Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.11

Deena Berg, Douglass Parker, Plautus & Terence: Five Comedies. Miles Gloriosus, Menaechmi, Bacchides, Hecyra, Adelphoe.   Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1999.  Pp. xiv, 411.  ISBN 0-87220-362-X.  $12.95.  



Reviewed by David W. Frauenfelder, North Carolina State University
Word count: 1770 words

These five new translations, two by Douglass Parker ("Double Bind" [Menaechmi] and "Wild, Wild Women" [Bacchides]) and three by Deena Berg ("Major Blowhard" [Miles Gloriosus], Brothers, Hecyra), take to its logical, lively conclusion the long-held but oft-ignored reality that Plautus and Terence were writers for the stage. These versions have verve: playability, liveliness, accessibility, unlike anything on library shelves today. Of modern-day attempts at Plautus-inspired music, for example, only Stephen Sondheim has excelled the inspired zaniness of Douglass Parker's lyrics. There is much virtue to be measured here, a few misfires to be counted, and plenteous food for thought, not least in the authors' ability to make an important and wickedly difficult job look like an enjoyable romp.

Act I of the translator's task opens for Berg and Parker with a crux: are they playing to a popular, near Latinless audience ("those not exactly clubby in Latin" [x]), or to the scholarly reader, who will see lack of rigor, even inauthenticity in exuberant translations and a breezy, generalist tone? Both kinds, it seems, though the authors try hard to concentrate on the popular, with uneven success.

The introduction adopts the populist tone, complete with sentence fragments in the spirit of trendy journalism: "Gravitas. Dignitas. Pietas. Officium. -- Seriousness. Worthiness. Devotion. Duty. Our conceptual legacies from ancient Rome. Heavy stuff" (vi). This will take the scholar a few paragraphs to get used to, but the general reader will profit, as here, in this pithy discussion on contaminatio:

Terence preferred Greek originals with higher moral content and remained true to their philosophical spirit; on the other hand, he borrowed bits from some plays to pep up others. This approach got him in trouble both with the lowbrows, for not being funny enough, and with the snobs, for not being pure enough. (viii)

Four pages of this kind of introductory material, however, lead to a page and a half of apologia which no general reader would dream of demanding. Here the authors are speaking to classicists, although the breezy tone persists, and something of breezy logic intrudes on otherwise serious justifications of translation style and play choice (Why these particular five? "... we like them, as others have liked them" [x]). Yet the authors seem almost embarrassed by the exuberance of their translations, and hasten to tell whoever is still reading that "[f]or the purist, it may seem we stray at times somewhat far, but there it is" (x). This captatio benevolentiae is unwarranted. John Barsby's forbidding "Slick modern equivalents have generally been avoided. Plautus' characters did not swear by Jesus... or lapse into French, and it is pointlessly misleading to represent them as doing so" (Plautus: Bacchides [Warminster/Oak Park 1986], 18) seems unequivocal enough, but even Barsby admits that his sober translation style is for those engaged in "serious study." Berg and Parker glory in what Barsby calls "an acting version for a modern stage performance"; this is all the defense these translations need:

We wish, then, to afford the reader some conception of what the stage experience must have been like, and to present the prospective producer with sufficient materials to revivify that experience by putting the plays on again. (xi)

Indeed, after reading these plays we might spend considerable thought on the possibility that conservative translations in the style of Barsby are less authentic -- if such a thing can be measured -- than those of Berg and Parker.

The authors have quite different translation styles, though they still leave the clear impression of being co-laborers, if not outright collaborators. Both render Plautus and Terence in poetry, "loose five- or six-beat lines" for dialogue, more freely in the canticam. Both hew to a principle of word choice which "revels in the possibilities of High and Low American, and especially in their melding" (x). This means that GRE-level vocabulary ("devolve," "grommet," "Tantivy!" "pelisse"), non-transparent French (roué, sommelier), sound- and word-play ("My pelisse was fleeced... The roach who poached it..." "What hoopla, Haplus!"), well-worn slang ("foxy doxies," "Va-va-voom," "patootie," "mazuma,") stand side by side ("Never will you mulct me out of my moolah!" "My marriage in ruins! My spouse a roué!"), sometimes without apparent reason (a cook, a "dis" and "dat"-spouting Brooklynite, is responsible for sommelier). Parker ladles out most of this highly original, hit-and-miss, at times annoying verbal concoction; Berg is more conservative, but chimes in with the occasional "mazuma."

Finally, both Berg and Parker take stage directions to an entirely new level of specificity. They do not suggest directions so much as wave placards -- even paint murals. Parker's detailed handling of the senex's canticum in Menaechmi (153-4), one of the shiniest nuggets in the book, is pure choreography. Entrances give opportunities for character description: "Diddley [Peniculus in Menaechmi] enters from town (stage left). He is a nasty piece of work, really. His anger at his occupation forestalls any excellence in it" (111). Even emotions and reactions are laid out: "An awkward pause ... until Loveykins [Erotium in Menaechmi] decides it's a New Game" (129). Again, it is Parker who takes most of the chances, and scores many of the successes.

Of the individual translations, "Double Bind" might prove to be most successful on stage. Parker is in his Aristophanic element here, making merry with the cornucopia of music, sex and fun. Not everything rings true, but the play flows -- one might say it sprints -- and unmistakably in the spirit of Plautus. Consider only one very good transformation which justifies, abundantly, the author's translation style. At the end of Act V, scene 1, the wife of Menaechmus I (Parker's "Dovey") asks Menaechmus II ("Clueless II") if he knows her father. He replies that, of course, he knows him as he knows Calchas the prophet -- which is to say, not at all (novi cum Calcha simul; / eodem die illum vidi quo te ante hunc diem 748-9). Parker, sniffing out a joke that won't travel, renders the lines thus:

DOVEY: Look there! / You do know Daddy, of course?
CLUELESS II: I certainly do. / We shared a tent in the Trojan War. I turned / to him and said, "Look there -- a horse!" / And there you were. (152)
Like Plautus before him, Parker takes the germ of the original, a crack about old age via Greek mythology, and amplifies it. The spirit of the original is preserved, and the wife (te in Plautus) is still there, too -- but with a barbed difference. This works on the page; no doubt it will work onstage, too.

"Wild, Wild Women" is more problematic. Parker has inserted a full, ingenious pre-Act, interpreting the handful of fragments left over from the opening of the play, together with a supplementary prologue in an appendix, reconstructions which should attract considerable scholarly attention. Parker admits that the resulting play is large by Plautine standards, and when he comes to Chrysalus' famous, overlong gloat, he rightly suggests in a note that the director should feel free to cut. The translator is not overly concerned with length, however; he milks the comedy until "the cows have been home for hours" (one of Berg's gems, 377), calling Bacchides "a linguistic donnybrook, a politico-comico-tragico-epico-musical gallimaufry, very possibly a monument to self-indulgence, very probably too long" (187). For Parker's version, that last adverb should be changed to "certainly."

After the inventive Parker, Berg's translations will read as tamer, though she has her moments. To be fair, her choice of plays did not make her job easier, and perhaps surprisingly, her Hecyra is the best of the three. In Miles Gloriosus, there is little beyond the well-known first scene (and no canticum at all) in this long play which gives the translator a chance to make a big splash: "... the action sometimes sinks under the weight of repetitious conversations and lengthy monologue" (2). There is the occasional virtuous turn (ecce me = "ta da! I'm your man" [45]; the rest of that passage also has some fine moments) amid much yeoman labor.

Brothers is so familiar, moreover, one is not as quick as with "Double Bind" to see Berg's version leap from page to stage, but she works with what is given her. Her ingenious "Basic Set" (348), an illustration of the stage set included with all of the plays, adds a balcony and a garden gate to Micio's house for more convenient eavesdropping. The gate plays a part in the end, as well, situated between the house of Micio and Sostrata. Berg uses it to show the offstage transport of Sostrata and Pamphila into Micio's house while Micio and Demea converse onstage about the unification of the two households -- potentially quite a humorous moment. The infamous and lively Act II, scene 1 could use revision, however (I confess that I am not disinterested on this topic: see my article in CW 90 [1996], 23-32). On the other hand, see Ctesipho's brilliant little song (361-2), with its nod to Jim Morrison.

Hecyra is less often read and seen, and here Berg's light touch fits, especially in the characterizations of Bacchis, Pamphilus, and Parmeno. Her understated tactic of cutting off the "g" in some of Bacchis' dialogue ("nothin'", "sayin'", "consolin'") gives a smidgen of a nod to Mae West, a good starting point for a characterization so high-principled it is easy for a modern audience to lose the irony in a prostitute's solving the dilemma of a respectable family. Berg's remark comparing Hecyra to "modern semiserious situation comedies, such as Norman Lear's All in the Family (296)" is in need of an update. This play has never been more relevant to American life, with our ever-expanding buffet of electronic gossip on family values, law, praise and blame, and problem-solving (presided over at the moment by such figures as Judge Judy and doctors of the airwaves Schlesinger and Brown). Berg's Hecyra should go off-Broadway immediately, with prologue given by Edward Koch, former New York mayor turned television judge.

A reviewer could use his entire word count scrutinizing the myriad of individual, labor-intensive translation choices in this book, and could find nearly that number of disagreements and suggestions for fine-tuning. This is not the place for such scrutiny. This is a deceptively important book, meriting a wide, attentive readership. Whether one is on the whole pleased or displeased with the efflorescence of creativity in these plays, the authors have worked hard to reproduce the spirit of Plautus and Terence, and their theater-friendly versions offer a vision of the future of Roman comedy, both scholarly and popular. The profession will be well repaid to take an appreciative look.

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