BMCR 2006.05.06

Kleine Geschichte der antiken Komödie

, Kleine Geschichte der antiken Komödie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005. 160 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 3534183266 €24.90.

“It is a strange undertaking to make honourable people laugh” (“C’est une étrange entreprise que celle de faire rire les honnêtes gens”) said the greatest French author of comedies, Molière. Yet this laughter reaches across the centuries to us, because gluttony, cowardice, vanity are universal. That is probably why Roman Comedy is so important in the study of ancient literature. G. Maurach’s presentation is also something to welcome, and since it is a very clever book, it should be an excellent introduction for all “honourable ” people interested in antiquity, for students and for scholars.

This book is composed of four chapters, not of equal length: first two introductory chapters dealing with the Greek comic writers, Aristophanes and Menander, which represents around a third of the study, then a section on Plautus and the last one devoted to Terence. This is a really good idea very few scholars have thought of, to present a story of comedy with these four major authors; there are works on Menander and Terence,1 books on Plautus and Terence,2 but I have not found a synthesis with the “Fab Four”, if I may call them that. The organization of the chapters is more or less always the same : first some biographical elements, then presentation of the most important plays according to G.M., and a short discussion of each of them. On Plautus and Terence there are more details on metrics, transmission of the texts, and staging.

The short introduction presents the idea G.M. proposes as a central theme, the mixture of laughter and sadness, suggesting that the famous two masks which are usually seen as symbols for tragedy and comedy together might be indeed the two faces of the comedy. This mixture creates humanity within the comedy.

The first chapter, on Aristophanes, starts with a short introduction trying to explain the meaning of theater in ancient Greece, its connections with a festive atmosphere, and its importance in Athens. Then G.M. presents a biography of the poet, and chooses to concentrate on eight of the eleven plays. The Acharnians, the Clouds, the Peace, the Birds, Lysistrata, the Frogs, the Ecclesiazusae and Plutus are all first summarized and then given a general discussion which tries to underline what makes them original. Every time, G.M. insists on the presence of a “dark side ” : bitterness, melancholy (see p. 21 on the Peace) and even tragedy for the Clouds. One wonders why the Knights, the Wasps and the Thesmophoriazusae are forgotten: if the last one is probably not the most interesting (a judgment which a specialist of Aristophanes might always contest), it seems to me the first two are as famous and successful as the others.

The second chapter deals with Menander. G.M. begins with a very well founded picture to give the main idea of this part, i.e., the definition of character in the numismatic sense. The biography is very cautious about possible connections between Menander and the philosophers of his time like Theophrastus. After some general remarks on staging, G.M. chooses to study three plays to show that psychology is far more important than the story : the Dyskolos, the Aspis, and the Perikeiromenè. Each time he provides a detailed summary of the play then gives his point of view on it and on the characters. The conclusion on Menander and New Comedy underlines the changes but we also find again the stress on sadness — it is not always easy for Menander’s characters to mature because of new experiences.

Greek New Comedy is followed by Roman comedy. G.M. summarizes the problem of its origins (referring to the difficult debate as to whether there were Italian roots as Livy suggests, or whether comedy arose from a mere political decision in 240), although by now a “middle of the road” point of view seems to have been widely accepted3). Then he chooses to concentrate on Plautus , and this third chapter is much longer than the preceding ones. First we find a biography of the Roman author, including explanations of the famous three nomina Titus Maccius Plautus and on the fictions which have sprung up about his life in antiquity. This gives a first idea of the general flavour we have in this chapter on Plautus, i.e., the many doubts and few certainties the study of the plays can bring. So, after the doubtful biographical indications comes the solid things: the importance of cantica, the taste for vulgarity, and much more action than in Menander’s theater. The uncertainty continues with remarks on the transmission of texts, which include the great problem of interpolations. Plautine language also raises problems, e.g. neologisms (can we be sure they belong to the original text ?) and elisions. A parallelism between the Bacchides and Menander (p. 70-79) is an efficient way to answer another question (the influence of Greek authors on Plautus), and G.M. shows us how Plautus transforms (through exaggeration) his Greek models. Another great uncertainty is raised by the use of cantica, which do not exist in the Greek comedies ; their presence is explained as the result of the influence of tragedy in Rome. Then finally, to finish with all these uncertainties, G.M. treats the hard question of contaminatio : he chooses to make two “tests” studying the structure of the Miles Gloriosus and of the Poenulus, concluding cautiously that there is no real proof of awkwardness in the construction of these plays and so no proof of contaminatio. After so many doubts, G.M. wants to bring something positive to his readers : a presentation of “Meisterszenen ” in the Amphitruo and the Trinummus. He rightly reminds us of the ambiguity of the Amphitruo which could be very well a tragedy and is in fact based on a tragic model, Euripides’ Alcestis.

This very interesting presentation of Plautus ignores no aspect of the discussions and is very alert. I might wonder only whether it was really appropriate to discuss elisions, a very technical problem concerned with Latin language and metre, when the target audience will not be able to read the Latin text. G.M. has already written on this subject, which explains why he is so interested in it, but it may be a bit too esoteric for a general presentation of comedy.

The last chapter is devoted to P. Terentius Afer, whose biography ends with valuable remarks on the evolution of the Latin language between Plautus and his younger follower. G.M. deals then with the question of staging: the actors were more numerous in Terence’s plays, and the entrances were different. He stresses also very well the differences between the very rhetorical (and quite complex) prologues and the pure and easy Latin language we find in the rest of each play. He turns to the question of metre to complete his presentation of Terence’s world : here too the poet chooses to write an easy and elegant Latin which sounds like a simple conversation. Terence avoids cantica and vulgarity to offer to his audience a style which was that of his patrons.

The second part of this chapter is a presentation of three plays, the Andria, the Eunuchus and the Adelphi. I don’t think anyone will miss the Hecyra (after all it took three attempts for it to be successful in Rome), but I do miss the Phormio. This is once again a matter of taste. G.M. sums up the Andria first (p. 100-108) and then comments on it. He shows excellently how all the lies and manipulations might as well have created a tragic situation. We also find once more G.M.’s main idea that the comedy has something to do with sadness and tragedy, which precisely makes it human because human life is a mixture of happiness and tragedy. The Eunuchus is presented in the same way : first a summary (G.M. insists on the first scene, a “Meisterszene “) and then a reflection on the meaning of this play. It seems to him that Terence wanted to underline the importance of love in all its aspects and praised a wisdom full of comprehension for the others. Last but not least, the Adelphi are certainly a nice way to end this chapter and also this book, since this is probably one of the most successful and brilliant plays, with a great posterity in European literature (take for example Molière’s L’école des maris, but also L’école des femmes). G.M. offers us his reflexions on the characters, on the apparent transformation of Demea, and underlines Terence’s very fine way of giving no real judgment on the respective conduct of the brothers. We do not know in fact whether he really agrees with Micio’s liberalism: after all, the ending is not so positive for him.

The reader will find a very up-to-date bibliography at the end of this book : one might have expected to find G.E. Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy : a Study in Popular Entertainment, Princeton, 1952, and also Florence Dupont’s study L’acteur roi ou le théâtre dans la Rome antique (Belles Lettres, Paris, 1985) and even more so Jean-Christian Dumont’s books Servus: Rome et l’esclavage (Rome, 1987) and Le théâtre à Rome (Paris, 1998, written with Marie-Hélène François-Garelli), a very good study of Roman theatre. The presentation is absolutely perfect and the book is very pleasant to read. I could find only three typos, all in the bibliography.4


1. See for exemple E. Lefèvre, Das Wissen der Bühnenpersonen bei Menander und Terenz am Beispiel der Andria, Museum Helveticum 28 (1971) 21sqq.

2. See for exemple E. Lefèvre (Hrsg.), Die römische Komödie : Plautus und Terenz, Darmstadt, 1973 or F. Arnaldi, Da Plauto a Terenzio, Naples, 1947. For another combination, see W.G. Arnott, Menander, Plautus and Terence, Oxford, 1975.

3. Cf. Jean-Christian Dumont-Marie-Hélène François-Garelli, Le théâtre à Rome, Paris, 1998, p.11-16.

4. See p.159 Tiutus and then Thesmophporiazusae ; p. 160 Trinummus; AJPH.