Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.16
David Christenson (trans.), Roman Comedy: Five Plays by Plautus and Terence. Focus Classical Library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2010. Pp. v, 342. ISBN 9781585103195. $18.95 (pb).
Reviewed by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]
This volume, the author’s second contribution to the Focus Classical Library (for the first, which treated four Plautine plays, see BMCR 2009.07.03), translates Plautus’ Menaechmi, Rudens, and Truculentus, as well as Terence’s Adelphoe and Eunuchus, with a general introduction and running commentary. Writing for “students and teachers in literature in translation courses, as well as the general reader,” (37), David Christenson has produced readable, entertaining prose translations that reliably reflect the content and style of these five important Roman comedies. The introduction and notes provide ample cultural background and satisfactory discussion of the major themes of each play on a level at once accessible to undergraduates (or even high school students) and useful for scholars teaching or working on the genre.
The introduction touches on many of the important basics of the genre: the Greek-ness/Roman-ness of Roman comedy, the transition from Old Comedy to New, the extant plays of Menander, stock types and plots, native Italian comic traditions, the religious performance context, the economics and stagecraft of the Roman theater, metatheater, contaminatio, and the polemical prologues of Terence. A section on “The World(s) of Plautus and Terence” provides historical context with helpful connections to the contents of the plays, as for example the link that Christenson makes between the comic miles gloriosus and triumphant generals during a period of Roman expansion and conquest. Separate sections on Plautus and Terence serve well as general primers on each author, and touch the surface of most of the essential aspects of their oeuvres. Introductions to each play draw out ideas of the “rebirth” of certain characters in Menaechmi and Rudens, the fiscal satire of the young lovers in Truculentus, the parenting philosophies and father-son relationships in Adelphoe, and the self-interestedness of all characters in Eunuchus.
The introduction concludes with suggestions for further reading, all in English and up-to-date. This list is full without being overwhelming, and includes many of the most important publications, although no reference to work on music in Roman comedy is provided.1 The first two appendices, each one page long, provide quick guides to the Olympian gods and the types of currency mentioned in the plays. There is, however, no systematic overview of stock types and plots; after reading the introduction, one might know what an uxor dotata is, but would not know that the dowered wife is a stereotypical character in Roman comedy. Similarly, more emphasis on the importance of recognition/anagnorisis scenes would enrich readers’ appreciation of the reunion scenes in Menaechmi, Rudens, and Eunuchus.
The plays themselves are translated and printed in prose, with one line of English for one of Latin. The cantica are italicized and indented “to mostly follow how they appear in modern Latin editions” (36); iambic and non-iambic meters both go unitalicized. (This formatting choice reveals to even the casual reader how starkly different Plautus and Terence are in their use of mixed-meter song!) Christenson renumbers each play’s scenes, but the numbering corresponds to the Renaissance act/scene breaks, as catalogued in a concordance of scenes and line numbers in the third appendix. Lacunae of a full line or longer are indicated, but missing or corrupt words generally are not. Stage directions are kept to a minimum.
Instead of endnotes or a back-of-the-book commentary keyed to line number, we get footnotes, a decision that is well executed: for instance, in Adelphoe, a series of footnotes calls attention to characters’ recurrent concern with liberalitas, a concept that Christenson both explains and renders as English “decency” (221 n. 8, 241 n. 27, 253 n. 39, 254 n. 40, 262 n. 48, 264 n. 49). The notes are thorough throughout and only occasionally redundant, though such repetitions in fact mostly seem designed to afford the same background information for students assigned to read only one or another of the plays in the volume. In both notes and introduction, Christenson’s style of commentary is rarely dull and frequently outright funny, as when he describes the relationship between Menaechmus of Epidamnus and his wife as “terminally acrimonious” (p. 13).
Christenson’s translations are close to the Latin, and avoid overusing modern slang, although proverbial idioms are usually updated. Thus Terence’s “your bean will be threshed on me” (istaec in me cudetur faba, Eunuchus 381) becomes “you’ll do the crime, but I’ll do the time” (290 and n. 28). In all such cases, a footnote provides a literal translation of the original phrase. There are a few anachronisms—e.g., “You Einstein” for philosophe! (Rudens 986) or “draw a bead on our prey” for ex insidieis aucupa (Menaechmi 570)—but nothing jarring or too faddish. Particularly amusing is Christenson’s rendering of conchae (Rudens 704, here both “shells” and “vaginas”) as “tacos,” with reference to the popular online Urban Dictionary (130 n. 59).
Not all readers will find Christenson’s translations laugh-out-loud funny, but they are lucid and engaging. Perusal of this volume will give students and the general audience alike a cogent sense of Terence’s elegance, and frequent glimpses into the wild wordplay of Plautus as, for example, the alliteration on M at Rudens 514–515, mendicitatem mi optulisti opera tua, | dum tuis ausculto magnidicis mendaciis, is answered with Ps in English: “Listening to all your pompous prevarications | Has made me a pauper!” The occasional erudite term is usually explicated in more colloquial phrasing (e.g., the “uxoriousness” of Menaechmus of Epidamnus is restated in the formulation that his wife “ ‘wears the pants’ in this household,” both p. 13).
In this volume, Christenson offers teachers of Roman literature an excellent collection of approachable, enjoyable versions of key works the corpus of the comoedia palliata. The text is clean and mostly typo-free, and the book is both well-manufactured and eminently affordable. With its introduction and commentary that connect the plays to other authors, cultural context, and wider socio-historical developments, this book will serve well as a staple for classes ranging from surveys of Roman civilization and Western literature to courses on ancient humor and the history of theater, independently or in combination with Christenson’s prior collection.
The Five Plays:
Menaechmi (“The Menaechmus Brothers”)
Rudens (“The Rope”)
Truculentus (“The Fierce One”)
Adelphoe (“The Brothers”)
Eunuchus (“The Eunuch”)
Appendix I: Olympian Deities Mentioned in the Five Plays
Appendix II: Currency Referred to in the Five Plays
Appendix III: Correspondence between the Scene Numbers Used in the Five Plays and the Renaissance Act & Scene Numbers
1. For example, Timothy J. Moore, “Music and Structure in Roman Comedy,” AJP 119 (1998) 245–273.