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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 14: Roman Comedy, Part 2 (Terence)

I. Introduction: Roman Comedy after Plautus

Following Plautus' death in the mid-180's BCE, Caecilius Statius emerged as the pre-eminent playwright of Roman Comedy. Though much admired in his day and long after, not even one work of his survives whole and intact. Yet even so, it's evident from the surviving fragments of his plays and other data that his comedy was less boisterous than Plautus'. That Caecilius Statius stayed closer to the tone and structure of his Hellenistic models is clear not only from the fragments of his plays but also the fact that their titles are mostly in Greek, not Latin, in some cases corresponding directly with the titles of the Menandrean originals he was adapting.

This does not mean, of course, that Caecilius Statius wrote in Greek; rather, it suggests that he inclined away from the Romanizing tendencies of his immediate predecessors Naevius and Plautus whose plays almost invariably have Latin titles, often not even translations of the original Greek title. (note) In other words, Roman Hellenism was clearly on the rise in the 170's BCE, and undoubtedly that was in no small part because of Caecilius' efforts. But his death in 168 BCE opened the door for new voices to enter the Roman stage, and onto these boards trod one of the greatest the Romans would ever produce, Publius Terentius Afer, known today as Terence.

Little is known about Terence's life, not even the years of his birth and death. Still, we can make good guesses at both. Ancient sources report he died young and, since his last play was produced in 160 BCE, he was probably born at some point between 195 and 185 BCE. Thus, he died most likely soon after his final drama debuted, probably in the early 150's. (note)

With that, he would never have known Plautus, though there are other reasons these two are not likely to have met—they traveled in very different social circles—however, if the story is not a fiction, Terence as a young man met Caecilius Statius. (note) Other data, however, which are often cited in textbooks as facts about Terence's life, such as that he was originally a slave from North Africa and later freed, seem on closer inspection suspect, at best "secondary evidence." About his drama and career as a playwright, on the other hand, we are much better informed.

II. Terence's Drama

Several remarkable things stand out about Terence's work. First and foremost, all the plays he ever wrote survive complete. Along with that have come significant details about them: the years in which they premiered and thus the order in which he composed them, who produced them and at what festival, from which Greek originals Terence worked, and even the musician who arranged the music. So, for instance, we know that Terence's consummate masterpiece, Adelphoe ("The Brothers"), was staged at the celebrations surrounding the funeral of Aemilius Paullus in 160 BCE. All this information makes it possible to track Terence's career as we can no other ancient playwright's, even a celebrity on the order of Sophocles.

A Medieval Manuscript depicting a scene from Terence's Adelphoe (click to see larger image)Nor is it possible to say about any other ancient playwright's body of work with as much certainty as we can about Terence that his entire dramatic corpus survives. Indeed, few other classical authors writing in any genre have their entire body of work preserved, and then for the most part only luminaries like Vergil. (note) Thus, in many ways Terence stands alone among ancient dramatists. His work is uniquely well-documented, and the reason must be, at least in part, the high regard in which he was held from his own time on.

So, for instance, the Romans living in the next century (100-1 BCE) saw Terence's writing style as the model of their own—Julius Caesar himself composed a treatise on Terence's sermo purus ("clean dialogue"; note)—and well over a millennium later professors in the Renaissance used his drama as a teaching tool. Even a tenth-century nun named Hrotswitha (or Hrotsvit), a canoness living in a cloister in northern Germany just after the Viking invasions, read Terence's dramas with a pleasure that made her uneasy, and so she remodeled them to suit the ethic of the chaste Christian life and glorious virginity she and her sisters in their abbey exemplified.

As a result, we have over six-hundred Terence manuscripts, some of great antiquity and accuracy, dating from many different periods of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Compared to Plautus whose plays survived medieval times on the slenderest of threads, the existence of so many copies of Terence's work is a remarkable tribute to his endurance as an artist. (note) All in all, it is hard to find any age in which Terence's work has not been praised and imitated and his name not widely known, except our own, of course. On whom that will reflect more—Terence or us?—only the future can say.

As another item of note, scholia accompany all Terence's plays. Like those appended to Aristophanes' work, these critical commentaries explicate a wide range of subjects, everything from Terence's meter to his word choice to the original Greek underlying the Latin. Harboring many valuable, albeit not always accurate, morsels of data, the Terence scholia date back to the time of—and, no doubt, the hand of—Aelius Donatus, one of St. Jerome's teachers. Though living in the 300's CE, as far from Terence as we are from da Vinci, Donatus clearly had access to sources of data now lost about this early Roman playwright and, more important, sound judgment in analyzing literature. These scholia attest to a widespread and enduring interest in Terence's work, a general admiration lasting well beyond his lifetime.

III. The Prologues of Terence's Plays

But perhaps most remarkable of all—and, without doubt, the best evidence for Terence's drama and its theatrical context—is information that comes from his own hand in the form of  prologues appended to the front of his dramas. Except for Aristophanes' parabases, the text of every extant ancient play is expressed not with its author himself as the spokesman but through the persona of a stage character. This makes it hard, often impossible, to unravel the dramatist from the drama. So, for instance, as strong and clear as Euripides' personal opinions may seem after one reads his plays, not one syllable of any script he wrote is preserved as his own words, that is, words spoken by him and not Medea, for instance. Instead, everything we know about the man named Euripides must be deduced through the veil of his drama, or from what others had to say about him.

Roman Fresco depicting a scene from a comedy in which a slave makes a report to two older female characters (click to see larger image)Terence's prologues, however, address the audience directly and discuss, not the plot of the upcoming play the way Greek dramatists often did, but details of the play's production and the workings of Roman theatre. These unique documents attesting to the nature of Roman Comedy—and Republican drama and society in general—open our eyes to the world beyond, behind and beneath the play, hinting, for instance, at what rehearsals were like, how productions were funded and the jealousy that could rage between rival playwrights. But, best of all, we hear what Terence has to say about his work and his life in his own words.

And as expected, his truth is clearly not the truth, the whole truth, that is. Like any public figure who feels compelled to defend his actions and choices, Terence dodges questions, skirts issues, flatters his producers, kisses up to the public, points to his own genius and, generally, acts like a politician at a press conference, not a patient on truth serum. But like so many invented histories, his catty retorts hint at larger realities and, as it turns out, speak volumes about the artist and his age. Also, because there is no known precedent for these prologues, they may even have been a feature of playwriting Terence himself invented. If so, it is one of the few aspects of drama the Romans may claim as their own, and if so, claim proudly.

As such, the prologues appended to Terentian drama are worth a closer look. Here is the prologue to Terence's Andria ("The Woman from Andros"). It is notable, if for nothing else, as the first words Terence ever wrote for public performance, since Andria was his first play to be produced on stage:

Our poet, when first he set his mind to writing,
Thought he was doing only one job:
Pleasing the people with the plays he wrote.
But, no! He found out quite differently
That he'd have to spend his time writing prologues
That don't discuss the plot but answer
The abuses of a malevolent decrepit poet.
As to what they cite as his crime, listen to this!
Menander wrote an Andria and a Perinthia.
If you've seen one, you've seen them both—
They're not at all dissimilar in plot; in fact,
They differ only in words and style.
What fits into Andria from Perinthia
Our poet admits he "translated" for his own purposes.
And this is what some people call a crime, and furthermore
Add it isn't right to "contaminate" a play. But
They show by this thinking that they aren't thinking.
When they make this accusation, they accuse Naevius, Plautus,
Ennius, too, whom our poet considers his guardians
And whose "carelessness" he'd rather imitate
Than those people's murky punctiliousness.
And so I warn them to quiet down and stop
Their slander, or they'll taste their own medicine!
So, you, be good, judge fairly and listen to the case,
Then you can decide whether there's any hope left
That the comedies he will re-master after this
You ought to sit and watch, or drive off stage before ever seeing them.

This prologue reveals that Terence felt for some reason compelled to justify the freedoms he had taken in rendering into Latin Menander's original, also entitled Andria. Though the young playwright leaves his accuser unnamed—for rhetorical purposes, it is often wise not to name your detractor but call him something like "that man"—Donatus tells us that it was Luscius Lanuvinus, a second-rate comic dramatist contemporary with Terence. In some public way, this "malevolent decrepit poet" had taken exception to Terence's practice of combining a pair of Greek plays and making a single Roman one. The reason this constitutes malfeasance is not clear—the plays were, after all, written by the same author which begs the question: what sort of criminal abuse is it to mix Menander with himself?—but then we must remember that we are hearing only Terence's side of the case.

To judge from the plaintiff's language, Luscius Lanuvinus has contemptuously referred to this process as contaminatio ("pollution," literally "touching together"), a charge that has sparked Terence's defensive response. But why does Lanuvinus decry contaminatio? Did the Romans generally recognize, as some scholars have suggested, that there were a limited number of originals on which to base Roman plays? Did this lead to a rule of some sort about not using more than one Greek play in constructing a Roman copy? If so, there is little other evidence to this effect, or that Lanuvinus' charges stuck. Terence went on producing plays and, so far as we can tell, "contaminated" every one of them. Perhaps, then, it was just a matter of good taste, an area of life in which the young rarely listen to their elders.

Nevertheless, the charge of contaminatio did not go away quickly. Terence had to address this issue again in later prologues, such as that appended to Adelphoe ("The Brothers"), the last play he wrote and, without doubt, his consummate masterwork:

After our poet discerned his efforts
Were being criticized by bigots, and rivals
Were carping at the play we're about to perform,
. . . <a line or two is missing here> . . .
As witness for himself he will appear. You will be the judges,
Whether this ought to called a fair play, or foul.
They Died As One is a comedy by Diphilus.
Plautus turned it into Till Death Do Us Part! (note)
In the Greek play there's a youth who steals a pimp's
Girl in the first scene—this, Plautus omitted entirely—
And this, our poet has now borrowed for himself
In his Adelphoe, translated word for word and now relayed to you.
It's the play we're going to play, all brand new! Consider, then,
If you think this is burglary, or a scene that's been
Rescued, one that was just overlooked accidently.
And as to what those malefactors say, that well-born men
Assist our poet and write with him continually,
He accepts the compliment—and no small compliment it is!—since he pleases
Those who please everyone of you and the Roman people,
For every man in his time has enjoyed a bit of their favor
In war, in peace, in prosperity, without incurring envy.
So, don't expect to hear the plot of the play here.
The old men who come on first will reveal it, some of it,
The action will unveil the rest. So, see to it now that
Your fairness enhances the writer's will to write.

Terence's final play production—that is, the last to have been staged during his lifetime as far as we know—was not Adelphoe, however, but a revival of an earlier flop, Hecyra ("The Mother-in-law"). No fewer than two previous attempts to stage this play had, in fact, failed before the production to which the prologue below was added. The reason for this drama's earlier failures, as explained below, was that noisy and bored spectators had disrupted the theatre so badly the actors could not continue performing—it is a very "talky" play!—so Terence and his producer, the famous actor Lucius Ambivius Turpio, tried a third time to stage the drama. Note that Turpio himself served as the speaker of the prologue, though presumably Terence wrote the words:

As advocate I come before you, in the guise of a prologue.
Allow me to convince you that an old man may have
The same right I once had as a younger man.
In those days I gave old age to new plays, ones driven from the boards,
Making sure the drama did not disappear with the poet.
I produced new plays by Caecilius Statius—
In some of them was booed, in others stood my ground—
For I knew that fortune in the theatre is especially fickle,
So I held on uncertainly to a certain task:
I began to repeat the same plays and help this same man produce
New plays. I worked hard so he wouldn't be discouraged.
I made sure they were seen, and when they were well-known,
They became a success. Thus, I gave this poet back his place
Almost cut off because of his enemies' libel
From his genius, his work and his own theatrical talents.
But if I had scorned his writings at that time
And had chosen to spend my energy disparaging him
So he'd end up with more time for playing than play-making,
I could have dissuaded him easily. He'd have written no more.
Now, as to what I seek, listen and for my sake be fair!
I bring before you Hecyra, again! I have never gotten through
This play in peace. Some misfortune looms over it.
And that misfortune your perspicacity
Will finally put to rest, if you agree to, of course.
When I first tried to put this play on, news of a boxing match,
A gathering of friends, some shouting, women's voices
Made me exit from the stage before my cue.
I decided to try my old habits on a new play,
Make another go of it. I put it on again.
Act One goes well. But in the meantime a rumor circulates
That gladiators will be fighting. A mob flocks in.
There's pushing and shoving, screaming and fights over seats.
In the meantime I could hardly keep my place.
But today there is no mob, only peace and quiet.
The time for me to act has finally come, for you to take
The opportunity to dignify this dramatic festival with us.
Don't let your name be used to give a chance for stardom
To only a few. See that your influence
Fosters and furthers my own influence.
Allow me to beg of you: this man who has entrusted
His genius to my tutelage, his person to your good faith,
Let him not be sieged by detractors who demean him derisively.
For my sake, hear his case and lend him silence,
So others may write and I can bring to the stage
New plays henceforth, what I've paid good money for.

From these prologues it is clear that in Terence's mind the foremost issues concerning Roman drama circulate around the production of the play and the nature of adapting Greek drama into Latin. Also evident here is the hierarchy of Roman theatre, where a dominus like Turpio truly dominates and playwrights-in-need like Terence and Caecilius must enlist his aid in a crisis.

But from our remove, what looms larger is the issue of the Romans' cultural appropriation of Greek drama, and there one thing stands out: Menander in the long run won the battle among Greek comic playwrights and finally emerged "the star of New Comedy." To wit, four of Terence's comedies (Andria, Heautontimoroumenos, Eunuchus, Adelphoe) are adaptations of Menander's work, and the remaining two (Hecyra, Phormio) come from Greek originals written by a later Menandrean imitator, Apollodorus of Carystus.

As the dust kicked up by Alexander and his cronies slowly settled, one thing at least became clear: Philemon, Diphilus and Menander's other rivals and predecessors were left sitting off stage for the most part. In other words, when all the politics and pomp of the Dionysia finally died away and Greek culture became the world's possession, that quiet type of comedy championed by the master of character depiction took home the award for best drama of all time, leaving his rowdier and, to be frank, often funnier compatriots off stage. Humor, or so it seems history is telling us, is in the long run not the point of comedy; ironically, it's irony.

A. Terence and Menander

And indeed irony lies at the heart of Terence's drama. His focus, like Menander's, rests mainly on drawing realistic and gently humorous—often hardly comical at all—portraits of stereotypical characters deployed in flexible and deceptively simple-sounding language. Throughout his scant six comedies are found many excellent examples of the subtle personality types Terence favored, "subtle" meaning "Menandrean." Indeed, there is reason to suppose they are actually Menander's own creations, copied faithfully out of the Greek.

Among the more memorable is the lovesick braggart soldier Thraso ("Bold") of The Eunuch, a man hopelessly smitten with affection for the beautiful prostitute Thais. Though he tries to stick up for himself, and at one point even attacks her house with an army—granted, a corps of cooks, the only force he could serve up in short order!—at the conclusion of the play Thraso capitulates to her completely and, just to be in her ravishing presence, agrees to pay handsomely for the privilege of watching her lie in the arms of his rival. A soldier maybe, a braggart definitely, but mostly just a mortal man, this bold loser is, in fact, a sad weakling far more controlled than controlling. Although there is an actual eunuch in the play—and, of course, a false one too, since this is after all a comedy—the real eunuch in Terence's Eunuch is the pitiful warrior Thraso, the quintessential symbol of a capon's bravado and a chillingly accurate portrait of so many people in the real world.

Relief depicting a scene from comedy in which a father and his friend discover his son drunk and revelling (click to see larger image)An even more scathingly accurate re-creation of life is the kind and indulgent father Micio of Terence's Adelphoe ("The Brothers"). Actually the uncle of his stepson Aeschinus, Micio has served as the boy's "father" for nearly all his young nephew's life. At the outset of the dramatic action, Micio and his brother Demea, Aeschinus' genetic father, have had a running battle for many years about the right way to bring up children, with leniency or strictness. Gentle Micio, the champion of tender love, has taken many blows to the ego—and the wallet!—because of Aeschinus' outrageous behavior ever since the boy embarked upon puberty, but his adoptive father's abiding love and gentle treatment of the boy have always found a way to bring them back together.

In the course of the play, however, Aeschinus challenges his stepfather's patience to the very limit of endurance—he roughs up a pimp and steals a prostitute, that after having fathered a child by the poor girl next-door—yet in the end Micio, as he always has, capitulates and repairs the damage incurred through his beloved child's indiscretions. Finally, at the conclusion of the play, this fool for the love of his son has served up not only patience and money but his house and home and, though he balks at first when Aeschinus pleads with him to marry, is persuaded to give up even his prized bachelorhood, too. The thought underlying this play—what indeed runs beneath all of Terence's drama—seems to be that the love of whatever and in whatever form is, at the same time, the finest attribute of humanity and also what makes utter idiots of us all. It is hard to imagine a more Menandrean sentiment.

IV. Conclusion: What's So Roman about Roman Comedy?

In fact, there is little in Terence that does not scream Menander. But if anything substantively new in the Roman playwright's work exists—besides the forensic prologue that is really more innovative for what it omits (exposition of the plot) than what it includes—it is dramatic suspense. By not revealing the general parameters of the story to follow, Terence creates tension among his viewers who understand only as much about what is going on the play as the characters know and choose to tell them. This is contrary to every Menander play known, indeed all of Greek drama since the days of Euripides, and sets Terence's art in a new mode characteristic of virtually all stage works written after antiquity. In this essential respect, modern theatre begins in Rome.

To understand how and why Terence did this requires that one look back at Menander and the reasons his plays always reveal the outcome of the plot to the audience. While giving away the end at the very outset of a play may seem to us today like spoiling the story because we are acculturated to anticipate surprises and unforeseen plot twists, to the ancient Greeks the converse was true. As suckled as Menander's audience was on classical tragedy where the outcome of a dramatic plot is almost always a foregone conclusion—in Euripides, admittedly, it is sometimes the only foregone conclusion—the Hellenistic crowd expected to know right from the outset how a play would turn out. That made watching a tragedy more like being a god than a human, as if the viewer were an Olympian sitting above the turmoil of mortal life or a scientist observing an experimental animal pinned and squirming under the microscope. All in all, Greek tragedy is clearly designed to make the viewer feel superior to the characters on stage, in the same way that the majority of the audience loomed over the dramatic action physically.

Given an audience inured to being seated well above the characters on stage, post-classical comic poets in Greece had little choice but to dispose their drama from this same vantage point. So in telling his viewers the end of the story, often through the mouthpiece of a philosophical abstraction like Lady Luck or Miss Ignorance—gods that looked to post-classical Greece more divine, or at least more immediate, than Homer's all-powerful humanoids—Menander put those watching his plays in the flattering position of feeling like divinities gazing down upon the tragi-comedy of human life unfolding at their feet. It's important to remember, also, that Menander's audience in Hellenistic Athens may well have needed this sort of boost to the ego. The world outside their theatre was doing a very poor job of making them feel divine.

But unlike Menander, Terence had no such history or pressure weighing down on him and his society. The Romans were booming in his day and therefore didn't need    artists patting them on the back as much as  their Hellenic counterparts. If the theatre in Rome failed to make the viewers feel divine, so what? Terence's strong and confident audience could take it—even tolerate being fooled by a plot twist or two—without having their intelligence slighted. It was only a play, after all, just some Greek riddle not worth too much time or mental exertion, certainly nothing to hang your ego on.

It was part and parcel of the Romans' general attitude toward drama, that theatre was not a refuge from anything but a day's work. To seek complexity in the arts at all was, to many of them, wasted effort where amusement and diversion should rule. Thus, no complex "three-actor rule" for the Romans, no stereotypical characters whose behavior is subtly predictable, no long philosophical heart-to-hearts between fathers and sons.The Roman stage was a place for boisterous joy, for singing loud and long that life is good. And for the Romans, it was!

And so irony reigns again, but in this case the irony that the Romans' "Aristophanic" zest is what sets their drama apart from the Greeks'. Whether or not the idea originated with them, it is now the heritage of Rome that at heart plays ought to be playful, just plain fun: no serious contemplation of life, no subtle analysis of character, no big political message, just a day at a festival—even on the day of a funeral! And if amidst all the jokes and physical humor, Terence or Plautus happened to inject some serious art and education into their drama, it seems unlikely any Romans minded, as long as the players primarily played. After all, in Latin ludus means both "play" and "a play."

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
Caecilius Statius [kigh-KILL-lee-yuss STAY-shuss]
Terence (Publius Terentius Afer)
Adelphoe [add-DELF-foy]
Sermo Purus
Hrotswitha (Hrotsvit) [ROSS-svee-tha; ROSS-svit]
Aelius Donatus [EEL-lee-yuss doh-NATE-tuss]
Luscius Lanuvinus [LUSS-key-yuss lan-new-VINE-nuss]
Contaminatio [cahn-tam-min-NAH-tee-yoh]
Hecyra [heck-KEER-rah]
Apollodorus of Carystus [ah-pall-loh-DOOR-russ; car-RISS-tuss]
Thraso [THRAY-soh]
Micio [MEE-kee-yoh]
Dramatic Suspense


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