The goal this morning was to read 3 plays by the Roman comedian Plautus: Amphitryo, The Pot of Gold, and A Three-Dollar Day. The first two I had before; the last was brand new. What a day! I got through the first play: Amphitryo. The other two will have to wait till later tonight or tomorrow. That’s ok though. I got in a good session painting my walls. I’ve been living here 8 years now and painting has been on the ‘to do’ list for the last year. Painted a hallway and half of the open loft area. Ah, the sweet smell of paint: a reminder of childhood, moving to a new house, the feel of ‘freedom’ in being able to choose the colour of the bedroom.
Of the ancient Greek and Roman comedians, Plautus is my favourite. Aristophanes’ themes are too fantastical. Plus he’s sort of vulgar for people with puritanical sensibilities. Too many references to bodily functions. And too many references to carrots and radishes. If Aristophanes is too fantastical, Menander is too formulaic. Maybe that’s why the ancients considered Menander to be second only to Homer: like Homer working in the oral tradition, the writing of Menander is also rather formulaic. Plautus is just right. It’s fantastical enough to generate suspense. But the characters are formulaic enough that it’s easy to follow (e.g. the clever slave, the spendthrift son, the kind hearted courtesan, and so on). No Being John Malkovich here thank goodness. An easy but entertaining read. Just my cup of tea after a day of physical labour.
Here’s the back blurb from the Penguin edition translated by Watling:
The plays of Plautus (c.254-184 B.C.) are the earliest complete works of Latin literature we possess. Plautus adapted for the amusement of Roman audiences the Greek New Comedy of the fourth century. His wit is clever and satirical and his entertaining portrayal of slaves firmly set the style for the ‘low’ characters of Elizabethan comedy, of Moliere, and many others.
Another reason why it’s so nice to be reading Plautus is that it’s like an encounter with an old friend. In 1st year Latin class at UVic, the edition Professor Bradley used was the ‘Cambridge Latin Course’. To teach students Latin, the reading book used dumbed down excerpts from Plautus’ Amphitryo and The Pot of Gold. They were entertaining back then, even in their simplified versions. I remember the thrill of ‘getting a joke’ in Latin. For me, Plautus is forever associated with those ‘good old days’.
That Plautus reminded me of the ‘good old days’ made me think: in your different stages of life, did you encounter books you would read that made perfect sense to read at that time but at any other time would have been an unappealing read? Today, I think if I read Hesse’s Demian or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for the first time, I wouldn’t like them that much at all. But I remember stumbling on those book in my late teens and they were dynamite reads that changed the way I looked at the world.
Other books, however, seem less vulnerable to, what shall I call it, ‘time selection’, maybe? Homer’s Iliad was good back then (early twenties) and I think if I were to read it for the first time today (40 years old) it would just be as dynamite. Plato I didn’t like at all back when I was younger, but he seems to be growing on me as I get older.
Ah the occupation dangers of being a writer! Not only do you have to find the right reader, it may be that your right reader has to be in a certain stage of life to appreciate what you’ve written as well!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and revisiting Plautus has made Doing Melpomene’s Work a joy today!