20 January 2010

Humor: The Roman Comic Tradition

By Michelle Styles

Following on from Anna C Bowling's post, I wanted to talk about comedy in Roman theatre. It is the precursor of Commedia dell'Arte, and where Commedia dell'Arte draws most of its plot lines and stock characters from.

The two most famous Roman masters of comedy were Titus Maccius Plautus (it is thought that it is a stage name as a loose translation is Dick Bozo Flatfoot) and Publius Terentius Afer, a former slave possibly of African origins--near Carthage in Libya.

Plautus's plays were some of the first performed in the Renaissance and continue to be performed today. The hit musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was based heavily on a Plautine play. Indeed, the Plautine plots form the basis of much of Restoration comedy, and because she was heavily influenced by 18th century theatre, Georgette Heyer novels and thus the historical romance genre in general. It is popular rather than high literature and relies heavily on stock characters and familiar plot lines.

Unfortunately, not much of the original transcripts of the plays or more accurately musical comedies remain. Of the more than fifty plays Plautus wrote, only twenty survive in some form and none have a complete musical score. The best surviving source is an Augustine palimpsest where the monk worked with vigour in some places and not in others to scrub out Plautus's words. Thus far even with modern scanning techniques, not all of the words have been recovered. So it is like having the libretto for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and none of the music. The Marriage of Figaro has a definite Plautine storyline, in case anyone is interested. Pautus in turn was inspired by various Greek playwrights including Menander.

As opposed to the highly refined comedies of manners of the Greek playwright Menander, Plautus was more coarse and earthy. It was of the people and for the people. It is sometimes said that Menander wrote Pygmalion to Plautus' My Fair Lady. His works were of the people and meant to please the ordinary worker, rather than necessarily the patrician. They are normally set in a stylized Greek city rather than Rome. This is because the Roman authorities are thought to have been sensitive to criticism. Thus he was able to mock because the setting was in a different country.

Plautus is known as being a master at comic timing--knowing how far to take a joke or run a scene. He was supposed to be the master of the pun or double entendre. Like Shakespeare he was very fond of making up or changing the meaning of words. Many of the stock characters such as the cunning slave, the rapacious brothel owner, the prostitute with a heart of gold appear in his plays. Plautus was also interested in the nature of the father-son relationship, and there is often a young lover with his father or occasionally older male authority figure. It is thought that this may point to changes in Roman society at the time. The twists and turns were such that at the end of the play, the gods were called on to put things right and unite the lovers. Hence the term Deus ex machina.

Terence also drew heavily on the Greek tradition. He tended to use the familiar plots and to put them into the Roman vernacular. His plays are less earthy than Plautus and Martin Luther thought they could be used in the instruction of children.
But even after more than two thousand years, these works do continue to influence and provide the basis for much of theatre today.

Michelle Styles's latest North American release is SOLD & SEDUCED.