Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.08.04

William S. Anderson, Barbarian Play: Plautus' Roman Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Pp. 184. $50.00. ISBN 0-8020-2815-2.

Reviewed by Kathleen McCarthy, Chicago, IL.

This book is the first produced by a new endowed lecture series, the Robson Classical Lectures, at the University of Toronto. Anderson has taken the opportunity not only to annotate the three lectures on Plautine comedy he gave in 1987 (Chapters 1, 4, and 6), but also to add three chapters that fill out his vision of the Plautine form.

This vision will seem both familiar and original to those who have read American Plautine studies of the last two decades. It is familiar in its decisive turning away from a critical perspective that privileged Plautus' Greek models over his own adaptations, and in its turning towards an appreciation of the Plautine sensibility for stylized language, exaggerated action, and amoral trickery. In this sense, Anderson could be seen as consolidating the work of Wright, Segal, Slater and others who have collectively developed a picture of Plautus as an Italic poet working in a form that emphasizes carnivalesque inversion and metatheater. On the other hand, Anderson's work is original in the detail with which he describes the Plautine style and its relation to Greek models, and in the specific sociological function he posits for these comedies in their Roman context.

Barbarian Play constitutes an insightful description of the farcical side of Plautus' comic genius; it is characterized by both a broad sense of this quirky style and many well-observed comments on individual plays or themes. The only aspect of it that is less than convincing is the implicit assumption throughout that the farcical style can be taken as the defining characteristic of Plautine comedy. The author's appreciation for and knowledge of the farcical elements in Plautus make him see these elements as the ones most truly Plautine, and force him to explain away the elements that might fit more closely with a Menandrian aesthetic. The justifiable reaction against the scholarship that saw Plautus only as a marginally competent transcriber of Greek comedy has resulted in scholarship that sees Greek comedy only as a springboard for Plautus' more earthy wit. The problem with this viewpoint is that it requires a level of consistency in style and moral orientation that the infamously inconsistent Plautine corpus does not offer. It is true that the farcical elements are mostly in the ascendant in most of Plautus' plays. But the co-existence of farcical and non-farcical elements in many plays should remind us of the complexity of this form of comedy.1 Rather than labelling either of the two competing aesthetics in this corpus as un-Plautine, or attributing either of them to an immature or incompetent authorship, it might be most fruitful to accept the abundant evidence that both of these aesthetics had a positive role to play in Plautus' art.

The strength of Anderson's contribution lies in the degree of detail with which he describes the elements of this farcical style. For example, the first chapter sets out the changes that separate the Bacchis Sisters from its model, Menander's Double Deceiver.2 Anderson makes good use of this side-by-side comparison to argue that Plautus' play reverses both the literary and the moral values of Menander's; Plautus produces "a radically different kind of comic drama, one in which style, metre, and characters work together to upset a serious, ethical, and coherent representation, but instead co-operate in creating a laughable world of wild polar oppositions; where all authority is challenged, often successfully, and the qualities we are made to admire are roguish and immoral" (p.29). The inclusion of the Greek and Latin texts (with facing translations) in the middle of the chapter allows him to analyze the language, meter, and dramatic treatment of the two authors in detail. Among the Plautine principles described here, Anderson targets two in particular: the Latin author's habits of exaggerating the distance between the audience and the characters (pp. 11-13) and of undermining the structures of authority that are so central to Menander's happy endings (pp. 23-28).

In the following chapter Anderson seeks to refine this description of the differences between Plautus' plays and his Greek originals by widening the discussion to include Philemon and Diphilos. The selection of a single distinctive theme for each of these playwrights (the 'helpful friend' for Philemon, and the big scene of arbitration for Diphilos) allows for some speculation as to how the Greek models were changed by Plautus. But because Anderson believes that the farcical side of Plautus is the 'true' Plautus, he gives himself the unnecessary burden of explaining away everything in these plays that is not farcical and roguish. He acknowledges the more serious elements, but segregates them from the Plautine style in two ways: by chronology, and by labelling some of the more sentimental moments in these plays as ironic. Each of these strategies explains some of the divergences from the Plautine norm constructed in the first chapter, but these explanatory tools are not as powerful as he claims.

For example, the chronology of Plautus is notoriously murky. Past attempts to trace a coherent development have foundered on the fact that some relatively early plays (dated by historical allusion and a low proportion of lyric meters), are episodic and farcical, while some relatively late plays are more unified and focus on the 'Menandrian' theme of the reunion of the family. Anderson is right to point out the more mimetic orientation of the Mercator and the farcical energy that Gripus brings to the Rudens. But his treatment of both of these plays leaves the impression that they are much more consistent in their literary and moral stances than is actually the case; he ignores the metatheatrical prologue of the Mercator and the ethical focus on pietas in the Rudens. Even within this book there are signs of the untenability of a strictly chronological account of the mimetic and farcical in Plautus. Anderson claims (p.69) that the Cistellaria, which he dates to almost exactly the same time as the Mercator, "reveals the anti-romantic Plautus confidently at work, even at that date." The problem is not the contradiction between Anderson's characterizations of the two plays, both dated to around 200; he is right about the ethical issue of friendship in the Mercator and the lack of romantic interest in the Cistellaria. What needs to be discussed is the relationship between these two aesthetics throughout Plautus' career.

The treatment in Chapter 3 of Plautus' love plots and comparison to what we know or can guess about Greek love plots is illuminating. Anderson corrects a common misperception of Plautine comedy by pointing out that very few of his plays proceed towards marriage; far from the canonical New Comedy emphasis on resolution and reconciliation, Plautus' plays more often tend to emphasize the triumph of comic heroes over blocking characters. The replacement of the romantic plots -- which idealize young love, humanistic virtue, and community -- by plots of trickery -- which idealize intrigue, wit, and the overturning of authority -- is a concrete example of the general transformation of Greek New Comedy for which Anderson argues. As in the first chapter, where he convincingly showed how Plautus substituted an atmosphere of anarchic pleasure for Menander's exposition of ethics, in Chapter 3 Anderson shows how in seven plays the anti-romantic impulse of the Latin author transformed what was probably romantic comedy in his model. These readings are enlightening, in that they show a consistent pattern by which Plautus writes out or reduces the characters of the lovers in order to put the roguish slave helper or buffoonish old man in love in the spotlight. Not only does Plautus often prefer the gyrations of a clever trickster over the soul-searching of a misunderstood lover, but the choice to write out marriage as the mark of the restoration of order also had implications for the worldview of comedy. "... New Comedy tended to contrive plots that enacted the justification and preservation of the family against such centrifugal forces as selfish passion, of young and old alike, and selfish extravagance.... Now imagine a comic artist who ... decides to make a mockery of the family and what he can present as its corrupt prejudices, so as to deny its traditional validity in comedy as the criterion and goal of all action." (p. 75)

The problem of the moral orientation of the comedies emerges even more explicitly in the fourth chapter. Here, Anderson should be credited with an important innovation in the analysis of the Plautine rogue. Just as he corrects the notion that marriage is a central goal in the plays of this corpus, he also shows that, although we take the clever slave as the emblem of roguery, we should expand our definition to include several interesting female, non-slave tricksters. The ways in which this observation changes our understanding of both roguery and the representation of women in Plautus cannot be explored fully within the format of this book, but should attract more scholarly attention in the future.

Anderson proposes that "heroic badness" (malitia) should be seen as the defining value of Plautus' comedy.3 He conflates under this label both a kind of social badness (i.e. the inferiority of slaves and parasites to their 'victims') and a moral badness, the preference for doing what exactly authority figures condemn as Bad. This seemingly straight-forward formulation begs a fundamental question in Plautine interpretation. In his concept of malitia, is Plautus advocating a more humane moral code that would privilege the wit and loyalty of the lowly over the pompous posturing of kaloikagathoi, or is he cynically smirking at all morality? Despite his assertion that this badness "is, in fact, a compound of bad and good" (p.90), Anderson does not take us far in resolving this issue. He seems to shift between these two conceptions of Plautine morality without ever acknowledging the difference between them. For example, he claims that the triumph of Toxilus in the final act of the Persa "convincingly heroize[s] what is nothing but fraud" and yet that it also celebrates "the ability of the little man to succeed by native wit" (pp.95-96). As was suggested above for the problem of competing literary styles in this corpus, it might be better to focus on understanding the interaction of these two moralities, rather than to gloss over the differences between them.

The fifth chapter presents a well-executed analysis of the linguistic, metrical and dramatic techniques that build the world of farce and fantasy in Plautus. In some ways, it might have been better placed after the first chapter, since it expands on the strengths of that analysis of the Bacchis Sisters. Like the first chapter, this chapter supplies details and concrete examples of techniques that are often more vaguely described. The section on meter is a particularly clear example. Although most readers of Plautus will readily assent to the proposition that the variety of meters is central to the distinctive Plautine style, Anderson's examination of two passages in detail (in Latin and in translation) shows exactly how the metrical structures convey the playfulness and artificiality of the Plautine world.

In the final chapter, Anderson argues that the impulse behind Plautus' creation of this kind of comedy is the desire to express the Roman sense of superiority over the more sophisticated, but more effete Greeks. I think that he is right in arguing that we should look for the sources of Plautus' comic style in the communal life and attitudes of the Romans. As he notes, a consistently popular writer of comedies produced at religious festivals (at the expense of the aediles) must have understood well what his Roman audience was looking for. In this sense, Anderson is justified in seeing these plays as satisfying some desire held in common among the free Roman population. But he himself acknowledges the ambivalence that characterized the Roman view of Greeks (p.139). A more balanced approach to the contributions of both farce and comedy of manners to the Plautine corpus would be better able to take account of this ambivalence in the Roman audience.

Here Anderson's broader, more nuanced sense of Roman society comes into conflict with the more single-minded argument he is making, as his perceptive readings of the individual plays have sometimes contradicted his globalizing argument about the 'true' Plautus. His ability to sense and appreciate complexity comes through in the details of his observations in a way that is not evident in the argument trying to separate Plautus from his Greek predecessors. Barbarian Play is at its best in observing and describing the comic techniques of individual plays or of specific themes across the corpus. The richness of Anderson's observations on Plautine comedy could well support a more complex theory of this literary form.


  • [1] A measure of the way that farce has come to define Plautus for Anderson is his lack of engagement with the interpretations of Konstan (Roman Comedy [Ithaca, 1983]). Although Konstan's arguments are cited in the notes, Anderson never expresses either agreement or disagreement with them. Konstan's more ethical and sociological readings are not necessarily more complete in themselves, but do show that farcical antics and subversion cannot account for the whole of Plautine comedy.
  • [2] Interested readers will now want to see also Halporn's comparison of the Bacchides and its Menandrian model in R.Scodel, ed. Theater and Society in the Classical World (Ann Arbor, 1993). He starts from an assumption similar to Anderson's (that Plautus aimed not so much at translating the Greek play as at transforming it for his own purposes), and concludes that Plautus was interested in creating "a demonstration of the power of marginal persons".
  • [3] It is surprising that he does not cite Chiarini (La Recita: Plauto, La Farsa, La Festa [Bologna, 1979]) and Petrone (Morale ed Antimorale nel Plauto [Palermo, 1977]) in this context, who have also focussed on this definition of the Plautine worldview.