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.

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