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The Latin Theatre - Comedy In Rome

( Originally Published 1902 )



Fourth century B.C. : origin of Comedy ; the Satura—Third century B.C. : the Mimus ; its character ; its different interpreters—The Palliata—Livius Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius—Plautus, and his plays—Character of Plautus' plays; their influence on Roman literature—Second century B.C.: Statius Cecilius—•Terence : his plays, their character—The Prologue—Lucius Lavinius and Turpilius—Actors in the Palliata—Decline of this style—The Atellana : its origin—Characters in the Atellana—The Togata or Roman Comedy : its character —Titinius, Quintus Atta, and Afranius—First century B.C. : different dramatic styles ; development of the Mime and the Atellana—Melissus and the Togata—Growing popularity of the Mime.

COMEDY held a more important place in Rome than Tragedy.

The earliest comic performances (after the Etrurian Fescennina) date back, in all probability, to the fourth century B.C. In 390 we are told that a wooden stage was erected in the circus for performances for the amusement of the people. These representations were given at the time of the national festivals, and bore the name of Saturae. The satura was a kind of coarse buffoonery mingled with recitation, chanting, gesture, and dance—to the accompaniment of the flute. It was enacted by wandering mountebanks, who painted their faces and were sometimes masked.

Towards 270 B.C. the Satura was replaced by the Mimus. This was a facetious representation of the persons and events of the day. Its subject was always immoral, and generally obscene. The plot turned on seductions, scenes of adultery, and cheating of husbands, fathers, or persons easily imposed upon. This scurrility and corruption are strangely contrasted with an abundance of wise and moral sayings.

The Mimi were performed by one principal actor, who was at the same time the director of the troupe of secondary actors who were inferior to him, imitated him throughout, and received blows from him. The representation of female parts by women was peculiar to the Mimus, and one of the principal sources of dissoluteness.

The costume of the actors in the Mimus was much like that of the modern harlequin. Masks were necessarily excluded by the conditions of mimicry.

Generally speaking, the Mimes were little come-dies, very brief, written in verse, and obeying the rule of the three unities.' Some two centuries later, by the talent of Laberius, they obtained a place as a distinct type in literature.

The Palliata is the most serious type of comedy, and that in which the literary character is the best developed. It was imitated from Greek originals, chosen by preference from the New Attic Comedy. Inaugurated in Rome towards the middle of the third century B.C. (only a few years after the appearance of the Mime), it flourished until the middle of the following century, and was illustrated by the genius of Plautus and Terence.

It was Livius Andronicus, the creator of Tragedy in Rome, who acquired the further distinction of introducing true Comedy. His earliest works, however, were no more than rude and often in-comprehensible translations of Greek plays.

Naevius endeavoured to improve the type by giving it a certain character of actuality. He describes the vices and foibles of his contemporaries, but above all he loves to scoff at those in high places who affronted his democratic tendencies. The Metelluses and the Scipios were the especial objects of his sarcasm. In revenge, stringent regulations were imposed upon the writers of comedies, and Naevius was finally exiled.

Ennius, the friend of Scipio Africanus, also wrote a few Palliatae at the end of the third century ; but a certain hardness in his style, inappropriate to such compositions, was against success.

Plautus was the first who can be said to have formed a true literary type in the Palliata, and to have been inspired by the rough sketches of his predecessors to create the true Comedy of Character. Marcus Accius Plautus was born at Sarsina, a village of Umbria (already latinised at this era), in 227 or 224 B.C. He came to Rome at an early age, and his first play is said to have been per-formed there when he was only seventeen. After amassing a considerable fortune, he ruined himself by his mad expenses in the sumptuous representation of his comedies, and was obliged for some time to labour at a hand-mill. The publication of new plays, however, reinstated his fortunes, and he died at the age of forty or forty-three in very affluent circumstances. In order to avoid the fate of his predecessors, Plautus disguised the follies he attacked under Greek names. He understood from the outset that the indolent nature of the Romans could ill accommodate itself to the complicated situations which, in the works of his predecessors, had demanded continuous mental tension. He therefore chose the simplest possible subjects for his comedies. His characters were for the most part drawn from the inferior classes of society, from among the slaves, parasites, courtesans : all people whose coarse and obscene language was in harmony with their character. These he employed to portray the corrupt Roman society of the day, and they did it the more exactly since, under a Greek cloak, they could face official susceptibilities as well as private resentment with impunity.

There remain from Plautus the twenty plays that follow

(1) The Amphitryo, which ,Molière reproduced almost exactly in French, under the same title. It is believed that Plautus borrowed this subject from the Dorians.

(2) The Asinaria, whence Molière drew some of his ideas.

(3) The Aulularia (or pot-comedy, from which Molière derived the subject of L'Avare).

(4.) The Bacchides (twin sisters who were courtesans).

(5) The Captives.

(6) The Casina (name of a young girl).

(7) The Cistellaria (or basket-play).

(8) The Curculio (name of a parasite).

(9) The Epiducus (name of a slave).

(10) The Menaechmi (this play was the original of that written by Regnard).

(11) The Mercator (or merchant ; imitated from Philemon).

(12) The Miles Gloriosus (or braggart soldier).

(13) The Mostellaria (Ghost play. Le retour imprévu, by Regnard, is an imitation of this comedy).

(14) The Persa (Persian).

(15) The Poenulus (or Carthaginian).

(16) The Pseudulus.

(17) The Rudens (or cable ; from the original comedy of Diphilus).

(18) The Stichus (name of a slave).

(19) The Trinummus (or coin ; imitated from a play by Philemon).

(20) The Truculentus (or brutal man).

Even in flattering the evil tendencies of the Romans by a series of coarse jests, Plautus managed to preserve a certain elevation of style. His principal strength lay in vivacity of dialogue and justness of expression, set off by great good sense. Unfortunately he erred in the uniformity of his subjects, a fault for which he was severely reproached by Laharpe as follows : 'A youthful courtesan, an old man or a woman who sells her, a young man who buys her and acts the knave to get her father's money. To these add a parasite and a blustering soldier, and you have the characters perpetually represented in the comedies of Plautus.' This criticism cannot, however, hold for all the pieces of this author, e.g. the Amphitryo, The Captives, the Menaechmi.

Plautus is further characterised by the pessimist tone in which he refers to women.

Several of his plays are preceded by a prologue. This was a species of introduction in which the author, after making a general statement of the subject, appealed to the impartiality, attention, and indulgence of the public.

Plautus took as his principal model Philemon, the poet of the New Greek Comedy, the inventor of the Comedy of Manners. But he constantly departed from his model to give play to his own personality. Plautus, in short, deserves the merit of having popularised the New Greek Comedy in Rome. After his time, the Romans delighted in the reading and study of the great comedians of Athens, and grew accustomed to seeing themselves travestied upon the stage.

The comic actor, C. Publilius, was famous in the time of Plautus for the remarkable manner in which he interpreted the principal characters in his plays.

After the death of this famous writer, his come-dies were for a long time perpetuated on the stage. At the close of the second century, and during all the first half of the following, they were repeated with great success. Some authors affirm that a playbill was discovered at Pompeii bearing the title of the Casina of Plautus, the play having presumably been given the evening before the destruction of the city.

Statius Cecilius, who flourished at the commencement of the second century, is the connecting link between Plautus and Terence. Nearly forty comedies are attributed to him, of which only some few fragments remain ; according to Aulus Gellius they were nearly all imitated from those of Menander. Statius Cecilius was in the habit of seasoning the inventions of Menander with coarse pleasantries, which he interlarded with fine words and a few elevated maxims that excited the admiration of the people. He selected the subject of the Amphitryo from the same Dorian sources as Plautus.

Terence was born at Carthage, B.C. 185. Brought in his youth to Rome, he was speedily enfranchised. Some few of his plays were performed, and he then went to Greece to study. While returning to Rome he was, however, drowned at the early age of twenty-six.

Plautus feared to weary the Romans by introducing any obscure situations. Terence, on the contrary, concluding that they had made a great advance in reflective earnestness, and that gravity became them henceforward, occupied himself in complicating the sometimes over-simple intrigue of his Greek models. To this end he added a second, and even a third plot, drawn from other pieces in the New Comedy. Still, the special characteristic of the style of Terence is the fidelity with which he followed the Greek originals.

The six plays composed by this author have come down to us. They are (I) The Andrian Woman, represented in 166 B.C. at the Megalesia, and imitated from the Andria of Menander. The actor Baron, Molière's friend, wrote a play on the same subject.

(2) The Eunuch, after the Eunuchus of Menander.

(3) Heauton Timorumenos, or the Self-Tormentor, after Menander's play of the same name ; in which occurs the famous line, `Homo sum, et humani nihil a me alienum puto' (I am a man, and reckon nothing human to be outside my province).

(4) The Phormio, or Parasite, after Apollodorus, which gave Molière the idea of the Fourberies de Scapin.

(5) The Hecyra, or Mother-in-law.

(6) The Adelphi, performed 160 B.C. and derived from Menander. This play suggested to Molière the Ecole des Maris. It was the best of Terence's comedies.

Instead of assigning an important place to the courtesan, like his Greek models and the other authors of Palliatae, Terence relegated her to the second place. The father, of whom Plautus had made a surly, obstinate character, is transformed into an amiable and sensible being. The slave, on his side, is refined by contact with his masters, and prides himself on imitating their good manners. The parasite is no longer a disgusting glutton : he makes himself a boon-companion, and diverts his hosts by his witty sallies. Terence, an aristocrat by temperament, is above all anxious to please the patricians, and despises the approbation as well as the criticism of the common people.

The most striking characteristics of this writer, whom Caesar calls ` a semi-Menander,' are correctness, elegance, and good taste in jesting. Unfortunately, this concern for perfect correctness leads him into a cold and monotonous style. His plays are not always well constructed, and generally err through lack of originality.

After Terence, the prologue (which in Plautus' time was exceptional) came into regular use. It was the duty of the titulus or public crier to recite it, and thus to make known to the mob the title of the play, the names of the author and principal actors, and of the composer of the music. In the later plays of Terence, the character of the prologue was modified. From now onwards it was employed in the setting forth of the subject by the characters themselves, and in rendering them sympathetic to the public, thus disarming criticism in advance from any unjust or ill-natured persons. It was, more-over, a sort of invitation to the spectators to listen to the end without making too much disturbance. This character was preserved by the prologue till the close of the Empire, and in the sixteenth century it was resuscitated in the same form in almost all the early dramatic essays of the Renaissance.

In the time of Terence the actors Ambivius Turpio and Hatilius Praenestinus achieved celebrity by their admirable interpretation of the plays of this great Roman comedian.

It should be noted that the use of the mask upon the stage was regularly adopted from the time of Terence.

The other writers of Palliatae contemporary with Terence are Lucius Lavinius, who translated several plays of Menander, and Turpilius, who produced successful representations of plays translated from the Middle and New Comedy.

The Palliata was divided into portions in dialogue, and monodies to be sung. The delivery consisted partly of declamation, partly of recitative and song. These two last were accompanied by the tibia, or flute.

The actors in the Palliatae were eight or nine in number, and wore costumes by which they could be recognised at first sight. The slave was clad in a short tunic and a little cloak. The parasite was enveloped in a large cloak ; sometimes he wore a bandage on one eye, or was quite blind of it. The roisterer had a red scarf, and a little cap on his head. As in Athens, young men took the female parts, and it is believed that they wore elegant Greek tunics.

The Palliatae closely resembled the Atellanae. The only serious difference between these two styles of comedy is, that whereas the characters in the Palliata are general types such as the parasite or the roisterer, those in the Atellana are grotesque individualities, in the style of Punch or Harlequin.

The coarse or obscene details which abound in the pieces by other writers of Palliatae contributed not a little to the success of this style of comedy.

Terence, wishing to give it a more refined and delicate tone, had alienated the sympathies of a public which craved for violent sensations.. The type succumbed, and was definitely replaced by the Atellanae, the Togatae, and the Mimes, which at this period were often employed as Exodia, or after-plays.

The Atellana, imported from the small town of Atella from which it derives its name, was introduced into Rome about the year 211 B.C., after the conquest of Campania. Originally it had rather the character of an interlude than of a comedy, properly so-called. The first performers were, in fact, only the village clowns, who came in the intervals of the play to perform rude dances in their rustic clothes. They had no fixed salary, and a collection made among the spectators constituted their only source of remuneration. Little by little their comedy roused interest, and a tribune was erected in front of the stage for their performance.

From the second century the Atellana was recognised as a genuine mode of comedy. It now became a farce, designed to excite the laughter of the crowd at any cost, even at the expense of probability, The plot was in most cases presented as a simple dialogue, the development being left to the improvisation of the actors. Songs in Saturnian metre were sometimes interspersed. The jokes were coarse, accompanied by lively gesticulation, which was also obscene ; the diction bore a plebeian character. It is presumably on this account that Horace proposed to replace the Atellana by introducing the Satyric Drama, which did not exist in Roman literature, as an after-piece.

The chief characters of the Atellana were the Maccus, a peasant of coarse and wanton habits, with a monstrous head, enormous nose, and double hump (the original of Punch) ; the Bucco, or gobbler ; the Parasite, ready to play any dirty trick ; the Pappus, or pantaloon, who is constantly mixed up in intrigue, and as regularly outwitted ; the Stupidus, who had the finest part, and passes readily from inanities to witty invective, and developed into the Fool of the mediaeval farces ; lastly the Sanniones, whose character was not sharply defined. They were mostly buffoons, and their part consisted in grimaces.

The Togata (tabernaria of a later date) is an essentially indigenous product ; owing nothing to Greece, it differs more especially in this point from the Palliata. Instead, moreover, of devoting itself like the latter to the representation of the upper classes, the Comedy of the Toga deals more particularly with the lower orders of Roman society. Leaving aside the parasites, courtesans, and slaves of the Palliata, it introduces honest women ; and the young girl now appears on the scene, for to the Togata was due the introduction of the family upon the stage. This style of comedy flourished during the latter half of the second century B.C. and the first quarter of the following century.

The first known author of Togatae is Titinius, contemporary with Terence. Of the fifteen pieces which he composed, a few insignificant fragments only have come down to us. Titinius is distinguished by the vigour of his style, which has often been compared to that of Plautus. Quintus Atta, one of the most ancient writers of Togatae, composed a number of comedies, of which unfortunately no trace remains. The most famous writer in this mode is, however, Afranius, whose works were very popular at the end of the second century. His subjects, while essentially Roman, recall in their manner of treatment the works of Menander. His correct and elegant style has much in common with that of Terence.

During the first century B.C. there was a complete dearth of comedians : the Palliatae of the previous century were accordingly in vogue, more especially those plays of Plautus in which the famous actor Roscius acquired a great reputation. At this time the Roman knight Laberius applied himself to perfecting the Mime, of which he made a literary genus. This style of comedy now became the most popular entertainment, for the people found in it a faithful picture of the abuses of the capital.

The talent of the actor and mime-writer, Publius Syrus, gave him considerable renown upon the stage. The Atellana at the same time developed, under Novius and Pomponius of Bologna, into a regular comedy, a written play, no part of it being any longer left to that improvisation which had in the previous century been its chief characteristic.

The subject was mythological ; the play, however, exhibited some actuality, inasmuch as it was full of allusions to the popular manners of the era, and was even directed against certain well-known personalities. The characters of Novius and Pomponius are often taken from the world of art and trade. The plays of Novius are specially remarkable for their many pictures of child-life. As soon as the Atellana acquired this serious character, it was employed as an Exodium at the end of the representations of Palliatae.

During the second half of the first century B.C., Comedy flickered up for the last time in the hands of Melissus, who invented a new type called the Trabeata, which was not followed up. The Mime now dominated all other styles, and its popularity steadily increased with the extraordinary magnificence of the mise en scène, and the voluptuous acting of the comedian Bathyllus. From this era, too, dates the custom of attaching posters to the door of the theatre to attract an audience, by representing either the characters in the play or one of its most interesting scenes ; while, lastly, it was in the reign of Augustus that women were in the majority of cases interdicted from entering the theatres.



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