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University of Pennsylvania
The Dramatic Values in Plautus
Wilton Wallace Blancké, A.M., Ph.D.
Professor of Latin in the Central High School of Philadelphia
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation was written in 1916, before the entrance of the United
States into The War, and was presented to the Faculty of the University of
Pennsylvania as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Its
publication at this time needs no apology, for it will find its only
public in the circumscribed circle of professional scholars. They at least
will understand that scholarship knows no nationality. But in the fear
that this may fall under the eye of that larger public, whose interests
are, properly enough, not scholastic, a word of explanation may prove a
The Germans have long been recognized as the hewers of wood and drawers of
water of the intellectual world. For the results of the drudgery of minute
research and laborious compilation, the scholar must perforce seek German
sources. The copious citation of German authorities in this work is, then,
the outcome of that necessity. I have, however, given due credit to German
criticism, when it is sound. The French are, generically, vastly superior
in the art of finely balanced critical estimation.
My sincere thanks are due in particular to the Harrison Foundation of the
University for the many advantages I have received therefrom, to
Professors John C. Rolfe and Walton B. McDaniel, who have been both
teachers and friends to me, and to my good comrades and colleagues,
Francis H. Lee and Horace T. Boileau, for their aid in editing this essay.
Wilton Wallace Blancké.
A Résumé of the Criticism and of the Evidence Relating to the Acting
This investigation was prompted by the abiding conviction that Plautus as
a dramatic artist has been from time immemorial misunderstood. In his
progress through the ages he has been like a merry clown rollicking
amongst people with a hearty invitation to laughter, and has been rewarded
by commendation for his services to morality and condemnation for his
buffoonery. The majority of Plautine critics have evinced too serious an
attitude of mind in dealing with a comic poet. However portentous and
profound his scholarship, no one deficient in a sense of humor should
venture to approach a comic poet in a spirit of criticism. For criticism
Furthermore, the various estimates of our poet's worth have been as
diversified as they have been in the main unfair. Alternately lauded as a
master dramatic craftsman and vilified as a scurrilous purveyor of
unsavory humor, he has been buffeted from the top to the bottom of the
dramatic scale. More recent writers have been approaching a saner
evaluation of his true worth, but never, we believe, has his real position
in that dramatic scale been definitely and finally fixed; because
heretofore no attempt has been made at a complete analysis of his
dramatic, particularly his comic, methods. It is the aim of the present
dissertation to accomplish this.
I doubt not that from the inception of our acquaintance with the pages of
Plautus we have all passed through a similar experience. In the beginning
we have been vastly diverted by the quips and cranks and merry wiles of
the knavish slave, the plaints of love-lorn youth, the impotent rage of
the baffled pander, the fruitless growlings of the hungry parasite's
belly. We have been amused, perhaps astonished, on further reading, at
meeting our new-found friends in other plays, clothed in different names
to be sure and supplied in part with a fresh stock of jests, but still
engaged in the frustration of villainous panders, the cheating of harsh
fathers, until all ends with virtue triumphant in the establishment of the
undoubted respectability of a hitherto somewhat dubious female
Our astonishment waxes as we observe further the close correspondence of
dialogue, situation and dramatic machinery. We are bewildered by the
innumerable asides of hidden eavesdroppers, the inevitable recurrence of
soliloquy and speech familiarly directed at the audience, while every once
in so often a slave, desperately bent on finding someone actually under
his nose, careens wildly cross the stage or rouses the echoes by
unmerciful battering of doors, meanwhile unburdening himself of lengthy
solo tirades with great gusto; and all this dished up with a sauce of
humor often too racy and piquant for our delicate twentieth-century
palate, which has acquired a refined taste for suggestive innuendo, but
never relishes calling a spade by its own name.
If we have sought an explanation of our poet's gentle foibles in the
commentaries to our college texts, we have assuredly been disappointed.
Even to the seminarian in Plautus little satisfaction has been vouchsafed.
We are often greeted by the enthusiastic comments of German critics, which
run riot in elaborate analyses of plot and character and inform us that we
are reading _Meisterwerke_ of comic drama. Our perplexity has perhaps
become focused upon two leading questions; first: "What manner of drama is
this after all? Is it comedy, farce, opera bouffe or mere extravaganza?"
Second: "How was it done? What was the technique of acting employed to
represent in particular the peculiarly extravagant scenes?"
There is an interesting contrast between the published editions of Plautus
and Bernard Shaw. Shaw's plays we find interlaced with an elaborate
network of stage direction that enables us to visualize the movements of
the characters even to extreme minutiae. In the text of Plautus we find
nothing but the dialogue, and in the college editions only such
editorially-inserted "stage-business" as is fairly evident from the spoken
lines. The answer then to our second question: "How was it done?", at
least does not lie on the surface of the text.
For an adequate answer to both our questions the following elements are
necessary; first: a digest of Plautine criticism; second: a résumé of the
evidence as to original performances of the plays, including a
consideration of the audience, the actors and of the gestures and
stage-business employed by the latter; third: a critical analysis of the
plays themselves, with a view to cataloguing Plautus' dramatic methods. We
hope by these means to obtain a conclusive reply to both our leading
§1. Critics of Plautus
Plautine criticism has displayed many different angles. As in most things,
time helps resolve the discrepancies. The general impression gleaned from
a survey of the field is that in earlier times over-appreciation was the
rule, which has gradually simmered down, with occasional outpourings of
denunciation, to a healthier norm of estimation.
Even in antiquity the wiseacres took our royal buffoon too seriously.
Stylistically he was translated to the skies. [Sidenote: Cicero] Cicero
imputes to him "iocandi genus, ... elegans, urbanum, ingeniosum, facetum."
[Sidenote: Aelius Stilo] Quintilian quotes: "Licet Varro Musas Aelii
Stilonis sententia Plautino dicat sermone locuturas fuisse, si latine
loqui vellent." [Sidenote: Gellius] The paean is further swelled by
Gellius, who variously refers to our hero as "homo linguae atque
elegantiae in verbis Latinae princeps," and "verborum Latinorum
elegantissimus," and "linguae Latinae decus." [Sidenote: Horace] If
our poet is scored by Horace it is probably due rather to Horace's
affectation of contempt for the early poets than to his true convictions;
or we may ascribe it to the sophisticated metricist's failure to realize
the existence of a "Metrica Musa Pedestris." As Duff says (_A Literary
History of Rome_, p. 197), "The scansion of Plautus was less understood in
Cicero's day than that of Chaucer was in Johnson's." (Cf. Cic. _Or._ 55.
[Sidenote: Euanthius] We have somewhat of a reaction, too, against the
earlier chorus of praise in the commentary of Euanthius, who condemns
Plautus' persistent use of direct address of the audience. If it is true,
as Donatus says later: "Comoediam esse Cicero ait imitationem vitae,
speculum consuetudinis, imaginem veritatis," we find it hard to understand
Cicero's enthusiatic praise of Plautus, as we hope to show that he is very
far from measuring up to any such comic ideal as that laid down by Cicero
But of course these ancient critiques have no appreciable bearing on our
argument and we cite them rather for historical interest and
retrospect. [Sidenote: Festus] [Sidenote: Brix] While Festus makes
a painful effort to explain the location of the mythical "Portus Persicus"
mentioned in the _Amph._, Brix in modern times shows that there is
no historical ground for the elaborate mythical genealogy in _Men._ 409
ff. We contend that "Portus Persicus" is pure fiction, as our novelists
refer fondly to "Zenda" or "Graustark," while the _Men._ passage is a
patent burlesque of the tragic style.
[Sidenote: Becker] On the threshold of what we may term modern criticism
of Plautus we find W.A. Becker, in 1837, writing a book: "De Comicis
Romanorum Fabulis Maxime Plautinis Quaestiones." Herein, after deploring
the neglect of Plautine criticism among his immediate predecessors and
contemporaries, he attempts to prove that Plautus was a great "original"
poet and dramatic artist. Surely no one today can be in sympathy with such
a sentiment as the following (Becker, p. 95): "Et Trinummum, quae ita
amabilibus lepidisque personis optimisque exemplis abundat, ut quoties eam
lego, non comici me poetae, sed philosophi Socratici opus legere mihi
videar." I believe we may safely call the _Trinummus_ the least Plautine
of Plautine plays, except the _Captivi_, and it is by no means so good a
work. The _Trinummus_ is crowded with interminable padded dialogue,
tiresome moral preachments, and possesses a weakly motivated plot; a
veritable "Sunday-school play."
But Becker continues: "Sive enim
effundit penu, ad quae componere vitarn oporteat; in sententiis quanta
gravitas, orationis quanta vis, quam probe et meditate cum hominum ingenia
moresque novisse omnia testantur." We feel sure that our Umbrian fun-maker
would strut in public and laugh in private, could he hear such an encomium
of his lofty moral aims. For it is our ultimate purpose to prove that
fun-maker Plautus was primarily and well-nigh exclusively a fun-maker.
[Sidenote: Weise] K. H. Weise, in "Die Komodien des Plautus, kritisch nach
Inhalt und Form beleuchtet, zur Bestimmung des Echten und Unechten in den
einzelnen Dichtungen" (Quedlinburg, 1866), follows hard on Becker's heels
and places Plautus on a pinnacle of poetic achievement in which we
scarcely recognize our apotheosized laugh-maker. Every passage in the
plays that is not artistically immaculate, that does not conform to the
uttermost canons of dramatic art, is unequivocally damned as "unecht." In
his Introduction (p. 4) Weise is truly eloquent in painting the times and
significance of our poet. With momentary insight he says: "Man hat an ihm
eine immer frische und nie versiegende Fundgrabe des ächten Volkswitzes."
But this is soon marred by utterances such as (p. 14): "Fände sich also in
der Zahl der Plautinischen Komodien eine Partie, die mit einer andern in
diesen Hinsichten in bedeutendem Grade contrastirte, so konnte man sicher
schliessen, dass beide nicht von demselben Verfasser sein könnten." He
demands from Plautus, as _ein wahrer Poet_, "Congruenz, und richtige
(p. 22): "Interesse, Character, logischer Bau in der Zusammensetzung,
Naturlichkeit der Sprache und des Witzes, Rythmus und antikes Idiom des
Ausdrucks werden die Kriterien sein mussen, nach dem wir uber die
Vortrefflichkeit und Plautinität plautinischer Stücke zu entscheiden
On this basis he ruthlessly carves out and discards as "unecht" every
passage that fails to conform to his amazing and extravagant ideals, in
the belief that "der ächte Meister Plautus konnte nur Harmonisches, nur
Vernunftiges, nur Logisches, nur relativ Richtiges dichten" (p. 79),
though even Homer nods. The _Mercator_ is banned _in toto_. To be sure,
Weise somewhat redeems himself by the statement (p. 29 f.): "Plautus
bezweckte ... lediglich nur die eigentliche und wirksamste Belustigung des
Publicums." But how he reconciles this with his previously quoted
convictions and with the declaration (p. 16): "Plautus ist ein sehr
religioser, sehr moralischer Schriftsteller," it is impossible to grasp,
until we recall that the author is a German.
[Sidenote: Langen] Such criticism stultifies itself and needs no
refutation; certainly not here, as P. Langen in his _Plautinische Studien_
(_Berliner Studien_, 1886; pp. 90-91) has conclusively proved that the
inconsistent is a feature absolutely germane to Plautine style, and has
collected an overwhelming mass of "Widerspruche, Inkonsequenzen und
psychologische Unwahrscheinlichkeiten" that would question the
"Plautinity" of every other line, were we to follow Weise's precepts.
Langen too uses the knife, but with a certain judicious restraint.
We insist that the attempt to explain away every inconsistency as spurious
is a sorry refuge.
[Sidenote: Langrehr] Langrehr in _Miscellanea Philologica_ (Gottingen,
1876), under the caption _Plautina_ gives vent to further solemn
Teutonic carpings at the plot of the _Epidicus_ and argues the play a
_contaminatio_ on the basis of the double intrigue. He is much exercised
too over the mysterious episode of 'the disappearing flute-girl.'
Langen, who is in the main remarkably sane, refutes these conclusions
neatly. How Weise and his confrères argue Plautus such a super-poet,
in view of the life and education of the public to whom he catered, let
alone the evidence of the plays themselves, and their author's status as
mere translator and adapter, must remain an insoluble mystery. The simple
truth is that a playwright such as Plautus, having undertaken to feed a
populace hungry for amusement, ground out plays (doubtless for a
living), with a wholesome disregard for niceties of composition,
provided only he obtained his _sine qua non_--the laugh.
[Sidenote: Lessing] In our citation of opinions we must not overlook that
impressive mile-stone in the history of criticism, the discredited but
still great Lessing. In his "Abhandlung von dem Leben und den Werken des
M. Accius Plautus" Lessing deprecates the harsh judgment of Horace and
later detractors of our poet in modern times. Lessing idealizes him as the
matchless comic poet. That the _Captivi_ is "das vortrefflichste Stück,
welches jemals auf den Schauplatz gekommen ist," as Lessing declares in
the Preface to his translation of the play, is an utterance that leaves us
[Sidenote: Dacier] But Lessing's idea of the purpose of comedy is a
combination of Aristotelian and mid-Victorian ideals: "die Sitten der
Zuschauer zu bilden und zu bessern, ... wenn sie nämlich das Laster
allezeit unglücklich und die Tugend am Ende glücklich sein lässt." It
is on the basis of this premise that he awards the comic crown to the
_Cap._ His extravagant encomium called forth from a contemporary a
long controversial letter which Lessing published in the second edition
with a reply so feeble that he distinctly leaves his adversary the honors
of the field. How much better the diagnosis of Madame Dacier, who is
quoted by Lessing! In the introduction to her translations of the
_Amphitruo_, _Rudens_ and _Epidicus_ (issued in 1683), she apologizes for
Plautus on the ground that he had to win approval for his comedies from an
audience used to the ribaldry of the _Saturae_.
[Sidenote: Lorenz] Lorenz in his introductions to editions of the _Most._
and _Pseud._ is another who seems to be carried away by the unrestrained
enthusiasm that often affects scholars oversteeped in the lore of their
author. Faults are dismissed as merely "Kleine Unwahrscheinlichkeiten"
(Introd. _Ps._, p. 26, N. 25.) "Jeder Leser," says he, "
darin beistimmen, dass ... der erste Act
gelungene Exposition darbietet, wie sie die dramatische Poesie nur
aufweisen kann." Such a statement must fall, by weight of exaggeration. In
appreciation of the portrayal of the name-part he continues: "Mit welch'
überwältigender Herrschaft tritt hier gleich die meisterhaft geschilderte
Hauptperson hervor! Welche packende Kraft, welche hinreissende _verve_
liegt in dem reichen Dialoge, der wie beseelt von der feurigen Energie des
begabten Menschen, der ihn lenkt, fröhlich rauschend dahin eilt,
übersprudelnd von einer Fulle erheiternder Scherze und schillernder
In curious contrast to this fulsome outpouring stands the expressed belief
of Lamarre that the character of Ballio overshadows that of Pseudolus.
In support of this view he cites Cicero (_Pro Ros. Com._ 7.20), who
mentions that Roscius chose to play Ballio.
Lorenz in his enthusiasm exalts the _Epid._ to an ideal of comic
excellence (Introd. _Ps._ p. 27). He even goes so far as to contend that
Plautus lives up to the following characterization: "Nicht blos durch
naturgetreue and lebhafte Charakterschilderungen und durch eine komisch
gehaltene, aber die Grenzen des Wahrscheinlichen und des Graziösen nicht
überschreitende Zeichnung des täglichen Lebens soll der Dichter des
Lustspiels seine Zuschauer interessiren und ihr heiteres Gelächter
hervorrufen, sondern auch so reiche Anwendung zu geben, durch die es in
den Dienst einer sittlichen Idee tritt, und so gleichsam die moralische
Atmosphäre ... zu reinigen."
Such emotional superlatives merely create in the reader a cachinnatory
revulsion. Yes, Plautus was great, but he was great in a far different
way. He approached the Rabelaisian. It is doubtful if "die Grenzen des
Graziösen" lay within his purview at all.
[Sidenote: Lamarre] The treatment of Lamarre cited above contains a
highly meritorious analysis of the Plautine characters, discussed largely
as a reflection of the times and people, both of New Comedy and of
Plautus, without imputing to our poet too serious motives of subtle
portrayal. But he too ascribes to Plautus a latent moral purpose: "En
faisant rire, il veut corriger"!
[Sidenote: Naudet] This sounds ominously like an echo from Naudet who,
in the course of lauding Plautus' infinite invention and variety of
embroidery, would translate him into a zealous social reformer by saying:
"L'auteur se proposait de faire beaucoup rire les spectateurs, mais il
voulait aussi qu'ils se corrigeassent en riant." All this is
disappointing. We should have expected Gallic esprit to rise superior to
[Sidenote: LeGrand] The celebrity of French criticism is somewhat redeemed
by LeGrand in his monumental work entitled _Daos Tableau de la comedie
grecque pendant la periode dite nouvelle_ (Annales de l'Université de
Lyon, 1910), in the conclusion to the chapter on 'Intentions didactiques
et valeur morale' (Part III, Chap. I, page 583): "Tout compte fait, au
point de vue moral, la νέα dut être inoffensive (en son temps)." This is
the culmination of a calm, dispassionate discussion and analysis of the
extant remains of New Comedy and _Palliatae_.
Even Ritschl fails to escape the taint of degrading Plautus to the status
of a petty moralizer. In particular, he lauds the _Aul_ unreservedly
as a _chef d'oeuvre_ of character delineation and pronounces it
immeasurably superior to Molière's imitation, "L'Avare." This whole
critique, while interesting, falls into the prevailing trend of imputing
to Plautus far too high a plane of dramatic artistry.
[Sidenote: Langen] Indeed, Langen has already scored Ritschl on this very
point in remarking that Ritschl's condemnation of an alleged defect in
the _Cas_ implies much too favorable an estimate of Plautus' artistic
worth, as the defects cited are represented as something isolated and
remarkable, whereas they are characteristic of Plautine comedy. Langen
still displays clear-headed judgment when he says of the _Miles_:
"Wenn die Farben so stark aufgetragen werden, hort jede Feinhet der
Charakterzeichnung auf und bereinem Dichter, der sich dies gestattet, darf
man bezuglich der Charakterschilderungen nicht zu viele Anspruche machen.
Es ist sehr wahrscheinlich dass Plautus mit Rucksicht auf den Geschmack
_eines_ Publikums die Zuge des Originals sehr vergrobert hat."
But Langen fails to follow this splendid lead. Without taking advantage of
the license that he himself offers the poet, he severely condemns, the
scene in which Periplecomenus shouts out to Philocomasium so loudly that
the soldier's household could not conceivably help hearing, whereas he is
supposed to be conveying secret information. If carried out in a
broadly farcical spirit, the scene becomes potentially amusing.
[Sidenote: Mommsen] Mommsen in his _History_, in the course of an
interesting discussion on _palliatae_ and their Greek originals, has a far
saner point of view. He says of the authors of New Comedy, "They wrote not
like Eupolis and Aristophanes for a great nation; but rather for a
cultivated society which spent its time ... in guessing riddles and
playing at charades.... Even in the dim Latin copy, through which we
chiefly know it, the grace of the original is not wholly obliterated.
shuffled as in a game of cards; in the original a picture from life, it
became in the reproduction a caricature."
Naturally we are not concerned with any consideration of the value of his
estimate of New Comedy. Assuredly he rates it too highly, as later
investigations have indicated. But here for the first time we are able
to quote a well-balanced appreciation of some essential features of
Plautine drama: a "capricious shuffling of incidents" and "caricature." In
fact it will be our endeavor to show that the _palliata_ was not a true
art form, but merely an outer shell or mold into which Plautus poured his
stock of witticisms.
[Sidenote: Korting] Still more trenchant is the conclusion of Korting in
his _Geschichte des griechischen und römischen Theaters_ (P. 218 ff.):
"Die neue attische Komödie und folglich auch ihr Abklatsch, die romische
Palliata, war nicht ein Lustspiel im höchsten, im sittlichen Sinne des
Wortes, sondern ein blosses Unterhaltungsdrama. Amüsieren wollten die
Komödiendichter, nichts weiter. Jedes höhere Streben lag ihnen fern. Wohl
spickten sie ihre Lustspiele mit moralischen Sentenzen.... Aber die
schönen Sentenzen sind eben nur Zierat, sind nur Verbramung einer in ihrem
Kerne und Wesen durch und durch unsittlichen Dichtung ... Mit der
Wahrscheinlichkeit der Handlung wird es sehr leicht genommen: die
seltsamsten Zufälle werden als so ziemlich selbstverständliche
Möglichkeiten hingestellt ... Es ginge das noch an, wenn wir in eine
phantastische Märchenwelt geführt werden, in welcher am Ende auch das
Wunderbarste möglich ist, aber nein! es wird uns zugemutet, überzeugt zu
sein, dass alles mit natürlichen Dingen zugehe.
"Alles in allem genommen, ist an dieser Komödie, abgesehen von ihrer
formal musterhaften Technik, herzlich wenig zu bewundern.... An
Zweideutigkeiten, Obscönitäten, Schimpfscenen ist Überfluss vorhanden."
With admirable clarity of vision, Korting has spied the vital spot and
illuminated it with the word "Unterhaltungsdrama." That amusement was the
sole aim of the comic poets we firmly believe. But if this was so, why
arraign them on the charge of trying to convince us that everything is
happening in a perfectly natural manner? The outer form to be sure is that
of everyday life, but this is no proof that the poets demanded of their
audiences a belief in the verisimilitude of the events depicted. Can we
have no fantastic fairyland without some outlandish accompaniment such as
a chorus garbed as birds or frogs? But we reserve fuller discussion of
this point until later. We might suggest an interesting comparison to the
nonsense verse of W. S. Gilbert, which represents the most shocking ideas
in a style even nonchalantly matter-of-fact. Does Gilbert by any chance
actually wish us to believe that "Gentle Alice Brown," in the poem of the
same name, really assisted in "cutting up a little lad"?
Korting regains his usual clear-headedness in pronouncing 'that there is
little in the technique of _palliatae_ to excite our admiration.' Again we
insist (to borrow the jargon of the modern dramatic critic) it was but a
"vehicle" for popular amusement.
[Sidenote: Schlegel] Wilhelm Schlegel, in his _History of the Drama_
has the point of view of the dramatic critic, rather than the professional
scholar; while expressing a measure of admiration for the significance of
Plautus in literature, he is impelled to say: "The bold, coarse style of
Plautus and his famous jokes, savour of his familiarity with the vulgar
disgusting drollery." This is doubtless true, but, by making the
incidental a criterion for the whole, it gives a gross misconception to
one that has not read Plautus.
[Sidenote: Donaldson] J. W. Donaldson, in his lectures on the Greek
theatre, has plagiarized Schlegel practically _verbatim_, while giving
the scantest credit to his source. His work thus loses value, as being a
mere echo, or compilation of second-hand material.
We learn from Schlegel that Goethe was so enamored of ancient comedy that
he enthusiastically superintended the translation and production of plays
of Plautus and Terence. Says Schlegel: "I once witnessed at Weimar a
representation of the _Adelphi_ of Terence, entirely in ancient costume,
which, under the direction of Goethe, furnished us a truly Attic evening."
[Sidenote: Scott] In this connection the opinion of Sir Walter Scott may
be interesting. He too, not being a classical scholar _par excellence_,
may be better equipped for sound judgment. In the introduction to Dryden's
_Amphitryon_ he says: "Plautus ... left us a play on the subject of
Amphitryon which has _had the honour_ to be deemed worthy of imitation by
Molière and Dryden. It cannot be expected that the plain, blunt and
inartificial style of so rude an age should bear any comparison with that
of the authors who enjoyed the highest advantages of the polished times to
which they were an ornament." There speaks the sophisticated and conscious
[Sidenote: LeGrand] The most comprehensive and judicious estimate of all
is certainly attained by LeGrand in _Daos_. He appreciates clearly
that "la nouvelle comédie n'a pas été, en toute circonstance stance, une
comédie distinguée. Elle n'a pas dédaigné constamment la farce et le gros
rire." How much more then would this apply to _palliatae_!
We now believe that we have on hand a sufficiently large volume of
criticism to appreciate practically every phase of judgment to which
Plautus has been subjected. The ancients overrated him stylistically,
but he was a man of their own people. Men such as Becker, Weise, Lorenz
and Langrehr have proceeded upon a distinctly exaggerated ideal of
Plautus' eminence as a master dramatic craftsman and literary artist and
therefore have amputated with the cry of "Spurious!" everything that
offends their ideal. Lessing is obsessed with too high an estimate of the
_Captivi_. Lamarre, Naudet and Ritschl commit the error of imputing to our
poet a moral purpose. Schlegel and Scott deprecate the crudity of his wit
without an adequate appreciation of its sturdy and primeval robustness.
Langen, Mommsen, Korting and LeGrand approach a keen estimate of his
inconsistencies and his single-minded purpose of entertainment, but
Korting accuses him of attempting to create an illusion of life while
aiming solely at provoking laughter.
From this heterogeneous mass of diversified criticism we glean the
prevailing idea that Plautus is lauded or condemned according to his
conformity or non-conformity to some preconceived standard of comedy
situate in the critic's mind, without a consideration of the poet's
original purpose. We must seriously propound the question as to how far a
grave injustice has been done him almost universally in criticising him
for what he does not pretend to be. Did Plautus himself suffer from any
illusion that his plays were constructed with cogent and consummate
technique? Did he for a single instant imagine himself the inspired
reformer of public morality? Did he believe that his style was elegant and
polished? Indeed, he must have effected an appreciable refinement of the
vernacular of his age to produce his lively verse, but without losing the
robust vitality of "Volkswitz." Or is it true that nothing further than
amusement lay within his scope?
If so, we may at least posit that almost unbounded license must be allowed
the pen which aims simply to raise a laugh. We do not fulminate against a
treatise on Quaternions because it lacks humor. If the drawings of
cartoonists are anatomically incorrect, we are smilingly indulgent. Do we
condemn a vaudeville skit for not conforming to the Aristotelian code of
dramatic technique? Assuredly we do not rise in disgust from a musical
comedy because "in real life" a bevy of shapely maidens in scant attire
never goes tripping and singing blithely though the streets. If then we
can establish that Plautus regarded his adapted dramas merely as a rack on
which to hang witticisms, merely as a medium for laugh-provoking sallies
and situations, we have at once Plautus as he pretended to be, and in
large measure the answer to the original question: "What manner of drama
We say only "in large measure," because it is part of our endeavor to
settle accurately the position of our author in the dramatic scale,
considered of necessity from the modern viewpoint. We cannot believe that
he had any pretensions to refined art in play building, or rather
rebuilding, or to any superficial elegance of style, or to any moralizing
pose. We believe him an entertainer pure and simple, who never restricted
himself in his means except by the outer conventions and form of the Greek
New Comedy and the Roman stage, provided his single aim, that of affording
amusement, was attained. To establish this belief, and at the same time to
interpret accurately the nature of his plays and the means and effect of
their production, is our thesis.
If then we run the gamut of the dramatic scale, we observe that as we
descend from the higher forms, such as tragedy, psychological drama and
"straight comedy," to the lower, such as musical comedy and burlesque, the
license allowed playwright and actor increases so radically that we have a
difference of kind rather than of degree. Certain conventions of course
are common to all types. The "missing fourth side" of the room is a
commonplace recognized by all. If we ourselves are never in the habit of
communicating the contents of our letters, as we write, to a doubtless
appreciative atmosphere, we never cavil at such an act on the stage. The
stage whisper and aside, too, we accept with benevolent indulgence; but it
is worth noting that in the attempted verisimilitude of the modern
"legitimate" drama, the aside has well nigh vanished. As we go down the
scale through light comedy and broad farce these conventions multiply
With the introduction of music come further absurdities. Melodious voicing
of our thoughts is in itself essentially unnatural, to say the least.
Grand opera, great art form as it may be, is hopelessly artificial.
Indeed, so far is it removed from the plane of every day existence that we
are rudely jolted by the introduction of too commonplace a thought, as
when Sharpless in the English version of "Madame Butterfly" warbles
mellifluously: "Highball or straight?" And when we reach musical comedy
and vaudeville, all thought of drama, technically speaking, is abandoned
in watching the capers of the "merry-merry" or the outrageous "Dutch"
comedian wielding his deadly newspaper.
It is important for our immediate purposes to note: first, (as aforesaid),
that the amount of license allowed author and actor increases immeasurably
as we go down the scale; second, that the degree of familiarity with the
audience and cognizance of the spectator's existence varies inversely as
the degree of dramatic value. Thus, at one end of the scale we have, for
instance, Mrs. Fiske, whose fondness for playing to the centre of the
stage and ignoring the audience is commented upon as a mannerism; at the
other, the low comedian who says his say or sings his song directly at the
audience and converses gaily with them as his boon companions. Now it will
be shown that familiar address of the audience and the singing of monodies
to musical accompaniment are essential features of Plautus' style, and
many other implements of the lower types of modern drama are among his
favorite devices. If then we can place Plautus toward the bottom of the
scale, we relieve him vastly of responsibility as a dramatist and of the
necessity of adherence to verisimilitude. Where does he actually belong?
The answer must be sought in a detailed consideration of his methods of
producing his effects and in an endeavor to ascertain how far the audience
and the acting contributed to them.
§2. The Performance
[Sidenote: The Audience] As it is perfectly patent that every practical
playwright must cater to his public, the audience is an essential feature
in our discussion. The audience of Plautus was not of a high class.
Terence, even in later times, when education had materially progressed,
often failed to reach them by over-finesse. Plautus with his bold brush
pleased them. Surely a turbulent and motley throng they were, with the
native violence of the sun-warmed Italic temperament and the abundant
animal spirits of a crude civilization, tumbling into the theatre in the
full enjoyment of holiday, scrambling for vantage points on the sloping
ground, if such were handy, or a good spot for their camp-stools. In view
of the uncertainty as to the actual site of the original performances,
this portraiture is "atmospheric" rather than "photographic." (See
Saunders in TAPA. XLIV, 1913). At any rate, we have ample evidence of the
turbulence of the early Roman audience. (Ter. Prol. _Hec._ 39-42, and
citations immediately following). Note the description of Mommsen:
"The audience was anything but genteel.... The body of spectators cannot
have differed much from what one sees in the present day at public
fireworks and gratis exhibitions. Naturally, therefore, the proceedings
were not too orderly; children cried, women talked and shrieked, now
and then a wench prepared to push her way to the stage; the ushers had on
these festivals anything but a holiday, and found frequent occasion to
confiscate a mantle or to ply the rod."
Impatient if the play be delayed, and voicing their disapproval by lusty
clapping, stamping, whistling and cat-calls, they are equally ready with
noisy approval if the dramatic fare tickle their palate. The
_tibicen_, as he steps forth to render the overture, is greeted
uproariously as an old favorite. The manager perhaps appears and announces
the names of those taking part, each one of whom is doubtless applauded or
hissed in proportion to his measure of popularity. Differences of opinion
as to the merits of an individual actor may culminate in the partisans'
coming to blows. Horace (_Ep._ II. I. 200 ff.) comments on the
turbulence of the audiences of his day too; while under the Empire
factions for and against particular actors grew up, as in the circus.
Late-comers of course often disturbed the Prologus in his lines. The
continual reiteration that we find in such prologues as the _Amph._,
_Cap._ and _Poen._ was naturally designed as a safeguard against such
disturbance. Yet these prologues were undoubtedly composed, as Ritschl has
shown (_Par._ 232 ff.), shortly after 146 B.C., and the turbulence of the
original audience must have been far greater.
To win the favor of such a crowd, which would groan if instead of the
expected comedy a tragedy should be announced, what methods were
necessary? Slap-sticks, horse-play, broad slashing swashbuckling humor,
thick colors daubed on with lavish brush!
By Cicero's time the public had attained to such a degree of
sophistication that the slightest slip on the part of the wretched actor
was greeted by a storm of popular disapproval. "Histrio si paulum se movit
extra numerum, aut si versus pronuntiatus est syllaba una brevior aut
longior, exsibilatur, exploditur," says Cicero. The actor dare not
even have a cold, for on the slightest manifestation of hoarseness, he was
hooted off, though favorites such as Roscius might be excused on the plea
of indisposition. The Scholiast Cruquius to Hor. _Ser._ I. 10.37 ff.
notes: "Poemata ... in theatris exhibita imperitae multitudinis applausum
It is evident from all this that, while the Roman public had made
considerable advances in education, their demonstrative temperament had
not cooled. It seems eminently fair to deduce that the far ruder and less
cultivated audiences of Plautus' day were even more violent in their
manifestations of pleasure and displeasure, but that their criterion of
taste was solely the amount of amusement derived from the performance and
that they bothered themselves little about niceties of rhythm. To the
Roman, the scenic and histrionic were the vital features of a production.
Again we reiterate, only the bold brush could have pleased them.
That the plays of Plautus attained a permanent position in ihe theatrical
repertoire of Rome is of course well known; but he wrote primarily for his
own age, and in a difficult environment. Not only did he have to please a
highly volatile and inflammable public, but he must have been forced to
exercise tact to avoid offending the patrician powers, as the imprisonment
of Naevius indicates. Mommsen has an apt summary: "Under such
circumstances, where art worked for daily wages and the artist instead of
receiving due honour was subjected to disgrace, the new national theatre
of the Romans could not present any development either original or even at
[Sidenote: The Actor] This brief discussion of the relation between public
and playwright will suffice for our purposes. In the course of it we have
insensibly encroached upon the next topic: the relation of public and
actor. Who after all is the chief factor in the success or failure of a
drama, in spite of the oft misquoted adage, "The play's the thing?" The
actor! The actor, who can mouth and tear a passion to tatters, or swing a
piece of trumpery into popular favor by the brute force of his dash and
personality. That this was true in Plautus' day, no less than in our own,
is plainly indicated by the personal allusion inserted in the _Bac._
Etiam Epidicum, quam ego fabulam aeque ac me ipsum amo,
Nullam aeque invitus specto, _si agit Pellio_.
The servile status of the ancient actor is an index to the energy of his
performance, if to nothing else. Failure meant a beating, success a drink
at least. Augustus humanely abrogated the whipping of actors, but an
attempt was made in Tiberius' time to renew the practice. On the other
hand, there seem to have been prizes awarded to successful actors, as
well as to the poet; but this practice surely arose after Plautus'
lifetime. At any rate, whatever was the nature of the reward, in his day
the large emoluments won by Roscius and other popular favorites were
impossible. The effort demanded by the elaborate education of the
actor, in which naturally gesticulation was the most vital element,
was out of all proportion to the precarious reward. A rigid course of
training was prescribed and strenuous exercises were required, for both
actor and orator to keep the voice in proper form. Indeed, Quintilian
advises the budding orator to take instruction in voice production and
gesticulation from the comic actor. For the comic actor was at all
times recognized as livelier and more vivid in his performance than the
tragedian. The two were usually sharply differentiated.
Specialization arose, too, and we hear of actors who confined their
efforts to feminine roles, though naturally every performer was cast
for parts to which his physique was best suited.
It is doubtful whether such an elaborate system had been developed in
Plautus' time, but this much is certain: the comedian was on the stage
lively, energetic and constantly spurred on by the fear of punishment from
the _dominus gregis_ and the violent disapproval of a fickle, tempestuous
and withal exacting public. Polybius relates that the visit of a
troupe of Greek actors to Rome was a failure because of their over-staid
deportment, until, learning the desires of the volatile Italians, they
improvised a vastly more vivid pantomime depicting a mock battle, with
huge success. Assuredly the early Roman comedian must have acted with
greater abandon and clownish drollery, if not with the elaborate
histrionic technique of the later actor. We have heard Dr. Charles
Knapp relate that the performance of the _Ajax_ of Sophocles by a troupe
of modern Greek players went with amazing and incredible rapidity and
vivacity. It is all of a piece. We must inevitably associate vivid
temperament with the sons of the Mediterranean in all ages. Yet we have
just seen that the Greeks of old were too self-contained for their Italian
[Sidenote: The Histrionism] With this brief discussion of the condition,
incentive and motive of the Plautine actor, let us pass on to a more
detailed consideration of his methods and technique. Naturally by far the
most important part of this was gesture. Here again, while some of our
evidence is somewhat unreliable, practically every shred of extant
testimony indicates an extreme liveliness and vivacity. In the
rhetoricians frequent warning is issued to the forensic neophyte to avoid
the unrestraint of theatrical gesticulation. Cicero says (_De Or._ I. 59.
251): "Nemo suaserit studiosis dicendi adulescentibus in gestu discendo
histrionum more elaborare." Quintilian echoes (I. 11. 3): "Ne gestus quidem
omnis ac motus a comediis petendus est.... Orator plurimum ... aberit a
scaenico, nec vultu nec manu nec excursionibus nimius." And in the _Auctor
ad Herennium_ we find (III. 15. 26): "Convenit igitur in vultu et pudorem
nec acrimoniam esse, in gestu et venustatem nec turpitudinem, ne aut
histriones aut operarii videamur esse." That the nature and liveliness
of gesture on the stage was determined by the character portrayed, it is
almost needless to say.
Cicero's analysis (_de Or._ III. 59. 220) of the difference between
theatrical and forensic gesture implies that the former illustrates
individual words and ideas, while the latter comprehends more broadly the
general thought and sentiment. It is most unfortunate that we have
lost Cicero's treatise _De Gestu Histrionis_.
By Cicero's time a more restrained mode of acting was evidently considered
good taste; witness _de Off._ (I. 36. 130): "Histrionum non nulli gestus
ineptus non vacant, et quae sunt recta et simplicia laudantur." But
the passages cited above bear ample testimony to the vigor of histrionic
gesticulation even at this later and far more cultivated epoch. Again we
repeat, what must have been the energy and abandon of the original
Apart from the rhetoricians, the most fruitful literary source of our
information on gesture is Donatus' commentary on Terence. The
trustworthiness of this has been the subject of much argument. Sittl
accuses him of speaking merely from the standpoint of a professor of
rhetoric, as comedies of Terence were no longer given in the time of
Donatus. Weinberger in his "Beitrage zu den Buhnenaltherthumern aus Donats
Terenz-commentar," admonishes us to be very careful not to put too
high a value on the commentary. Van Wageningen is of the opinion that
much of the work was inspired by Donatus' having seen in his own time
unmasked actors play. To this view color is lent by Donatus' note to
_And._ 716: "Sive haec
sive per mulierem, ut nunc videmus."
If this is true, it makes Donatus' work of more significance to us, as it
would imply a harking back to the play of feature of the unmasked
performances of Plautus' day. But while it is certain that Donatus had
other sources than the Terentian text for his annotations, it is
equally certain that practically everything he has to say relative to
gesture and stage business is readily to be deduced from the text and is
in the main interesting only as a compilation. However, everything he
says continues to point persistently to lively gesture and action; and
this too in Terentian comedy, where the text makes far less rigorous
demands on the actor's muscles than in Plautus' works.
Donatus remarks occasionally that certain words must have been accompanied
by especially expressive gesture and byplay, evidently of feature, as
_vultuose, cum gestu_ and similar phrases are used to indicate this.
His note to _And._ 722 is: "Haec scaena actuosa est: magis enim in gestu
quam in oratione est constituta." Of gestures emphatic and yet not foreign
to everyday life Quintilian notes (XI. 3. 123): "Femur ferire--et usitatum
et indignantis decet"; a movement plainly employed in _Mil._ 204 and
_Truc._ 601. But, says Quintilian further (ib.): "Complodere manus
scaenicum est et pectus caedere."
One of the notable "hits" of the ancient stage is recorded by Donatus ad
_Phor._ 315: Ambivius (as Phormio) entered "oscitans temulenter atque
aurem minimo scalpens digitulo ... et labia lingens ut ebrius et ructans."
But Ambivius' potations resulted in an extremely spirited and lifelike
imitation of the parasite character and he was forthwith forgiven his
Passing mention must be made of the Terentian Mss. illustrations, though
they add but little weight to the foregoing. For a complete list of their
sources and editions see Sittl, "Gebärden der Griechen und Römer," Chap.
XI, p. 203 ff. But whatever be the exact date of the original, in our
extant copies the old traditional gestures are lost and the gesture of
everyday life supplied. In fact, in the analyses appended by Leo, van
Wageningen and Warnecke, in the works cited above, we arrive at little but
that the gestures natural to any Italian-born person in a like situation
are reproduced, such as "gestus abeuntis, cogitantis, parasiti," etc. It
is almost too much to make any of this a basis for argument as to
classical and pre-classical stage-craft. It is at least significant that
every character with hands free is gesticulating and the scene from _Eun._
IV. 6-7 is evidently full of vigorous action.
An old and discursive article by T. Baden, containing a description
and analysis of the gestures and posture of a number of familiar figures
from comedy exemplified in some collections of statuettes (chiefly those
in Borgia's Museum of Baden's time), is open to the same objection as the
above. The gestures of slave, pander, parasite, etc., described in the
article are lively and expressive to be sure, but contain little to
differentiate them from those of daily life.
While much of our evidence is still to come, we believe that we are
already justified in the deduction that the actor contemporary with
Plautus must have indulged in the extravagances of the players in the
Atellan farces and the mimes. The _mimus_ of the Empire, we know,
specialized in ridiculous facial contortions.
We must not forget too the vivacity indicated by the comic scenes among
the Pompeian and Herculanean wall-paintings, which have a close
kinship with the Terentian MSS. pictures. Nor must we lose sight of the
fact that all our pictorial _reliquiae_ portray the later masked
characters, and hence play of feature, which must have been a notable
concomitant of the original Plautine performance, is entirely obscured.
As our intention is fundamentally to get at the original intent of our
poet and his actors, a discussion of the mask is not in order. Whether we
agree with Donatus' statement that masks were first introduced for comedy
and tragedy by Cincius Faliscus and Minucius Prothymus respectively,
or with Diomedes' explanation that Roscius adopted them to disguise
his pronounced squint, it is certain that they were not worn in Plautus'
time, when wigs and make-up were employed for characterization. In
fact, the early performances of Plautus, unless we except the original
Terentian productions, stand almost alone in the history of Graeco-Roman
comedy as unmasked plays. This would give opportunity for the practice of
lively grimace and facial play.
The text itself contains not infrequent descriptions of the outward
appearance of the characters, often pointing to grotesqueries of make-up
that rival those of the Old Comedy. From _As._ 400-1 we learn that Saurea
Macilentis malis, rufulus, aliquantum ventriosus,
Truculentis oculis, commoda statura, tristi fronte.
In the _Mer._ Lysimachus is described as a veritable _thensaurus
Canum, varum, ventriosum, buculentum, breviculum,
Subnigris oculis, oblongis malis, pansam aliquantulum.
Curculio was one-eyed: "Unocule, salve" (Cur. 392). Pseudolus must have
been a joy to the groundlings _(Ps._ 1218 ff.):
Rufus quidam, ventriosus, crassis suris, subniger,
Magno capite, acutis oculis, ore rubicundo, admodum
Magnis pedibus. BA. Perdidisti, ut nominavisti pedes.
Pseudolus fuit ipsus.
His red slave's wig is thus made a feature in the characterization.
(Cf. Ter. _Phor._ 51). When Trachalio is looking for the procurer,
he inquires (_Rud._ 316 ff.):
Recalvom ad Silanum senem, statutum, ventriosum,
Tortis superciliis, contracta fronte...?
The precise details of the histrionic technique and "stage business" in
vogue must remain more or less a mystery to us. Our limitations in this
respect are admirably enunciated by Saunders (TAPA. XLIV, p. 97): "One
must conclude then, that it is dangerous to dogmatize on this subject, as
on most others connected with the early Roman stage. Our evidence is too
slight and the period of time involved is too long...." We can, therefore,
deal in little but generalities. The Romans must have imitated and
developed their Greek and Etruscan models. When Livius Andronicus
first fathered _palliatae_, he must have chosen the New Comedy not only as
the type of drama most available to him, but as wholly adaptable to his
audiences. When Plautus wrote, he had the machinery already built for him,
and he doubtless seized upon the _palliata_ form as the natural medium for
the exploitation of his talents. By Cicero's time considerable technical
equipment was required; the actor must be an adept in gesticulation,
gymnastic and dancing. Appreciable refinement had been reached in
Quintilian's age, for he scores the comic actor who departs too far from
reality and pronounces the ideal player him who declaims with a measured
artistic heightening of everyday discourse. It is noteworthy that this
practically coincides with the accepted standard of modern realistic
acting. But the Plautine actor could never have felt himself trammeled by
any such narrow and sophisticated restrictions, as we believe the evidence
accumulated above amply proves. At any rate, the delineation of different
roles must have been at all times strictly in character. The need of
feminine vocal tones, unless another jest is intended is indicated by
Certe vox muliebris auris tetigit meas.
And Quintilian admonishes the youth who is taking lessons from a comic
actor in voice-production not to carry his precepts so far as to imitate
the female falsetto, the senile tremolo, the obsequiousness of the slave,
the stuttering accents of intoxication or the intonations of love, greed,
Where Donatus gives instructions as to the vocal expression with which
certain lines are to be delivered, as in the case of his comments on
gesture, they are almost painfully evident from the context. He cites for
instance irony, anger, exhaustion , amazement ,
sympathy, pity. He appears as the lineal ancestor of the modern
"coach" of amateur theatricals in somewhat naively remarking that
upon leaving Thais for two days, Phaedria must pronounce "two days" as if
"two years" were written.
Another phase of the delivery of the dialogue that deserves passing
mention is song and musical accompaniment. Livy's anecdote of the
employment by Livius Andronicus of a boy to sing for him while he
gesticulated is almost universally accepted as an exceptional instance,
prompted by the failing of Livius' voice through age. We are now
fairly well informed of the tripartite diversion of the dialogue into
_canticum_ or song proper, recitative, and _diverbium_ or spoken
utterance, with the incidental accompaniment of the _tibia_. Though
there may be some dispute as to the apportionment of the various classes,
the general truth is established. The important feature of this for
our purpose is that, if the ancient tragedy with its music and dancing was
rather comparable to modern grand opera than to drama proper, the song and
musical accompaniment of comedy lend it a strong flavor of the opera
bouffe and even of the musical comedy of to-day. In Part II we shall draw
numerous other parallels between this style of composition and the plays
of Plautus. West, in A.J.P. VIII. 33, notes one of the few comparisons to
"comic opera" that we have seen. Fay, in the Introduction to his ed. of
the _Most._ (§ 11), likens Plautine drama to "an opera of the early
One feature of the performance still remains to be discussed--the
"stage-business," that is, the movements of the actors apart from mere
gesticulation and dialogue. Much of this too will find a place in Part II,
in the treatment of special peculiarities, but in general we note here
that the text itself contains many indications that are as plain as
printed stage directions regarding the movements being made or about to be
made by the characters. Examples of the more significant follow: _Amph._
308: Cingitur: Certe expedit se; 312: Perii, pugnos ponderat. (Sosia
speaks aside of Mercury and similarly during the succeeding scene); 903:
Potin ut abstineas manum?; 955: Aperiuntur aedis. This motif is
commonplace and frequent; 958: Vos tranquillos video; 1130: quam valide
tonuit; _As._ 39: Age, age, usque excrea; _Bac._ 668: quod sic terram
optuere?; _Cap._ 557: Viden tu hunc, quam inimico voltu intuitur?; 594:
Ardent oculi; 793: Hic homo pugilatum incipit; _Ep._ 609: illi
caperrat frons severitudine; _Mer._ 138: iam dudum spato sanguinem; _Mil._
1324: Nefle; _Most._ 1030: vocis non habeo satis. (He must have been
shouting); _Ps._ 458: Statum vide hominis, Callipho, quam basilicum; 955:
transvorsus ... cedit, quasi cancer solet: _Trin._ 623 f.: celeri
graducunt uterque: ille rcprehendit hunc priorem pallio.
This practice of indicating business in the lines, of making the
play act, is common to all the older types of drama, Elizabethan as
well as classic. A single striking example from Shakespeare will
furnish a parallel, in the well-known lines from _Macbeth_:
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon,
Where gott'st thou that goose look? (V. 3).
The modern playwright robs his lines of their vividness and
throws the onus on the actor through the medium of his interpolated
direction, a custom which reaches its most exaggerated form
in the plays of Bernard Shaw, as mentioned above.
[Sidenote: Thesis] We have now made a perceptible advance towards getting
an answer to our original questions: "What manner of drama is this?" and
"How was it done?" The comments of the most eminent critics on the former
question have left us rather bewildered by their diversity. Almost to a
man they have taken Plautus too seriously or else have arraigned him for
not conforming to their preconceived code of comedy, without questioning
whether it were Plautus' own or not. This has really nullified their
efforts to explain away the peculiarities and absurdities of his style.
Some _solvent_ of these difficulties is needed.
As to the second question, we have examined briefly the extant evidence
regarding the actor's employment of gesture and business, his delivery of
the dialogue, make-up and character delineation, and found a disappointing
paucity, but a general and irresistible trend towards liveliness, vivacity
and broad undiluted comedy that must have been the sort of dramatic fare
demanded by the primeval appetite of the Plautine audience. But again we
find ourselves falling short of a satisfying answer to our question.
Again, some _solvent_ is needed. As the last resort, we turn to the
evidence of the plays themselves and the unbounded realm of subjective
From the earliest times gesture and business in Aristophanes and the Old
Comedy were marked by the riotous license of all the media of that notable
epoch of comedy. From the broad spirit of its frank and vivid
burlesque not even the most stolidly Teutonic of humorless critics ever
thought of demanding a "picture of life." But with the abandonment of the
purpose of political propaganda, the consequent disappearance of the
chorus with its burlesque trappings (largely through motives of state
economy), and the establishment in the New Comedy of a type of dramatic
machinery that had a specious outer shell of reflection of characters and
events in daily life, the critics instantly seem to demand the standard of
dramatic technique of Aristotle and Freytag and condemn all departures
from this standard. In reality, we believe that the kinship of Plautus
with Aristophanes is much closer than has usually been realized.
Is, then, the change from Old to New Comedy as great as has been
represented? Does not the change consist rather in the outer form and in
the ideas expounded than in the spirit of the histrionism and mimicry? And
must not the vigor, from what we have seen, have been intensified in
Plautus? LeGrand alone seems to have caught the essence of this: "Que
dire de la mimique? D'après les indications contenues dans le texte même
des comédies, d'après les commentaires--notamment ceux de Donat, d'après
les monuments figurés--en particulier les images des manuscrits, elle
devait être en general très vive, souvent trop vive pour le goût des
modernes.... Et puis, ils s'addressaient a des spectateurs méridionaux,
coutumiers dans la vie quotidienne d'une gesticulation plus animée que la
nôtre." And this is said as a combined estimate of New Comedy and
We are now prepared to advance a definite thesis, that shall gather up the
random threads of argument and suggestion scattered through the foregoing
pages and shall, we hope, provide a conclusive and final answer to both of
our original questions. If we can establish: that our author's sole aim
was to feed the popular hunger for amusement; that, while after leaving
much of his Greek originals practically untouched, he considered them in
effect but a medium for the provocation of laughter, but a vessel into
which to pour a highly seasoned brew of fun; that to this end his actors
went before the public, potentially speaking slap-stick in hand, equipped
by nature with liveliness of grimace and gesture and prepared to act with
verve, unction and an abandon of dash and vigor that would produce a riot
of merriment; that his dramatic machinery is hopelessly crippled and that
his evident intentions and effects are hopelessly lost unless interpreted
in this spirit: then we relegate Plautine drama to a low plane of broad
farce, where verisimilitude to life becomes wholly unnecessary because
undesirable; where the canons of dramatic art become inoperative; where,
contrary to what Körting says, we are not asked to believe that
"everything is happening in a perfectly natural manner"; where the poet
may stick at nothing provided the laugh be forthcoming; where all the
apparently absurd conventions of _palliatae_ cease to be absurd, vanish
into thin air and become unamenable to literary criticism, inasmuch as
they are all only part of the laugh-compelling scheme. This is the
_solvent_ that we propose. To establish this, let us proceed to an
examination of the internal mechanism of the plays.
An Analysis of the Dramatic Values in Plautus
The salient features that characterize the plays of Plautus include both
his consciously employed means of producing his comic effects, and the
peculiarities and abnormalities that evidence his attitude of mind in
writing them. We should make bold to catalogue them as follows:
I. Machinery characteristic of the lower types of modern drama--farce, low
comedy, musical comedy, burlesque shows, vaudeville, and the like.
A. Devices self-evident from the text.
1. Bombast and mock-heroics.
2. Horse-play and slap-sticks.
3. Burlesque, farce and extravagance of situation and dialogue.
a. True burlesque.
b. True farce.
c. Extravagances obviously unnatural and merely for the sake of fun.
B. Devices absurd and inexplicable unless interpreted in a broad
1. The running slave.
2. Wilful blindness.
3. Adventitious entrance.
II. Evidences of loose composition which prove a disregard of
technique and hence indicate that entertainment was the sole aim.
A. Solo speeches and passages.
1. Asides and soliloquies.
2. Lengthy monodies, monologues and episodical specialties.
3. Direct address of the audience.
B. Inconsistencies and carelessness of composition.
1. Pointless badinage and padded scenes.
2. Inconsistencies of character and situation.
3. Looseness of dramatic construction.
4. Roman admixture and topical allusions.
5. Jokes on the dramatic machinery.
6. Use of stock plots and characters.
Let us illustrate these points by typical passages and endeavor to insert
such stage-directions as would indicate how the most telling effects could
be produced and hence aid the reader in visualizing the actual
I. Machinery Characteristic of the Lower Types of Modern Drama
A. _Devices self-evident from the text._
1. Bombast and mock-heroics.
It is a little difficult to sublimate this entirely from burlesque, but
its true nature is instanced by the opening lines of the _Miles_, where
the vainglorious Pyrgopolinices, with many a sweep and strut, addresses
his attendants, who are probably staggering under the weight of an
"Have a care that the effulgence of my shield be brighter than e'er the
sun's rays in a cloudless sky: when the time for action comes and the
battle's on, I intend it shall dazzle the eyesight o' m' foes. (_Patting
his sword_). Verily I would condole with this m' sword, lest he lament and
be cast down in spirit, forasmuch as now full long hath he hung idle by m'
side, thirsting, poor lad, to meet his fellow 'mongst the foe," and so on.
In line with this, a simulation of the military is a favorite device. So
we find Pseudolus addressing the audience in ringing blustering tones and
with grandiose gesture (_Ps._ 584 ff.):
"It now becomes my aim today to lay siege to this town and capture it."
(Ballio the procurer is the town). "I shall hurl all my legions against
it. If I take it, ... good luck to you, my citizens, for part of the booty
shall be yours."
This finds a close counterpart in the _Mil._ 219 ff., a passage which
West thinks was deliberately inserted to rouse the populace into
demanding that Scipio be at once despatched to Africa.
Periplecomenus is urging Palaestrio to find a stratagem. Actually he
probably addresses the pit:
"Don't you see that the enemy are upon you and investing your rear? Call a
council of war, reach out for stores and reinforcements in this crisis:
haste, haste, no time to waste! Make a detour through some pass, forestall
your foes, beleaguer them, protect our troops! Cut off the enemy's base of
Whether this passage had an ulterior purpose or not, the motif is
frequent. So we find Chrysalus in _Bac._ 925 ff. holding the stage
for an entire scene with an elaborate comparison of himself to Ulysses,
the brains of the Greek host, overcoming his master Nicobulus who
In general the mocking assumption of an heroic attitude recurs with
sufficient frequency to stamp it as a staple of comic effect. Many
passages would become tiresome and meaningless instead of amusing unless
so interpreted. The soliloquy of Mnesilochus in _Bac._ 500 ff. could be
made interesting only by turgid ranting. Similarly in _Bac._ 530 ff. and
2. Horse-play and slap-sticks.
By this we mean what can in nowise be so clearly defined as by
"rough-house." For instance, the turbulent Euclio in _Aul._ delivers
bastings impartially to various _dramatis personae_ and as a climax drives
the cooks and music-girl pell-mell out of the house, doubtless accompanied
by deafening howling and clatter (415 ff.). Similarly in the _Cas._ (875
ff.) Chalinus routs Olympio and the lecherous Lysidamus. We may well
imagine that such scenes were preceded as well as accompanied by a fearful
racket within (a familiar device of our low comedy and extravaganza), the
effect probably heightened by tempestuous _melodrama_ on the _tibiae_, as
both the scenes cited are in _canticum_.
In the _Men._ we are treated to a free fight, in which the valiant
Messenio routs the _lorarii_ by vigorous punches, while Menaechmus plants
his fist in one antagonist's eye (_Men._ 1011 ff.):
(Menaechmus of Epidamnus is seized by _lorarii_; as he struggles,
Messenio, slave of Menaechmus Sosicles, rushes into the fray to his
rescue). "MES. I say! Gouge out that fellow's eye, the one that's got you
by the shoulder, master. Now as for these rotters, I'll plant a crop of
fists on their faces. (_Lays about._) By Heaven, you'll be everlastingly
sorry for the day you tried to carry my master off. Let go!
MEN. (_Joining in with a will._) I've got this fellow by the eye!
MES. Bore it out! A hole's good enough for his face! You villians, you
thieves, you robbers! (_General melée. Lorarii weaken._)
LOR. We're done for! Oh Lord, please!
MES. Let go then!
MEN. What right had you to lay hands on me? Give them a good beating up!
(_Lorarii break and scatter wildly under the ferocious onslaught._)
MES. Come, clear out! To the devil with you all! That for _you_!
(_Strikes._) You're the last; here's _your_ reward! (_Strikes again._)"
The lines themselves are sufficiently graphic and need but little
annotation. Other pugilistic activities crop up at not infrequent
intervals in the text, and in _Ps._ 135 ff. Ballio generously plies
the whip. In the lacuna of the _Amph._ after line 1034, Mercury probably
bestows a drenching on Amphitruo. In _As._ III. 3, especially 697
ff., Libanus makes his master Argyrippus "play horsey" with him, doubtless
with indelicate buffonery. With invariable energy, even so simple a matter
as knocking on doors is made the excuse for raising a violent disturbance,
as in _Amph._ 1019 f. and 1025: Paene effregisti, fatue, foribus
cardines. And this idea is actually parodied in _As._ 384 ff. No,
Plautus did not allow his public to languish for want of noise.
3. Burlesque, farce and extravagance of situation and dialogue.
Under this head we include such conscious strivings for comic as are
frankly and plainly exaggerated and hyper-natural.
a. True burlesque.
This is in effect pure parody, cartooning. Patent burlesque of tragedy
appears in _Trin._ 820 ff. (_Charmides returns from abroad._)
"CHAR. To Neptune, ruler of the deep, and puissant brother unto Jove and
Nereus, do I in joy and gladness cry my praises and gratefully proclaim my
gratitude; and to the briny waves, who held me in their power, yea, even
my chattels and my very life, and from their realms restored me to the
city of my birth," etc., etc.
To tickle the ears of the groundlings, this must have been delivered in
grandiloquent mimicry with all the paraphernalia of the tragic style.
Horace notes a kindred manifestation of this tendency (to which he himself
is pleasingly addicted), in _Ep._ II. 3.93 f.:
Interdum tamen et vocem comoedia tollit
Iratusque Chremes tumido delitigat ore.
Tragic burlesque is again beautifully exemplified in _Ps._ 702 ff. The
versatile Pseudolus after a significant aside: "I'll address the fellow in
high-sounding words," says to his master Calidorus:
"Hail! Hail! Thee, thee, O mighty ruler, thee do I beseech who art lord
over Pseudolus. Thee do I seek that thou mayst obtain thrice three times
triple delights in three various ways, joys earned by three tricks and
three tricksters, cunningly won by treachery, fraud and villainy, which in
this little sealed missive have I but erstwhile brought to thee....
CHAR. The rascal's spouting like a tragedian."
When Sosia, in the first scene of _Amph._ (203 ff.), turgidly describes
the battle between the Thebans and Teleboans, he is parodying the
Messenger of tragedy. Another echo from tragedy is heard at the end of the
play, when Jupiter appears in the role of deus ex machina.
Burlesque of character and calling puts in an occasional appearance. The
recreant Sosia in _Amph._ 958 ff. mimics the dutiful slave. _As._ 259 ff.
contains an ironical treatment of augury, while in 751 ff. the poet has
his satirical fling at the legal profession.
b. True farce.
This is of course the comedy of situation and finds its mainstay in
mistaken identity. The _Men._ and _Amph._ with their doubles are
farce-comedies proper, but the element of farce forms the motive power of
nearly all the plots; for example, the shuffling-up of Acropolistis,
Telestis and the _fidicina_ in _Ep._, the quarrel between Mnesilochus and
Pistoclerus in _Bac._ resulting from the former's belief that his friend
had stolen his sweetheart, the exchange of names between Tyndarus and
Philocrates in _Cap._, the entrapping of Demaenetus with the _meretrix_ at
the dénouement of _As._, etc., etc. It is understood, we presume, that the
modern farce occupies no exalted position in the comic scale, is
distinguished by the grotesquerie of its characters, incidents and
dialogue, and is indulgently permitted to stray far from the paths of
realism. Even in Shakespearian farce, note the exaggerated antics of the
two Dromios in "The Comedy of Errors." It is significant then that farce
is a staple of our plays.
The farcical element is strikingly exemplified in _Amph._ 365-462, where
Mercury persuades Sosia that he is not himself. Impersonation and
assumption of a role is another noteworthy and frequent medium of plot
motivation. In _As._ 407 ff. Leonida tries to palm himself off as the
_atriensis_. Note the violent efforts of the two slaves to wheedle the
cunning ass-dealer (449 ff.). In _Cas._ 815 ff. Chalinus enters disguised
as the blushing bride. In _Men._ 828 ff. Menaechmus Sosicles pretends
madness in a clever scene of uproarious humor. In the _Mil._ (411 ff.)
Philocomasium needs only to change clothing to appear in the role of her
own hypothetical twin sister, and in 874 ff. and 1216 ff. the _meretrix_
plays _matrona_. Sagaristio and the daughter of the _leno_ impersonate
Persians (_Per._ 549 ff.), Collabiscus becomes a Spartan (_Poen._ 578
ff.), Simia as Harpax gets Ballio's money (_Ps._ 905 ff.), the sycophant
is garbed as messenger (_Trin._ 843 ff.), Phronesium elaborately pretends
to be a mother (_Truc._ 499 ff.). A swindle is almost invariably the
object in view. But we have said enough on this score: no one who knows
the plays at all can fail to recognize the predominance of farce. Compare
on the modern stage the sudden appearance of "the long-lost cousin from
c. Extravagances obviously unnatural and merely for the sake of fun.
This group of course often contains marked features of burlesque and
farce, and hence shows a close kinship with the foregoing.
The extravagance of the love-sick swain is a fruitful source of this
species of caricature. The ridiculous Calidorus, always wearing his heart
on his sleeve, rolls his eyes, brushes away a tear and says (_Ps._ 38
ff.): "But for a short space have I been e'en as a lily of the field.
Suddenly sprang I up, as suddenly I withered." The irreverent Pseudolus
replies: "Oh, shut up while I read the letter over." Calidorus finds his
counterpart in Phaedromus of the _Cur._, who, accompanied by his slave,
approaches milady's abode (_Cur._ 10 ff.):
"PH. (_In languishing accents, with eyes cast upward_): Shall I not take
sweets to the sweet: what is culled by the toil of the busy bees to my own
little honey?... (_They advance to milady's doorway which he sprinkles
with wine_, 88 ff.): Come, drink, ye portals of pleasure, quaff and deign
to be propitious unto me.
PALINURUS SER. (_Addressing the door with mimicry of Phaedromus' airs._)
Do you want some olives or sweetmeats or capers?
PH. (_Continuing._) Arouse your portress; hither send her unto me.
(_Lavishes the wine._)
PAL. (_In great alarm, grasping his arm._) You're spilling the wine!
What's got hold of you?
PH. Unhand me! (_Gently shakes himself loose._) Lo! The temple of joys
untold is opening. Did not the hinge creak? 'Tis charming!
PAL. (_Turning aside in disgust._) Why don't you give it a kiss?"
In each case the impertinent slave provides the foil. When the lovers
succeed in meeting, they are interlocked in embrace from 172 to 192,
probably invested with no small amount of suggestive "business." This
would doubtless hardly be tolerated by the "censor" today. Another variety
of lover's extravagance is the lavishing of terms of endearment, as we
find in _Cas._ 134 ff.
When this feature of "extravagance" enters the situation instead of the
dialogue, we have episodes such as the final scene of the _Ps._, where the
name character is irrelevantly introduced (1246) in a state of
intoxication which, with copious belching in Simo's face, culminates in a
rebellion of the overloaded stomach (1294). We can scarcely doubt that
such business was carried out in ultra-graphic detail and rewarded by
copious guffaws from the populace. In sharp contrast to this, the
drunkenness of Callidamates in _Most._ 313 ff. is depicted with unusual
artistry, but still from the very nature of such a scene it may be labeled
Manifestation of violent anger is another source of exaggerated stage
business. _Ep._ 512 ff. should be interpreted somewhat as follows:
"(_The deluded Periphanes has just discovered that the fidicina is an
impostor and not his daughter._) FID. (_Sweetly._) Do you want me for
PER. (_Stamping foot and shaking fists in a passion._) The foul fiend take
you to utter perdition! Clear out, and quickly too!
FID. (_In alarm._) Won't you give me back my harp?
PER. Nor harp nor pipes! So hurry up and get out of here, if you know
what's good for you!
FID. (_Stamping her foot in tearful rage._) I'll go, but you'll have to
give them back later just the same and it will be all the worse for you.
PER. (_Striding up and down in wildest anger._) What!... shall I let her
go unpunished? Nay, even if I have to lose as much again, I'll lose it
rather than let myself be mocked and despoiled with impunity!" and so
Other random scenes that may be classed as "extravagant" are found in
Strobilus' cartoon of Euclio (_Aul._ 300 ff.), Demipho's discovery in the
distance of a mythical bidder for the girl (_Mer._ 434 ff.), Charinus'
playing "horsey" and taking a trip in his imaginary car (_Mer._ 930 ff.),
and the loud "boo-hoo" to which Philocomasium gives vent (_Mil._ 1321
ff.). These all might be classed under either "farce" or "burlesque," but
they seem to come more exactly under the kindred head of "extravagance."
A familiar figure in modern farce-comedy is the comic conspirator with
finger on lip, tiptoeing round in fear of listeners. He finds his
prototype in _Trin._ (146 ff.):
"(_Callicles and Megaronides converse._)
CAL. (_In a mysterious whisper._) Look around a bit and make sure there's
nobody spying on us--and please look around every few seconds. (_They
pause and peer in every direction, perhaps creeping round on tiptoe._)
MEG. Now, I am all ears.
CAL. When you're through, I'll talk. (_Pauses and nods._) Just before
Charmides went abroad, he showed me a treasure, (_stops and looks over his
shoulders_) in his house here, in one of the rooms. (_Starts, as if at a
noise._) Look around! (_They repeat the search and return again._)
MEG. There's nobody."
Another old stage friend is the detected plotter trying to lie out of an
embarrassing situation. He is lineally descended from Tranio in the
_Most._ Tranio has just induced his master Theopropides to pay forty minae
to the money-lender on the pretext that Theopropides' son Philolaches has
bought a house (659 ff.):
"TH. In what neighborhood did my son buy this house?
TR. (_Aside to audience in comic despair, with appropriate gesture._) See
there now! I'm a goner!
TH. (_Impatiently._) Will you answer my question?
TR. Oh yes, but (_Stammering and displaying symptoms of acute
embarrassment_) I--I'm trying to think of the owner's name. (_Groans._)
TH. Well, hurry up and remember it!
TR. (_Rapidly, aside._) I can't see anything better to do than tell him
his son bought the house of our next-door neighbor here. (_With a shrug._)
Thunder, I've heard that a _steaming_ lie is the best kind.
(_Mock-heroically._) 'Tis the will of the gods, my mind's made up.
TH. (_Who has been frowning and stamping in impatience._) Well, well,
well! Haven't you thought of it yet?
TR. (_Aside._) Curses on him!... (_Finally turning and bursting out
suddenly._) It's our next-door neighbor here--your son bought the house
from him. (_He sees that the lie goes and sighs with relief._)"
Another variation on this theme is the futile effort of the plotter to get
rid of a character armed with incriminating evidence. Again we quote
_Most._ (573 ff.), where Tranio is conversing with Theopropides. The
money-lender from whom young Philolaches has borrowed appears on the other
side of the stage. Tranio espies him. He must keep him away from the old
man. With a hurried excuse he flies across to meet Misargyrides.
"TR. (_Taking Misargyrides' arm and attempting to steer him off-stage._) I
was never so glad to see a man in my life.
MIS. (_Suspiciously, holding back._) What's the matter?
TR. (_Confidentially._) Just step this way. (_Looks back apprehensively at
Theopropides, who is regarding them suspiciously._)
MIS. (_In a loud and offensive voice._) Won't my interest be paid?
TR. I know you have a good voice; don't shout so loud.
MIS. (_Louder._) Hang it, but I _will_ shout!
TR. (_Groans and glances over shoulder again._) Run along home, there's a
good fellow. (_Urges him toward exit._)", etc.
Tranio has a chance for very lively business: a sickly smile for the
usurer, lightning glances of apprehension towards Theopropides, with an
occasional intimate groan aside to the audience. Other farcical scenes of
the many that may be cited as calling for particularly vivacious business
and gesture are, e.g., _Cas._ 621 ff., where Pardalisca befools Lysidamus
by timely fainting, _Rud._ 414 ff., where Sceparnio flirts with Ampelisca,
and the quarrel scene, _Rud._ 485 ff.
The last four passages quoted in translation are by no means lacking in
artistic humor and a measure of reality, but they imply a pronounced
heightening of the actions and emotions of everyday life and lose their
humor unless presented in the broad spirit that stamps them as belonging
to the plane of farce. We now pass on to motives where the dialogue aims
at effects manifestly unnatural and where verisimilitude is sacrificed to
the joke, as we have seen it is in the employment of "bombast," "true
The first of these motives is a stream of copious abuse, as in _Per._ 406
ff., where Toxilus _servos_ and Dordalus _leno_ exchange Rabelaisian
"TOX. (_Hopping about with rabid gestures._) You filthy pimp, you
mud-heap, you common dung-hill, you besmirched, corrupt, law-breaking
decoy, you public sewer, ... robber, mobber, jobber, ...!
DOR. (_Who has been dancing around in fury, shaking his fist until
exhausted by his paroxysms._) Wait--till--(_Puffing_)--I--get--my
breath--I'll--answer you! You dregs of the rabble, you slave-brothel, you
'white-slave' freer, you sweat-of-the-lash, you chain gang, you king of
the treadmill, ... you eat-away, steal-away run-away....!" etc.
Perhaps we have here the forerunner of the shrewish wife in modern
vaudeville, who administers to her shrinking consort a rapid-fire
tongue-lashing. Another phase of this profuse riot of words appears in the
formidable Persian name that Sagaristio, disguised as a Persian, adopts in
the _Per._ (700 ff.):
"DORDALUS. What's your name?
SAG. Listen then, and you shall hear: False-speaker-us Girl-seller-son
Much-o'-nothing-talk-son Money-gouge-out-son Talk-up-to you-son
Coin-wheedle-out-son What-I-once-get-son Never-give-up-son: there you are!
DOR. (_With staring eyes and gasping breath._) Ye Gods! That's a
variegated name of yours!
SAG. (_With a superior wave of the hand._) It's the Persian fashion."
The second point in this category is own cousin to the above. We should
label it persistent interruption and repetition. An excellent instance is
_Trin._ 582 ff., when Stasimus, Lesbonicus and Philto have just hatched a
plot. Philto departs.
"LES. (_To Stasimus._) You attend to my instructions. I'll be there
presently. Tell Callicles to meet me.
ST. Now you just clear out! (_Pushes him after Philto._)
LES. (_Calls out as he is being shoved away._) Tell him to see what has to
be done about the dowry.
ST. Clear out!
LES. (_Raising his voice._) For I'm determined not to marry her off
without a dowry.
ST. Won't you clear out?
LES. (_Still louder._) And I won't let her suffer harm by reason.----
ST. Get out, I say!
LES. (_Shouts._)--of my carelessness.
ST. Clear out!
LES. It seems right that my own sins--
ST. Clear out!
LES.--should affect me alone.
ST. Clear out!
LES. (_Mock heroically._) Oh father, shall I ever behold you again?
ST. Out, out, out! (_With a final shove._) (_Exit Lesbonicus._) At last, I
've got him away! (_Breathes hard._)"
The fun, if fun there be, lies in the hammer-like repetition of "I modo,"
a sort of verbal buffoonery. A clever actor could din this with telling
effect. The device is employed several times. In _Most._ 974 ff. the word
is _aio_, in _Per._ 482 ff. _credo_, in _Poen._ 731 ff. _quippini_, in
_Ps._ 484 ff. ναι γάρ, in _Rud._ 1212 ff. _licet_ and 1269 ff.
_censeo_. The last two examples are the lengthiest.
The third of these motives is the introduction of clearly unnatural
dialogue, wholly incidental and foreign to the action, for the sake of
lugging in a joke. The _As._ (38 ff.) yields the following conversation
between Demaenetus _senex_ and his slave Libanus:
"LI. By all that's holy, as a favor to me, spit out the words you have
DE. All right, I'll be glad to oblige you. (_Coughs._)
LI. Now, now, get it right up! (_Pats him on the back._)
DE. More? (_Coughs._)
LI. Gad, yes, please! Right from the bottom of your throat: more still!
DE. Well, how far down then?
LI. (_Unguardedly._) Down to Hades is my wish!
DE. I say, look out for trouble!
LI. (_Diplomatically._) For your wife, I mean, not for you.
DE. For that speech I bestow upon you freedom from punishment."
The childish bandying of words in _Truc._ 858 ff. is egregiously tiresome
in the reading, but in action could have been made to produce a modicum of
amusement if presented in the broad burlesque spirit that we believe was
almost invariably employed. This gives us a clue to the next topic.
B. _Devices absurd and inexplicable unless interpreted in a broad farcical
This includes peculiarities that have usually been commented on as
weaknesses or conventions, or else been given up as hopeless
incongruities, but which we hope to prove also yield their quota of
amusement if clownishly performed. The foremost of these is the famous
1. Running Slave or Parasite.
We all know him: rushing madly cross stage at top-speed (if we take the
literal word of the text for it), with girded loins, in search of somebody
right under his nose, the while unburdening himself of exhaustive periods
that, however great the breadth of the Roman stage, would carry him
several times across and back: as Curculio in 279 ff.:
"Make way for me, friends and strangers, while I carry out my duty here.
Run, all of you, scatter and clear the road! I'm in a hurry and I don't
want to butt into anybody with my head, or elbow, or chest, or knee....
And there's none so rich as can stand in my way, ... none so famous but
down he goes off the sidewalk and stands on his head in the street," and
so on for ten lines or more. After he has found his patron Phaedromus, he
is apparently so exhausted that he cries: "Hold me up, please, hold me up!
(_Wobbles and falls panting into Phaedromus' arms._)
PH.... Get him a chair ... quick!"
When Leonida enters (_As._ 267 ff.) as the running slave, he is still out
of breath at 326-7! Stasimus in _Trin._ 1008 ff., though his mission is
also proclaimed as desperately urgent, pauses to declaim on public morals!
Considerable light has been thrown upon this subject recently by the
dissertation of Weissman, _De servi currentis persona apud comicos
Romanes_ (Giessen, 1911), though his explanation of the _modus operandi_
is inconclusive. Langen has commented on it at some length, but
offers no solution. Weise frankly admits: "Wie sie gelaufen sind, ist
ein Rätsel fur uns." LeGrand follows Weise's conclusion that it is an
imitation from the Greek and in support of this instances Curculio's use,
while running, of the presumed translations from the Greek: _agoranomus_,
_demarchus_, etc. He also cites as parallels some unconvincing phrases from
fragments of New Comedy, while developing an ingenious theory that the
device is a heritage from the Greek orchestra, where it could have been
performed with a hippodrome effect. Terence berates the practice, but
makes use of it himself.
Weissman's conclusions are worth a summary. He notes the following as the
usual essential concomitants: 1. It is mentioned in the text that the
slave is on the run. 2. He is the bearer of news of the moment; 3. He
fails to recognize other characters on stage; 4. He is halted by the very
man he is so violently seeking. He cites as the genuine occurrences of the
_servus_ or _parasitus currens_, besides the passages mentioned above,
_Cap._ 781 ff., _Ep._ 1 ff., 192 ff., _Mer._ 111 ff., _Per._ 272 ff.,
_St._ 274 ff. Furthermore, he argues convincingly that this was an
independent Roman development without a prototype on the Greek stage and
neatly refutes Weise and LeGrand by proving that there are no extant Greek
fragments sufficient to furnish a ground for any but the most tenuous
argument. Above all, he correctly interprets the poet's aim with the
dictum: "Praeterquam quod hac persona optime utitur ad actionem bene
continuandam id maxime spectat ut per eam _spectatorum risum_ captet." And
this from a German youth of twenty-two!
It is in his attempt to explain the mechanism that we believe Weissman
fails. He essays an exegesis of each passage, though the separate
explanations are naturally similar. It will suffice to quote one, that to
_As._ 267 ff.: "Hoc nullo modo aliter mihi declarari posse videtur nisi
sic: Oratio Leonidae currentis maior est quam ut arbitrari possimus
currentem semper eum habuisse eam. Ex versu 290 Leonidam de celeritate sua
remisisse plane apparet. Quod semel solum eum fecisse cum non satis mihi
esse videatur, saepius--bis vel ter--per breve tempus eum cursum suum
interrupisse, circumspexisse, Libanum autem non spectavisse (hoc consilium
poetae erat, licentia poetica est) et hoc modo per totam scaenam cursum
suum direxisse arbitror."
It will be observed that for lack of any tangible evidence he very
properly makes use of subjective reasoning. Now it has long been the
opinion of the writer that the maximum of comic effect (and that this was
the purpose of the _servus currens_ there can surely be no doubt) could
best be obtained by the actor's making a violent and frenzied pretense of
running while scarcely moving from the spot. Consider the ludicrous
spectacle of the rapidly moving legs and the flailing arms, with the
actor's face turned toward the audience, as he declaims sonorously of his
haste to perform his vital errand, while making but a snail's progress.
Truly then his plea of exhaustion would not be without excuse! This is an
explanation at once simpler, more potentially comic, more in accord with
what we predicate as the spirit of Plautus, and furthermore we have seen
roars of laughter created by the similar device of a low comedian in a
modern extravaganza. Taking advantage of the same subjective license, we
see nothing in Weissman's theory to offset our opinion. But, what is more,
our subjective reconstruction is given color by a shred of tangible
evidence. Suetonius (_Tib._ 38) refers to a popular quip on the emperor
that compares him to an actor on the classic Greek stage: "Biennio
continuo post ademptum imperium pedem porta non extulit; ... ut vulgo iam
per iocum Callip(p)ides vocaretur, quem cursitare ac ne cubiti quidem
mensuram progredi proverbio Graeco notatum est." That this Callipides was
the ὑποϗριτής mentioned by Xenophon (_Sym._ III. 11), Plutarch
(_Ages._ 21 and _Apophth. Lacon._: s. v. _Ages._), Cicyero (_Ad. Att._
XIII. 12) and possibly by Aristotle (_Poet._ 26.), seems highly plausible.
Compare the _saltus fullonius_ (Sen. _Ep._ 15.4).
Most amusing of all is Plautus' introduction of a parody on the parody,
when Mercury rushes in post-haste crying (_Amph._ 984 ff.):
"Make way, give way, everybody, clear the way! I tell you all: don't you
get so bold as to stand in my road. For, egad! I'd like to know why I, a
god, shouldn't have as much right to threaten the rabble as a mere slave
in the comedies!"
And perhaps _St._ 307 is a joke on the running slave: Sed spatium hoc
occidit: brevest curriculo: quam me paenitet? That violent haste was
considered a slavish trait is evidenced by _Poen._ 523-3.
2. Wilful blindness.
In the scene recently quoted (_Cur._ 279 ff.), Curculio, after his violent
exertions in search of his patron, is for a time apparently unable to
discover him, though he is on the stage all the time. This species of
blindness must be wilfully designed as a burlesque effect and again finds
its echo in low comedy types of today. The breadth and depth of the Roman
stage alone will not account for this either; indeed, its very size could
be utilized to heighten the humor, as the actor peers hither and yon in
every direction but the right one. So Curculio (front) may pass directly
by Phaedromus (rear) without seeing him, to the huge delight of the
audience, and turn back again, while saying (301 ff.):
"Is there anybody who can point out Phaedromus, my guardian angel, to me?
The matter's very urgent: I must find this chap at once.
PALINURUS. (_To Phaedromus._) It's you he's looking for.
PH. What do you say we speak to him? Hello, Curculio, I want you!
CUR. (_Stopping and again looking vainly round._) Who's calling? Who says
PH. Somebody that wants to see you.
CUR. (_At last recognizing him when almost on top of him._) Ah! You don't
want to see me any more than I want to see you."
Acanthio in _Mer._ 130 ff. is still more blind to the presence of Charinus
and raises a deal more fuss, as he enters in the wildest haste looking for
Charinus, who is of course in plain sight. Acanthio, with labored
breathing and the remark that he would never make a piper, probably passes
by Charinus and goes to the house.
"AC. What am I standing here for, anyway? I'll make splinters of these
doors without a single qualm. (_Hammers violently. Charinus approaches,
vainly trying to attract his attention._) Open up, somebody! Where's my
master Charinus, at home or out? (_Still hammering._) Isn't anybody
supposed to have the job of tending door?
CH. (_Shouting._) Here I am, Acanthio! You're looking for me, aren't you?
AC. (_Still punishing the door._) I never saw such slovenly management.
CH. (_Finally grabbing and shaking him._) What the deuce has got hold of
you?" And so in the case of practically all the _servi currentes_.
The opening scene of the _Per._ (13 ff.) between two slaves apparently
unable to distinguish each other's features from opposite sides of the
stage affords an opportunity for a similar species of farcical by-play.
Toxilus and Sagaristio stroll slowly in from the different side-entrances,
alternately soliloquizing. Suddenly, when probably fairly close, both look
up and peer curiously at each other:
"TOX. (_Shading his eyes with his hand._) Who's that standing over there?
SAG. Who's this standing over here?
TOX. Looks like Sagaristio.
SAG. I bet it's my friend Toxilus.
TOX. He's the fellow, all right.
SAG. That's the chap, I'm sure.
TOX. I'll go over to him.
SAG. I'll go up and speak to him. (_They draw closer._)
TOX. Sagaristio, I hope the gods are good to you.
SAG. Toxilus, I hope the gods give you everything you want. How are you?
TOX. So so."
Note that this is _canticum_ and the effect of the two "sing-songing"
slaves on the audience must have been much the same as, upon us, the
spectacle of a vaudeville "duo," entering from opposite wings and singing
perchance a burlesque of grand opera at each other.
3. Adventitious entrance.
This is of a piece with the above, but is usually due to a weakness of
composition, to the goddess Τύχη, who is the presiding deity of
the plots of New Comedy. However, there are times when appreciable
fun can be extracted from this, if the actor speak in a bland jocular
tone, taking the audience into his confidence, as _Trin._ 400 f.:
"PHILTO. But the door of the house to which I was going is opening. Isn't
that nice? Lesbonicus, the very man I'm looking for, is coming out with
And _Aul._ 176 f.:
"MEGADORUS. I'd like to see Euclio, if he's at home. Ah, here he comes!
He's on his way home from some place or other."
We believe that enough has been said to prove that the favorite devices of
the lower types of modern stage-production form the back-bone of Plautus'
methods of securing his comic effects. Let us pass on without more ado to
a discussion of points that establish equally well that he was careless of
every other consideration but the eliciting of laughter.
II. Evidences of Loose Composition Which Prove a Disregard of Technique
and Hence Indicate that Entertainment Was the Sole Aim
A. _Solo speeches and passages_.
1. Asides and soliloquies.
As it is often important for the audience to know the thoughts of stage
characters, the aside and the soliloquy in all species of dramatic
composition have always been recognized as the only feasible conventional
mode of conveying them. According to the strictest canons of dramatic art,
the ideally constructed play should be entirely free from this weakness.
Mr. Gillette is credited with having written in "Secret Service" the first
aside-less play. But this is abnormal and rather an affectation of
technical skill. The aside is an accepted convention. But in the plays of
have a profuse riot of solo speeches and passages that transcends the
conventional and becomes a gross weakness of composition, pointing plainly
to a poverty of technique and hence further strengthening the conception
of entertainment as the author's sole purpose. And often too, as we shall
point out, this very form can be used for amusement. To attempt a complete
collection of these passages would mean a citation of hundreds of lines,
comprising a formidable percentage of all the verses.
And furthermore, the Plautine character is not so tame and spiritless as
merely to think aloud. He has a fondness for actual conversation with
himself that shows a noble regard for the value of his own society. This
is attested by many passages, such as _Amph._ 381: Etiam muttis?; _Aul._
52: At ut scelesta sola secum murmurat; _Aul._ 190: Quid tu solus tecum
loquere?; _Bac._ 773: Quis loquitur prope?; _Cap._ 133: Quis hic
One character standing aside and commenting on the main action is a
familiar situation and often productive of good fun. An excellent example
is _Most._ 166 ff., where Philematium is performing her conventionally
out-door toilet with the aid of her duenna Scapha. Philolaches stands on
the other side of the stage and interjects remarks:
"PHILEM. Look at me please, Scapha dear; is this gown becoming? I want to
please Philolaches, the apple of my eye....
SC. Why deck yourself out, when your charm lies in your charming manners?
It isn't gowns that lovers love, but what bellies out the gowns.
PHILO. (_Aside._) God bless me, but Scapha's clever; the hussy has
PHILEM. (_Pettishly._) Well, then?
SC. What is it?
PHILEM. Look me over anyhow and see how this becomes me.
SC. The grace of your figure makes everything you wear becoming.
PHILO. (_Aside._) Now for that speech, Scapha, I'll give you some present
before the day is out--and so on for a whole long scene.
The quips are amusing in an evident burlesque spirit. Such a scene was
easily done on the broad Roman stage, whether it was a heritage from the
use of the orchestra in Greek comedy, as LeGrand thinks, or not. In
similar vein, clever by-play on the part of the cunning Palaestrio would
make a capital scene out of _Mil. 1037 ff._ A perfectly unnatural but
utterly amusing scene of the same type is _Amph. 153-262_, where Mercury
apostrophizes his fists, and the quaking Sosia (cross-stage) is frightened
to a jelly at the prospect of his early demise. In Cap. 966, Ilegio, staid
gentleman that he is, introduces an exceeding "rough" remark in the middle
of a serious scene. The aside of Pseudolus in _Ps. 636 f._ could be
rendered as a good-natured burlesque as follows:
"HARPAX. What's your name?
PS. (_Hopping forward and addressing audience with hand over mouth._) The
pander has a slave named Surus. I'll say I'm he. (_Hopping back and
addressing Harpax._) I'm Surus." Many other scenes were doubtless rendered
by one character's thus stepping aside and confiding his ideas to the
spectators, as for example _Aul. 194 ff._ and _Trin. 895 ff._ Often our
characters blurt out their inmost thoughts to the public, as in _Cas. 937
ff._, with eavesdroppers conveniently placed, else what would become of
The soliloquy is constantly used to keep the audience acquainted with the
advance of the plot, or to paint in narrative intervening events that
connect the loose joints of the action. This is of course wholly
inartistic, but may often find its true office in keeping a noisy,
turbulent and uneducated audience aware of "what is going on." In many
cases the soliloquy is in the nature of a reflection on the action and
seems to bear all the ear-marks of a heritage from the original function
of the tragic chorus. It devolved upon the actor by sprightly mimicry
to relieve, in these scenes, the tedium that appeals to the reader. So in
_Cap._ 909 ff. the _canticum_ of the _puer_ becomes more than a mere
stopgap, if he acts out vividly the violence of Ergasilus; and in _Bac._
1067 ff. the soliloquy would acquire humor, if confidentially directed at
the audience. In _As._ 127 ff., as Argyrippus berates the _lena_ within,
it must be delivered with an abundance of pantomime.
2. Lengthy monodies, monologues and episodical specialties.
Frequently the soliloquy takes the form of a long solo passage directed at
the audience, while the action halts for a whole scene to allow the actor
to regale his public with the poet's views on the sins of society,
economic topics of the day, or topics of the by-gone days in Athens, and
the like. The resemblance to the interpolated song and dance of musical
comedy is most striking. The comparison is the more apt, as about
two-thirds of the illustrative scenes referred to in the next paragraph
are in _canticum_. It is a pity that the comic chorus had disappeared, or
the picture were complete. That it is often on the actor's initial
appearance that he sings his song or speaks his piece, strengthens the
resemblance. But this is a natural growth under the influence of two
publics, the Greek and the Roman, notably fond of declamation and oratory.
LeGrand believes this a characteristic directly derived from a narrative
form of Middle Comedy embodied in certain extant fragments.
The slave class is the topic of many of these monodies: either the virtues
of the loyal slave are extolled, or the knavery of the cunning
slave. The parasite is "featured" too, when Ergasilus bewails the
decline of his profession, or Peniculus and Gelasimus indulge in
haunting threnody on their perpetual lack of food. Bankers, lawyers
and panders come in for their share of satire. Our favorite topic
today, the frills and furbelows of woman's dress and its reform, held the
boards of ancient Athens and Rome. In _Mil._ 637 ff, Periplecomenus
descants on the joys of the old bon vivant and the expense of a wife. The
delights or pains of love, the ruminations of old age, marriage
reform and divorce, the views of _meretrices_ and their victims
on the arts of their profession, the habits of cooks, the pride
of valor and heroic deeds are fruitful subjects. In _Cur._ 462 ff.
the _choragus_ interpolates a recital composed of topical allusions to the
manners of different neighborhoods of Rome. We have two descriptions of
dreams, and a clever bit which paints a likeness between a man and a
house. In foreign vein is the lament of Palaestra in _Rud._ 185 ff.,
which sounds like an echo from tragedy. The appearance of the Fishermen's
Chorus (_Rud._ 290 ff.) is wholly adventitious and seems designed to
intensify the atmosphere of the seacoast, if indeed it has any purpose at
all. In this category also belong the revels of the drunken Pseudolus with
his song and dance, and the final scene of the _St._, where, the
action of the slender plot over, the comedy slaves royster and dance with
the harlot. When Ballio drives his herd before him, as he berates them
merrily to the tune of a whip, we have an energetic and effective
3. Direct address of the audience.
It is a well-established principle that the most intimate cognizance of
the spectator's existence is a characteristic of the lowest types of
dramatic production (v. Part I, § 1, fin.). The use of soliloquy, aside
and monologue all indicate the effort of the lines to put the player on
terms of intimacy with his public. But even this is transcended by the
frequent recurrence in jocular vein of deliberate, conscious and direct
address of the audience, when they are called by name. In _Truc._ 482
Stratophanes says: Ne expectetis, spectatores, meas pugnas dum
praedicem.... In _Poen Truc._ 597 we are told: Aurumst profecto hic,
spectatores, sed comicum; i. e., "stage-money." During a halt in the
action of the _Ps._ (573) we are graciously informed: Tibicen vos interibi
hic delectaverit. Mercury's comments (_Amph._ 449-550 passim), probably
with copious buffoonery, on the leave-taking of Jove and Alemena contain
the remark (507): Observatote, quam blande mulieri palpabitur. At the
close of the _Men._ (1157 ff.) Messenio announces an auction and invites
the spectators to attend.
When Euclio discovers the loss of his hoard, he rushes forth in wild
lament. In his extremity he turns to the audience (_Aul._ 715 ff.):
"EUC. I beg, I beseech, I implore you, help me and show me the man that
stole it. (_Picking out one of the spectators, probably a tough looking
"bruiser", and stretching out his hand to him._) What do _you_ say? I know
I can trust _you_. I can tell by your face you're honest. (_To the whole
audience, in response to the laughter sure to ensue._) What's the matter?
What are you laughing at?" etc.
Moilère has imitated this scene very closely in _L'Avare_ (IV. 7), with a
super-Plautine profusion of verbiage.
In _Mil._ 200 ff. Periplecomenus obligingly acts as guide and personal
conductor to the manoeuvers of Palaestrio's mind, while it is in the
throes of evolving a stratagem. Palaestrio of course indulges in vivid,
"PER. I'll step aside here awhile. (_To audience, pointing to
Palaestrio._) Look yonder, please, how he stands with serried brow in
anxious contemplation. His fingers smite his breast; I trow, he fain would
summon forth his heart. Presto, change! His left hand he rests upon his
left thigh. With the fingers of his right he reckons out his scheme. Ha!
He whacks his right thigh!" etc.
It is very amusing too, when Jupiter in _Amph._ 861 ff. strolls in and
speaks his little piece to the pit:
"JUP. I am the renowned Amphitruo, whose slave is Sosia; you know, the
fellow that turns into Mercury at will. I dwell in my sky-parlor and
become Jupiter the while, ad libitum."