Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Plautus: Amphytrion, The Pot of Gold, Casina

Three comedies by Titus Maccius Plautus (circa 254-184 B.C.): Amphytrion, The Pot of Gold, Casina. I read from this version: Plautus, Amphytryon and Two Other Plays, translated and edited by Lionel Casson, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971 paperback edition. 

After a quick go through these one comes away with a good idea just how much contemporary situation comedies rely on ancient plots, characters and themes. Anyone who's seen Three's Company (1977-1984) will find themselves at home. 

Amphytrion involves doubles and mistaken identity. The God Jove (Jupiter, Zeus) wants to spend a night with Alcmena while her husband Amphytrion is off fighting a war, so he masquerades as Amphytrion and posts his son Mercury (Hermes) to keep people away, masquerading as Sosia, a servant. The comedy revolves around thwarting all threatened disruptions to Jove's desire to have his way. The highlight is Mercury/Sosia keeping the "real" Sosia at bay.

The Pot of Gold is a ludicrous comedy showcasing human greed and tomfoolery. There are sneaky servants, idiotic rich men and cagey women. The coolest elements in this one are the house spirit and the Temple of Trust. The silliest aspect is having to see the great lengths to which miserly Euclio goes to safeguard his little pot of gold, never able to conquer his constant fear of losing it. 

Casina (aka The Lot-Drawers) is a more involved but still clownish elaboration involving a rich older married man who seeks access to a younger woman by arranging her marriage with a dependent who will share her but is simultaneously threatened by another suitor -- and so on. The wife and her servants see through all of it, and plot to refashion the endgame. 

If you've seen or know of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), Three's Company (1977-1984), The Benny Hill Show (1955-1991) or Seinfeld (1989-1998), you know of Plautus.  

Finally, it is notable in these three plays that Plautus shows both empathy and fond sympathy for women. He aims his sharpest barbs of mockery and satire at the foibles and hubris of men high and low. 

Unfortunately, once Christians gained control of Rome and its territories, most of the comedies of Plautus were destroyed by some of the more puritanical and joyless zealots among them. Perhaps more of Plautus' 2,200-year-old plays will be revealed again in due time -- another pot of gold at the end of a future rainbow?

Today's Rune: Protection.   


the walking man said...

It is not surprising to learn that what we consider to be forever held entrenched attitudes and foibles at one time were comedic fodder.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely would be worth a study. I need another lifetime.