The wittiest definition of a philosophical farce was provided by James Fenton back in the days when he was theatre critic of the Sunday Times. Reviewing Michael Frayn's Balmoral, he contended that, in this kind of drama, "the trousers of an Idea are discovered around its ankles, a Notion is interrupted in bed with a Postulate, or a Proposition sets its foot on a banana skin. To adapt the standard definition: ordinary men are discovered in extraordinary situations because of extraordinary reasoning."
Notions with their knickers in a twist, the sine qua non for this form of farce, are in abundant supply in Kafka's Dick, the Alan Bennett comedy which opens next week in its first London revival directed by Peter Hall. It's an astutely equivocal play about the English vice of prurient literary biography ("In England, facts like that pass for culture. Gossip is the acceptable face of intellect") and about a writer's ambivalent relationship to same. Kafka is an ideal focus for this discussion, because he shrank from the intrusion of having his fiction - let alone his life - pored over by posterity. The play begins, however, with a scene that casts doubt on the sincerity with which the dying Czech author ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings.
Bennett creates an ingenious farce scenario for testing Kafka's qualms by having him and Brod materialise decades later in the suburban Leeds home of Sydney, an insurance man and confirmed Kafka buff who is writing an article about his hero for the trade journal Small Print. If Brod had kept his word, of course, Sydney's shelves would not be groaning with the products of the tireless Kafka industry (Kafka's Loneliess, the Agony of Kafka etc). Cue a scene in which Brod and Sydney desperately try to sneak away all these offending volumes behind the back of our genius, who is still supremely ignorant of his posthumous celebrity. There's a wry twist in this, though. Farce is a form normally populated by frighteningly single minded characters. But Kafka, like the author of Kafka's Dick, is chronically in two minds about everything. So in one strand of the play, there's a calculated, drolly revealing mismatch between the genre and the leading character who is writhingly only half horrified to discover he is a literary legend. The further joke is that as well as being the figure from whom things must be hidden, he is also the figure who has something embarrassing to hide. To conceal the fact that he has a tiny penis, he will have to rewrite the biographical record and deny that his overbearing father was a big prick. Philosophical farce works best if there's an intriguing conceptual relationship between form and content, even when, as in Kafka's Dick, it consists in a witty discrepancy. Perhaps the most devilishly clever, neo-Stoppardian marriage between these elements to date was pulled off by Terry Johnson's 1993 play Hysteria which is set in the mind of Sigmund Freud shortly before he died from cancer. The aged psychoanalyst has just, we are led to believe, been to see the famous Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook. What follows is like Rookery Nook after a severe collision with the surrealism of Salvador Dali. Indeed, the ego maniac Spanish painter arrives on the scene to discover a pressure-bandaged Freud holding a bicycle covered in snails, with a hot water bottle attached, and a naked lady in his closet. "Maestro," he proclaims, sinking to his knees in admiration, "What Dali merely dreams, you live! …