BMCR 2023.02.04

Plautus: Mostellaria

, Plautus: Mostellaria. Bloomsbury ancient comedy companions. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 176. ISBN 9781350188419



The book under review is part of the Bloomsbury Ancient Comedy Companions, a new series edited by C.W. Marshall and Niall W. Slater. The companions are short books of two hundred pages or less that simultaneously aim at the classroom and the stage. They provide context and analysis to help both in reading the plays as cultural documents of ancient Greco-Roman society and in restaging the plays for twenty-first-century education and entertainment.

The outline of each companion varies across the series. George Franko’s Mostellaria volume proceeds by topic rather than scene-by-scene and moves from relevance (Chapter 1) to societal context (Ch. 2) to staging (Ch. 3), concluding with reception in early modern and modern times (Ch. 4). A ‘playbill’ precedes these main chapters which for the sake of orientation provides a short summary of the play and a synoptic table of dramatic arcs, scenes, and meters. Franko defines his arcs as ‘units of action that begin with spoken iambs and end with musically accompanied trochees or mixed meters’ (p. xiv). The restructuring achieved by this discarding of the venerable, but in truth non-Plautine, five-act-division indicates one of the main strengths of the volume. Franko is happy to discard old traditions of presentation or interpretation to make way for fresh analysis of the function and effect of elements such as meter or metatheatrality.

Chapter one provides a short introduction to Roman comedy. Franko explores how Plautus­­­ adapted and transformed his Greek originals from New Comedy and invites the reader to contemplate the narrative parallels between the Mostellaria and Homer’s Odyssey, not as a study of direct intertextuality but to appreciate Plautus’ play as literature. Scholars brought up in the tradition of a scene-by-scene dissection of Plautus’ plays should be aware that this chapter will be the only one where the relation of Greek and Italian traditions and the level of Plautine invention is discussed, and then only in general terms.

Chapter two introduces us to the political, social, and cultural contexts of the original staging of the Mostellaria, generally assumed to have taken place around 193 BCE (‘plausible but not necessary’, p. 18). Franko introduces his readers to early second-century Rome as a place of mass slavery, ‘traffic in women’, rapid economic change, influx of Greek culture, festivities in untidy urban spaces, including dramatic performances, and superstition, including the belief in haunted houses. All of this, Franko points out, is reflected in the Mostellaria. The historian presumably will find in this overview little to surprise her but will surely welcome the emphasis on social and economic context in an introduction to a literary text. The expert may feel an urge to quibble with this or that item of interpretation. For example, Franko describes Plautine audiences as ‘mixed groups with intersectional identities’, including every kind of gender, age group, and social or legal class. He concludes from this that we should not assume ‘a single, coherent audience response’ to the plays (p. 22). This view of the Plautine audience is currently popular among many studies and vigorously advocated in the influential works of Amy Richlin.[1] It should be noted, however, that the evidence for spectator diversity is far from conclusive and may even point in the opposite direction. In an article reviewing the evidence for Plautine audiences (not cited in this volume’s bibliography), Peter Brown concluded that Plautus’ prologues give little reason to assume many slaves or other disenfranchised persons in the audience.[2] In interpreting the plays as a source for ancient mentalities, we might also keep in mind that a plays ‘notional audience’ might differ from the actual audience but determines what is said or not said on stage.[3] A case might be made that Plautus’ notional audience was one of male Roman citizens, an assumption that also seems to inform Franko’s reading of the play (‘a cultural document embodying Roman male ideologies’, p. 2; ‘male actors performing in a comedy written by a male for a presumptively male audience’, p. 28).

At times, Franko seems undecided whether Plautus’ Mostellaria provides evidence to rethink received wisdom about Roman society around 200 BCE or whether received wisdom should inform our understanding of the play. While on the one hand the Mostellaria is taken as evidence that Roman expenditure on conspicuous architecture and sex work preceded the moralistic lamentations of the later second century (p. 36–37), it is on the other hand taken for granted that the play was staged before Rome had become a truly ‘monetized economy’ with market-oriented, intensive agriculture (p. 33, 37), although the Mostellaria and earlier Plautine plays, like the Mercator and the Asinaria, might also support a rethinking of the idea of the Roman ‘economic revolution’ only happening in the later second century.

Chapter three deals with the staging of the Mostellaria. It explores what impression setting, delivery, improvisation, meter, and metatheater possibly made on Roman audiences, and also how we might use a proper understanding of these features to stage the Mostellaria today. It is in the nature of our evidence about staging that a lot of the information presented in this chapter is generic—we simply do not know what kind of masks, props, and stage directions Plautus had in mind when he wrote the Mostellaria. This means, for example, that Franko’s interesting remarks on improvisation more instruct us on how improvisation hypothetically could have looked like in a play like the Mostellaria than actually demonstrate that any specific part of the script we have resulted from improvisation (pp. 80–82). In any case, Franko’s informed introduction to the pragmatics of theatrical communication will surely help in the act of reimagining or restaging the Mostellaria, and his remarks on what monologues, asides, and eavesdropping tell us about spectator’ sympathies (pp. 70–76), or what meter tells us about the play’s dramatic structure (83–90), are also helpful for those who only intend to read the Mostellaria as literary text or historical source.

Chapter four examines the Anglophone reception of Mostellaria in three plays from early modern England (by Shakespeare, Heywood, and Jonson) and in the 1962 Broadway play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and its 1966 film version. This chapter not only illustrates how Plautus continued to inspire post-classical comedy, but it also serves to demonstrate how reception studies helps us to understand and appreciate the dramatic techniques of Plautus himself.

The four appendices that form the final section of the companion invite the reader to start her own research into the Mostellaria’s cultural meaning and dramatic structure. Appendix 1 is a translation of the famous ghost story told in one of Pliny the Younger’s letters. Appendix 2 presents a ‘doubling chart’ that allows us to track the various ways a company of five actors might have been able to present a play with thirteen characters. Appendix 3 is a table counting out lines per character, which allows us to gauge both the relative importance of each character as well as the importance of the actors playing these characters, in light of the likelihood that some actors played several characters. Appendix 4 is a ‘selective chronology’ of persons and events mentioned in the book.

The notional audience of this companion appears to be undergraduate students. That does not make it unappealing to students or scholars already more familiar with Roman comedy. It is written in lively, accessible language and overall strikes a good balance between a modernizing presentation intended to raise a young audience’s interest and a historicizing critique that raises awareness of the play’s strange or appalling aspects.

The companion’s moral sensitivities and bibliography remind the reader that the companion is written with an Anglophone audience in mind. Chapter two starts with a kind of trigger warning informing the reader that the ‘fundamental systems of power’ taken for granted in the Mostellaria may risk making the play ‘unreadable and unwatchable to some’ (p. 16). We are reminded throughout the book that enslavement, torture, and rape are evil (for example we read that ‘sexual abuse of slaves … was a vile reality of the Greek and Roman world’ and that ‘in performance, there may be something overtly carnal in Phaniscus’ appearance and delivery’, both quotations from p. 25, my emphasis). A reader taking pride in doing her own thinking might perceive these statements of moral outrage as a little bit too Victorian in a book addressing adult university students. To be fair, though, the book’s sensitivities never impinge on its scholarly judgement. Indeed, they lead Franko to come up with a new and convincing reason as to why the Mostellaria is still worth reading and staging, despite its origins in a slave-exploiting, woman-trafficking, world-conquering, money-grabbing place called Rome. The slave Tranio, who is the architect of the intrigue driving the play’s action, was Plautus’ most ingenious take on the slave as trickster, a hero who never wins, but never loses, either. This way, Tranio keeps the wheel of comedy spinning, to our ‘continuing entertainment’ (p. 114).

More seriously regrettable is the bibliography’s almost exclusive focus on Anglophone scholarship. In a rough count, the reviewer has spotted not more than maybe eight non-English titles in a bibliography of eleven pages with about 18 titles per page. There is not a single work from influential scholars such as Florence Dupont or Eckhard Lefèvre, nor do we find the volume on the Mostellaria which Renato Raffaelli edited for the Lecturae Plautinae Sarsinates series, to give just a few obvious examples. This selective reception of scholarship is not just a matter of bibliography but arguably leaves its traces in how the Mostellaria is presented. Franko’s remarks on how Plautus’ jokes about Greeks and Greek culture ‘resonated with Roman xenophobic prejudices’ and aligned the play’s characters ‘with conservative Romans in the audience’ (pp. 37–39) take no note of Dupont’s much more nuanced analysis of the meaning and function of constructed ‘Greekness’ as an ‘alterité incluse’ in Plautus’ play and Roman culture in general.[4] I do not intent to imply that Franko is ignorant of non-Anglophonic scholarly traditions, but simply to note that his otherwise up-to-date companion pays incidental testimony to how divorced the different national scholarly traditions have now become. In return, there is no doubt that Franko’s approach to Roman comedy has much to offer to students more familiar with more traditionally philological approaches to Plautus.

To conclude, this companion serves its aim of introducing the reader to one of Plautus’ most intriguing plays. While the volume is primarily aimed at the non-expert, the expert may learn something new as well, as did the reviewer, and may find his fascination for the Mostellaria reignited.



[1] E.g., Amy Richlin, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic. Plautus and Popular Comedy, Cambridge 2017.

[2] Peter Brown, ‘Were There Slaves in the Audience of Plautus’ Comedies?’, CQ 69 (2019), 654–671.

[3] Cf. Jeffrey Henderson, ‘Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals’, TAPhA 121 (1991), 133–147.

[4] Cf. Florence Dupont, ‘Rome ou l’altérité incluse’, Rue Descartes 37, 2002, 41–54; ‘Plautus fils du bouffeur de bouillie’, in: ead. / Emmanuelle Vallette-Cagnac (eds), Façons de parler grec à Rome, Paris 2005, 175–209.