The first comic dramas that the Romans saw were based on the Greek “new comedies” of the kind staged in Athens from about 400 to 200 BC. Their hallmarks included stratagems and counter-stratagems, stock characters (young lovers, scheming slave, family hanger-on), and standard situations (obstacles to young love, mistaken identities, revelations of true identity), with some musical accompaniment.
The principal writer of the Greek “new comedy” was Menander (342 - c. 292 BC), who influenced Plautus and Terence.
This second-century or early first-century mosaic from Pompeii illustrates a scene from Menander's Ladies at Lunch, of which only a few lines survive. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)
Titus Maccus Plautus (254 - 184 BC) was not the first of these Roman dramatists, but of 130 plays attributed to him twenty have survived. This in itself is a measure of popularity, were it not also that in spite of being based on earlier Greek models, his work retains a raw freshness of its own. He devised ways of adapting Greek verse metres to the Latin language, and introduced to audiences whose taste had tended towards farce and slapstick several varieties of literary comedy, such as burlesque and domestic and romantic pieces in which verbal fireworks replaced crude banter. He also surmounted the problem of playing consecutive scenes, without any break between them, in front of a standard back-drop, usually a street with entrances to two houses.
Marble relief of theatre set design with three entrance doors. (VRoma: AICT)
Plautus was born in Sarsina, a small village in Umbria, but left home early to go to Rome. He first worked as a stage props-man, and then, with the money he had earned, set himself up in some kind of business. When that failed, he took a job turning a baker’s handmill, which he was able to give up after writing his first three plays.
Mosaic of comic masks of a young woman and a slave. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
Publius Terentius Afer (c.185 - 159 BC) was brought to Rome as a slave, possibly from Africa. He took his name from that of his owner, Terentius Lucanus, who educated him and gave him his freedom. The story goes that he submitted his first play, The Girl from Andros, to the curule aediles; they referred him to Caecilius Statius (c. 219 - c. 166 BC), the most popular playwright of the day. Caecilius was dining when Terence called, but he immediately began reading the play aloud. He was so impressed by it that he invited Terence to share the couch of honour with him. The play was first performed in 166 BC, and Terence wrote five more before he died in a shipwreck, or of disease, while on a trip to Greece to find more plots. He was only about 26.
Reconstruction of Roman theatre stage and marble flooring of orchestra. (VRoma: Lyon Museum: Paula Chabot)
Terence’s plays are better plotted than those of Plautus and of some of the originals which he adapted. With him the comedy of manners effectively began. He was adept at employing the double plot, especially to illustrate different characters’ responses to a situation, and in developing the situation itself. There is also more purity of language and characterization than in Plautus, which may account for Terence not being as popular in his own day as he was to become later.
Both adapted Greek comedies: Plautus was funnier, Terence was cleverer.
Examples of Plautus' vigorous line in insults can be found on The Classics Pages here.
Plautus and English comedy
Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is based on The Brothers Menaechmus of Plautus. The protagonist of The Braggart Soldier by Plautus is the prototype of the Elizabethan stage boaster, whose appearance in Nicolas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553) marks the beginning of English comedy written for public performance.
Congreve on Terence
William Congreve, in a preface to his play The Way of the World (1700), extols “the purity of [Terence’s] Stile, the Delicacy of his Turns, and the Justness of his Characters”.
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