Friday, 15 May 2009

Titus Maccius Plautus: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays

Contains: Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus), Captivi (The Prisoners), Miles gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier), and Pseudolus
Edition: Penguin, 1965
Translated: E.F. Watling, 1965

What makes a "perfect comedy"? The German critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing described one of the plays in this volume, Captivi (The Prisoners) as such, but it is unlikely to be an answer that would occur to many people asked this question today. Even if the field is restricted to stage comedies on the grounds that Lessing lived before the invention of moving pictures (ruling out such contenders as Some Like it Hot and Fawlty Towers), there are many plays which are funnier. Among my favourites, I might suggest Aristophanes' Frogs , Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Orton's Loot, Frayn's Noises Off. My father would have suggested farces by Feydeau or Labiche, I'm sure.

To Lessing, of course, the word "comedy" didn't just mean an amusing drama; it was a more technical term, describing a play with particular components and attributes. But even so, Captivi is an odd choice, as Watling points out in his introduction: for example, the real world geography of the Greek setting makes it virtually impossible for the action of the play to take place in one day, a requirement applied to drama by critics of the time, based on Aristotle's ideas in the Poetics. So why choose this one? Again, Watling makes a sensible suggestion, that the real issue is that the play does not have aspects which Lessing apparently viewed as distasteful in ancient literature (and particularly in the texts which could be used to teach in schools). In particular, there's no sexual content to the play, which is very unusual in ancient comedy, the surviving examples of which usually at least include bawdy jokes. Until fairly recently, there were still versions of Aristophanes which translated passages which were particularly rude into Latin, rather than into English which could be read by the uneducated, considered to have minds corruptible by such things. Instead, Captivi is about the ties between father and son (together with the mistaken identities which occur in almost every plot used by Plautus).

And Captivi is not even the best known of the five plays in the volume. Two of the others served as the inspiration for extremely famous later comedies. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is based on Menaechmi but takes the plot a step further by adding a second pair of twin brothers, increasing the potential for comic confusion at the risk of making belief in the actions on stage harder. Shakespeare may well be the greatest dramatist who ever lived, but this is an early play, and not one of his best; it has the air of an exercise rather than a drama involving characters based on human beings. On the other hand, Aulularia, the title play in this collection, inspired L'Avare by Molière, one of the greatest works by a great writer in his prime. Like Shakespeare, Molière added more to the plot, which to me suggests something of why Plautus is not as well known today as he used to be. My understanding is that these plays were produced as diversions during festivals - effectively another sideshow - so were not as long and or complex as Greek plays (which were the main attractions of the festivals they appeared were written for) or later plays which were the centrepiece of an evening's entertainment. The plays are short, one theme (almost one joke) affairs, without the subplots and subtlety we have come to expect from a full length three act drama in today's theatre. Perhaps it would be better to compare Plautus' output with one act comedies, like Shaffer's Black Comedy, but they are more like individual episodes from The Simpsons than anything produced for the stage now. Indeed, there are several parallels with the way that the animated sitcom works: plots as variations on standard themes; exaggerated everyman character; improbable events; and a happy ending.

Captivi is also not the funniest or cleverest play in this collection. The final pair here, Miles gloriosus and Pseudolus, are the best Plautus plays I have read. In both, the characters rise at least a little above the stereotypes, the jokes remain funny, and a little bit more length allows some extra complexity. These two are probably the place to start, if Shakespeare and Molière give you and interest in theirt sources of inspiration. (Not the ultimate source, because Plautus took most of his ideas from Greek originals, now mostly lost, but the closest you can get.)

The introduction to this collection states that these translations were made for use on the stage. Now, Penguin Classics translations of drama don't usually have that as their main aim; they are aimed at tthe reader, not the performer and tend to concentrate on being an accurate (if not word for word) translation of the best available edition of the original text. The Penguin Ibsen translations are obviously like this, if compared with the work of Michael Meyer or my father (among others). So, is this collection of Plautus plays an exception, or was Watling mistaken? There are certainly livelier translations of Plautus, while these are in turn livelier than some of the Penguin Classics drama that was published around the same time. I'm not so sure they would work so well on the stage; perhaps they would be good as a dramatised excerpt to liven up an academic seminar, but that isn't quite the same thing. But then I've never found Plautus as enjoyable as the more complex comedies listed at the start of this review, in any translation. There are problems with details. Some of the jokes could be better translated; there must be a better pun to describe cooks who are scoundrels than "rapscullions", for example. I'd give thee plays 6/10, and the translations, also now rather dated, 5/10.


Simon McLeish said...

I realised, when moving material from my original website to its replacement, that I had posted a set of earlier reviews of this volume of Plautus plays (one short review for each play). Rather than simply move these reviews, I will post any material not covered by this blog post as comments here, replying to this one.

Simon McLeish said...

Regarding the differences between Aulularia and L'Avare: While in Molière's play, Harpagon is miserly in nature from beginning to end, Euclio is a poor man who discovers treasure in his house and becomes miserly because he is so bowled over by his good fortune. The treasure, as his Lar Familiaris (household god) explains in the prologue, was hidden by Euclio's grandfather who was able to accumulate it because his reverence for the Lar brought him good fortune. Now, Euclio has been able to discover it so that he can use it to provide a dowry for his daughter, Phaedria (who is never seen on stage), because she also has the right attitude to the household gods.

Regarding the completion by Watling of the play: As it stands, the text of the play is clearly incomplete - it has no ending - and E.F. Watling has provided a convincing denouement based on a surviving fragment which seems to indicate a happy ending.

Simon McLeish said...

Regarding the differences between Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors: The major changes Shakespeare made were to increase the length of the play and the number of characters, making the brothers' servants twins as well as their masters and introducing the idea of the execution of Aegeon. Plautus' play has no such serious side and is much more purely farcical, much play being made over the way one brother steals a dress of his wife's to give it to his mistress (he smuggles it out of the house by wearing it with his own clothes).

Simon McLeish said...

Regarding the plot of Miles Gloriosus: This play revolves entirely around the title role, the mercenary soldier Pyrgopolynices, a conceited braggart. His character is instantly clear from the first scene, where he agrees to (and builds upon) the outrageous flattery of his dependent Artotrogus ("slaughtered five hundred at one fell swoop - or would have done if your sword hadn't blunted first").

After the first seen, two plots are laid to humiliate Pyrgopolynices. He owns a slavegirl, Philocomasium, who is loved by a young man, Pleusicles, who is staying with Pyrgopolynices' neighbour Periplectomenus. One of Pyrgopolynices' slaves, Palaestrio, undertakes to promote the affair, which he does by knocking a hole in the party wall between the two properties, so that the two lovers can visit each other whenever they wish.

The first plot involves using this hole to trick Pyrgopolynices into thinking that Philocomasium is her own twin sister, supposedly visiting the town to try and find the lost girl. This is basically so that she and Pleusicles can escape from Pyrgopolynices (and wind him up at the same time).

The second plot is not connected to the first, except by the fact that Palaestrio also conceives it. This is to humiliate Pyrgopolynices by setting up a young woman to pretend to be the wife of the elderly Periplectomenus but desperately in love with the soldier. The idea is to give Pyrgopolynices a beating when Periplectomenus "discovers" him with the young woman.

These two practically independent farce plots make Miles Gloriosus quite a long play by Plautian standards, though it is as entertaining as ever. The only false note is struck by the conventionality of the ending, where Pyrgopolynices, discovering the nature of the tricks playd on him, undergoes a moment of self-revelation, leading to a complete turn-around in his character.

Simon McLeish said...

Regarding the plot of Pseudolus: As is pointed out in Watling's introduction, the plot of Pseudolus is one which is derided in Captivi as immoral: a son buying a nubile slave girl behind his father's back. It may be most familiar to modern audiences as a major source for the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The wily slave, Pseudolus, is even more important in this play than this stock character is in most of Plautus' comedy. (Naming the play after this character emphasises this pivotal role.) As a character, he is not developed beyond the stereotype he represents, but the size of the character makes it attractive to the comic actor, particularly if they come from the more clown-like end of the business. Basically, he has rather more to do than usual at the expense of the part given to the young man in love with the slave girl.

The length of the play (it must be one of Plautus' longest) is in contrast to the extremely brief prologue (which may not be by Plautus): "If anyone wants to stand up and stretch his legs, now is the time to do it. The next item on the programme is a play by Plautus - and a long one."

Simon McLeish said...

Regarding the plot if Captivi: The plot of is one of those where the ending is obvious from the start (particularly if you've every read any other comedies of this sort). Hegio, from Aetolia, buis a pair of slaves captured in a war with Elis, the wealthy Philocrates and his personal slave, Tyndarus. Hegio's own son, Philopolemus, is a captive in Elis, and Hegio wants to send Tyndarus to offer an exchange.

In a fit of personal devotion to his master, Tyndarus pretends to be Philocrates, so that Philocrates can escape, leaving him to almost certain death. But of course Tyndarus turns out to be Hegio's other son, lost while a small child and sold into slavery.

Regarding the view Watling seems to have of Captivi: E.F. Watling doesn't seem to like this particular play terribly much, and gives a variety of criticisms of it in the brief introduction to his translation. This is perhaps a response to the rather over the top praise given it in the eighteenth century by the German poet G.E. Lessing.

The charges Watling makes against the play include inconsistencies in the plot (it is difficult to see when Tyndarus and Philocrates could agree to the exchange of identities, as it must be before they meet Hegio but after knowing of his plan to send Tyndarus to Elis), a warped sense of time (one character, Ergasilus, is given activities which imply that only a single day is occupied by the action of the play, yet Philocrates has time to travel to Elis and back), and the rushed ending which nevertheless leaves time for the action to sag in the middle of the play, which centres around the minor character of Ergasilaus.

None of these problems are particularly obvious when reading the play through, and only the last would be noticeable in a good performance. (And that would mainly be because Ergasilaus is a character who is likely to appear rather tedious to modern audiences: he is a professional dinner guest, a hanger-on.)

Simon McLeish said...

I'm now disabling comments on this post, following a spate of spam comments.