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.