The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER XXV
THE ROMAN ORIGIN OF THE LAW OF FIVE ACTS

THE INTRODUCTION of the five-act law, and of actdivision itself, into Renaissance drama was due to the desire to obey classical precept and example. Horace had laid it down for all time that a play should have five acts if it was to be a success. Moreover the plays of Terence had been divided according to this principle by Roman editors, and so came down in five-act form to the modern world. It would seem natural to suppose that the law was based upon the practice of classical dramatists. Yet the most careful researches of modern scholars have been unable to discover clear evidence of five-act division in any Greek play which has reached us complete, or in the plays of Plautus or Terence. Consequently some have held that the law was a mere invention of theorists, whether of Hellenistic or of Roman times. The discovery in 1905 and later of considerable portions of Menander's text introduced a less sceptical view. The occasional occurrence of the stage direction chorou, 'a performance by the chorus', in these almost non-choral plays seemed clearly to divide them into acts; and though the evidence did not show how many such choral interludes occurred in any one play, it was found that there were at least three of them in the Epitrepontes. Further researches might well be expected to demonstrate the existence of a fourth interlude in this particular play, and in other plays as well; and all agreed that a play with four interludes must necessarily contain five acts. An earlier event of some importance was the appearance in 1884 of Prou's paper 'Les thdatres d'automates en Grace', in which he drew the attention of scholars to the account given by Hero of Alexandria of the Nauplios-show, with its five scenes, and claimed it as a five-act play of Hellenistic times. The importance of this new evidence was that it seemed to confirm in some measure the statements of Donatus and Evanthius. From them we gather (a) that each play of Terence should be divided into

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