Laughter is a universal language. But what makes something funny? Scholar Arthur Berger catalogued 45 ways to make people laugh in a 2009 essay, in which he categorized humor into four general distinct types: jokes based on language (irony, puns, satire, sarcasm, misunderstanding), logic (absurdity, accident, coincidence, ignorance), identity (eccentricity, exposure, parody, stereotype) and action (chase, slapstick and speed).
A master of humor, playwright Georges Feydeau makes use of all of these types of humor and more in Paradise Hotel. Feydeau’s humor is so funny, in fact, that it knows no barriers – even though you are hearing the play in English, when Feydeau wrote it in French, and seeing it in the 21st century, when it was written in 1894, a time of very different morality than our own.
What is so funny about Paradise Hotel?
First, the text is filled with asides, puns, word play and sexual innuendo. Even the eminent philosopher Immanuel Kant is the butt of a joke or two. And when hotel clerk Bastien advises: “Don’t count your chickens with a hatchet,” who can keep a straight face?
Second, Feydeau introduces us to Mathieu, whose physical imperfections are the cause of much delight as he struggles to overcome a stutter every time it rains. Physical comedy plays a significant role in this play in the juxtaposition of the actors’ shapes and sizes and their rapid movement on stage, the use of disguises, and copious jokes about our physical desires and bodily functions.
Third, like many great comedies, Paradise Hotel is an explosion of mistaken identities and almost-revealed secrets that wreak havoc on the characters’ intentions. Husbands and wives mix it up with each other’s spouses, an intellectual naïve hooks up with a saucy domestic, and the vice squad arrests the right people under the wrong names. The only defense is for the dishonorable Pinglet to mount a good offense, which he does more offensively than effectively, but the result is nonetheless side-splitting.
Finally, Feydeau lets the audience be voyeurs in the bedrooms and hotel rooms of the most bumbling wannabes in all of Paris. We are “in” on the jokes well before the characters recognize the error of their ways. We know Pinglet covets his neighbor’s wife — and that he will regret his indiscretion — well before he or anyone else gets their comeuppance. So every time one of the characters says the repeated line, “What a night!” we anticipate the zany antics that will follow. And that’s funny.
In combination, all of these attributes are known as “farce” — a specialized form of comedy for which Feydeau is famous. Underneath the laughter, however, lies a tragic core for the Pinglets and Paillardins, all of whom suffer in unhappy marriages that Feydeau satirizes in the play. Feydeau’s own marriage was also tragic, and led not only to his divorce but to his untimely death from syphilis at the age of 58. Not a very happy ending for him, but certainly an amusing night of theatre for us.