Plautus (254 to 184 BC)

Biography

Titus Maccius Plautus (254 to 184 BC), generally referred to as Plautus, was a Roman playwright of the Republican era. His comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to have survived in their entirety. It is said he moved to Rome and became a theatre assistant and actor who became successful with comic parts. However, as soon as he had the capital, he went into business as a merchant shipper. However, his business went bust and sometime around the age of 40 he used his knowledge of theatre to turn to playwriting. Plautus is a nickname meaning flat-footed or broad-footed.

Plautus published a large number of plays from 205 BC to his death in 184. He claimed simply be to importing and translating original Greek plays rather as a wholesaler imports Greek olives for the Roman market. However, although none of the direct sources have survived, scholars believe Plautus often amended and rewrote his models, sometimes changing the plot or combining plot elements from two original Greek works into one new play. And Plautus himself indicates as much when he refers to himself and his own practice in some of the plays’ chatty prologues.

Plautus wrote around 130 plays. Twenty of these plays survive in their entirety, with small fragments from 30 others, making him the most prolific dramatist from the entire ancient world, Greek or Roman, in terms of surviving work

Greek old and new comedy

Plautus freely borrowed his plots and characters from the Greek comedy of his day. This had come to be referred to, generically, as the New Comedy to distinguish it from the older style, which was referred to, unsurprisingly, as Old Comedy. The difference is simple: old Greek comedy tackled big political  and social issues and the new comedy didn’t. An example of Old Comedy is Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in which the womenfolk of Athens go on a sex strike to force their men to call a truce in the ruinous Peloponnesian War. That play dates from around 410 BC i.e. 200 years before Plautus.

Greek New Comedy came in about a hundred years later and is most associated with the playwright Menander (c. 342 to 291 BC). The difference is that New Comedy dropped political themes, satire and serious moral or intellectual subject matter in order to focus solely on comic situations. These are generally set in domestic households and featuring a stock set of characters, usually an objectionable father who argues with his wastrel son, a scolding wife/mother, a young woman from a neighbouring household who the son is in love with, and a clever servant who outwits his master and fixes everything. So stock and standard were these character types that the Romans had special words for them:

  • adulescens = young man, the hero
  • virgo = maiden, the love interest
  • senex = old man, generally presenting an obstacle to the true love of the young couple, often with a particular humour or foible for example the miserliness of Euclio
  • servus callidus = clever slave, whose nimble footwork in helping
  • servus stultus = foolish slave
  • parasitus = parasite or sycophant – in his introduction to Captivi E.F. Watling says a more accurate translation might be paid ‘table companion’
  • miles gloriosus = braggart soldier
  • meretrix = courtesan
  • cooks – thrown in for comic moments

E.F. Watling, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, speculates that Plautus may in fact have been a slave, when he started in theatre, which was only an occasional and low class occupation (most plays were only performed once at festivals they were written for; many actors belonged to slave masters). This would explain one of the distinctive features of his plays, which is the wide variety of slave types which appear in them, and the sympathetic lines about a slave’s miserable lot in life which he gives to many of them. And the way witty and canny slaves often come of the plays very well. Maybe. But maybe not.

Three points

1. Although Plautus was Roman and wrote in Latin and all his plays were performed in Rome, they are all actually set in Greek locations and the characters have (often ludicrously contorted) Greek names. That said, the plays freely invoke Roman ideas, customs and laws, creating a sort of cultural hybrid.

2. The plays were written in verse, quite complicated verse. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

Plautus’s plays are written in verse, as were the Greek originals. The metres he used included the iambic six foot line (senarius) and the trochaic seven foot line (septenarius), which Menander had also employed. But Plautus varied these with longer iambic and trochaic lines and more elaborate rhythms. The metres are skillfully chosen and handled to emphasize the mood of the speaker or the action. It is possible that now lost Greek plays inspired this metrical variety and inventiveness, but it is much more likely that Plautus was responding to features already existing in popular Italian dramatic traditions. The Senarii (conversational lines) were spoken, but the rest was sung or chanted to the accompaniment of double and fingered reed pipes, or auloi. It could be said that, in their metrical and musical liveliness, performances of Plautus’s plays somewhat resembled musicals of the mid-20th century.

3. As the sheer volume of his output suggests, Plautus wrote in a hurry and his plays work in a hurry. They are full of slapstick, pratfalls, ludicrous situations. Later literary critics were (and still are) snooty about this but it makes them feel incredibly modern and accessible.

E.F. Watling’s translations

Watling was commissioned to by Penguin to translate nine of Plautus’s plays, four in this volume and five in its sister volume ‘The Pot of Gold and other plays’. The two volumes were published in 1964 and 1965 (the introduction is actually dated 1963, ‘between the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP’). Penguin wanted to make the world’s greatest literature as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience. Therefore they asked Watling to produce versions which were ready to produce for the stage. So:

Prose not verse

1. All his translations are in prose. There are only occasional attempts to capture the complex verse of the originals or the comic or dramatic effects Plautus created by having characters switch between different Roman verse forms.

Rather mind bogglingly ‘a considerable part’ of the original texts were designed to be sung to the accompaniment of a flute (!). As Watling says, it’s hard to see what kind of contemporary theatrical idiom, that could possibly be translated into. So his versions for the most part don’t even try, apart from long soliloquies, such as the prologues or speeches on specific subjects, which he casts into very loose iambic verse, and for a handful of short songs. Instead they aim for a fluent, fast-moving, rangy, continuous 1960s prose and are very enjoyable for it.

No notes

2. There is a complete absence of notes or scholarly apparatus, no footnotes explaining references or indicating gaps in the text or problems with the manuscript or all the other editorial issues old texts are  so often cluttered with. You’re meant to pick his translations up and start reading them out loud and performing them straight away.

Watling explains that the plays have come down in the manuscript tradition neatly divided into acts and scenes. He thinks these are much later scholarly interferences so has dumped them. On the other hand, Watling has added stage directions and these are very useful. He points out that almost all the actions that occur in a Plautus play are described in the dialogue, so much so that, as he strikingly puts it: ‘a blind audience could follow every move in a Plautine play’ (p.17). Still. It saves time and mental effort to have them written out explicitly so you’re free to concentrate on the comic plots and witty wordplay.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

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