Bah. The submitted version for the penguin Blog-a-classic page is only half the length, as they only want 2000 characters per review: italicised part is the part cut from the submitted review.
Comedy, we’re repeatedly told when studying Drama, dates more rapidly than tragedy. This is, I think, an excuse for the difficulty of finding Shakespeare’s comedies funny a) on the page and b) without a comprehensive knowledge of Jacobean double entendre.
Now, this is plainly rubbish. In order to get the full horror of the Medea, you really need to understand the role of the family classical Greece, the individual roles played by the principals in the framework of the mythos of Greece as it relates to the larger picture of Greek religion and identity… well, yeah, it’s powerful without it, but you’re missing a hell of a lot.
So then, what do you need to understand these five works of Plautus?
1) Young people WILL spend their parents money on debauchery, given half a chance
2) Most slaves are on the make, given half a chance
3) Young men with money WILL buy the freedom of a slave prostitute, given half a chance.
The four plays here were performed in dramatic competitions, and they’re certainly designed as crowd pleasers: while none of the plots do much in the way of illuminating the human condition, they’ve got plenty of wordplay, a fair bit of slapstick and simple comic reversals. What flimsy plots there are are merely frameworks for the comedy… and rightly so.
The Ghost presents us with a father returning to a home near to financial ruin thanks to his son’s partying, with the equally sunk in debauchery servant trying his best to bluff his master away from finding the family house is sold by claiming it’s haunted, and they have bought the house next door…
In structural terms, it’s a ramshackle affair, plot lines are introduced and left dangling when something with more comic meat turns up, characters disappear early on to be left offstage for the remainder of the play, and it seems to end when the writer has either simply had enough or he thinks he’s written enough to fill the allotted time.
To a great extent none of this matters, the business is dizzyingly fast and the dialogue contains, amongst much else, one of my favourite two liners:
CALLIDAMATES: Do you think I’m a little bit inebri-inebriated?
DELPHIUM: No more than usual…
The Rope at first looks to have more plot, and it at least has a bit more dramatic bite with a father missing his long lost daughter, who happens to be the slave-prostitute shipwrecked right next to his house, being sought out by her lover after her owner / pimp absconded with the freedom money the young man paid for her (I told you it kepr happening)…
And into this mix we add a scheming slave or two, a chest with not only the pimps money but proof of the girl’s identity, and a not entirely focussed priestess of Venus, and what plot there is once again gets swamped by comic business. But again, it’s crowd pleasing stuff, and no comic scene outwears it’s welcome.
The Three-Dollar Day plays with essentially the same toybox as The Ghost, with the profligate son dreading the approach of the returning father, but the play is less light, filled with moral warnings and judgments pronounced… for much of the play, somewhat witty but mostly dry declarations and admonishments are flung around, and the appearance of the impostor impersonating the returning father as a comic butt is a blessed relief.
Confusions of identity introduced in Three Dollar Day continue in Amphitryo, which of all four revels most in it’s theatricality: indeed, for once the prologue is presented by a character that will also appear in the action of the play, and he calls attention to the artificiality of the occasion:
MERCURY: What’s that? Are you disappointed to find it’s a tragedy? Well, I can easily change it, I’m a god after all. I can easily make it a comedy and never alter a line…. Very well. I’ll meet you halfway and make it a tragi-comedy. It can’t be an out-and-out comedy I’m afraid. With all these kings and gods in the cast. All right then, a tragi-comedy – at least it’s got one slave-part.
The restrictions of the theatre demanded a level of willing complicity on the part of the audience, an agreement to be fooled, and here Plautus actively ups that to an act of conspiracy with the audience to delude themselves.
Of all four, Amphitryo best combines the demands of plot and comedy, putting a dramatic chapter of Greek Myth (the conception and birth of Herakles) into comic form at the expense of Amphitryo, the divinely cuckolded king, who with his servant are copied by Jupiter and Mercury.
These plays are the genuine precursors of not only Shakespearean comedy, but are part of the precursors of Up Pompeii (Lurcio could have stepped directly from Plautus), and are eminently accessible to modern readers. In fact the short form and pursuit of cheap laughs over tight plotting make them excellent fodder for the sitcom accustomed audiences of today.