Critical Evaluation

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Unlike much of Terence’s other work, Phormio is highly amusing. In addition to presenting one of the most engaging rascals in the history of the theater, the play is fast-paced, brilliantly constructed, suspenseful, and rich in irony. Terence’s ability in characterization is evident, but Phormio tends to be more farcical than his other comedies, though it is also more vigorous. This may be because the playwright did not adapt it from Menander, as was usually the case in Terence, but from Apollodorus of Carystus, a contemporary of Menander. Because the original source has not survived, it is difficult to judge how much of Phormio is derived from its source. Certain features are distinctly Terentian, such as the dual romance, the excellent use of plot, the smooth colloquial dialogue, and the polished maxims. Others are attributable to the Greek New Comedy, among them the stock character types, the concentration on domestic problems, and the prominence of a love story. The most likely scenario is that Terence took his material from Apollodorus in this play and reworked it according to his own formula, in the same way that Molière borrowed from Phormio in writing The Cheats of Scapin (1671).

When Phormio was first performed at the Roman games in 161 b.c.e., Terence was in his late twenties and had established a reputation as a successful dramatist. Of low birth and originally a slave, he had enjoyed a meteoric rise in his fortunes, becoming a member of the Scipionic coterie, a group of Roman aristocrats interested in the importation of Greek culture. His success as a dramatist can be indirectly gauged from his prologues, in which he self-confidently answers the attacks of the elderly playwright Luscius Lanuvinus. One year after Phormio was presented, however, Terence took a trip to Greece from which he never returned. It is thought that his ship sank as he was returning to Rome in 159 b.c.e.

In Phormio, Terence shows an unusual detachment from the plight of the two adolescent young men, Antipho and Phaedria, presenting them as rather silly, impulsive, and feckless youths who are helpless before their fathers. Instead of differentiating them, which is his normal practice, Terence emphasizes their similarity. Moreover, he pokes fun at their superficiality and self-absorption. It seems clear that Terence was growing beyond the stage of taking youthful romances seriously. He does not even present the young women whom Antipho and Phaedria love: They are incidental to the plot except as prizes.

What does interest Terence is the character of Phormio: self-possessed where the two youths are cowardly, roguish where the two youths wish to appear respectable, clever where the two youths are witless, and determined where the two youths are fickle. Phormio is mature and confident of his powers, the ideal hero of many young men. It is he alone who outwits the two formidable fathers to award Phaedria his harp player; and it is he who enabled Antipho to marry in the first place through a ruse that, surprisingly enough, turns out to be true. Terence, having outgrown his interest in adolescent lovers, apparently needed a more vital character to command the stage, and he found one in the adventurer Phormio.

Instead of giving Antipho and Phaedria contrasting qualities, Terence chooses to give them different problems. Antipho’s difficulty is to keep the wife he already has in the face of his father’s opposition. Phaedria’s trouble is that he cannot raise the money to purchase the mistress he loves from her pimp, who is presented as a practical businessman. Phormio undertakes to solve both problems, not so much...

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for his own gain but to demonstrate his gift for intrigue. He wants to show off his virtuosity before the admiring slave Geta and the two young men. He is shown thinking on his feet, as it were, outfacing Demipho and his three toady lawyers, discarding a useless alibi, obtaining a large sum from Chremes under false pretenses, and adapting quickly to a dangerous situation in which Demipho is intent on regaining the money. In all of this, through chance and his quick wit, he is master of the situation.

Demipho and Chremes after all deserve to be swindled, as tightfisted and authoritarian old men, and their sons, being the shallow, erotic boys they are, deserve a hard time before their problems are settled. The complex but clearly developed plot provides opportunities to witness the chagrin of all four in an amusing light. The most amusing scenes, however, are the climactic ones in which Chremes tries his hardest to keep the secret of his bigamous marriage from his wife, while Demipho’s concern over money forces Phormio to reveal it, thereby ensuring that Chremes will be at his wife’s behest for the rest of his life.

In the end, once the plot has been unraveled and the characters have received their proper rewards and punishments, the Terentian comedy seems rather trivial and commonplace, requiring no great effort of thought. If it is amiable and technically skilled, the assumptions behind it are those of middle-class audiences everywhere: that young love should be fulfilled, that the old should make allowances for the fancies of youth, and that parental authority should be respected by youth. These premises make Terence, along with Plautus, the forerunner of bourgeois comedy from William Shakespeare to Neil Simon.