Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Much Ado: The Real McCoy
It’s hard to remember that the plot in Much Ado About Nothing is an original. The hundred or thousand after it are the cheap imitations. Basically, the plot is one of romantic jollity for royalty. Claudio, a young lord in Don Pedro’s court, falls in love with Hero, Governor Leonato’s daughter. As it happens the whole royal entourage is conveniently staying at the Governor’s mansion, so many hijinx can ensue. Another lord, Benedick, frowns on marriage. His snide bantering with Beatrice, the Governor’s niece, prompts both Benedick and Beatrice to vow never to marry. However, various parties in the royals conspire to cause the two B’s (Benedick and Beatrice) to admit they love each other.

Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s BB (“Bastard Brother”) Don John (interesting that he alone gets an anglicized name) is displeased because he dislikes the sight of happy people becoming happier. So he conspires with his footmen, Borachio and Conrade to break up Hero and Claudio. His first scheme fails because Claudio, a good soul, wants to trust Hero. But his second plot is so dastardly that even Claudio is persuaded that his betrothed has been unfaithful. In Don John’s evil plot, Claudio is brought under Hero’s window the night before the wedding. Where Claudio thinks he sees Hero’s dark hair tumbling out the window, unbeknownst to him, he sees the lady-in-waiting, Margaret’s dark hair – as she is in flagrante delicto with Borachio. We are not supposed to care whether or not Margaret wanted to have sex or actually liked it with Borachio—or even whether she had to get Borachio (which is pretty close to the Spanish word for drunk) to stomach it with him. Claudio, convinced his bride has betrayed him (since she is no longer a “maid”) appears at the wedding the next morning but slaps Hero’s face, throwing her to the ground and accusing her in public of being a whore. Thus, the prince and his party must sever ties with the Governor—and thus the big “ado” of the title.

After the party leaves, Leonato, Hero’s father, first threatens to kill her (if this is set in sixteenth century Messina, that possibility is by no means improbably—we must remember that Italy is not far from the Mideast, where men to this day kill their daughters for losing their virginity before marriage). Luckily, the friar asks Leonato to reconsider, saying that the truth about Hero will come out and she will be “lamented, pitied and excus’d” (IV.i.215). However until then he advises the family to act as though Hero died from the shock and to hide her until Claudio and Don Pedro beg for forgiveness.

Ultimately, of course, the truth comes out. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice have been set up and once so, they do confess their love for each other. They find themselves in alliance, and Beatrice tells Benedick that he must inform the prince and Claudio how wrong they are. This he does, and when he does, it is the first inkling to both that they’ve made a mistake. When Dogberry the constable catches Borachio and finds out the truth, Don Pedro and Claudio realize they must apologize to Leonato and do.

Since Claudio still thinks Hero is dead because of his mistake, Leonato makes Claudio agree to marry his niece unseen—he does so, not knowing that the niece will be Hero. The wedding is double—Beatrice marries Benedick as well. So it’s a big surprise when Hero pulls up her veil and Claudio finds his real love. There’s even—almost—a reversal where Beatrice and Benedick return to fighting and seem as though they won’t marry at the very end. But they do, and all live happily ever after.

Shakespeare’s plot certainly conforms to the structure of the classical romantic comedy that we talked about with Menander. Within the play itself, Shakespeare uses a number of comic devices—like sly risqué allusions we see early in the play, such as when Don Pedro and Benedick first greet Leonato and Beatrice:

Don Pedro: …I think this is your daughter.
Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.
Benedick: Were you in doubt, sire, that you asked her?
Leonato: Signior Benedick, no; for then you were a child. (I.i.92-94)

Even sillier than this is the humor that comes from the sections with Dogberry and his men. Dogberry, a constable who speaks in malapropisms and nonsense sentences, is a source of easy, often slapstick humor. For example, Dogberry’s malapropisms might take the form of a bit of advice like, “Adieu, be vigitant” (III.iii.88). Dogberry’s advice on apprehending a criminal is “if you do take a thief, [...] let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company” (III.iii.54-55). In addition to these silly lines, the action of Dogberry’s scenes in play is often portrayed in a slapstick manner.

The slapstick was evident in Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation in which Michael Keaton played Dogberry as a drunken, over-the-top slapstick character (to not altogether favorable reviews—which often compared him to Beetlejuice, unfairly in my view). Frankly, I liked Keaton’s performance and found it fit the over-the-top nature of the character. I also liked Branagh’s interpretation of Benedick, who undergoes a decided transformation in the course of the play.

Probably the most common humorous device in Much Ado is irony. One instance occurs when Benedick promises that he will “live a bachelor,” (I.i.219) and speaks the most strongly against marriage, yet when confronted with evidence that Beatrice may perhaps love him, he speaks most ardently about love. The irony—the not getting what we expect in the play is delightful and interesting. I don’t remember where I read it now that Much Ado isn’t often included in the list of Will S.’s major plays but that it should be. I agree. I think I like it almost as much as The Tempest. Hmmm…talk amongst yourselves about this one. Next, friends, we’ll be discussing LLL (Love’s Lobour’s Lost).

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Decidedly Un-Superstitious Terence Writes The Eunuch

Terence (195-159 B.C.) wrote six comedies, all based on Greek New Comedy; like his friend Plautus he based his work on Menander’s. Folklore has it that Plautus’s work was more popular with the masses, and Terence’s work was higher-minded, but according to Holt Parker, evidence proves otherwise. Parker says, “Eunuchus was not his one hit; it was not even merely his biggest hit; it was the biggest hit. When it was performed, it was the single most successful play ever staged in Roman history.” The play was so successful that it was “acted twice in a day and earned a reward greater than any previous comedy by anyone” (Parker). We could compare that today to a hit along the lines of an Austin Powers or a Men in Black – I may not be speaking precisely of the late twentieth century because I’m living in time about two and half thousand years ago at the moment, but fill in the blank with one of those hundred-million grossing blockbusters.

Terence’s comedies are noteworthy for a number of reasons. Whereas one might observe gaudy puns and overdone rhymes in Plautus, Terence’s plays may be regarded as subtle and elegant. Duckworth says, “Terrence expresses his thoughts in neat and polished maxims” called sententiae” (xix). Terrence’s style is noted as a precursor to the commedia dell’arte (Duckworth xi).

Terence did something new with plotting (as far as I know). Duckworth explains: “One of Terence’s most interesting features is his use of the double plot; he weaves together the stories of two young men and their respective love affairs, and makes the solution of the two difficulties depend on each other” (xviii). I think of a double plot as something modern—as modern as, say Buster Keaton. In fact, it would be interesting to read The Eunuch and watch The General in the context of discussing and defining plot.

Anyway, at the risk of repeating myself, here again—why was I afraid of Greek drama? Terence’s play reads like something that could be made into a film today, with only a few cultural adaptations. I had a hard time getting into this one because it’s a but more subtle—it doesn’t have Plautus’s slapstick, and the characters are hard to keep up with. But the important characters are well enough drawn that action is interesting.

First, a note about women in the play. It’s no secret that women didn’t have much say at the time in their future or the choice of their suitors. I noted an interesting clue about images of beauty at the time in a speech Chaerea makes. It’s often been said that women at the time were thought beautiful if they were a trifle zaftig, but judging from Chaerea’s observation, that doesn’t seem to be true. Describing Pamphlia, he says, “This girl isn’t like our girls, whose mothers try to make them sloping-shouldered, and tight-laced, that they may look slender. If a girl is a trifle plump, they say that she’s a prize-fighter, and put her on short rations. However well nature may have shaped them, by this treatment their mothers make them like laths; and that’s why people fall in love with them” (260). So it seems as though the premium was on skinny girls then as well.

Here’s the story: Thais, town courtesan and lovely, inspires two of her lovers to bring her gifts. Thraso, the soldier, comes with the gift of someone they call an Ethiopian girl, Pamphlia. Phaedria also brings a gift—a eunuch—but he doesn’t hand-deliver; rather, he orders someone else to send the eunuch while he goes to the country, since he knows Thais will be with her other lover. The trouble is, Phaedria’s younger brother, Chaerea falls in love with Pamphlia. Parmenon, the slave boy, encourages him to dress up as the eunuch so that he can go be close to Pamphlia. Chaerea takes Parmenon’s advice, but when he goes to live in Thais’s house as a eunuch, he ends up raping Pamphlia. When Pamphlia is revealed to be, actually, an Attic citizen, Thais’s sister, Thais arranges for Chaerea to marry her. The ending, we are to assume, is to be happy (for everyone except Pamphlia).

The plot is double because we see Phaedria’s plot to please Thais, and try to persuade her to love him instead of Thraso. At the same time, we see the Chaerea’s doomed plot to dress as a Eunuch to be near Pamphlia. The plots connect at the end when Thais both chooses Phaedria and helps Chaerea to marry Pamphlia. So, it is a classic comedy with a marriage at the end.

I wondered as I read whether Terence was a bit testy about others noticing his borrowed plots from the Greek comedy. In the prologue, Terrence mentions it: “As for the play which we are now about to act, Manander’s The Eunuch, …[w]hen it was being rehearsed in the presence of the magistrates he cried out, ‘It is a thief, not a poet that has written this play’ [... But ] In short nothing is said now that has not been said before; you ought to reflect upon this, and pardon us new writers if we practice the same tricks as the old ones” (248-249).

This is the end of Roman comedy for me—next we meet Bill Shakespeare.

Monday, May 16, 2005

When in Rome…Plautus’s Twins

Of Plautus, we know a few things. First, his comedies—farces, really—were not original. He based them entirely on Greek New Comedy, usually the work of Menander. It sounds like a great gig. The audiences he wrote for knew probably nothing of the Greek theater, so it was as though he had invented the stories. No issues, then, with writer’s block, in theory. But in practice it wasn’t that simple. Plautus wrote rhyming text with allerative puns, and his plays were all musicals. So while he may have repeated Greek plots, Plautus spun them around and made them dance.

Farce as an element of comedy is in itself interesting. It’s the first time—thus far—historically that I’ve read of farce. Bentley wrote in detail in Life of Drama about Plautus’s work as farce, saying “farces are much like dreams in that they show the disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes” (Corrigan 336). According to Bentley, we enjoy farce because we get to see someone acting out what we want secretly to do but can’t--like sex (Corrigan 237).

Generally it is assumed that the other most widely known Roman comic poet/playwright, Terence, was not as popular as Plautus, but in fact, its likely that Terence far surpassed Plautus in popularity. In any event, both Plautus and Terence were extremely successful. Also, Plautus, who was born into poverty, had held all jobs in the stage—a properties worker and an actor—so he had, according to Corrigan, “a remarkable sense of the theater” that contributed to his playwriting ability (235).

One of my research questions for this course is to consider how Greek and Roman comedy influenced later comedy (like Shakespearan). Here lies at least one answer: We know for sure that old Will read Plautus because the motive in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is taken from The Menaechemi. Later comedies have been influenced as well; the film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is “a pastiche of scenes from Plautine farce” (Corrigan 240). Indeed, says Corrigan, “Plautus is history’s first-known writer of musical comedy and it is no accident that countless musicals (Fanny, The Boys from Syracuse, and A Funny Thing, to name a few) have been based on his plays” (240-241). This practice of pastiche sounds decidedly postmodern to me, but in fact it was characteristic of Greek New Comedy to collect scenes from several plays into a new work (Corrigan 241). But while Plautus derived the plots from Greek theater, he most likely took his inspiration for “musical comedy from Italian popular theater” (242).

Consider how difficult it must be to read and understand ancient Roman jokes and puns in what were supposedly lyrics written in Latin. The only thing more difficult would be to translate the jokes and puns to English, while preserving some of the alliteration and complex internal rhymes—and at the same time keeping the language simple-sounding and “of the people.” Palmer Bovie somehow manages to do all of that. Bovie’s translation of Plautus is extremely clever. Bovie captures all the standup comedian cheesiness of Plautus’s cheesy jokes, puns, and rhymes, like the prologue that begins, “Ladies and gentlemen, and everyone else” (249) and ones in the monologue that begins with, “The boys all call me Peniculus, which may sound ridiculous” (253).

The Menaechemi is a different comedy plot than the Aristotle and Menander I’ve discussed so far, yet in contemporary terms it’s painfully familiar. Gerald Mast would call it reductio ad absurdum—a series of confusions resulting from a decision made in the beginning. But it’s also a classic comic plot, a series of (mostly romantic) confusions based on mistaken identities.

Specifically, twins, separated at birth, find themselves reunited in town. The poorer twin realizes what has occurred and takes advantage of the riches (in the form of a mistress, among other things) before the confusion is sorted out.

Next, we’ll see the work of Plautus’s main competitor, Terence.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Woman from Samos: Two-thousand-year Letdown?

Menander, born 40 years after Aristophanes (342-291 BC), was considered by his peers and those after to be a true genius. Plutarch, for example, preferred Menander to Aristophanes, and a Byzantine scholar described him as a poet “second only to Homer” (Walton xxi). Until the 1950s, though, only a few tiny fragments of Menander’s work existed; we knew of him only by his mentions in the critics. A few finds at the turn of the twentieth century fueled curiosity, but in 1957 a scroll found in a tomb revealed a near-whole copy of A Woman from Samos, and later discoveries in the 1960s provided other large-scale findings. Yet contemporary critics, according to Drama Professor J. Michael Walton, were disappointed in plays that turned out to be “simple” and “obvious” (xvii). Even so, it has been suggested that perhaps Menander’s lack of originality and vigor had to do with the heavy censorship in place a the time (Corrigan 78). A Woman from Samos would have been performed some years later than Clouds.

In A Woman from Samos, rich Athenian Demeas goes off to war with his neighbor Nikeratos. Before he leaves, Demeas tells his pregnant mistress, Chrysis, that she’d better not have the baby. Meanwhile, Demeas’s son, Moschion falls in love with Nikeratos’s daughter, Plangon; she gets pregnant and elopes with Moschion. Before Demeas and Nikeratos return, both Chrysis and Plangon deliver babies, but Chrysis’s baby doesn’t live. So, Moschion asks Chrysis to keep Plangon’s baby and nurse it until he can explain the complexities to his father.

As usual, hijinx ensue. When Nikeratos and Demeas return from war, they’ve independently dreamed up the notion of marrying Moschion to Plangon, so the situation should never complicate itself the way it does. But then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? In this case (as it was with Aristophanes’ Clouds), a woman doesn’t botch the plan—it’s a slave. Demeas overhears the servants talking and misunderstands; he thinks the baby Chrysis is caring for (and about whom he’s already angry) belongs to his son—in other words that baby came from his son having an affair with his mistress. So Demeas throws Chrysis out of the house without allowing her to explain. Chrysis ends up at Nikeratos’s house with the baby. The situation never is resolved until Nikeratos himself catches Plangon nursing her own baby and explains it to Demeas.

It is a fairly predictable plot, one of the most basic plots of the classic comedy:
1) Boy meets girl;
2) Boy falls in love with girl;
3) There is an obstacle to the fulfilling of that love (the obstacle is usually parental);
4) The obstacle is overcome and the there is a reorganization of society. (Corrigan 69-70)

It’s in this play that we see the true definition of classical comedy—no real belly laughs; rather, it’s a romance nearly gone awry, salvaged at the last moment—a When Harry Met Sally of the Auditorium. In true Greek comedy form, the tone is informal and folksy. Corrigan says, “Greeks in the fifth century” saw “any play with an invented plot and subject matter drawn from contemporary life” as comedy (70).

Menander seems extremely readable, though, as I said about Aristophanes’ Clouds, the readability factor seems to be attributable as well to the translation. Most importantly, though, I don’t find Menander to be simple and derivative. We’ll leave that to Plautus. Okay. He’s not simple, but….he’s next.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Aristophanes’ Clouds - Whirlywindy Hairblowings

Listen to this: on the one hand is the country bumpkin farmer frustrated by his debt, which he blames on his wife’s purchases of new fashions and his son’s compulsive gambling. He can’t adapt to modern scientific explanations for world events. On the other hand i the son, who espouses the new logic and science—as well as gambling on horse races. This 2500 year-old father-son conflict is surprisingly familiar. In the end, Dad urges son to maintain his regard for the traditional cultural and religious values. Son tells dad that no educated person would espouse anything less than the logical point of view.

Greek comedies don’t, frankly, sound like a big barrel of laughs, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading them. While they were not necessarily written with idea of generating guffaws, they’re a whole lot more fun to read (especially in good translation) than one would think. But it has been surprising for me to learn that they’re a little bit racy (or a lot racy, in the case of, for example, Lysistrata) and that they’re oft-copied in present-day plays and films.

To understand Clouds, it helps to know a little about Aristophanes:
  • Aristophanes’ early plays (like Clouds) are Old Comedies; they’re identifiable because they deal with the problems government may cause with the individual. Later ones are Middle Comedies and are less political and more philosophical.
  • Aristophanes wrote comedies between 425 and 392 B.C. Other than vase paintings, the remaining comedies are the first depictions we have at all of ancient Greek domestic life.
  • Reading Aristophanes is compared with reading an Athenian funny paper (Edith Hamilton qtd. in Walton viii) because as in comics, the plays satirized or made light of:

+ Politics
+ Anti-war party
+ Pacifism
+ Women’s vote
+ Free trade
+ Fiscal reform
+ Current religions
+ Educational theories, etc.

Not mentioned in the list Corrigan makes here, though, is Aristophanes’ obvious target: Socrates, who is the butt of the main satire of the play. Aristophanes is sending up Socrates' sophistry.

Nonetheless, Aristophanes doesn't allow himself to become fully enmired in high-minded humor. As Walton reminds us, “Many of the laughs in Aristophanes are belly-laughs created through all manner of jokes about sex and bodily functions” (xiv).

According to Corrigan, Aristophanes’ plays were “written for an audience whose principal form of entertainment, outside of the theater, was the court of law” (7). I found this an interesting detail—particularly in view of the contemporary fascination with lawsuits and all things regarding the court. It doesn't seem as though much has changed in two and a half millennia.

Corrigan also compares Aristophanes to North American Southerners, saying he “was determined, like so many of our Southerners today—although for different reasons—to do all he could do to resist the erosion of the time-honored Greek traditions” (72). In essence, Corrigan says, the humor in Aristophanes’ plays is conservative, a social corrective.

Aristophanes makes fun of Strepsiades, the farmer father, for trying to modernize himself. He demonstrates his ignorance at the many new inventions. Strepsiades visits the Logic Factory and is allowed to look through a telescope and binoculars and his response is to say “How horribly close! Now apply your mind / To moving it farther away – much farther!” (117).

We see in other ways how Strepsiades is undone by his single quest for something new: he makes a request to the clouds (a chorus of goddesses in this play) for the ability to flout logic so that he can evade his many creditors. Socrates introduces us to the clouds in the play, explaining that they replace the old, better known gods like Zeus. This quest, which in effect is a trend toward modernization and change, is a big mistake, and the clouds will teach him a lesson for making the request.

Poor Strepsiades is utterly taken by Socrates and the clouds. He’s suspicious for a moment, asking, “If they’re really and truly clouds, / Please will you tell me why / They’re shaped like mortal women?” (122). Looking like women, of course, is a mark of something evil. Socrates assures him that the clouds just elected to take that form just the same way that they look like a “centaur” or “leopard, or a wolf, or a bull” (123) on some other days. So he is convinced when Socrates tells him that in fact the clouds are the central goddesses responsible for important life events: they cause the rain—has he ever seen a drop without them? How about thunder? Even though he knows it’s “a daring thought,” he goes along with Socrates’ belief that it’s “Vortex” who causes all these events (124).

Next, the clouds begin to advise him They tell him what he has to do to flout logic, saying “You’ll be the luckiest of Athenians, of all Greeks. / Never grow slack, or weary, or flinch from the weight of your burden, / Never slaver for supper; cut out the wine, and the gymnasium” (125). In other words, they give him bad advice—admittedly! Socrates once says of Strepsiades, “The fellow’s / A barbarian lout!” (128). The farther Strepsiades moves from old way of doing things, the farther he moves from being a decent human being.

Aristophanes’ characteristic slapstick exists in small doses, such as when he addresses the Holy Goddesses thus:
I worship you Holy Ones,
But I can’t help but compete
Against your thunder with a fart. (120)

Similarly, when Socrates explains the origins to Strepsiades, he retorts, “I always believed before it was Zeus pissing through a sieve” (124).

Another form of slapstick could better be described as incongruity; the scene occurs at the end of the play when we see Pheidippides beating his father, Strepsiades for his behavior. Strepsiades, in protest, shouts that he was the one who changed Pheidippides’ diaper and fed him his first food. Pheidippides points out that Strepiades had had to beat his own son for his own good at one time—and now Pheidippides is just returning the favor (159).

Nonetheless, Clouds is a more refined play than Aristophanes’ other works—the playwright himself believed it to be his best. Aristophanes himself speaks to the relative dearth of slapstick in the parabasis, when the chorus explains:.
Now comes my comedy [...]
She doesn’t come on
Waving a property phallus to get a laugh
From the coarse children; she doesn’t poke fun at bald-heads;
Or flaunt her sex in an indecent dance;
There’s no old man literally doing slap-stick
To bolster his rotten jokes. Nobody wildly rushes
On brandishing torches, there’s no comical wailing—
This play relies on nothing but its own merit. (129)

Because Aristophanes saw Clouds as his best work, he was upset that it didn’t win at the festival of its original production. We know the version in existence now to be one he revised angrily after the festival, so the statements the chorus makes here are directed at an audience that didn’t understand—or vote for his play to win. According to critic Patric Dickinson, in the original draft, it is likely that Dickinson assumed that his audience comprised more people like Pheidippides than like Srepsiades, but he was wrong (103).