BMCR 1999.01.19

Terence: Brothers

, , Brothers. Focus classical library.. Newburyport: Focus Pub./R Pullins Co, 1998. vi, 83 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780941051729 $7.95.

Terence’s Brothers is the most interesting of his six surviving comedies, because of intricacy of characterization, complex interplay of characters, and the unresolved debate on the best form of child-rearing. But the play is far more than a rhetorical display by “talking heads,” it is also a good show, “a perfect masterpiece of high comedy” according to Gilbert Norwood ( Plautus and Terence 176), with action sequences which approach closer to farce than one usually associates with Terence. There are surprises for the audience as our expectations about the characters of the two sets of brothers are defeated; and there are highly dramatic scenes, including the abduction of the music girl Bacchis and the beating of the pimp Sannio, the hysterical outburst of Geta over Aeschinus’ conduct, Syrus’ sending of the befuddled Demea on a wild goose chase (a scene which I first read in Latin as a freshmen in college, and which astonished me with the discovery of how much fun jokes in Latin could be), and Demea’s final manic reform in which he knocks down his brother’s garden wall to facilitate the marriage of Aeschinus, and even exasperates the seemingly unflappable Micio by tricking him into an unwanted marriage with an elderly neighbor.

Dr. Charles Mercier of the University of Southern California has translated and also directed a video production of his version of the play, which was filmed at Vassar College; in addition to the published translation, the video is also available from Focus. A discussion of the video production is included in the Preface to the book (pp. 17-19). Performances of Terence are especially welcome because they are rare in comparison with those of other ancient dramas; even Seneca is undergoing a revival, as is shown by the conference on his drama at Xavier University early in 1998. In this review, however, I focus only on Mercier’s book.

The Preface offers a useful introduction to the subjects of Terence and the ancient comic tradition (pp. 1-7). Mercier sees Terence reacting against Plautine comic fantasy, appealing to refined tastes, and achieving a greater degree of “social realism”; even the seemingly obscure literary controversies described in the prologues are an effective means used by the playwright to involve the audience in “intrigue and conspiracy.” Mercier places a welcome emphasis on conditions and problems of production (pp. 7-10), including stage and performance area, the problems created by continuous performance without chorus or act division, and the alternation between speech and song. The section on the Brothers itself (7-16) , has some particularly good insights on Demea’s “reform” near the end of the play and its inadequacy as a solution to the problems which the play has presented concerning the rearing of his two sons; Mercier is convincing in arguing that the “breaking down of the garden wall” by Demea and forgoing of the traditional wedding procession by Aeschinus and his bride are part of a “cynical stunt” by Demea which “corrupts” the wedding process. He further compares the dysfunction in the family of Demea and Micio with that of the Simpsons in an episode of their television comedy. All of this is stimulating, and I would find the introduction useful for an undergraduate course in ancient drama. It is followed by a brief but useful bibliography (16-17).

Terence’s language is notably plain, without the lyricism, outrageous puns, coinages, plays on words, the out of control assonance and alliteration which we associate with the plays of Plautus. The lack of flashiness, the author’s seeming lack of interest in the problems and demands of the Roman theatre and its rowdy audience, are probably among the reasons why Terence’s audiences occasionally ran out on him to see more exciting sideshows at the games (twice, in the case of the Hecyra). In his language, Terence, the “puri sermonis amator” as Julius Caesar called him, was a great favorite among lovers of good Latin from Horace to the German playwright Hrosvitha, and again in the Renaissance when he was memorized by Erasmus and Melancthon. His simple style provides a good Latin equivalent of the restraint of the plain-spoken Greek written by his master Menander, on whose originals many of Terence’s comedies were based. Mercier is clearly aware of this tendency in Terence, and keeps his English simple and plain. A passage like 52-54 can be regarded as typical of Mercier’s translation style:

In fact, other boys keep what they do secret from their fathers
— you know how boys are. But I have trained my son
not to hide anything from me.

Out of 29 words in this passage by Mercier, 24 are monosyllables and all but one of the remainder have two syllables: a remarkable instance of simplicity and straightforwardness which, it almost seems, represents an interesting experiment by Mercier to find a fitting English equivalent to Terence’s unadorned style.

But it is a question whether the plain style is always appropriate to fit the various moods of scenes in the play. Mercier well says (p. 12) “The question of staging is always crucial to interpretation” and his own filmed production of the play is an obvious sign that he sees the importance of performance in any final evaluation of the play. Thus it is odd that his translation, as he admits, “makes no attempt to reproduce in English verse the varieties of Latin verse” (Preface p. 9). Though he does indicate in the written text where there are shifts of meter, such directions of course would not be available to an audience in performance. The result is that his translation often seems more appropriate to a philosophical essay than to the emotional give-and-take of real people.

An example in the play of high feeling is Demea’s cry of anguish and frustration at his brother in 124-5,

ei mihi!
Pater esse disce ab illis, qui vere sciunt!

Betty Radice is effective in translating ei mihi as “Damn it all!” But Mercier lowers the excitement, and the speech simply becomes some calm brotherly advice,

Listen to me, learn how to be a father
From one who really knows.

In 299-301 Geta, having heard that Aeschinus has abducted a girl from a pimp, rushes in breathless as the servus currens, so excited that he keeps rambling on, incapable of noticing the presence of others on stage even when they call to him:

Nunc illud est, quom si omnia omnes sua consilia conferant
atque huic malo salutem quaerant, auxili nil adferant

Geta’s excitement come across in the Latin by alliteration and assonance, as well as in his exaggeration ( omnia omnes), hyperbole, and the interwoven syntax which gives the impression of a jumble of words pouring out (though all of this is relatively mild in comparison with what Plautus might have done in the same instance). His breathlessness comes out in Betty Radice’s translation,

Here’s a state of affairs! O world, unite, take counsel, seek a remedy, but what good
will it do — such trouble as I’m in…

But in Mercier’s version, the effect is of almost peaceful reflection and resignation; Geta seems virtually to be calmly meditating, perhaps delivering a philosophical essay:

Well, it’s down to this: there’s nothing
that all the intelligence in all the world
can do to figure a way out of our problem.

There is certainly irony in the fact that Mercier’s translation of the Brothers seems more suited for reading and reflection as an essay on child-rearing rather than a version which explores the dramatic potential of the play; irony, first because Mercier in his introductory essay is clearly deeply interested in performance issues and secondly because Mercier himself has staged a production of his own translation. Mercier’s introductory essay makes informative and provocative observations on Terence and ancient comedy, but his translation is of somewhat limited use, and the lack of any sort of textual or critical notes, save occasional stage directions, is to be regretted.

Despite such drawbacks, one should end, like Terence himself, with a call for applause at the appearance of this book and video. There has always been a tendency to praise Terence but neglect him. It is time we follow Charles Mercier in trying to rediscover who this gifted playwright was and the considerable riches that he still has to offer us.