This copious survey is written for people who need to be told who Plautus was, and that Synge is pronounced “sing.” Although only about 15 pages deal directly with ancient drama, references to the classical antecedents of modern farce appear throughout the book. The index shows 19 entries for Aristophanes, 12 for Plautus, and four for Terence, as against 19 for Feydeau, 11 for the Marx Brothers, and six for Mae West. Like many such general tours of a genre, the book gives classicists a glimpse of the state of non-specialist knowledge of our subject.
Bermel’s knowledge of ancient drama has a distinctly Edwardian and Cantabrigian cast. Here is some of what he knows: Sparta and Megara were “the provinces,” but drama flourished there as well as at Athens; Dionysos, a god of fertility, was torn to bits and consumed every spring so that his followers might ingest his characteristics—”but not literally, since a live horse or bull representing the corn-spirit was sacrificed in effigy” (40); Cyclops is the only satyr play that we know anything about.
Bermel’s intended readers will come away from this book with a view of ancient drama that is 90 years behind current scholarship, but classicists looking for a way to introduce ancient comedy to non-specialist students will find a useful quarry of parallels and influences. It is good to be reminded, for example, of the Plautine origin of the recognition scene in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, or that the identical twins in Oliver and Hardy’s Relations of 1936 can trace their lineage to the brothers Menaechmi. And I’m glad that someone has finally pointed out that Masterpiece Theater is “the Tupperware of high culture” (424).