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The theater of deception

Unicamp researcher explores the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus, a model for Shakespeare, Molière, Camões, and Suassuna

NegreirosThe shrewish wife, the clever slave, the besotted, penniless young man, the prostitute, the social parasite – these are some of the most well-known characters from the comic plays of Plautus, a Roman dramatist born in the third century B.C., whose writings are among the earliest literary works to have survived in Latin. Plautus’ comedies have been adapted by writers like William Shakespeare, Molière, Luís de Camões, and, in the case of Brazil, Ariano Suassuna, who in 1957 subtitled his comic play O santo e a porca (The saint and the sow) “a Northeastern imitation of Plautus.” Isabella Tardin Cardoso, researcher with the Classics group at the Institute of Language Studies of the University of Campinas (IEL-Unicamp), is studying Roman New Comedy, and Plautus is one of its main representatives. In 2006, Cardoso had a Portuguese translation of the play Stichus published by Editora da Unicamp, and she currently advises two students who will be releasing two more titles by the author this year. This interest in the Roman playwright is expected to be a stimulus for dramatic readings of his comedies in São Paulo.

Little is known about the life of Titus Maccius Plautus, whose biography has been handed down by indirect witnesses only. He is said to have been born in Sarsina, in the central Italian region of Umbria, around 255 B.C. Some records suggest that he moved to Rome when he was still young, possibly to work behind the scenes in theater, where he ended up on stage as an actor. He lost all of his money in an unsuccessful maritime venture, which allegedly left him so impoverished that he was forced into debt bondage. A second-century A.D. text further suggests that Plautus tried his hand at writing for the theater in an attempt to escape from poverty. But none of these stories can be verified with any certainty, says Cardoso.

What we do know about the writer comes from his surviving plays, which number 21 at present. Plautus’ work belongs to what is called Roman New Comedy, or fabula palliata. The genre originated in the early period of Latin theater, between the Roman Republic’s third and second centuries B.C., at a moment of thriving cultural and literary growth. The term palliata derives from pallium, a small cloak that actors wore on stage to imitate the garments of used by the Greeks.

It is believed that Stichus may have been one of Plautus’ first plays; the production notes state that it was performed in 200 B.C. In the opinion of Cardoso, author of the annotated Portuguese translation, this piece is unique since, unlike other Roman plays from the same period, there are several sets of scenes that have no direct connection between each other, serving more as free-standing sketches than as a coherent whole. “One of the characteristics of Plautus stands out well in this work: he gives emphasis to the humorous effects in each scene. He doesn’t focus so much on moving the plot along but rather on comedic effect,” the researcher explains. The title of the play is taken from one of the lead roles, that of a swaggering slave.

NegreirosIsabella Cardoso is currently at Heidelberg University in Germany, where she is working to set up a new Center of Philology Theory, in conjunction with professors Jürgen P. Schwindt and Melanie Möller, from Heidelberg, and Paulo S. de Vasconcellos, from Unicamp. The center is scheduled to open its doors this year, with offices at both Unicamp and the German university; it will highlight investigation of the methods that are used in philology to advance knowledge of works from classical antiquity, such as Plautus’ comedies.

Among the greatest challenges in translating Plautus, Cardoso cites the preservation of linguistic nuances, Latin sonority, alliterations, and wordplay – not to mention the pace of his theatrical pieces, a subject that Beethoven Alvarez, of Unicamp, is studying under the advisorship of Cardoso. “It’s a challenge to translate any comedy, and the translator often ends up with the thankless task of explaining a joke,” Cardoso says. Her translation of Stichus was nominated for a Jabuti Prize for Best Translation in 2007, and the São Paulo theater group Capobianco Cultural Institute did a dramatic reading of it in November 2013. “Few scholars of theater or literature in Brazil are familiar with Plautus. This has made the experience of the actors fascinating, as they’ve been surprised to find how contemporary and funny his plays are.”

According to Nadia Berriel, who oversaw the dramatic reading of Stichus, one expects to have trouble understanding the vocabulary and subject matter when reading a play from antiquity. “But it was remarkable to discover how timeless Plautus’ sense of humor is and how easy he is to understand, and also to note the similarities between the characters in Stichus and so many other comic types found in much later theater scripts. Reading Stichus was like drinking from the fountain of the great authors of comedy,” she says. In Berriel’s opinion, reading Plautus enriches the imagination of the contemporary reader. “It also lets us identify both the differences and the similarities between us, as individuals of the 21st century, and people in those days of long ago.”

The Capobianco theater group is considering staging two of the playwright’s works, based on new translations of Amphitryon and Casina by Lilian Nunes da Costa and Carol Martins da Rocha, both of whom have Cardoso as their advisor. The books are due out in the first half of 2014.

Greek legacy
The first translation of the Greek epic Odyssey into Latin, done by the former slave Livius Andronicus around 240 B.C., marks the beginning of Roman literature. Roman New Comedy, which emerged as a literary style around this same time, is characterized primarily by family settings, which include stock types like the slave, the young man, and the father, in contrast with political or imaginary characters from ancient Greek comedy, like gods and heroes. Likewise common in Roman New Comedy but missing from Stichus are impossible love plots, particularly stories of a young man falling in love with a girl who is usually a slave, prostitute, or someone else he cannot marry due to a social impediment. Since these young men can never afford the relationship, they turn to a shrewd slave for assistance. According to Cardoso, the latter character – a central, repeat figure in the work of Plautus – devises a plan to come up with some money, and this will invariably lead to trickery.

NegreirosPlautus’ comedies are translations and adaptations of earlier Greek works, especially of three great playwrights: Menander, Diphilus, and Philemon. Traces of the Greek tradition are evident in certain passages of dialogue and in the characters themselves. In Stichus, for example, the name of the comedian Gelasimus comes from the Greek for “one that causes laughter.” Cardoso says that Greek references of this type were easily understood by audiences in Rome because of the ongoing trade and military contact between Rome and Greece in the 3rd century B.C. Plautus’ plays were meant to be performed during the ludi scaenici, religious festivals organized by local politicians in tribute to one or more gods.

One of the most distinguishing traits in the plays of Plautus, Cardoso explains, is his ability to use the actors’ movements and gestures to construct a comic scene. “Compared to what we know about Greek comedy, Plautine humor is more caricatural, exaggerated, and buffoonish,” says the researcher, who in January 2014 finished a chapter on the use of non-verbal comedic resources in Plautus and Terence (a writer from a later generation than Plautus) for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Roman Comedy. Brawls, scuffles, and slapstick are much more prevalent in the works of Plautus than of Terence. Something else that sets Plautus apart from other writers of his time is the way he assigns the roles among the cast. Unlike Terence, for example, who created characters who gave voice to the moral concerns shared by ordinary citizens in Roman society, the lead roles in Plautus are generally reserved for prostitutes, cunning slaves, social parasites, and other types of common people. In Miles Gloriosus, Pyrgopolynices is a pompous braggart; in Casina, two men in love dispute the affections of a young slave; in Asinaria (also known as The Comedy of Asses), the main character is a greedy old man, Demaenetus, who tries to cheat his wife out of money. This humor is a departure from the more serious tone of Terence’s comedy Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), a play that Aline Lazaro, of Unicamp, is researching under the advisorship of Cardoso.

Theater of the world
In addition to attaining recognition as a comedic playwright in his own time, Plautus has served as a model for many other writers. Some of the methods used in his plays – like love triangles, characters going through identity crises, and references to theater inside the play itself – were adapted by Shakespeare, Molière, Camões, and, in Brazil, Ariano Suassuna. Plautus offers scenes that function as plays within plays, with constant references to the staging, the actors, and the audience. This type of metalanguage serves to strip away dramatic illusion, intentionally erasing any sense of verisimilitude. “When Plautus presents the actor as a deceiver, it underscores the idea that theater is tantamount to deception. He relies heavily on this strategy precisely to achieve a comic effect,” says Cardoso. “Shakespeare, for example, in addition to borrowing from Plautus’ plots, employs the notion of theater inside theater in much the same way as the Roman writer did.”

The idea that the “world is a stage” – a widely known expression from the second act of Shakespeare’s As you like it – is therefore an allusion to an old idea, which features front and center in Plautus. Similarly, Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, explores the same plot as Plautus’ Rudens, where survivors of a shipwreck reach a mysterious, unknown island. The character Prosperous makes allusions to theater and to dramatic illusion, which, Cardoso explains, can be seen as traces of a relationship between the English master and the Roman playwright.

Hamlet’s identity crisis finds parallel in the switched identities in Amphitryon. The plot of this comedy unfolds in Thebes, where Jupiter falls in love with Alcmene and disguises himself as her husband, Amphitryon, the Greek general who leads the Thebian legions. Jupiter is aided by Mercury, who in turn disguises himself as Sosia, Amphitryon’s slave. Jupiter impregnates Alcmene, who gives birth to Hercules, a demigod. When Amphitryon and Sosia return from war, they encounter their doubles, giving rise to comic situations and a series of misunderstandings in Plautus. This story, Cardoso points out, resurfaces in later literature, adapted to the Portuguese environment by Camões in 1587 and to 17th-century France in Molière’s play of the same name. The Frenchman also adapted Aulularia in his play The Miser, where he modifies the setting, gives characters new names, and introduces situations compatible with 17th-century theater.

The same Aulularia, which has been translated as The Pot of Gold and The Concealed Treasure, was the inspiration behind O santo e a porca (The saint and the sow), by Pernambuco writer Ariano Suassuna, which tells the story of the miserly Euricão, a devotee of St. Anthony who stores his savings in a wooden pig. “There has been growing interest in studying how the Classics are received in Brazil. In this sense, current research on Suassuna’s art has explored how he reworks aspects of antiquity, cloaking it in Northeastern garb,” says Cardoso, who serves as advisor to a project focused on the reception of Plautus by Suassuna. A text co-authored by Cardoso and her student Sonia Aparecida dos Santos will be presented at a conference at University College London this year.

1. Plautus, Amphitryon (No. 2011/17284-6); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award – Scientific Publications; Principal investigator Isabella Tardin Cardoso/IEL-Unicamp; Investment R$ 5,000.00 (FAPESP).
2. Plautus, Casina (No. 2011/17283-0); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award – Scientific Publications; Principal investigator Isabella Tardin Cardoso/IEL-Unicamp; Investment R$5,000.00 (FAPESP).
3. The escape of the Mother-in-law: poetry, humor and family in Hecyra (No. 2012/00726-9); Grant mechanism Undergraduate Research Grant; Principal investigator Isabella Tardin Cardoso/IEL-Unicamp; Grant recipient Aline Lazaro; Investment R$ 4,627.92 (FAPESP).