Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Terence: The Comedies

March 5, 2018

The Comedies
Publius Terentius Afer
Translated from the Latin by Peter Brown
(Oxford, 2006) [c.160 BC]
xxvii + 338 p.

Terence was a talented young playwright whose literary career, though brief, nonetheless earned him an enduring place in the history of Western literature. Seutonius tells us that he was from Carthage, originally a slave but freed “because of his intelligence and good looks”; in his notes, Peter Brown counsels skepticism about this biography. But we can be more or less confident about his end: he died at an early age (of either 25 or 35, depending on whom you believe).

He left us just six plays, all comedies, and all based on Greek originals from a century earlier. In this tradition of adapting Greek drama he belongs to the same stream of Roman literature as Plautus, and his was an honourable vocation, for Greek literature was considered the gold standard by the Romans, even as Greek territories, during Terence’s lifetime, were increasingly found to furnish a different, more literal, kind of gold. His plays have many of the same features as did Plautus’: Greek settings, Greek characters, scheming slaves, dimwitted soldiers, wayward sons, and the comedic situations typically revolve around the love lives of young men and the conflicts they engender with their fathers. The plays were originally produced for audiences of men, and though there are women in the plays, none have leading roles.

Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

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Terence’s first play was The Girl from Andros, first staged in 166 BC. Adapted from two plays of Menander, it tells of a young man whose marriage has been arranged by his father, but who meanwhile has conceived a child with a prostitute whom he loves and wishes to marry. A clever household slave tries to help him, opposing the father, to weasel out of the planned marriage. Things look up when a traveller arrives from across the sea saying that the prostitute is actually a Greek citizen (and therefore marriageable). In fact, she turns out to be a long lost sister of the girl the young man was originally supposed to marry! This being discovered, her father grants permission for the young man to marry her instead of his previously-intended daughter, and they live happily ever after.

We see in this play one of the common devices in Terence’s plays: the reveal, in which one of the characters turns out to be someone other than whom we had thought.

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If we are looking for a good example of how the moral universe of the Romans differed from ours, we might well consider The Mother-in-Law, an amusing comedy in which the central conflict is resolved by the happy discovery that the protagonist is a rapist.

Pamphilus and Philumena have been married for less than 9 months, and he has been away for a few months on business. Returning, he finds that his wife is pregnant, and in fact she gives birth on the very day of his return. Who is the father? What will happen to Philumena now that her disgrace has been discovered? Parents, children, and slaves scheme, at cross-purposes, to control this delicate situation. But then, ever so happily, it falls out that — well, don’t you remember that night, shortly before the wedding, when Pamphilus had been out on the town and had raped that girl in the dark? That was his bride-to-be! The baby is his, and all is disconcertingly well.

Running in parallel to this story is another, in which Philumena has left the home of her husband not because she wants to conceal her pregnancy, but because she cannot stand to live with her mother-in-law. Terence was in fact known and admired for his “double plots”; Shakespearean comedy would eventually inherit this feature, with happy results.

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Fathers, take care when you offer your sons advice, lest they heed it. In The Self-Tormentor, first staged in 163, a father upbraids his son for failing to make a name for himself, noting that at the same age he, the father, had already fought abroad in a war, whereupon the son, taking the lesson to heart, enlists and is sent to the front, leaving his father behind, aghast, fearful for his son’s life. Thinking only of the hardships his son must be enduring, and angry at himself for his rash counsel, the father vows to enjoy nothing in life until his son’s safe return — he, then, is the “self-tormentor” of the title. All this in the first few pages. Soon enough the son returns, perfectly well, and the play develops into a comedy of situation in which various friends, slaves, and lovers scheme to — you see, they’re trying to… — of course, I’m sure they’re up to something. The play is based on an original by Menander, now lost, though not so lost as I became as the machinations of the plot spooled up. I even read the plot summary at Wikipedia a few times, and I still can’t untangle what happened, or why. I’m afraid to try again.

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As in The Mother-in-Law, rape is central to the plot of The Eunuch, and in an even more disturbing way. A young man falls in love with a slave girl, disguises himself as a eunuch to gain access to her home, and rapes her. It is later revealed that she is, in fact, the long-lost daughter of a distinguished Athenian family, and so a citizen. This is an awful realization, of course, because to rape a girl citizen is a crime, but it’s also a happy realization, because the young rapist, also a citizen, can now marry her. And so they live happily ever after.

There are other plot lines intersecting with this one, involving a jealous soldier, another young man in love with another slave girl, and so on, but Terence makes the rape central to the action and to the happy resolution of the various knots the characters must untie to find happiness. In his notes, Peter Green comments on the centrality of rape in this play and others. He says that, paradoxically, having a female character suffer rape was, for the Romans, a way of saving her honour; an unmarried woman who consented to sex was shameful, whereas a woman who was raped, though of course she suffered, committed no personal fault. She would have, in their minds, been more tarnished had she consented. This is logical, on its own terms, but, speaking for myself, I would still rather not have rapes in my comedies.

It is worth nothing that Romans felt otherwise; The Eunuch was Terence’s first major success. This good opinion lasted, and then did not last; more than 500 years later St Augustine was made to read the play in school, but he remembers the fact only to criticize it, and by the time we reach Erasmus we find him defending the play, and others by Terence, on the weak grounds that they teach us how not to act.

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Phormio, from 161, is an amusing play in which two fathers, who are brothers, attempt to thwart the intended marriages of their respective sons to unsuitable women. One son they instead plan to marry to an illegitimate daughter of one of the fathers, who has just come to Athens disguised as a slave girl. The title character, Phormio, is a trickster recruited by the sons to thwart the fathers’ plans. Much of the amusement comes from the fact that the daughter whom the fathers want to marry to the son (her cousin) is already, unbeknownst to the fathers, the woman whom that son wants to marry. The fathers are therefore unwittingly trying to prevent the very marriage they are trying to arrange. The play is a good read, with many funny situations.

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Parenting raises certain perennial questions, and among them are these: how much freedom should I allow my child, and how much discipline should I apply? In The Brothers we see two fathers who take opposite approaches to rearing their sons: Demea is strict, and raises a son who is respectable, while Micio is permissive, and raises a son who openly commits follies and crimes. The former hopes that his son will learn good habits and stay on the narrow path, while the latter hopes that his tolerant attitude, and the absence of subterfuge or deception in his relationship with his son, will eventually bring his son around to an honourable adulthood. The joke is on Demea, whose son is outwardly obedient but secretly just as debauched as the other. This occasions some good comedy, although, as Peter Green says in his introductory notes, while you laugh you cannot help but think.

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Terence’s fame lasted as long as did Rome. His Latin style was admired by the medievals, and it is perhaps because of this that we have his plays today. Alas, this aspect of his art is closed to me. The morality of his plays has been debated, and not without reason. St Ignatius of Loyola proposed making expurgated versions for use in Jesuit schools; Cardinal Newman actually did so for his school. For centuries, knowing Terence was part of being educated.

In the prologue to one of the plays, he remarks that a production of his previous play had been abandoned because a gladiatorial combat nearby had distracted the audience. The twentieth century was, insofar as Terence was concerned — though also in certain other respects — much like a giant gladiatorial combat. It is rare to find the plays staged today, but they remain interesting and enjoyable to read, even if, as is true, I myself did not enjoy them quite as much as I enjoyed reading Plautus’ plays. I am nonetheless glad to have made their acquaintance.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Versions of Shylock

August 13, 2013

I think I have mentioned before that I have been, from time to time, watching the old Royal Shakespeare Company television programme Playing Shakespeare. Here is a nice clip from the show in which two fine actors, David Suchet and Patrick Stewart, give us two different versions of Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice

It is fascinating to see how their very different conceptions of the character (outlined in this clip) play out. An interesting short discussion follows about how not to play the scene.