SUBJECTS OF THE PLAUTINE PLAYS

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 82-4.

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PLAUTUS did not touch the private life of individuals, and makes comparatively few references to politics. His favorite subjects were love intrigues, the ridiculous struggles of a character to carry out some nefarious plan, or the manner in which sly slaves and gay youths outwit their masters and guardians. Frequently a play combines all three themes. The original circumstances of his love intrigues are usually disgraceful; but when these are once accepted, the plays become quite moral in tone, enjoining all the virtues of respectability. In the Amphitryo a risqué subject is treated with far more delicacy than by either Molière or Dryden. Sometimes Plautus attacked the weaknesses and vices of his time with the zeal of a real reformer. He ridiculed the aged sensualist who often stands as the prominent and model citizen, scoffed at the amours of the wealthy merchant, exposed the evils which follow in the wake of slavery, and showed the wretched end to which the life of the courtesan leads.

With Plautus the Roman lady of high station was always virtuous, though often disagreeable; but he never tried to make the life of a frail sister attractive. In The Captives there is a fine picture of the devotion of two friends, and of the fidelity of a slave to his master. Like the Greek playwrights, Plautus emphasized the importance of giving asylum to fugitives and travelers. He used both elegant and colloquial Latin with ease and boldness, and had considerable skill in the use of verse forms. As a specialist in the making of boisterous and actable farces, with occasional passages of pure comedy, he was particularly successful. His inventiveness, his knowledge of stage-craft, his gift for theatrical effect, and his understanding of character gave him the title of "the greatest genius of Rome."

Not a few of the themes of Plautus were used by later poets. Molière and Dryden took the Amphitryo as the basis for plays. The Pot of Gold was used by Molière in The Miser; the Haunted House by Regnaud and Addison; the Threepenny Bit by Lessing; and The Twins (Menaechmi) by any number of later playwrights, including Shakespeare. It was the opinion of Lessing that The Captives was the best play ever put on the stage. Plautus himself regretted that he could not find more plots like it, because (he said) the moral lesson was so good. We can agree with him at least so far as to admit that the details of the plot, unlike those of many early comedies, are mentionable in polite society. It is a mystery play, has no women characters, and does not hinge upon a love intrigue. It starts off with a punning joke about grace before meat, and depends for its liveliness somewhat upon the hungry parasite, who threatens every now and then to give up his job of sponging upon the rich, since it is such hard work. The style is racy, abounding in what must have been local allusions and current gags, and revealing an uncanny knowledge of those blasé, shrewd city-dwellers who made up the ordinary Roman audience. There are also occasional passages of genuine feeling.

Plautus said that in his prologues he always had three purposes: to tell the audience to keep quiet so they could hear the piece; to give very plainly the story of the play and an explanation of the stage setting; and lastly to banter everybody into a good humor. A list of the devices used in his plots reads like a catalogue of the ten-twenty-thirty thrillers of the nineteenth century: the abandonment of infants, kidnapping, piracy, shipwreck, tokens of recognition, changes of identity, keyhole listenings, strange rescues. His world is peopled by scolding matrons, lying and thievish servants, money lenders, procurers and sycophants. In the end the knaves are generally punished, the stingy parent outwitted or won over, and the hero satisfied. The titles indicate somewhat the nature of his works: The Play of the Hidden Pot of Gold, The Haunted House, How the Sham Steward Got Paid for His Asses, and The Play of the Caskets.

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