Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.35

Eckard Lefèvre, Plautus' Bacchides. ScriptOralia, 138. Reihe A: Altertumswissenschaftliche Reihe, Bd 40.   Tübingen:  Narr Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 205.  ISBN 9783823366812.  €68.00.  

Reviewed by Emilia Barbiero, University of Toronto (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is Lefèvre’s latest in a series of ScriptOralia volumes dedicated to demonstrating Plautus’ indebtedness to the pre-literary theatrical genres of Italy and to illustrating the high degree of originality which he posits for Plautine translations of Greek New Comedy. As the single Roman comedy that can at least partially be compared with its model, Menander’s Dis Exapaton (hereafter DE),1 the Bacchides would have offered the opportunity for Lefèvre’s work to migrate out of the realm of speculation onto firmer ground. Unfortunately, however, the study makes little use of the actual textual evidence, and its arguments are largely based on circular reasoning.

Lefèvre’s observations about the extent of Plautine innovation in the Bacchides hinge upon his reconstruction of the DE, according to which the Greek play culminated in an anagnorisis. It would have been helpful had Lefèvre outlined this hypothetical plot at the outset. Instead, it emerges piecemeal in the course of his argument, and a summary is given only on p. 149. Here it is (I use inverted commas to indicate the characters whose original names we do not know): ‘Samian Bacchis’ was in Menander the long-lost daughter of ‘Nicobolus’. The recognition of ‘Bacchis’ as an Athenian citizen at the conclusion of the play meant that she and Sostratus could be married, and the money stolen from ‘Nicobolus’, originally intended to dissolve her obligation to the soldier ‘Cleomachus’, is used instead as her dowry.

The first two sections (A and B, Forschung and Analyse), with their thorough review of scholarship on the Bacchides and issues of particular interest, help readers gain a general picture of criticism on the play. Among other topics (like the lost beginning of the Bacchides and the nature of the contract between Samian Bacchis and Cleomachus), Lefèvre here discusses what has been the most important question for critics of the Bacchides (and a crucial topic in Plautine studies) for the last 40 years or so: the relation of the fragments of Menander’s DE to corresponding passages from the Bacchides (Die Lehren des Papyrus). This might have been the place to analyze the originality of Plautus’ dramaturgy through an in-depth comparative study of the Greek and Latin texts. Instead, Lefèvre limits his discussion of the parallel passages to often-repeated observations, such as the difference between the two playwrights’ characterization (realistic and consistent in Menander; unrealistic and comical in Plautus), and to a series of generalizing statements, reducing Plautus’ transformation of his Greek model to a schematized replacement of x with y: An die Stelle der Deutung der Welt…tritt bei Plautus ihre Autonomie (p.27), or An die Stelle der Ethik tritt Komik (p.35). In this section, Lefèvre also addresses the work of Zwierlein, rightly arguing against his extensive athetizations of Plautus’ text as later additions (lengthy discussion of “the Plautine elements” as allegedly being “post-Plautine” – Das ,Plautinische’ nachplautinisch – appears after each set of corresponding excerpts in small print). In toto, I find nothing original in Lefèvre’s treatment of the parallel passages, and no significant evidence from what we actually have of this Greek play is brought forth to support Lefèvre’s reconstruction of it.

The next section, Struktur, forms the cornerstone of Lefèvre’s argument. He goes through the Latin play and his reconstruction of the Greek comedy scene by scene, pointing out which elements he thinks Plautus added or changed. As in his previous studies, Lefèvre uses the terms Diskontinuität vs. οἰκονομία to characterize Plautine and Menandrian comedy respectively, and this contrast serves again as a guiding principle in his attempt to separate the Greek material from the Latin. Lefèvre’s observations are ultimately rooted in his hypothetical model of the DE, which pivots, in turn, upon his assessment of Greek New Comedy as a genre. However, Lefèvre’s conception of Menander’s bürgerliche Lustspiele, in which, for instance, the whereabouts of the personae were always accounted for (p.34), sums of money were never vague but always precisely stated (p.51), and inconsistencies of characterization or plot never occurred, is idealized and generalized, based upon what amounts to a very small sample of Menander’s output and but a fraction of Greek New Comedy. To then found an argument about Plautus’ dramaturgy upon a speculative reimagining of this genre in general, and the DE in particular, amounts to a circulus vitiosus. Lefèvre, in fact, admits the hypothetical nature of much of his argument, stating, for instance, that [d]er hypothetische Charakter der Überlegungen versteht sich von selbst, zumal es leichter ist, für Szenen der Bacchides plautinischen Ursprung zu erweisen als Szenen des Dis Exapaton wiederzugewinnen. (p.148; cf. also p. 13). Nonetheless, Lefèvre’s “proof” of Plautus’ innovation vis-à-vis his model text consists entirely of his own reconstruction of Menander. Moreover, Lefèvre often fails to mark his version of the DE as speculative; he treats his reimagining of the play as a given, blurring the boundaries between fact and (unsupported) hypothesis. An example of this method may be found in Lefèvre’s discussion of the scenes in which the two Bacchis sisters appear together: the opening of the Bacchides (as we have it), where they seduce Pistoclerus, and the final scene, the so-called ‘Schaf-Duett’, in which the hetaerae first mock, then seduce the two old men, luring them into the brothel to join their sons in revelry. Lefèvre maintains that both are of Plautine origin, as, according to his conception of New Comedy and Menander, neither can have stood in the Greek text (p.61 and p.66). In his discussion of I 1, for instance, he claims, Die Dreierszene zwischen den beiden Schwestern und Pistoclerus I.1 kann weder im ganzen noch im einzelnen auf den Dis Exapaton zurückgehen. In support of his position, Lefèvre cites Henry (1985: 99) 2 as follows (notes 186 and 213): “It is impossible to know whether the sisters appeared on stage together, although the Plautine courtesans do”. That is, Henry’s “impossible to know” turns into “cannot have been” in Lefèvre. Such logical leaps abound in this study.

In attempting to discern Plautus’ originality, Lefèvre focuses in particular upon characteristics such as metatheatre, direct audience address, and extensive use of metaphor. His discussion of metatheatre (p.130-132) in the Bacchides disappoints, as it is limited to a list of instances without analysis or explanation. However, Lefèvre’s observations about how Plautus incorporates saturnalian inversion into the very structure of his dramaturgy , Überkreuzdramaturgie, (p.142-144) are enlightening, although many of the points had already been elucidated by Clark (1976), 3 as Lefèvre himself notes. Lefèvre attributes such aspects of Plautine dramaturgy to the influence of the oral theatrical traditions of Italy. While there seems to be little doubt that Plautus’ work does, in fact, contain elements from such performance genres (improvisation in particular), 4 the evidence for this elusive pre-literary drama is meager at best, and hardly sufficient to give us a clear picture of these genres, much less to confidently posit how they influenced Plautus. Lefèvre, however, is not so cautious, and as a result, his arguments tend to be reductive. For example, he claims that the dialogue type par pari respondere is aus den Feszenninen herzuleiten[…] (p.128). This is an interesting suggestion, but Lefèvre’s method of reasoning fails to convince. He names the nebulous carmina fescennina as if their form could be taken for granted, whereas such early Italian carmina are far less well-attested and, thus, even more impalpable than Greek New Comedy. 5

Essentially, whatever elements of the Bacchides do not fit into Lefèvre’s schematic blueprint of Greek New Comedy are designated as being characteristic of das Theater der Rede. Direct address to the audience, for instance, is pigeonholed as such: Können komische Kommentare bzw. Apartes in der Art und in der Häufung, wie sie bei Plautus begegnen, nicht bei Menander belegt werden, ist umgekehrt festzustellen, daß sie für das Stegreifspiel charakterisch sind (p.134). We encounter the same (somewhat dubious) method of deduction in section D, Weltbild: whereas the DE was, in Lefèvre’s view, a Spiegelbild der athenischen Gesellschaft featuring (according to his reconstruction) the workings of Tyche complemented by the action of men, the Bacchides is a Zerrbild der römischen Gesellschaft, in which saturnalian inversion and ridicule trump character development and any depiction of morality. Again, Lefèvre’s discussion of how the saturnalian spirit of comedy is reflected in the structure of the text and the pairs of contrasting characters contains some compelling observations. However, his argument that the transformation of Menander’s ethical, bourgeois drama is to be attributed to the influence of Italian farce and improvisational theatre, in which such moral and civic themes had no part, is not supported by evidence.

In the last pages of the book, Lefèvre gives a very brief but useful history of the reception of the Bacchides (section E, Rezeption). He argues that although the Bacchides represents a Höhepunkt der plautinischen Komödie (p. 183), its reception in subsequent literature throughout the ages has been unfortunate because of the play’s complicated plot, unsuited to adaptation. Finally we get a helpful summary of the book’s main arguments in the concluding section, Résumé.

Lefèvre’s bibliography is extensive (although the fact that 32 of 259 entries are of the author’s own work underscores the circular nature of his critical model). Lefèvre does not take into account, however, the recent work of Marshall (2006), which shares his focus on the influence of pre-literary Italian drama on Plautus, making a stimulating argument for an element of actual improvisation in his plays. I would also add Sharrock (2009), and Fontaine (2010) which, while not explicitly confronting the question of primary interest for Lefèvre, the extent of Plautine innovation in translation, are both sophisticated treatments of Roman comedy, contributing important observations about Plautus’ style, dramaturgy, and the socio-cultural backdrop of this theatrical genre. 6

Overall, this monograph is exemplary of Lefèvre’s critical approach to Plautine comedy. As he declares in the Vorwort, his overarching aim is to emphasize its Andersartigkeit (9), which he attempts to accomplish by showing what great changes the Latin playwright made to his Greek models. But the circular nature of Lefèvre’s argumentation, which relies upon his own unsupported assumptions in order to draw further conclusions, produces questionable results.

Table of Contents

A. Forschung
B. Analyse
I. Die Lehren des Papyrus
II. Die Intrigen
III. Die Hetären
IV. Sachliche Probleme
C. Struktur
I. Die Diskontinuität der Bacchides
II. Die οἰκονομία des Dis Exapaton
D. Weltbild
I. Das Spiegelbild der athenischen Gesellschaft
II. Das Zerrbild der römischen Gesellschaft
E. Rezeption
F. Résumé


1.   In 1968, Handley published the fragments of Menander’s Dis Exapaton extracted from 13 papyrus scraps of a late antique book roll uncovered at Oxyrhynchus (Handley, E.W. (1968) Menander and Plautus: A Study in Comparison. London). This discovery finally allowed scholars to examine Plautus’ translation, as the 80 lines of the DE roughly correspond to Bacchides 494-562.
2.   Henry , M. M. (1985) Menander’s Courtesans and the Greek Comic Tradition. Frankfurt a. M.
3.   Clark, J.R. (1976) “Structure and Symmetry in the Bacchides of Plautus,” TAPhA 106: 85-96.
4.   Scholarship’s focus on this influence has yielded significant results, greatly increasing our understanding of how Plautus’ palliata works by elucidating the Latin playwright’s imitation of the features of improvisatory drama. Cf. Barchiesi, M.(1969) "Plauto e il 'metateatro' antico," Il Verri 31: 113-130; Slater, N.W. (1985) Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind. Princeton; Lefèvre, E., E. Stärk, G. Vogt-Spira (eds) (1991) Plautus Barbarus: Sechs Kapitel zur Originalität des Plautus. Tübingen; Sharrock, A. (1996) “The Art of Deceit: Pseudolus and the Nature of Reading,” CQ 46: 152-174; Moore, T. (1998) The Theatre of Plautus. Austin.
5.   As is the case for most of what we know about the earliest Latin poetry, we hear of the fescennine songs from much later authors (Horace Epist.II.1.139-155 and Livy vii.2). Although an idea of what these popular verses might have been like may be gained from Catullus (c.61) and the carmina triumphalia, the fescennine verses and their influence on early Roman drama remain a (tantalizing) mystery.
6.   Sharrock, A. (2009) Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. Cambridge; Fontaine, M. (2010) Funny Words in Plautine Comedy. Oxford. Sharrock focuses on Plautine comedy from a readerly perspective, and Fontaine sheds light on the ingenious punning and bilingual word play in these texts.

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