Sunday, March 31, 2013

Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE)

Plautus: The Rope and Other Plays (trans. E.F. Watling) (c. 254-184 BCE)

It was not until now that I thought this was truly a survey of civilisation. The other things I have included, so far, are like little dibs of rain that happened to fall on my windscreen. But when I am reading the plays of Plautus I feel as if I’m standing on some Mediterranean upland in very early spring. It’s sunny and unexpectedly calm; small, bright flowers are growing at my feet, on nibbled turf and along the edges of white stone slabs. [This is frankly an English fantasy. Mediterranean coastal uplands are maquis dominated by spiny shrubs, but that isn't what I visualized. My image is more like white rock-rose on Brean Down, which is indeed a Mediterranean plant at the limit of its range.]

There’s something touching about Plautus’s freshness, his lack of ambition. Reading him, we are witnessing the start of a tradition with incalculable influence.

Sometimes I have a fantasy of all these classics being exhumed and made into big-budget films (sometimes, I’m directing them myself). I’m not sure who the audience would be, but perhaps it isn’t so unlikely. In the vast global television audience, there must be an adequate number of people who wouldn’t mind seeing a Plautine comedy on a particular night. (Meanwhile, on the “Infinite Nature Channel”, each species would have its own TV programme.) Of course, it’s worse than pointless.

I do begin to doubt the feasibility of my project when I imagine that these lovingly detailed performances of Plautus are acted in Latin. There are perhaps more classical specialists in the world than ever before; yet somehow I doubt that even they would mostly be able to catch Latin straight off the bat. (But I might be wrong about this. The number of pupils taking Latin A-Level in England each year has apparently halved since the 1970s.) So perhaps, despite all our information, there are aspects of past culture that become unrecoverable in practice though not in principle. Languages rise up like formidable ranges to pen us into a corner, though it may be a wide, fertile valley, like English.

Naturally I am reading my Plautus in English, and the superb comedy of Watling’s stage directions, as well as some of his text, is a tribute to the humorous capacities of British culture in the fifties and sixties; though clearly the seeds of those jokes are latent in the Plautine situations. The mixed effect can be judged from an exchange like this:

Gripus. Let them see it? I’ll -
Daemones. It’s perfectly fair, Gripus. You must produce the trunk.
Gripus. It’s not bloody well fair.
Daemones. Why isn’t it?
Gripus. Because as soon as I show it to them, they’ll immediately say they recognize it, naturally.
Trachalio. You damned crook, do you think everybody’s as dishonest as you - lousy liar?
Gripus. All that sort of talk doesn’t worry me, as long as my master here is on my side.
Trachalio. He may be on your side, but the evidence is now coming from my side.
Daemones. Patience, Gripus, and just listen. Tell me briefly what you propose.
Trachalio. I’ve told you once, but in case I didn’t make myself clear I’ll tell you again. These two girls, I said, have a right to be free; one of them - this one - was stolen from Athens as a child.
Gripus. I can’t see what it’s got to do with the trunk, whether they were free girls or slaves.
Trachalio. We shall be here all day, blast you, if you want everything said twice over.

In this extract there is a sort of delicious humour of recognition in such words and phrases as “produce the trunk”, “you damned crook”, “in case I didn’t make myself clear”, etc. The hopelessly disordered way in which these free-and-easy 1950’s men-in-the-street attempt to talk business does provide a genuine insight into aspects of Plautus’s plays. There is of course a certain strain; the dialogue is just a little too jerky, as if the characters talk in different voices from one speech to the next, and Trachalio’s feeble apophthegm about “your side... my side” presumably reflects some piece of untranslateable Plautine humour.

Mostellaria (“The Ghost”) is excellent - the hand-to-mouth plot does not matter. Here as well as anywhere one can enjoy the momentary civilisation that Plautus evinces. All the characters are allowed to be individuals and none are outside the generous comic world. Slaves debate as equal individuals with masters, women who are bought and sold are allowed the vivacity of feeling that individuals have. Reading Plautus casts serious doubt on the view that Shakespeare “invented” humanity.

Still, I wonder if slaves ever attended performances.  Putting slaves on stage may have begun a bit like the US minstrel shows - crude comic stereotyping, pandering to the audience's prejudices, presenting everything on the plantation as rosy.  By the time of Plautus' plays the stereotyping was no longer crude but it was still an ingredient.

Rudens (“The Rope”) is as beyond criticism as literature can easily be. Of its many triumphs perhaps the best is bringing back Labrax and Gripus for a sort of coda - an additional comic scene beyond what we felt we had any right to expect.

Although Gripus, as in the extract above, shows himself sullenly indifferent to the deeper human story in which he is perforce involved, it’s impossible not to sympathise with him. His analogy between the trunk and the fish is not successfully exploded by that pseudo-Gadfly Trachalio (we are, however, on Trachalio’s side – but only because one of the girls likes him and he is decently concerned to sort things out). This question of property and ownership is indeed a mysterious one:

Fishermen are allowed to own the fish they catch - Yes, says Plautus.
Fishermen are allowed to own a trunk they fish up - No, though they deserve some honour and consideration.
Masters are allowed to own men - Yes, though the men can buy their freedom with sufficient initiative.
Pimps are allowed to own girls - No, though they are reluctantly conceded some compensation, along with dishonour.

It’s hard to make much logical sense of this – it seems that Plautus’ rules are not for all time, since no-one now would accept the third one - and Gripus’ view that “if I’ve got it it’s mine” can only be classed as unanswerable, but unacceptable. For the social fabric of ownership is something that can only be sustained by a mixture of convenience when we’ve got it and coercion if we haven’t. (And now, we can’t even be too secure about fishermen owning their catch - the seas are smaller and the problem that was disguised by abundance suddenly stares us in the face...)

Not that Gripus himself is exactly a logical thinker:

Ay, a lazy man is worse than useless. I never could abide a lazy man. If there’s work to be done, you’ve got to get up early, and that’s all there is to it....

Take me, now; by working hard I’ve done myself so much good that I need never work again if I don’t want to....
(See how the praise of work is clinched by the wonderful possibility of doing no work at all!)

This soliloquy becomes ever more extravagant; Gripus dreams of “Gripopolis”. Yet we can’t withhold sympathy. He is, after all, a slave, and throughout his blustering we sense the insecurity of a man who, all too realistically, suspects he may end up with nothing. We are pleased when he wins his freedom in the end.

I enjoyed Trinummus, the “Three-Dollar Day”. The piece is a bit of a puzzle. All the characters are so well-meaning and good-natured that there seems little opportunity for dramatic tension. Yet it works; it feels very solidly made. E.F. Watling calls it “a cool and leisurely comedy”. I remember numerous scenes with pleasure. Perhaps the key one is the threesome in which Lesbonicus, infuriatingly for his servant Stasimus, looks a gift-horse in the mouth. It’s so unusual for comedy to concern itself with a “no-strings attached” offer that we can understand why Lesbonicus can’t handle it. The play of the drama is kept alight by people constantly finding themselves in situations that could go wrong - Megaronides at first, Charmides at the end, could each fail to comprehend the virtuous scheming of Callicles. We see the pitfalls looming up and failing to materialize. We see impeccable behaviour, tolerance and forgiveness; but we also see why it’s needed. I found it unusual and rather moving; the unusualness feels like a sort of realism, admittedly of a partial sort (Watling said this, too). The chief technical problem is the ending, as so often (but not in Rudens or even, I think, in Mostellaria). When there has been so little tension in the first place, a happy resolution is flatly uninteresting.

I found Amphitryo frustrating - perhaps I wasn’t in a very good mood - it was as if I simply didn’t like the situations in the play, and the misunderstandings seemed to be drawn out tediously.




At 2:40 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

What a good review! The kind that makes you long to read the book, but conveys frankly what you'll be letting yourself in for; that is to say, allows you to weigh up whether you're equipped for the journey, and whether you'll consider the destination worthwhile.

Perhaps one could say this about all your reviews, but in this case, for this reader at this moment, it stood out in high relief.

At 10:15 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Nice to hear from you Vincent. This was one of the first pieces I wrote for the Brief History - in those days I didn't worry so much about what I was doing, which was probably a good thing!


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