Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.

**

The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.

*

The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.

*

Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.

*

The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.

**

I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.

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