Between the death of Aristophanes, the first Greek master of comedy, and the Roman Plautus, who has been described as the most successful comic poet in the ancient world, the Greek Menander created the New Comedy. Only one complete play by Menander is now extant, but most Roman comedies are known, from fragments and various accounts, to be imitations of Greek models. Only twenty of the approximately one hundred plays written by Plautus—who is also the first known professional playwright—remain.
Plautus was the first Latin author whose work has survived; he was very popular in Rome. His plays greatly influenced the comedies of William Shakespeare and Molière, and, as recently as the 1960’s, an adaptation combining three of his plays, including Pseudolus (which literally means “the trickster”), achieved considerable success as a Broadway musical titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (pr., pb. 1962), which was in turn adapted as a motion picture (1966).
Whereas some of Shakespeare’s comedies have been described as being serious, dark, or even problem plays, the comedies of Plautus are almost always festive and playful. Performed at planting or harvest festivals, the plays offered Roman audiences an opportunity to free themselves temporarily from the confines of their society, which demanded strict adherence to law, filial obedience—fathers could legally execute their children—and pursuit of financial gain. Roman morality has been described as puritanical, and the institution of slavery was vital to Roman civilization. What the comedies offered was an inversion of these cultural values: The slave becomes master over his master, the son over his father, youth over age. In the comic world of Plautus, money and morality merely get in the way, and those who are committed to either are usually the villains.
Actually, the term “villain” is a bit severe to describe any of the characters in a play like Pseudolus. The pimp (in Latin, leno) Ballio is more a rascal than a villain. He is a blocking character—that is, he prevents the good characters, the slave Pseudolus and his master’s son, Calidorus, from having a good time. “Having a good time” in this case means arranging for Calidorus to gain possession of his girlfriend, Phoenicium, before Ballio can sell...
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