The Dramatic Values in Plautus

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University of Pennsylvania

The Dramatic Values in Plautus


Wilton Wallace Blancké, A.M., Ph.D.

Professor of Latin in the Central High School of Philadelphia

A Thesis

Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy



This dissertation was written in 1916, before the entrance of the United States into The War, and was presented to the Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Its publication at this time needs no apology, for it will find its only public in the circumscribed circle of professional scholars. They at least will understand that scholarship knows no nationality. But in the fear that this may fall under the eye of that larger public, whose interests are, properly enough, not scholastic, a word of explanation may prove a safeguard.

The Germans have long been recognized as the hewers of wood and drawers of water of the intellectual world. For the results of the drudgery of minute research and laborious compilation, the scholar must perforce seek German sources. The copious citation of German authorities in this work is, then, the outcome of that necessity. I have, however, given due credit to German criticism, when it is sound. The French are, generically, vastly superior in the art of finely balanced critical estimation.

My sincere thanks are due in particular to the Harrison Foundation of the University for the many advantages I have received therefrom, to Professors John C. Rolfe and Walton B. McDaniel, who have been both teachers and friends to me, and to my good comrades and colleagues, Francis H. Lee and Horace T. Boileau, for their aid in editing this essay.

Wilton Wallace Blancké.

Part 1

A Résumé of the Criticism and of the Evidence Relating to the Acting of Plautus


This investigation was prompted by the abiding conviction that Plautus as a dramatic artist has been from time immemorial misunderstood. In his progress through the ages he has been like a merry clown rollicking amongst people with a hearty invitation to laughter, and has been rewarded by commendation for his services to morality and condemnation for his buffoonery. The majority of Plautine critics have evinced too serious an attitude of mind in dealing with a comic poet. However portentous and profound his scholarship, no one deficient in a sense of humor should venture to approach a comic poet in a spirit of criticism. For criticism means appreciation.

Furthermore, the various estimates of our poet’s worth have been as diversified as they have been in the main unfair. Alternately lauded as a master dramatic craftsman and vilified as a scurrilous purveyor of unsavory humor, he has been buffeted from the top to the bottom of the dramatic scale. More recent writers have been approaching a saner evaluation of his true worth, but never, we believe, has his real position in that dramatic scale been definitely and finally fixed; because heretofore no attempt has been made at a complete analysis of his dramatic, particularly his comic, methods. It is the aim of the present dissertation to accomplish this.

I doubt not that from the inception of our acquaintance with the pages of Plautus we have all passed through a similar experience. In the beginning we have been vastly diverted by the quips and cranks and merry wiles of the knavish slave, the plaints of love-lorn youth, the impotent rage of the baffled pander, the fruitless growlings of the hungry parasite’s belly. We have been amused, perhaps astonished, on further reading, at meeting our new-found friends in other plays, clothed in different names to be sure and supplied in part with a fresh stock of jests, but still engaged in the frustration of villainous panders, the cheating of harsh fathers, until all ends with virtue triumphant in the establishment of the undoubted respectability of a hitherto somewhat dubious female character.1

Our astonishment waxes as we observe further the close correspondence of dialogue, situation and dramatic machinery. We are bewildered by the innumerable asides of hidden eavesdroppers, the inevitable recurrence of soliloquy and speech familiarly directed at the audience, while every once in so often a slave, desperately bent on finding someone actually under his nose, careens wildly cross the stage or rouses the echoes by unmerciful battering of doors, meanwhile unburdening himself of lengthy solo tirades with great gusto;2 and all this dished up with a sauce of humor often too racy and piquant for our delicate twentieth-century palate, which has acquired a refined taste for suggestive innuendo, but never relishes calling a spade by its own name.

If we have sought an explanation of our poet’s gentle foibles in the commentaries to our college texts, we have assuredly been disappointed. Even to the seminarian in Plautus little satisfaction has been vouchsafed. We are often greeted by the enthusiastic comments of German critics, which run riot in elaborate analyses of plot and character and inform us that we are reading Meisterwerke of comic drama.3 Our perplexity has perhaps become focused upon two leading questions; first: “What manner of drama is this after all? Is it comedy, farce, opera bouffe or mere extravaganza?” Second: “How was it done? What was the technique of acting employed to represent in particular the peculiarly extravagant scenes?”4

There is an interesting contrast between the published editions of Plautus and Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s plays we find interlaced with an elaborate network of stage direction that enables us to visualize the movements of the characters even to extreme minutiae. In the text of Plautus we find nothing but the dialogue, and in the college editions only such editorially-inserted “stage-business” as is fairly evident from the spoken lines. The answer then to our second question: “How was it done?”, at least does not lie on the surface of the text.

For an adequate answer to both our questions the following elements are necessary; first: a digest of Plautine criticism; second: a résumé of the evidence as to original performances of the plays, including a consideration of the audience, the actors and of the gestures and stage-business employed by the latter; third: a critical analysis of the plays themselves, with a view to cataloguing Plautus’ dramatic methods. We hope by these means to obtain a conclusive reply to both our leading questions.

§1. Critics of Plautus

Plautine criticism has displayed many different angles. As in most things, time helps resolve the discrepancies. The general impression gleaned from a survey of the field is that in earlier times over-appreciation was the rule, which has gradually simmered down, with occasional outpourings of denunciation, to a healthier norm of estimation.

Even in antiquity the wiseacres took our royal buffoon too seriously. Stylistically he was translated to the skies. [Sidenote: Cicero] Cicero5 imputes to him “iocandi genus, … elegans, urbanum, ingeniosum, facetum.” [Sidenote: Aelius Stilo] Quintilian6 quotes: “Licet Varro Musas Aelii Stilonis sententia Plautino dicat sermone locuturas fuisse, si latine loqui vellent.” [Sidenote: Gellius] The paean is further swelled by Gellius, who variously refers to our hero as “homo linguae atque elegantiae in verbis Latinae princeps,”7 and “verborum Latinorum elegantissimus,”8 and “linguae Latinae decus.”9 [Sidenote: Horace] If our poet is scored by Horace10 it is probably due rather to Horace’s affectation of contempt for the early poets than to his true convictions; or we may ascribe it to the sophisticated metricist’s failure to realize the existence of a “Metrica Musa Pedestris.” As Duff says (A Literary History of Rome, p. 197), “The scansion of Plautus was less understood in Cicero’s day than that of Chaucer was in Johnson’s.” (Cf. Cic. Or. 55. 184.)

[Sidenote: Euanthius] We have somewhat of a reaction, too, against the earlier chorus of praise in the commentary of Euanthius,11 who condemns Plautus’ persistent use of direct address of the audience. If it is true, as Donatus12 says later: “Comoediam esse Cicero ait imitationem vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imaginem veritatis,” we find it hard to understand Cicero’s enthusiatic praise of Plautus, as we hope to show that he is very far from measuring up to any such comic ideal as that laid down by Cicero himself.

But of course these ancient critiques have no appreciable bearing on our argument and we cite them rather for historical interest and retrospect.13 [Sidenote: Festus] [Sidenote: Brix] While Festus14 makes a painful effort to explain the location of the mythical “Portus Persicus” mentioned in the Amph.,15 Brix16 in modern times shows that there is no historical ground for the elaborate mythical genealogy in Men. 409 ff. We contend that “Portus Persicus” is pure fiction, as our novelists refer fondly to “Zenda” or “Graustark,” while the Men. passage is a patent burlesque of the tragic style.17

[Sidenote: Becker] On the threshold of what we may term modern criticism of Plautus we find W.A. Becker, in 1837, writing a book: “De Comicis Romanorum Fabulis Maxime Plautinis Quaestiones.” Herein, after deploring the neglect of Plautine criticism among his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, he attempts to prove that Plautus was a great “original” poet and dramatic artist. Surely no one today can be in sympathy with such a sentiment as the following (Becker, p. 95): “Et Trinummum, quae ita amabilibus lepidisque personis optimisque exemplis abundat, ut quoties eam lego, non comici me poetae, sed philosophi Socratici opus legere mihi videar.” I believe we may safely call the Trinummus the least Plautine of Plautine plays, except the Captivi, and it is by no means so good a work. The Trinummus is crowded with interminable padded dialogue, tiresome moral preachments, and possesses a weakly motivated plot; a veritable “Sunday-school play.”

But Becker continues: “Sive enim <Plautus> seria agit et praecepta pleno effundit penu, ad quae componere vitarn oporteat; in sententiis quanta gravitas, orationis quanta vis, quam probe et meditate cum hominum ingenia moresque novisse omnia testantur.” We feel sure that our Umbrian fun-maker would strut in public and laugh in private, could he hear such an encomium of his lofty moral aims. For it is our ultimate purpose to prove that fun-maker Plautus was primarily and well-nigh exclusively a fun-maker.

[Sidenote: Weise] K. H. Weise, in “Die Komodien des Plautus, kritisch nach Inhalt und Form beleuchtet, zur Bestimmung des Echten und Unechten in den einzelnen Dichtungen” (Quedlinburg, 1866), follows hard on Becker’s heels and places Plautus on a pinnacle of poetic achievement in which we scarcely recognize our apotheosized laugh-maker. Every passage in the plays that is not artistically immaculate, that does not conform to the uttermost canons of dramatic art, is unequivocally damned as “unecht.” In his Introduction (p. 4) Weise is truly eloquent in painting the times and significance of our poet. With momentary insight he says: “Man hat an ihm eine immer frische und nie versiegende Fundgrabe des ächten Volkswitzes.” But this is soon marred by utterances such as (p. 14): “Fände sich also in der Zahl der Plautinischen Komodien eine Partie, die mit einer andern in diesen Hinsichten in bedeutendem Grade contrastirte, so konnte man sicher schliessen, dass beide nicht von demselben Verfasser sein könnten.” He demands from Plautus, as ein wahrer Poet, “Congruenz, und richtige innere Logik <und> harmonische Construction” (p. 12), and finally declares (p. 22): “Interesse, Character, logischer Bau in der Zusammensetzung, Naturlichkeit der Sprache und des Witzes, Rythmus und antikes Idiom des Ausdrucks werden die Kriterien sein mussen, nach dem wir uber die Vortrefflichkeit und Plautinität plautinischer Stücke zu entscheiden haben.”

On this basis he ruthlessly carves out and discards as “unecht” every passage that fails to conform to his amazing and extravagant ideals, in the belief that “der ächte Meister Plautus konnte nur Harmonisches, nur Vernunftiges, nur Logisches, nur relativ Richtiges dichten” (p. 79), though even Homer nods. The Mercator is banned in toto. To be sure, Weise somewhat redeems himself by the statement (p. 29 f.): “Plautus bezweckte … lediglich nur die eigentliche und wirksamste Belustigung des Publicums.” But how he reconciles this with his previously quoted convictions and with the declaration (p. 16): “Plautus ist ein sehr religioser, sehr moralischer Schriftsteller,” it is impossible to grasp, until we recall that the author is a German.

[Sidenote: Langen] Such criticism stultifies itself and needs no refutation; certainly not here, as P. Langen in his Plautinische Studien (Berliner Studien, 1886; pp. 90-91) has conclusively proved that the inconsistent is a feature absolutely germane to Plautine style, and has collected an overwhelming mass of “Widerspruche, Inkonsequenzen und psychologische Unwahrscheinlichkeiten” that would question the “Plautinity” of every other line, were we to follow Weise’s precepts. Langen too uses the knife, but with a certain judicious restraint.

We insist that the attempt to explain away every inconsistency as spurious is a sorry refuge.

[Sidenote: Langrehr] Langrehr in Miscellanea Philologica (Gottingen, 1876), under the caption Plautina18 gives vent to further solemn Teutonic carpings at the plot of the Epidicus and argues the play a contaminatio on the basis of the double intrigue. He is much exercised too over the mysterious episode of ‘the disappearing flute-girl.’

Langen, who is in the main remarkably sane, refutes these conclusions neatly.19 How Weise and his confrères argue Plautus such a super-poet, in view of the life and education of the public to whom he catered, let alone the evidence of the plays themselves, and their author’s status as mere translator and adapter, must remain an insoluble mystery. The simple truth is that a playwright such as Plautus, having undertaken to feed a populace hungry for amusement, ground out plays (doubtless for a living),20 with a wholesome disregard for niceties of composition, provided only he obtained his sine qua non–the laugh.21

[Sidenote: Lessing] In our citation of opinions we must not overlook that impressive mile-stone in the history of criticism, the discredited but still great Lessing. In his “Abhandlung von dem Leben und den Werken des M. Accius Plautus” Lessing deprecates the harsh judgment of Horace and later detractors of our poet in modern times. Lessing idealizes him as the matchless comic poet. That the Captivi is “das vortrefflichste Stück, welches jemals auf den Schauplatz gekommen ist,” as Lessing declares in the Preface to his translation of the play, is an utterance that leaves us gasping.

[Sidenote: Dacier] But Lessing’s idea of the purpose of comedy is a combination of Aristotelian and mid-Victorian ideals: “die Sitten der Zuschauer zu bilden und zu bessern, … wenn sie nämlich das Laster allezeit unglücklich und die Tugend am Ende glücklich sein lässt.”22 It is on the basis of this premise that he awards the comic crown to the Cap.23 His extravagant encomium called forth from a contemporary a long controversial letter which Lessing published in the second edition with a reply so feeble that he distinctly leaves his adversary the honors of the field. How much better the diagnosis of Madame Dacier, who is quoted by Lessing! In the introduction to her translations of the Amphitruo, Rudens and Epidicus (issued in 1683), she apologizes for Plautus on the ground that he had to win approval for his comedies from an audience used to the ribaldry of the Saturae.

[Sidenote: Lorenz] Lorenz in his introductions to editions of the Most. and Pseud. is another who seems to be carried away by the unrestrained enthusiasm that often affects scholars oversteeped in the lore of their author. Faults are dismissed as merely “Kleine Unwahrscheinlichkeiten” (Introd. Ps., p. 26, N. 25.) “Jeder Leser,” says he, “<wird gewiss> darin beistimmen, dass … der erste Act <des Pseudolus> eine so gelungene Exposition darbietet, wie sie die dramatische Poesie nur aufweisen kann.” Such a statement must fall, by weight of exaggeration. In appreciation of the portrayal of the name-part he continues: “Mit welch’ überwältigender Herrschaft tritt hier gleich die meisterhaft geschilderte Hauptperson hervor! Welche packende Kraft, welche hinreissende verve liegt in dem reichen Dialoge, der wie beseelt von der feurigen Energie des begabten Menschen, der ihn lenkt, fröhlich rauschend dahin eilt, übersprudelnd von einer Fulle erheiternder Scherze und schillernder Spielereien!”

In curious contrast to this fulsome outpouring stands the expressed belief of Lamarre24 that the character of Ballio overshadows that of Pseudolus. In support of this view he cites Cicero (Pro Ros. Com. 7.20), who mentions that Roscius chose to play Ballio.

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