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

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVI
MUSIC AND METRE

THE COMEDIES of Plautus have been compared to such works as The Beggar's Opera or the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.1. Such comparisons, however stimulating, are apt to mislead. Latin comedy was indeed written in various metres, most of which were intended to be accompanied by the music of the pipes (tibiæ); the actors evidently illustrated their words with gesture and sometimes with dance; but the essential element of all opera is song. To us the difference between song and speech is obvious; but it is by no means clear that this difference was recognized by the Romans or the Greeks.

Our ancient sources of evidence, however discordant in other ways, agree that a Latin comedy (excluding the prologue) consisted of two elements, diuerbium (or deuerbium) and canticum; and that these two taken together make up the whole of a play except the choral part -- which, we are told in the same connexion,2. did not exist in Latin comedy. Naturally we assume that canticum means 'song', and consequently that diuerbium means 'speech'. This is the obvious sense to attach to the terms as used by Livy in his famous account (VII. ii) of how, when Andronicus' voice gave way as the result of taking too many encores, he employed a boy to sing, standing in front of the piper, while he himself, freed from the necessity of using his voice, was able to concentrate on miming the canticum with appropriate gestures. This was, according to Livy, the origin of the custom whereby the actors merely mimed the sung part (ad manum cantari) and confined their vocal powers to the delivery of the diuerbia. Perhaps Livy is here thinking of some form of theatrical performance of his own day in which there was a clear distinction between

____________________
1
See Lindsay, Early Latin Verse, p. 263, and ' Plautus and the Beggar's Opera' C.R. 37 ( 1923), p. 67
2
Diomedes, G.L.K. i. 491, 24

-211-

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