Eugène Labiche's accomplished farce An Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie) was first produced at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris on 14 April 1851. It was written in collaboration with Marc Antoine Amédée Michel (1812-68), an old college friend of Labiche's, who, as 'Marc-Michel', worked on more than 100 farces, 50 of them with Labiche.
This version is a translation by Kenneth McLeish.
The action of the play takes place in Paris, in the mid-19th century. Fadinard, a wealthy Parisian bachelor, is about to marry Hélène, daughter of a suburban market-gardener. It is the morning of the wedding, and Hélène, her blustering father Nonancourt and eight cabfuls of guests are expected at any moment. Fadinard has galloped ahead to make final arrangements. On the way he has stopped to rest his horse, and the animal has eaten a straw hat hung on a bush while its owner dallies in the undergrowth with a soldier. The hat-woman and the soldier have followed Fadinard home, and he is horrified to find that the woman is a former girlfriend (with the most jealous husband in Paris). Her soldier lover demands a replacement hat, Fadinard rushes out to find one – and the newly-arrived wedding-party, thinking that he is on his way to the ceremony, jump into their cabs and follow him. The rest of the play is a delirious chase, faster and faster as Fadinard hunts for a replacement hat and the guests hunt Fadinard. It ends only when one of the wedding-guests, Fadinard’s deaf old uncle Vézinet, produces his present, an Italian straw hat identical to the one eaten by the horse: Fadinard’s wedding is saved and the play ends in a whirl of celebration.
In his introduction to the play, Kenneth McLeish writes: 'An Italian Straw Hat takes elements from two of the most popular forms of 19th-century French theatre, vaudeville and the ‘well-made’ play, and marries them. Vaudeville was satirical farce, lampooning the bourgeoisie and using slapstick, dance, song and such stock characters as dodderer, philanderer, pretty girl, jealous husband and peppery soldier. The ‘well-made’ play depended on a tightly-organised plot in which the entire action was motivated by some secret involving the main character, a secret revealed only gradually as the play proceeded, until by the final curtain full knowledge had completely changed everyone’s lives – for the worse in a ‘well-made’ melodrama, for the better in a ‘well-made’ farce.'
An Italian Straw Hat, unusually for a farce, won almost immediate acclaim not only from the public, but from critics and academics alike, one even going so far as to call it ‘Labiche’s Hamlet ’. It was more frequently revived than any other of Labiche’s plays, and when he published his ‘Complete Works’ in 1878, he placed it first in the first volume. In the 80 years after its creation, it received more than 100 productions in France alone, and in 1938 it was taken into the repertoire of the Comédie-Française, where it has remained ever since.