Sunday, February 5, 2023

The endlessly adaptable plays of Plautus - I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in

The plays of Plautus are the foundation of Western comedy.  That they are based on the plays of Menander and the other Greek New Comedy writers was irrelevant, since all of those texts were soon lost.  Plautus (and his successor Terence) carried the stage traditions, the character types, and the jokes into the future.

I read five Plautus plays over the last five weeks.  A play a week seemed like a natural pace.  Amphitryon, Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier), Pseudolus, Rudens (The Rope), and The Menaechmus Twins, all from the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE.  Plautus’s plays are also the beginning of Roman literature, the oldest surviving complete works.  The great age of Roman literature (Catullus, Virgil, Lucretius, etc.) is 150 years in the future.  Always curious what is saved and what is not.

How Plautus loves twins.  Separate them at birth and the confusions of their later meeting is all the comedy he needs.  And the play ends when the twins finally meet on stage.  Young Shakespeare turned The Menaechmus Twins into The Comedy of Errors, but added a second set of twins, likely borrowed from Amphitryon, to double the fun.  I have wondered if he was deliberately trying to outdo Plautus.

Revisiting these plays, and having read a lot more plays since I last read Plautus, Amphitryon looks like the star of the bunch.  Jupiter “seduces” Alcmena by appearing as her husband, a general who should be at the front but has returned home for one night just for the sex.  Mercury, disguised as the general’s servant, guards the door.  When the general and his servant return home early, sour comedy ensues as the gods openly torment the humans for laughs.  It all works out, since Jupiter impregnates Alcmena with Hercules, and anyway these are gods so what can you do?

Jean Giraudoux titled his 1928 version Amphitryon 38, putting the question in the title: why another Amphitryon, among the most adapted plays in history.  I’ve read versions by Molière and Heinrich von Kleist.  These versions both at least suggest that part of the comedy of Amphitryon, the abuse of power by the ruler, is not all that funny.  Even Plautus’s Mercury, in a prologue, first calls the play a tragedy, and when the audience groans “turn[s] it from a tragedy to a comedy without altering a line” (3, tr. Lionel Casson):

I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in.  After all, with kings and gods appearing in it, I don’t think it would be right to make it pure comedy.  (3)

But even the more typical comedies, with their young couple in love and loyal slave tricking the grumpy father who is keeping them apart, the purest of comedies, have their sour moments, particularly the way women are treated as property.  And these are the stories where love triumphs over money, fantasies that hint at some of the miseries of ordinary Roman life.

But no one, outside of a university Classics department, would now perform a Plautus play as such.  They are perfect for adaptation, which is what 20th century playwrights have dome with them.  Pump up the female characters, update the jokes, add new songs, and you have The Boys from Syracuse and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  You have Amphitryon 38, and then 39 and 40.

In February I will read several plays by Terence, more elegant (I am told) and sophisticated (he invents the double plot) than popular Plautus.  Please try one if he sounds interesting.


  1. Wait, you've started your Roman plays project?

  2. Yes. My plan was to write about Plautus more or less now, Terence in early March, and Seneca in early April. So reading Terence in February, etc.

    Not that the schedule matters at all. The plays will always be there.

  3. "Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!" I think we have some Plautus on the shelf at home, so I will look into this. I've always wanted to check out some of Shakespeare's influences, but somehow have never gotten to it. This is a good excuse.

  4. The interest is more literary-historical than with some works, I admit, but I find Plautus and Terence to be pretty easy to enjoy for their own sake, too.

  5. Godard's Hélas pour moi, starring Gérard Depardieu, is a deeply weird adaptation of Amphitryon. Not that I'm recommending it to anyone but Godard obsessives comme moi, but I just thought I'd add it to the list.

  6. Interesting. I don't know zany Godard so well. I am not surprised, though, since Molière and his Amphitryon were so entrenched in French culture.

  7. I reread the four in Segal's translations for Oxford. I'd forgotten how good the Mostellaria is. I was put off (as I alway am) by Menaechmus, who's searching for his twin, not thinking, oh maybe that could be my twin. Argh. But I suppose you don't think about it in a performance.

    The Rudens was the one we put on in my Latin undergraduate days. I may reread that one, too.

  8. "Mostellaria," I have not read that one. I should slip it in somewhere. The twins do seem to forget the premise at times.