June 13, 2013

Reading List

Ancient Comedies

Still adding to your summer reading list? Timothy Moore, professor and chair of classics, suggests which ancient comedies should make the cut.

Lysistrata by Aristophanes

There are four surviving writers of comedy in the ancient world. The first was Aristophanes, who was writing in the 5th century BCE, the same time as the tragedians were writing. He writes uproarious comedies in which somebody comes up with a crazy plot, and then that plan is fulfilled against all expectations during the play. His most famous play, and a good one to start with, would be the Lysistrata. The Lysistrata is an Athenian woman, and she gets together all the women in Athens and Sparta and says "we’re not going to have sex with our husbands until they stop the war." All sorts of crazy things happen in the meantime, and in the end, they stop the war (in a fantasy that would never happen in real life), just because the men are so desperate for sex.

Professor Moore was featured in the podcast Classical Theater and will also appear within our summer series, Retellings.

Dyskolos by Menander

The next comic writer we have is writing about 100 years later. His name was Menander. His plays were all lost in antiquity; the manuscript tradition has not handed them down. But in the 21st century we found a number of papyri from Egypt, which preserved parts of his plays and almost a whole play. That whole play is called the Dyskolos, or The Grouch. In it there’s a grouchy old man, and somebody loves his daughter, and various obstacles have to be overcome. It’s the same kind of thing you might see in a modern comedy. It’s a delightful play, and that’s where I’d start on Mynander.


Pseudolus and Casina by Plautus

The other comedies we have from the ancient world are the ones that I’ve spent most time with - the two Roman comedians from about the second century BCE, Plautus and Terence. They wrote very delightful love plots, often with very tricky slaves who help their masters. It’s the origin of people like Jeeves, the valet who helps out his boss and accomplishes things through his cleverness. 

Good plays to start out would be the Pseudolus, which has the classic tricky slave. In fact that’s the star character of Steven Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is based on plays of Plautus. Another good Plautine would be played the Casina, in which there’s a wife who doesn’t want her husband to get at her slave woman. She stops him through all sorts of comic devices in a kind of topsy-turvy woman-over-man scenario like we also find often in modern comedies.


Adelphpoe by Terence

Terence is most known for his play the Adelphpoe, or The Brothers. That play is one of the first comedies we have that deals with the question of education of young, in this case men. But the question of how to raise your young still remains very important. There’s one father who’s lenient and one who’s very severe, and after various comic complications they learn that both of them in fact are wrong. You can’t do either of those extremes and raise the kind of sons you want.


image public domain via wikimedia commons: menander.