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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 14: Roman Comedy, Part 1 (Plautus)

I. Introduction: Early Roman Literary Drama (derived from the Greeks)

The turning point in Roman drama came in 240 BCE, when a Greek-speaking slave living in Rome, Livius Andronicus, translated Homer's Odyssey into Latin. As it turned out, this was a watershed experience that inaugurated the Romans into a century-long fascination with Hellenic culture. In more ways than one, that moment in history constitutes the inception of Latin literature. But who was this Livius Andronicus and why were his adaptations of Greek literature so significant in the evolution of Roman civilization?

A freed slave, we are told, Livius Andronicus served in the house of the Livii, a noble family of Rome, from whom he took his name. As such, he probably came to Rome when he was still a child and, no doubt, grew up bilingual, putting him in an excellent position to bridge Greek and Latin civilization. In addition to The Odyssey, his adaptations included several Greek tragedies, mostly from originals by Sophocles and Euripides (Ajax, Andromeda, Danae, Tereus), and also comedies adapted from unknown sources (Gladiolus, Ludius).

It's a fair question to ask why he did not write his own original works—indeed, the same could be posed for every Roman playwright whose works survive—and the answer must be that he considered it wasted effort to till a field when the world doled out free grain. In other words, why make a play when you can steal one? It was an age when copyright did not yet exist and it was considered neither illegal nor immoral, or even inadvisable, to adapt another's work.

A more compelling question concerning the originality of Roman drama revolves around why the Roman public sought out Greek drama so avidly. The answer to that riddle lies, no doubt, in the nature of Greek drama itself. The complex but coherent plots of Greek tragedy and comedy had no parallel in this age. For much the same reason, the media of a few nations today commands most of the world's attention and, like Greek drama in antiquity, has attracted a large viewership outside its native land.

But plays written for the amusement of Athenians did not necessarily carry over to other countries and cultures wholesale. Filled as Greek comedies were with local references and all sorts of Hellenisms, many of them proved incomprehensible, and occasionally reprehensible, to other peoples. Thus, these plays had to undergo more than translation to make them workable in other venues. They required adaptation, sometimes quite a bit, and in the process Roman playwrights re-conceived Greek drama, whether they intended to or not—odds are, they did—creating along the way some of the most effective multicultural efforts ever produced on the stage.

Poster of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (click to see larger image)That Roman Comedy has survived across time to our day is really no surprise, then. It was, by definition and from the very outset, a multicultural form of drama designed to blend different social contexts, in a way the Greek originals on which it was based were not. Thus, Plautus' work has appeared on the modern Broadway stage—for instance, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical adapted from his plays—where Menander's comedies for all their subtle virtues, brilliant characterization and prescient humanity never have.

An increasing demand for drama after 240 BCE opened the way for new opportunities to present theatre in Rome. Livius Andronicus had premiered his work at the central Roman festival, the Ludi Romani ("the Roman games"), but soon other festivals joined the fray: the ludi Plebeii ("the Plebeians' games"), the ludi Apolinares (those in honor of Apollo), the ludi Megalenses (in honor of the Asian goddess Cybele), and others. The funerals of important Romans also offered opportunities for Rome's best families to make a show of public benefaction in the form of sponsoring free entertainment for all. Thus, many doors in and around the city opened to drama, encouraging prospective playwright-adapters.

Among the first and most successful of those early Latin dramatists was Gnaeus Naevius whose career spanned several decades (ca. 235-204 BCE). A native Roman and a citizen, he adapted Greek tragedies, mostly Euripides' (Hector, Iphigenia, The Trojan Horse), and also comedies, especially Menander's (Kolax), blending with great skill Hellenic and native Italian elements to suit his audience's taste. If not the originator of Roman drama, he was, without doubt, its first major star.

Naevius is also remembered for several bold developments, for instance, having his "Greek" characters make obvious references to current Italian life, even using the stage at times as a soapbox for airing the playwright's views on contemporary politics and society. Short of a parabasis—but not by much!—these moments earned him many important enemies and later sources recall his entanglements with powerful Romans, one of which encounters is said to have landed him in jail. Unfortunately, very little of his work survives so we cannot judge any of this for ourselves, but in terms of theatre history, it is clear that Naevius played an important role in accelerating the "Romanization" of Greek drama, a path that would eventually lead Roman literature to new, untrodden heights.

While others composed and produced comedies in this incipient phase of "literary drama"—among them the important early Roman poet Ennius—they all pale in comparison to Plautus, the first truly great theatrical voice from Rome. Plautus is pre-eminent in many ways. He is the earliest Roman dramatist whose work survives whole, in fact, the earliest Latin author in any genre who has a work preserved entire. He is the first known professional playwright in Western Civilization, that is, the first theatre practitioner we know of whose next play and next meal were intimately connected, the same way Shakespeare, Molière and O'Neill worked. This "professional" status shows in his sturdy, practicable comedy, drama that was clearly tested and proven in the ancient Roman theatre and, ever since then in every type of performance space imaginable. Indeed, it takes someone truly gifted to make Plautus' comedy not work on stage.

II. Plautus (ca. 254-184 BCE)

The full name, or so we gather, of the Roman playwright popularly known as Plautus is Titus Maccius Plautus, but there is much to make us suspect this was not his real name. For one, his own plays never refer to him by this three-word epithet, only parts of it: Titus Maccius, Maccus, or just Plautus. For another, this sort of tripartite designation was a way of denoting Roman aristocrats, wherein each part of the name designated particular information. The first (praenomen) was the name given a nobleman within his immediate family, the second (nomen) denoted his gens or the larger family group he belonged to, and the third (cognomen) his clan or branch within that gens, but it is highly unlikely Plautus was born into the upper classes, at least, to judge from his dramas and what little we are told about his life. (note) Why, then, does he come down to us with such a noble-sounding honorific?

Fresco depicting a comic scene (click to see larger image)The names themselves are odd—there is, for instance, no known Maccius clan of the Plautus family—instead, all three appear to be jokes mocking this complex, aristocratic nomenclature. To wit, Titus is slang in Latin for "penis," Maccius can be translated as "son of Maccus (the clown of Atellan farce)" and Plautus has a number of possible associations, most likely of which is "flat-footed" referring to a type of mime actor. Thus, the name says in Roman terms, "Titus belonging to the Flatfoot clan of the Maccus family" or, expressed in modern equivalents, "Dick Bozo Tapdancer."

Thus, it seems safe to say this was not the playwright's birth name but a stage moniker made up for comic purposes. And it conforms with other data ascertainable about Plautus from his drama: his taste for puns and broad comedy, his love of song and dance, his mockery of the upper classes and his strong ties to Atellan farce, a genre in which he may once have been trained as a performer. Even if, as the data suggest, this humorous nom de plume does not stem from Plautus himself, someone who knew his work intimately must have concocted it, which makes it as good as true.

What little else we are told about Plautus' life is also probably later fabrication. That he was supposedly a freed slave who lost several fortunes and had to work in the mills is, no doubt, biographical detail invented out of his own comedies in which slaves often win and lose large sums of money and fear the threat of being sent to labor camps. This fiction closely resembles the false information we receive about Euripides—that his home life was as troubled as that of his characters—just another tabloid tale abstracted at some later date from the playwright's drama in the absence of valid historical data.

About the only fact we can be certain of concerning Plautus as a person is that he was a highly successful, comic playwright in Rome during the late third century and early second century. And because, as noted above, Plautus is also the first Roman author belonging to any genre whose work survives entire, he is a valuable source of not just theatre history, but also the linguistic and cultural history of Rome. This sort of primogeniture, no doubt, played a large role in the later preservation of his comedy which grammarians valued for its use of peculiar and archaic Latin vocabulary, just as much as Roman audiences loved Plautus' rollicking, lively humor. In this respect as well as his earthy humor, he resembles Aristophanes more than Menander or any of the New Comedy poets whose plays he rehammered into Latin.

A. Plautine Comedy

Plautus' comedies revolve mostly around daily life and average people, superficially the stuff of Greek New Comedy as opposed to the politically oriented Old Comedy of the Classical Age or the spoofs of tragedy popular in post-classical Middle Comedy. Plautus, however, generates humor in a different way from Menandrean comedy. Often extreme personality types set in outlandish situations, Plautine characters as a group are reminiscent of Aristophanes' creations more than Menander's. Indeed, Plautus' plays are peopled with devious pimps, greedy prostitutes, lustful young men, lustful old men, tortured mothers and torturing wives and, most of all, crafty slaves who delight in deceiving their masters.

A medieval manuscript depicting cabinet with shelves of comic masks (click to see larger image)This feast of broad stock types is a far cry from Menander's subtly shaded characters, and in a way, Plautus's comedy rewinds the evolutionary clock and returns Menander's characters to the caricatures from which they arose. Lest, however, this be seen as some sort of step backwards toward more "primitive" comedy, he does it all to excellent effect. Plautus's sense of comic timing, exactly how far to take a joke or run a scene, is unsurpassed in Western drama, even by Shakespeare, all of which presupposes a shrewd understanding of his audience's needs, intelligence and the reason they are sitting in the theatre at all.

As a result, Plautus' plays may not always be great art, nor do they strive at every moment to educate or improve the audience or advance the technology of theatre, but Plautus' comedies are invariably and without exception entertaining. To the extent, then, that effective comic drama entails art or education or technological advancement, Plautus can be all those things, so long as the final product works on stage and people seeking a thrill will pay to see it. The fact is, his comedies continue to be performed with great success today—they were among the first ancient plays produced on stage in the Renaissance, the dawn of the modern age—and even such crusty curmudgeons as the Christian fathers saw worth in his drama. St. Jerome, in particular, seems to have been quite fond of Plautus, at least to judge from how often he quotes Plautine comedy, all of which attests to this playwright's astute and practical assessment of what a general viewership wants out of comic drama. Simply put, Plautus is wit and diversion, distilled and spiced with keen observation of human life.

Indeed, what theatre audiences really want amounts to a paradox. While many viewers announce in public that they want to learn from plays or see goodness and morality triumph, all too often what they actually pay for are flashy, vapid, sensual, amoral spectacles. At the same time, if there is nothing to be gained intellectually or esthetically from a play, their attention quickly turns to fresher, slicker, more novel nonsense and they tend not to come back for a second look or refer their friends of theirs with fat wallets. Plautus' drama shows that he understood this conundrum all too well, and his finest talent is, no doubt, his ability to walk the fine line between fine art and a fine time.

Roman Fresco of a comic slave's mask (click to see larger image)This raises, then, a question that lies at the very heart of studies in Roman Comedy: how did Plautus create theatre so effective in such a place and time? While his cultural situation may look like a disadvantage—especially in comparison to the erudite and drama-mad society that for centuries packed the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens—there is much to say that Plautus' Rome was actually a fertile field for art. The absence, for instance, of a commanding native tradition of theatre in late third-century Rome gave playwrights carte blanche to stage dramas in a manner that best suited their talent. They could follow their instincts and write with a freedom Menander never had nor even Euripides. It was a sort of parrhesia ("freedom of speech") no Greek playwright had ever had, not since Aeschylus' day.

Furthermore, he had an eager audience ready to explore the stage and a vast treasury of dramatic wealth to draw upon. Far from a poor "niche" for theatre, when seen this way, the Roman world of Plautus' day had everything going for it. He could pull what he wanted from Atellan farce and at the same time siphon off ideas at will from the seemingly endless reservoir of Greek comic drama. Thus, from one perspective, his plays represent an inspired blend of native Italian drama and Hellenistic comedy, the product of lathering a bawdy slapstick tone over the well-oiled machinery of Menandrean plots. To have seen and utilized the opportunities for making effective comedy in such a situation, that must be taken as Plautus' finest stroke of genius.

B. The Question of Greek Originals

At the heart of Plautine studies, one question has predominated scholarship for well over a century. In what way and to what extent did Plautus adapt the works of Greek New Comedy, often called "Greek originals"? That is, in adapting Menander or any Greek playwright, how—and how much—did he change the language, tone and plot of his model?

This question has long remained a matter of speculation because of the loss of almost all Hellenistic drama, leaving modern theatre historians with no Greek originals by which to make comparison. Even if we now have slightly better insight into the changes Plautus made as he re-sculpted Greek drama for the Roman theatre (see below, Bacchides), the situation has not changed much of late. All the same, we can feel certain about some things. For instance, Plautus' comedies are essentially "musicals" inasmuch as characters often break into song, which is discernable from the type of poetic meter the text is written in. That is, where Greek New Comedies typically quarantine lyric passages off in embolima (the musical interludes separating acts), Plautine dramas include songs—and almost certainly dancing as well—during the course of the drama. As one scholar has noted, Plautus turned "Menandrean Pygmalions into Roman My Fair Ladys."

An important corollary here is the question of which Greek author's work underlies which of Plautus' plays. No doubt, the methods he used in adapting Greek originals were bound in some way to—or to some extent must have varied in accordance with—the mode and style of the particular model he was adapting. In other words, a quiet Menandrean original surely called for a different method of adaptation from that required by a Middle Comedy send-up of myth or a Diphilean "knockabout" farce. That makes knowing who the original authors are central in assessing Plautus' craftsmanship and place in theatre history.

And we know who some of the authors of Plautus' "Greek originals" are. For just under half of his surviving plays, they are named in the Roman text or can be deduced from quotations outside the play, and as far as we can tell, all of them turn out to be playwrights of Greek New Comedy, none from the preceding periods of Middle or Old Comedy. (note) To be precise, Plautus based four of his plays on Menander (Aulularia, Bacchides, Cistellaria, Stichus), two on Diphilus (Casina, Rudens), and two on Philemon (Mercator, Trinummus). (note) Moreover, the different natures of these Romanized re-creations of Hellenistic drama confirm the supposition that Plautus did, indeed, have to modulate his method of adaptation to suit the varying styles of Greek comic playwrights.

All in all, the situation recalls the works of Shakespeare who also "borrowed" plots from others' work, nor are the reasons hard to understand why both he and his Roman forebears did not forge entirely new works. For one, they could—the Greek plays were there for the taking—so, following in Livius Andronicus' footsteps, Plautus opted to adapt Greek originals rather than construct his own plays from whole cloth. Moreover, the long, complex but coherent plots of New Comedy, a much more difficult thing to fabricate than is often assumed, must have been quite attractive for both playwright and audience in the day.

Some support for this notion is found in the term saturae ("medleys"; singular satura), which was used after the inception of the literary drama (ca. 240 BCE) to refer to the older, native Italian forms of entertainment, the Atellan farces and phlyax plays of the days before the invasion of Hellenic arts. The designation "medley" argues that the coherent but complex nature of the Greek plots struck later Romans as the major difference between Greek drama and the more episodic, indigenous Roman fare. That is, the scenes in Greek comedy were clearly "linked," while those of early Roman drama looked more like a concoction of disjointed actions, more like Old than New Comedy perhaps.

All in all, why Plautus adapted Greek comedy is really not the question but how, and about that little of substance can be said as long as we do not have access to the Greek originals that lie behind Plautus' plays. In other words, we can go only so far without having some Menander to compare to the Plautus in front of us and from that assess how the Roman used his Greek prototypes. Unfortunately, however, those Hellenistic originals were for the most part lost—that is, until the last century.

C. Bacchides

To our great good luck, that situation changed for the better in the 1960's, when a Greek papyrus emerged from the sands of Egypt, badly damaged but with a hundred lines or so of Menander's Dis Exapaton ("The Double-Deceiver"), the Greek original of Plautus' Bacchides ("Two Bacchises"). While far from giving us Menander's entire play, the Dis Exapaton fragment, as it has come to be called, still sheds new and important light on how Plautus adapted his Greek models. Indeed, for the first time in the modern age, we can survey several scenes and see what Plautus was looking at when he created the script of one of his plays. This allows us to measure to some extent whether or not his work was primarily Roman or Greek. And the answer to that question is . . . "Yes!"

That is, "It is and it isn't." For one, Plautus is clearly following Menander's general plotline. If he were not, how could we even know that a patchy, gap-ridden text torn out of the middle of a Menandrean play constitutes a piece of the Greek original on which Plautus based his Bacchides? But at the same time, the Roman also moves about freely, while still staying within the general parameters defined by Menander's dramatic action. For instance, at the same time that Plautus translates some of Greek dialogue almost verbatim and even retains the original name of one of Menander's characters (Lydos/Lydus), he also removes a pair of scenes which do not interest him—two rather dry, father-son tête-à-têtes typical of Menander's ethical approach to comedy. In other words, he excises two inherently unfunny scenes where he clearly saw little potential for creating humor. In sum, the Roman shows that he can be a literal translator or a free adapter, as suits his mood and mode and muse.

Side-by-side analysis of comparable speeches from the plays shows well the nature of Plautus' adaptable style of adaptation. In the Greek play, a young man named Sostratos has uncovered what he thinks is a secret love affair between his girlfriend Chrysis and his best friend Moschos. In a fit of impulsive anger at their purported infidelity, he has returned to his father the money their slave Syros swindled from the old man so that Sostratos could give it to Chrysis. But the discovery of her purported liaison with Moschos has rattled Sostratos terribly and, not knowing whom to trust or blame, he soliloquizes:

And now I think I'll go see my fine-and-noble
lover-girl, and happily, too, since I'm empty-handed,
so let her sweet-talk me, in hopes of getting it—"On the spot!"
That's what she's saying to herself—what I've got, the money:
(imitating Chrysis) "I know he's got it, heavens above, such a gentleman!
No one more so! He deserves a girl like me."
She's certainly shown herself, by her profit margin,
that she's the sort I used to think she was. Poor fellow—
Moschos, I mean. I feel sorry for him. And I'm mad at him,
but he's not the one I blame for what's happened,
this reckless behavior. She is, the come-on queen
of all time—that's her.

Here is the equivalent soliloquy delivered by Sostratos' counterpart in Plautus who has renamed him Mnesilochus. The situation in the Roman play is also slightly different. It comes at a point where Mnesilochus has not yet given his father back the money that his slave Chrysalus, the counterpart of Menander's Syros, has swindled from the old man earlier in the play.

It is quite unclear which of them I should believe is
Unfriendlier to me, my friend or my girlfriend Bacchis.
She chose him over me? Let her have him. Perfect!
Well, she did it, by god, and I'll tell you who'll pay for it, too—me! (note)
For, as any god in heaven is my witness,
There'll never be another woman that I—love as much as her.
That's right. I'll show her! She won't say she got the last laugh on me!
I'll go home right now and give her a piece of my—father's property.
Yes, that's what I'll give her. My revenge will be so complete.
I'll tell you who will end up begging—my father, that's who!
But am I really thinking in my right mind,
I who go on this way about what's going to happen here?
I'm in love, god knows, I know, who doesn't know?
But before she ever gets a feather richer
At my expense—even a fiber of a feather filament!—
I'd rather go begging from beggars!
She won't laugh at me, by god, not in this life.
I've decided to give my father back the money, all of it.
So, she can coax and wheedle me empty-handed, broke,
When it makes no difference what she says,
Like telling tales to a dead man at his tomb.

In general, the Dis Exapaton fragment shows what many had long suspected, that Plautus' comedies made for livelier, more humorous and robust comic drama than their Greek models, especially Menander's. At the same time, however, the Plautine situation is less realistic than its parallel Menandrean milieu, with characters more exaggerated in their responses to the stage action and everything just generally less "logical." Clearly, making each individual moment in the play work as comedy mattered more to the Roman than the accumulation of situations carefully laid out across the smooth convolutions of a well-crafted plot, Menander's most outstanding characteristic as a playwright. All in all, this is exactly what one would expect of Plautus, a translator-cum-adapter whose principal concern is the word and the joke, and who never, as far as we know, devised or took pride in the superstructure of a play.

But it's important to stress that this doesn't make Plautus' efforts misguided or his drama in any way a lesser artfrom than Menander's, though that's the way some modern scholars have seen the situation. The two playwrights simply wrote from different outlooks on life, for different types of theatre and, most important, to a different community of viewers. Neither is intrinsically better than the other; rather, both are well-suited to their own worlds. And it is to our great fortune that both are at work in Roman Comedy, because with Menander's genius at plot and character development informing Plautus' mastery of comic timing and language, the two amount to one supreme dramatist, the Gilbert-and-Sullivan of antiquity and, without doubt, one of the best and most intriguing pair of stage collaborators never to have met!

But unlike a Rodgers and Hammerstein, if Plautus' and Menander's lives had not been separated by a century, it seems improbable they would ever have actually collaborated! With styles so different, born of worlds so far apart, it is unlikely they could have suffered each other's presence long enough to finish even one scene together, much less an entire play. Yet rising above their personal differences and cultural discrepancies, their collective effort, though it comes down to us under only Plautus' name, is, in fact, a bridge between civilizations that represents the early stages of an even grander partnership, Greco-Roman culture. The multiculturalism inherent in their drama is a model for the excellence that can spring from this sort of international synergy.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Livius Andronicus (240 BCE)
Ludi Romani [LOO-dee roam-MAHN-nee]
Gnaeus Naevius [GANIGH-yus NEE-vee-yus]
Ennius [ANY-us]
Titus Maccius Plautus

Stock Types
Greek Originals
Saturae [sat-TURR-righ]
Dis Exapaton (Sostratos) [DISS ex-SAP-pah-tawn; SOH-strah-tuss]
Bacchides (Mnesilochus) [BACK-kid-deez; nee-SILL-loh-kuss]


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