Champignol in a Half-Shell, or Comedy Despite Itself

by Joseph Pearson

9 October 2018

Over the practice stage looms an enormous portrait of Venus rising from the waves. It’s leaning against a wall, upside down, and many of the actors seem slightly off-the-wall and upside down too today.

I noticed them earlier doing funny walks in the parking lot, before the rehearsal. Then there was twitching, grimaces, exaggerated gestures, and histrionic voices, over the simple task of making coffee in the actors’ kitchen. Obviously, working on Herbert Fritsch’s production of Georges Feydeau’s 1892 vaudevillian wonder, »Champignol malgré lui« (»Champignol in Spite of Himself«), does something weird to your everyday life. Or is the cast just really pumped for a bit of slapstick on a Monday morning? – their inner animals coming out, everyone slightly mad on and off stage?

Fritsch gives me an explanation, laughing, »The actors are ständig dabei, always ready in their roles. They are always working with the material. The audience gets into it too: I remember when I played Sir Andrew Aguecheek once in Twelfth Night, I noticed audience members walking like I did on stage afterwards«.

Indeed, there is something infectious about how voice and movement come together in a Fritsch production: words are expressed physically, as if through a seismograph, a wire wiggling, the body like a speaker trembling with noise.

A run-through of the extremely complicated second act gets underway. Herbert Fritsch has jumped onto the practice stage, where he quickly strikes an attitude, to show an actor a desired expression. Fritsch’s wiry frame moves precisely – he was an actor himself, after all –  »Like that«, he explains.

Feydeau’s script is already precise in its mise-en-scène: where to stand, how to gesture. And the dramaturge Bettina Ehrlich explains to me that it was almost impossible to cut the play; it is so tightly crafted. The deconstruction of the Ödön von Horváth text we saw last season in Fritsch’s production of »Zeppelin« is hardly possible here; this play encourages a rendition from the front to back cover. 

Scenes from the second act take place in a military camp. There’s a case of mistaken identity. The wrong Champignol has been called up for the army. To make matters worse, the real one shows up too! There is the comedy about hierarchies and petty power struggles.

Robert Beyer is a zany and power-hungry officer, leading the roll call. The soldiers are contorted behind him, standing in a line. In fact, there are large numbers of people on-stage, many drawn from the ranks of the theatre program of the University of the Arts (UdK). They are in their first year, and it is their first time on the professional stage.

»How is it to work with young actors as opposed to seasoned professionals? Do you work differently with them?« I ask.

Fritsch tells me, »No, not really. I work with the students the same way as I work with my other actors. There is no difference; they are doing the same work. I don’t want to give them the feeling that they are students. When I approached the UdK, I also did no casting. I talked to them and said that they should all come. And I love how much joy they bring to the production; it’s been a very welcome collaboration«.

Mon capitaine! they cry out, using the French pronunciation. Mon lieutenant! Meanwhile a percussive music – by Taiko Saito, Ingo Günther, Fabrizio Tentoni – guides the formation.

Fritsch tells me that his works are operatic. After all, he just returned from Hamburg where his production of »Così fan tutte« premiered.

»The text needs to dance and sing«, says Fritsch, »It has to have a musicality in movement, speaking becomes almost singing. That the piece lives for its musicality is a clear goal, so that the work can be internationally understood, even though German is being spoken. I do not just stage the text’s content, but also its musicality. And I avoid the didactic in favour of the musical. When theatre gets didactic, it’s the end of theatre«. 

I wonder whether, indeed, it’s natural to follow Mozart with Feydeau. But this production’s rhythms are rather different: off-kilter, the pleasure in the loud and jerky, the strutting, creeping, and the prancy. The quick gestures – tick-tack – make me think of the original meaning of the word »slapstick«, named for a hinged wooden bat that makes a loud sound when struck. The bright colours used on stage and in costumes are just as striking.

»But it’s not just musical, it’s also bodily – « I suggest.

»It is dance«, he replies.  

The gestural and audible composition is completed with Fritsch’s expansive use of space. The actors race about the scene, hiding behind an enormous sofa upstage, before darting downstage to mirror one another before the audience.

»They must use the room, they must fill it«, says Fritsch, »Even if one actor is alone on stage, she must also use the space. I want the actors to use large spaces on stage, as this helps the text hang together, not the opposite«.


After the rehearsal, I sit with Herbert Fritsch outside in the late-September sun and talk about comedy as a genre and its historical dimension.

»Thinking about the influence of Brecht, I feel there is an expectation on the recent German stage for theatre to be strange and distancing. But usually this is also accompanied by a heavy seriousness. What impresses me is that your work distances, but in its musicality it is also very joyful. Why is distancing so often accompanied by sadness?« I ask.

Fritsch replies, »I can’t provide a simple answer. But I think that the German feeling of guilt, and fear of showing joy, has something to do with it. And I think this is a mistake. I have often said that what was created in the 1920s, and what was destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, is something worth reclaiming. The Nazis tried to exterminate the comic, so we have a job to bring it back. People say that the Germans have no sense of humour, but we have an unbelievable sense of humour. I think Wagner is hilarious, it’s just that it is played heavily«.

»So Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or ›working through the past‹, has been partial when it comes to comedy. Because we think we need to take on a serious tone when discussing serious subjects, and so we sidestep the comedy that was lost?«, I suggest.

»Yes. Think about this: the bright colours I use sometimes shock people. But I ask, would they prefer if everything were brown? Brown!«

Fritsch goes on to tell me how he was originally worried about staging a play with so many military scenes, and that eventually he felt he could in fact »demilitarise« them because of the comedy. Indeed, artistic responses against fascism and militarism need not only be serious. Perhaps this is an opportunity for a higher appraisal of comedy on the Berlin stage.

This leads me to thinking about how the comic works of Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) were taken more and more seriously over time. Originally they were produced as slapstick and vaudeville – genres of farce often considered to be without psychological complexity or moral claims. But, eventually, on account of their sophisticated structures and almost existentialist humour, they soon became part of the French literary canon. Feydeau was recognised as, arguably, the most important French humourist since Molière, and his works became (at times ossified) staples of the Comédie-Française repertoire. And in French, of course, the word »comédie« means both »theatre« and »comedy«.

Feydeau is then a natural stepping stone to think more broadly about debates in criticism and stagecraft about the place of comedy on the stage. There has been, of course, much debate in literary history on the supposed superiority of tragedy over comedy. Philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche argued for the superiority of tragedy and comedy was relegated as an arena for low characters, superficial moral inquiry, simple diversion, and shallow emotions. Meanwhile, as William Hazlitt opined, »Tragic poetry [is] the most impassioned species« because it takes us to the »greatest depth of passion and the sublime«.

But from the view of practitioners – the playwright, the director, and the cast – is bringing an audience to pity and fear really less difficult than making them feel joy? Or as Vivien Leigh said, »Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy, and a much better training, I think. It's much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh« and that, as an actor, »You walk a tight rope in comedy. Tragedy you can wallow in«.

Are the emotions elicited by comedy – empathy, self-criticism, the recognition of the vanity and ridiculousness of power structures – so much less sophisticated? Perhaps they might be the very ingredients most needed in anti-fascism, found in a place we don’t expect: a colourful Fritsch-directed comedy by Feydeau.

Champignol in Spite of Himself

by Georges Feydeau
Direction and Set Design: Herbert Fritsch

Premiered on 24 October 2018