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.

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