Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.14

Stavros Frangoulidis, Handlung und Nebenhandlung: Theater, Metatheater und Gattungsbewußtsein in der römischen Komödie.   Stuttgart:  J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung und Carl Ernst Pöschel Verlag, 1997.  Pp. 191.  ISBN 3-476-45184-4.  

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins University (
Word count: 1143 words

Der Titel dieses Buches ist zwar deutsch, der Text aber englisch! After an introduction, the book devotes one chapter apiece to Mostellaria, Phormio, and Mercator, plus an appendix on Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius. Although the author offers an occasional good remark on the imagery of the plays, he could have served the scholarly community better by releasing these analyses as separate articles severely winnowed down to their essence.

In his own words, Frangoulidis aims "to interpret comic subplots, involving the construction and performance of schemes, as an implicit statement of poetics embedded within the plays' comic structure as well as illuminate their relationship with the main plot in a way comparable to the more familiar inset tales in relation to their narrative frame" (18). Such sentences are not easy to digest. The thesis, put briefly, is that in the course of a play some characters concoct a comic subplot, a "play within the play." The basis of their "play within the play" can either be factual (clear and faithful to the main plot) or fictive (enigmatic, misleading, or contrary to the main plot). Factual subplots succeed. Fictive subplots succeed if they parallel the main plot but are undermined if they do not. Frangoulidis (hereafter "F.") has coined the unwieldy term "counter-theatricalization" for the exposure of fictive subplots as sham performances. The creator of theatrical subplots assumes the role of poet, and his subplots may represent alternative poetics to those of the playwright.

Why Mostellaria, Phormio, and Mercator? Unfortunately, the "selection of plays is arbitrary" (18), leaving this reader wondering how useful the rubrics of fictive and factual subplots might be for the rest of the extant palliata. While those rubrics might help an analysis of Poenulus, with its seemingly unnecessary second trick that faithfully replicates the true status of Hanno's Carthaginian family, would they improve our understanding of Casina, with its triumph of the matrona through three increasingly bizarre fictive subplots? The claim that no distinction can be drawn between Plautus and Terence in their preference for fictive or factual subplots (18) begs discussion. Alas, the present study ignores the rest of the Plautine corpus for support or comparison: only four of his plays appear in the scanty general index. In short, F. has forfeited one of the chief advantages of a book over discrete articles, namely, the greater scope for exploration of themes pervasive in an entire corpus.

The long (55 page) analysis of Mostellaria contains a few interesting remarks on culinary imagery, the figurative death and resurrection of Theopropides, and parallels in staging. But there is far too much ado about nothing as when, for example, the conclusion tells us: "In other words, Tranio's schemes succeed as long as the events of the main plot are unknown. The status of his subplots as deceptions are revealed as soon as information regarding the play's 'actual' events becomes available" (74). F. repeatedly refers to Tranio as an independent poet with his own set of (Greek) comic poetics, arguing that Tranio struggles against Plautus for control of the play, if not for the very soul of New Comedy. Tranio is thus Plautus' rival, not his spokesman. While two characters can compete figuratively to "direct" the action of a play, can Plautine characters compete against Plautus himself? Such a struggle between an author and his creation sounds more like the ending of Unamuno's Niebla, where Augusto Perez rebels against the author's plans to dispose of him. For F., Plautus' comic poetics represent a happy synthesis of Greek and Roman elements, while those of Tranio are too Greek and therefore must be squelched. One wonders: in a play written by Plautus, what possible outcome would represent a defeat for Plautus' poetics and a triumph for Tranio's? The spontaneous resurrection of rival poetics from the Greek original? Some disruptive improvisation by the actors? Evidence of ruthless retractatio? Perhaps Tranio is a straw man of anti-Plautine poetics; however, given the slave's triumph at the end, such an interpretation is less convincing than seeing him as Plautus' mouthpiece.1

The chapter on Phormio (56 pages) offers inconsequential revisions of an earlier article.2 Phormio the parasite, a figure preoccupied with the consumption of food, "cooks up" four schemes to help his friend (see especially lines 338-45). Food is a metaphor for poetry, and Phormio's culinary art allows him to assume the persona of a poet. F. argues that Phormio flip-flops among two roles, that of parasite and that of poet. But the figurative role of poet is not a "role" in the same way as the literal role of parasite is, and placement of the figurative and literal on the same level strains credibility. There are some useful comments on the imagery of food, sickness, death, and law, as well as an appreciation of ring composition. Overall, this fare may be more substantial than the first course on Mostellaria but it is still reheated stew that should have been reduced.

The briefer chapter on Mercator (11 pages) suggests that Demipho, too, is a poet who temporarily manages to "rewrite" the script contrary to Plautus' main plot. F. argues that the animals of his dream (225-51) prefigure the performance of his scheme and lend a Dionysiac air to the play. While scattered references to insanity, rejuvenation, and revelry may suggest a Dionysiac air, some readings seem forced (e.g., F. sees the cooks as a comic contrast with omophagy) and the thesis of Dionysian versus Apollonian elements is unconvincing.

For the last course, F. evaluates Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche" (33 pages) as "a regular New Comedy plot cast into prose" (148), with Cupid as adulescens amans, Psyche as virgo (or meretrix), Venus as harsh matrona, the sisters as blocking characters, Jupiter as Euripidean deus ex machina, and so on. Cupid's mountain retreat is an inner stage on which he and the sisters attempt to enact improvised subplots. F. goes far beyond previous scholars who have noted comic elements in Apuleius. Although F. avows that his use of such terms as drama, theater, and counter-drama are to be understood metaphorically (148), some comments on masks, facial expressions, scripts, and "offstage" events suggest that the distinction between metaphor and substance has become blurred. While there may be heuristic value in talking about, say, the "vocabulary" and "grammar" of dance or painting, forcing the material of one genre to conform to the strictures of another gains little.

Omissions from the list of works consulted might raise a few eyebrows. It is hard to imagine a book on Plautus -- even one based on metatheater -- that ignores Leo's Plautinische Forschungen and Fraenkel's Elementi Plautini. Absent, too, is mention of such standards on Roman stagecraft as Beare's Roman Stage and Beacham's Roman Theater and its Audience. General works on performance criticism (e.g., Styan's Drama, Stage, and Audience or Petrone's Teatro antico e inganno) are not indicated.


1.   Cf. W.S. Anderson, Barbarian Play (Toronto 1993), 32-33.
2.   "The Parasite as Poet-Playwright and the Slave as Parasite in Terence's Phormio," BStLat 25, 397-425.

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