II. COMEDY: PLAUTUS AND TERENCE.
Great as was the place occupied in the culture of the Greek world by Homer and the Attic tragedians, the Middle and New Comedy, as they culminated in Menander, exercised an even wider and more pervasive influence. A vast gap lay between the third and fifth centuries before Christ. Aeschylus, and even Sophocles, had become ancient literature in the age immediately following their own. Euripides, indeed, continued for centuries after his death to be a vital force of immense moment; but this force he owed to the qualities in him that make his tragedy transgress the formal limits of the art, to pass into the wider sphere of the human comedy, with its tears and laughter, its sentiment and passions. From him to Menander is in truth but a step; but this step was of such importance that it was the comedian who became the Shakespeare of Greece. Omnem vitae imaginem expressit are the words deliberately used of him by the greatest of Roman critics.
When, therefore, the impulse towards a national literature began to be felt at Rome, comedy took its place side by side with tragedy and epic as part of the Greek secret that had to be studied and mastered; and this came the more naturally that a sort of comedy in rude but definite forms was already native and familiar. Dramatic improvisations were, from an immemorial antiquity, a regular feature of Italian festivals. They were classed under different heads, which cannot be sharply distinguished. The Satura seems to have been peculiarly Latin; probably it did not differ deeply or essentially from the two other leading types that arose north and south of Latium, and were named from the little country towns of Fescennium in Etruria, and Atella in Campania. But these rude performances hardly rose to the rank of literature; and here, as elsewhere, the first literary standard was set by laborious translations from the Greek.
We find, accordingly, that the earlier masters—Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius—all wrote comedies as well as tragedies, of the type known as palliata, or “dressed in the Greek mantle,” that is to say, freely translated or adapted from Greek originals. After Ennius, this still continued to be the more usual type; but the development of technical skill now results in two important changes. The writers of comedy become, on the whole and broadly speaking, distinct from the writers of tragedy; and alongside of the palliata springs up the togata, or comedy of Italian dress, persons, and manners.
As this latter form of Latin comedy has perished, with the exception of trifling fragments, it may be dismissed here in few words. Its life was comprised in less than a century. Titinius, the first of the writers of the fabula togata of whom we have any certain information, was a contemporary of Terence and the younger Scipio; a string of names, which are names and nothing more, carries us down to the latest and most celebrated of the list, Lucius Afranius. His middle-class comedies achieved a large and a long-continued popularity; we hear of performances of them being given even a hundred years after his death, and Horace speaks with gentle sarcasm of the enthusiasts who put him on a level with Menander. With his contemporary Quinctius Atta (who died B.C. 77, in the year of the abortive revolution after the death of Sulla), he owed much of his success to the admirable acting of Roscius, who created a stage tradition that lasted long after his own time. To the mass of the people, comedy (though it did not err in the direction of over-refinement) seemed tame by comparison with the shows and pageants showered on them by the ruling class as the price of their suffrages. As in other ages and countries, fashionable society followed the mob. The young man about town, so familiar to us from the brilliant sketches of Ovid, accompanies his mistress, not to comedies of manners, but to the more exciting spectacles of flesh and blood offered by the ballet-dancers and the gladiators. Thus the small class who occupied themselves with literature had little counteracting influence pressed on them to keep them from the fatal habit of perpetually copying from the Greek; and adaptations from the Attic New Comedy, which had been inevitable and proper enough as the earlier essays of a tentative dramatic art, remained the staple of an art which thus cut itself definitely away from nature.
That we possess, in a fairly complete form, the works of two of the most celebrated of these playwrights, and of their many contemporaries and successors nothing but trifling fragments, is due to a chance or a series of chances which we cannot follow, and from which we must not draw too precise conclusions. Plautus was the earliest, and apparently the most voluminous, of the writers who devoted themselves wholly to comedy. Between him and Terence a generation intervenes, filled by another comedian, Caecilius, whose works were said to unite much of the special excellences of both; while after the death of Terence his work was continued on the same lines by Turpilius and others, and dwindled away little by little into the early Empire. But there can be no doubt that Plautus and Terence fully represent the strength and weakness of the Latin palliata. Together with the eleven plays of Aristophanes, they have been in fact, since the beginning of the Middle Ages, the sole representatives of ancient, and the sole models for modern comedy.
Titus Maccius Plautus was born of poor parents, in the little Umbrian town of Sarsina, in the year 254 B.C., thus falling midway in age between Naevius and Ennius. Somehow or other he drifted to the capital, to find employment as a stage-carpenter. He alternated his playwriting with the hardest manual drudgery; and though the inexhaustible animal spirits which show themselves in his writing explain how he was able to combine extraordinary literary fertility with a life of difficulty and poverty, it must remain a mystery how and when he picked up his education, and his surprising mastery of the Latin language both in metre and diction. Of the one hundred and thirty comedies attributed to him, two-thirds were rejected as spurious by Varro, and only twenty-one ranked as certainly genuine. These last are extant, with the exception of one, called Vidularia, or The Carpet-Bag, which was lost in the Middle Ages; some of them, however, exist, and probably existed in Varro's time, only in abridged or mutilated stage copies.
The constructive power shown in these pieces is, of course, less that of Plautus himself than of his Greek originals, Philemon, Diphilus, and Menander. But we do not want modern instances to assure us that, in adapting a play from one language to another, merely to keep the plot unimpaired implies more than ordinary qualities of skill or conscientiousness. When Plautus is at his best—in the Aulularia, Bacchides, orRudens, and most notably in the Captivi —he has seldom been improved upon either in the interest of his action or in the copiousness and vivacity of his dialogue.
Over and above his easy mastery of language, Plautus has a further Claim to distinction in the wide range of his manner. Whether he ever Went beyond the New Comedy of Athens for his originals, is uncertain; But within it he ranges freely over the whole field, and the twenty Extant pieces include specimens of almost every kind of play to which the name of comedy can be extended. The first on the list, the famous Amphitruo, is the only surviving specimen of the burlesque. The Greeks called this kind of piece [Greek: ilarotrag_oidia]—a term for Which tragedie-bouffe would be the nearest modern equivalent;tragico-comoedia is the name by which Plautus himself describes it in the prologue. The Amphitruo remains, even now, one of the most masterly specimens of this kind. The version of Moliere, in which he did little by way of improvement on his original, has given it fresh currency as a classic; but the French play gives but an imperfect idea of the spirit and flexibility of the dialogue in Plautus' hands.
Of a very different type is the piece which comes next the Amphrituo in acknowledged excellence, the Captivi. It is a comedy of sentiment, without female characters, and therefore without the coarseness which (as one is forced to say with regret) disfigures some of the other plays. The development of the plot has won high praise from all critics, and justifies the boast of the epilogue, Huiusmodi paucas poetae reperiunt comoedias. But the praise which the author gives to his own piece—
Non pertractate facta est neque item ut ceterae,
Neque spurcidici insunt versus immemorabiles,
Hic neque periurus leno est nec meretrix mala
Neque miles gloriosus—
is really a severe condemnation of two other groups of Plautine plays. The Casina and the Truculentus (the latter, as we know from Cicero, a special favourite with its author) are studies in pornography which only the unflagging animal spirits of the poet can redeem from being disgusting; and the Asinaria, Curculio, and Miles Gloriosus are broad farces with the thinnest thread of plot. The last depends wholly on the somewhat forced and exaggerated character of the title-role; as the Pseudolus, a piece with rather more substance, does mainly on its periurus leno, Ballio, a character who reminds one of Falstaff in his entire shamelessness and inexhaustible vocabulary.
A different vein, the domestic comedy of middle-class life, is opened in one of the most quietly successful of his pieces, the Trinummus, or Threepenny-bit. In spite of all the characters being rather fatiguingly virtuous in their sentiments, it is full of life, and not without gracefulness and charm. After the riotous scenes of the lighter plays, it is something of a comfort to return to the good sense and good feeling of respectable people. It forms an interesting contrast to the Bacchides, a play which returns to the world of the bawd and harlot, but with a brilliance of intrigue and execution that makes it rank high among comedies.
Two other plays are remarkable from the fact that, though neither in construction nor in workmanship do they rise beyond mediocrity, the leading motive of the plot in one case and the principal character in the other are inventions of unusual felicity. The Greek original of both is unknown; but to it, no doubt, rather than to Plautus himself, we are bound to ascribe the credit of the Aulularia and Menaechmi. TheAulularia, or Pot of Gold, a commonplace story of middle-class life, is a mere framework for the portrait of the old miser, Euclio—in itself a sketch full of life and brilliance, and still more famous as the original of Moliere's Harpagon, which is closely studied from it. The Menaechmi, or Comedy of Errors, without any great ingenuity of plot or distinction of character, rests securely on the inexhaustible opportunities of humour opened up by the happy invention of the twin-brothers who had lost sight of one another from early childhood, and the confusions that arise when they meet in the same town in later life.
There is yet one more of the Plautine comedies which deserves special notice, as conceived in a different vein and worked out in a different tone from all those already mentioned—the charming romantic comedy called Rudens, or The Cable, though a more fitting name for it would be The Tempest. It is not pitched in the sentimental key of the Captivi; but it has a higher, and, in Latin literature, a rarer, note. By a happy chance, perhaps, rather than from any unwonted effort of skill, this translation of the play of Diphilus has kept in it something of the unique and unmistakeable Greek atmosphere—the atmosphere of the Odyssey, of the fisher-idyl of Theocritus, of the hundreds of little poems in the Greek Anthology that bear clinging about their verses the faint murmur and odour of the sea. The scene is laid near Cyrene, on the strange rich African coast; the prologue is spoken, not by a character in the piece, nor by a decently clothed abstraction like the figures of Luxury and Poverty which speak the prologue of theTrinummus, but by the star Arcturus, watcher and tempest-bearer.
Qui gentes omnes, mariaque et terras movet,
Eius sum civis civitate caelitum;
Ita sum ut videtis, splendens stella candida,
Signum quod semper tempore exoritur suo
Hic atque in caelo; nomen Arcturo est mihi.
Noctu sum in caelo clarus atque inter deos;
Inter mortales ambulo interdius.
The romantic note struck in these opening lines is continued throughout the comedy, in which, by little touches here and there, the scene is kept constantly before us of the rocky shore in the strong brilliant sun after the storm of the night, the temple with its kindly priestess, and the red-tiled country-house by the reeds of the lagoon, with the solitary pastures behind it dotted over with fennel. Now and again one is reminded of the Winter's Tale, with fishermen instead of shepherds for the subordinate characters; more frequently of a play which, indeed, has borrowed a good deal from this, Pericles Prince of Tyre.
The remainder of the Plautine plays may be dismissed with scant notice. They comprise three variations on the theme which, to modern taste, has become so excessively tedious, of the Fourberies de Scapin—the Epidicus, Mostellaria, and Persa; the Poenulus, a dull play, which owes its only interest to the passages in it written in the Carthaginian language, which offer a tempting field for the conjectures of the philologist; two more, the Mercator and Stichus, of confused plot and insipid dialogue; and a mutilated fragment of the Cistellaria, or Travelling-Trunk, which would not have been missed had it shared the fate of the Carpet-Bag.
The humour of one age is often mere weariness to the next; and farcical comedy is, of all the forms of literature, perhaps the least adapted for permanence. It would be affectation to claim that Plautus is nowadays widely read outside of the inner circle of scholars; and there he is read almost wholly on account of his unusual fertility and interest as a field of linguistic study. Yet he must always remain one of the great outstanding influences in literary history. The strange fate which has left nothing but inconsiderable fragments out of the immense volume of the later Athenian Comedy, raised Plautus to a position co-ordinate with that of Aristophanes as a model for the reviving literature of modern Europe; for such part of that literature (by much the more important) as did not go beyond Latin for its inspiration, Plautus was a source of unique and capital value, in his own branch of literature equivalent to Cicero or Virgil in theirs.
Plautus outlived the second Punic War, during which, as we gather from prefaces and allusions, a number of the extant plays were produced. Soon after the final collapse of the Carthaginian power at Zama, a child was born at Carthage, who, a few years later, in the course of unexplained vicissitudes, reached Rome as a boy-slave, and passed there into the possession of a rich and educated senator, Terentius Lucanus. The boy showed some unusual turn for books; he was educated and manumitted by his master, and took from him the name of Publius Terentius the African. A small literary circle of the Roman aristocracy—men too high in rank to need to be careful what company they kept—admitted young Terence to their intimate companionship; and soon he was widely known as making a third in the friendship of Gaius Laelius with the first citizen of the Republic, the younger Scipio Africanus. This society, an informal academy of letters, devoted all its energies to the purification and improvement of the Latin language. The rough drafts of the Terentian comedies were read out to them, and the language and style criticised in minute detail; gossip even said that they were largely written by Scipio's own hand, and Terence himself, as is not surprising, never took pains to deny the rumour. Six plays had been subjected to this elaborate correction and produced on the Roman stage, when Terence undertook a prolonged visit to Greece for the purpose of further study. He died of fever the next year— by one account, at a village in Arcadia; by another, when on his voyage home. The six comedies had already taken the place which they have ever since retained as Latin classics.
The Terentian comedy is in a way the turning-point of Roman literature. Plautus and Ennius, however largely they drew from Greek originals, threw into all their work a manner and a spirit which were essentially those of a new literature in the full tide of growth. The imitation of Greek models was a means, not an end; in both poets the Greek manner is continually abandoned for essays into a new manner of their own, and they relapse upon it when their imperfectly mastered powers of invention or expression give way under them. In the circle of Terence the fatal doctrine was originated that the Greek manner was an end in itself, and that the road to perfection lay, not in developing any original qualities, but in reproducing with laborious fidelity the accents of another language and civilisation. Nature took a swift and certain revenge. Correctness of sentiment and smooth elegance of diction became the standards of excellence; and Latin literature, still mainly confined to the governing class and their dependents, was struck at the root (the word is used of Terence himself by Varro) with the fatal disease of mediocrity.
But in Terence himself (as in Addison among English writers) this mediocrity is, indeed, golden—a mediocrity full of grace and charm. The unruffled smoothness of diction, the exquisite purity of language, are qualities admirable in themselves, and are accompanied by other striking merits; not, indeed, by dramatic force or constructive power, but by careful and delicate portraiture of character, and by an urbanity (to use a Latin word which expresses a peculiarly Latin quality) to which the world owes a deep debt for having set a fashion. In some curious lines preserved by Suetonius, Julius Caesar expresses a criticism, which we shall find it hard to improve, on the “halved Menander,” to whom his own fastidious purity in the use of language, no less than his tact and courtesy as a man of the world, attracted him strongly, while not blinding him to the weakness and flaccidity of the Terentian drama. Its effect on contemporary men of letters was immediate and irresistible. A curious, if doubtfully authentic, story is told of the young poet when he submitted his first play, The Maid of Andros, for the approval of the Commissioners of Public Works, who were responsible for the production of plays at the civic festivals. He was ordered to read it aloud to Caecilius, who, since the death of Plautus, had been supreme without a rival on the comic stage. Terence presented himself modestly while Caecilius was at supper, and was carelessly told to sit down on a stool in the dining-room, and begin. He had not read beyond a few verses when Caecilius stopped him, and made him take his seat at table. After supper was over, he heard his guest's play out with unbounded and unqualified admiration.
But this admiration of the literary class did not make the refined conventional art of Terence successful for its immediate purposes on the stage: he was caviare to the general. Five of the six plays were produced at the spring festival of the Mother of the Gods—an occasion when the theatre had not to face the competition of the circus; yet even then it was only by immense efforts on the part of the management that they succeeded in attracting an audience. The Mother-in-Law (not, it is true, a play which shows the author at his best) was twice produced as a dead failure. The third time it was pulled through by extraordinary efforts on the part of the acting-manager, Ambivius Turpio. The prologue written by Terence for this third performance is one of the most curious literary documents of the time. He is too angry to extenuate the repeated failure of his play. If we believe him, it fell dead the first time because “that fool, the public,” were all excitement over an exhibition on the tight-rope which was to follow the play; at the second representation only one act had been gone through, when a rumour spread that “there were going to be gladiators" elsewhere, and in five minutes the theatre was empty.
The Terentian prologues (they are attached to all his plays) are indeed very interesting from the light they throw on the character of the author, as well as on the ideas and fashions of his age. In all of them there is a certain hard and acrid purism that cloaks in modest phrases an immense contempt for all that lies beyond the writer's own canons of taste. In hac est pura oratio, a phrase of the prologue to The Self-Tormentor, is the implied burden of them all. He is a sort of Literary Robespierre; one seems to catch the premonitory echo of well-known phrases, “degenerate condition of literary spirit, backsliding on this hand and on that, I, Terence, alone left incorruptible.” Three times there is a reference to Plautus, and always with a tone of chilly superiority which is too proud to break into an open sneer. Yet among these haughty and frigid manifestoes some felicity of phrase or of sentiment will suddenly remind us that here, after all, we are dealing with one of the great formative intelligences of literature; where, for instance, in the prologue to the lively and witty comedy of The Eunuch, the famous line—
Nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius—
drops with the same easy negligence as in the opening dialogue of The Self-Tormentor, the immortal—
Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto—
falls from the lips of the old farmer. Congreve alone of English playwrights has this glittering smoothness, this inimitable ease; if we remember what Dryden, in language too splendid to be insincere, wrote of his young friend, we may imagine, perhaps, how Caecilius and his circle regarded Terence. Nor is it hard to believe that, had Terence, like Congreve, lived into an easy and honoured old age, he would still have rested his reputation on these productions of his early youth. Both dramatists had from the first seen clearly and precisely what they had in view, and had almost at the first stroke attained it: the very completeness of the success must in both cases have precluded the dissatisfaction through which fresh advances could alone be possible.
This, too, is one reason, though certainly not the only one, why, with the death of Terence, the development of Latin comedy at once ceased. His successors are mere shadowy names. Any life that remained in the art took the channel of the farces which, for a hundred years more, retained a genuine popularity, but which never took rank as literature of serious value. Even this, the fabula tabernaria, or comedy of low life, gradually melted away before the continuous competition of the shows which so moved the spleen of Terence—the pantomimists, the jugglers, the gladiators. By this time, too, the literary instinct was beginning to explore fresh channels. Not only was prose becoming year by year more copious and flexible, but the mixed mode, fluctuating between prose and verse, to which the Romans gave the name of satire, was in process of invention. Like the novel as compared with the play at the present time, it offered great and obvious advantages in ease and variety of manipulation, and in the simplicity and inexpensiveness with which, not depending on the stated performances of a public theatre, it could be produced and circulated. But before proceeding to consider this new literary invention more fully, it will be well to pause in order to gather up, as its necessary complement, the general lines on which Latin prose was now developing, whether in response to the influence of Greek models, or in the course of a more native and independent growth.