretty good handle on that.
But are fun and farce academic? As York’s Pandora’s Box recently lamented about many Liberal Arts majors (like Theatre, btw,) aren’t they “useless” topics of study? Shouldn’t only those things that lead to remuneratively successful careers be revered as pursuits of value? Certainly the bourgeois set that predominates the action of La Puce a l’Oreille thinks so. They are comfortably well-off business executives and proud responsible members of France’s third estate. They make money, go to church every Sunday, and delight in costly cuisine, fashionable clothing, and the latest in must-see art. They think they have it all, and believe they understand what life is all about. But if this is true, why does all hell break loose? Where does this flea come from, buzzing in the ear of Raymonde’s sharp witted, upstanding, put-together, and sensible mind?
Perhaps there’s more to comprehend on earth than making money and living well. Anyway, bohemians think so. They’re folks interested in art for art’s sake, who delve into the complexities of humanity and the truth of our existence — artists, philosophers, historians, even scientists. The most devoted of them may envy the well-off’s bank accounts, but not their view of the world. To them, life is full of contradictions, random happenings, and incomprehensible mysteries.
As the uprighteous Chandebise household of Act I dislocates to the confines of a risqué downtown hotel of passion, so is the self-satisfied rational mind of the bourgeoisie made to confront the true nature of their lives. That life is a mystery and always a surprise, and should be apprehended as such. Just ask any three-month-old, they’ll tell you why peek-a-boo is so much fun.