Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy

Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy

Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy

Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy

Synopsis

What pleasures did Plautus' heroic tricksters provide their original audience? How should we understand the compelling mix of rebellion and social conservatism that Plautus offers? Through a close reading of four plays representing the full range of his work (Menaechmi, Casina, Persa, and Captivi), Kathleen McCarthy develops an innovative model of Plautine comedy and its social effects. She concentrates on how the plays are shaped by the interaction of two comic modes: the socially conservative mode of naturalism and the potentially subversive mode of farce. It is precisely this balance of the naturalistic and the farcical that allows everyone in the audience--especially those well placed in the social hierarchy--to identify both with and against the rebel, to feel both the thrill of being a clever underdog and the complacency of being a securely ensconced authority figure. Basing her interpretation on the workings of farce and naturalism in Plautine comedy, McCarthy finds a way to understand the plays' patchwork literary style as well as their protean social effects. Beyond this, she raises important questions about popular literature and performance not only on ancient Roman stages but in cultures far from Plautus' Rome. How and why do people identify with the fictional figures of social subordinates? How do stock characters, happy endings, and other conventions operate? How does comedy simultaneously upset and uphold social hierarchies? Scholars interested in Plautine theater will be rewarded by the detailed analyses of the plays, while those more broadly interested in social and cultural history will find much that is useful in McCarthy's new way of grasping the elusive ideological effects of comedy.

Excerpt

This book grew out of an attempt to understand the figure of the clever slave in Plautus. the two prevailing views, though often not explicitly articulated by the scholars who hold them, have been that the clever slave in comedy is the product either of masters’ patronizing tolerance (letting the slaves have a certain kind of inconsequential heroism, one that affords them no dignity) or of a half-acknowledged sympathy with the downtrodden (the revenge of the witty on the powerful, so to speak). What I find striking about both of these views is that they assume that the beneficiaries of any pleasures the clever slave brings are the less powerful members of society (the emphasis is usually on slaves and sons in the power of their fathers). But everything we know about the production conditions of comedy suggests that it was by no means a marginalized activity: it was the centerpiece of important festivals of Roman civic religion, and the audience was made up overwhelmingly of citizens. Therefore, I consider it more likely that Plautus’ comedy was part of what the political theorist James Scott calls “the public transcript”: the language and actions that make up the communal life of the Romans and display the dominant’s own naturalized view of their domination (i.e., the public transcript is a performance of the dominant ideology). Although we might assume that the purpose of such a performance is to indoctrinate subordinates, in doing so we are in danger of making the mistake of the gullible spectator at a magic show: we are training our gaze where the white-gloved hand directs us, instead of focusing our attention on what the magician is trying to distract us from. Scott raises the possibility that the public transcript might function as “a kind of selfhypnosis within ruling groups to buck up their courage, improve their cohesion, display their power …” (1990: 67). My project in this book is to describe the investment socially dominant Romans had in Plautine comedy.

But my path toward this goal is a rather crooked one. My argument at its most fundamental level has to do with the messiness and complexity of both Plautine comedy itself and its social effects. I believe that the most effective way to free ourselves from the hegemonic persuasion of the public transcript is to question the very categories it uses to divvy up experience. Therefore, far from accepting either “Plautine comedy” or “socially dominant Romans” as transparent, objective facts in the world, my argument is concerned with exposing the processes by which each of these concepts comes to have the appearance of cohesion, in the face of the multiplicity and ambiguity that characterize them. At the literary level of the plays themselves, I will argue for understanding Plautine comedy as the dialogic . . .

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