Stand-Up Comedy in Ancient Rome

Scene from a modern production of Curculio. St. Olaf College, Minnesota.

To quote playwright Alan Bennett: “If not quite a platform, a play is certainly a plinth, a small eminence from which to address the world, hold forth about one’s concerns or the concerns of one’s character.”

The UK publisher Bloomsbury has commissioned a series of book on ancient comedy, putting each one on a plinth so that it may be closely examined in the round. Under review here is Curculio, the shortest comedy by Plautus, which was first performed in 195 BCE. Writing a serious study for a wide audience in no laughing matter, but professor of Classics T. H. M. Gellar-Goad has managed it with aplomb. You don’t have to be an expert in Latin, or even a Classics student, to understand and benefit from this concise (181-page) study, which is actually the first book-length study of Curculio.

The Romans were not averse to bawdy humour, and Plautus is certainly not averse to plumbing the depths by using two very different meanings of the same Latin word. A certain character “complains that Curculio stole his ring (anulus), which Cappadox intentionally misunderstands to mean ‘little anus’ (anulus), letting him turn it into a homoerotic sex joke ‘You lost your asshole? Neat, the soldier’s been commissioned into a button-ass battalion!’”

Ha-ha-ha, you might think, but Gellar-Goad goes behind the text (so to speak!) in discerning something amazing here. “The switch from second person (‘you’ve lost’) to third (‘the soldier’s been’) indicates that Cappadox has turned to the audience to crack this joke. He’s doing stand-up comedy.” So if you think stand-up is a fairly recent comedic innovation, think again!

The author states at the outset that Plautus “is wild and wacky, conversational yet archaic, quick to switch from dirty jokes to parody of high tragedy to lowbrow puns. He writes a lot of witty banter and fast back-and-forth tomfoolery.” One of the allures for a Latin scholar is that Plautus exhibited “fantastic wordplay,” such as the example just given. But he went beyond this. Like Shakespeare, who created many words to express himself, Plautus “was one of the world’s great wordsmiths, and the words he smiths are key to unlocking what his plays were like in performance.” This exploration lets the author give us many unexpected details on costumes, props, and staging of the play.

Plautus also presaged Shakespeare in the use of metatheatre: theatre about theatre. Gellar-Goad briefly tells us about the four types of metatheatre, two of which Plautus uses in Curculio. Plautus uses the fact that his play is actually a Roman version of an earlier Greek play to emphasize its Greekness. The play is largely set in Greece. Gellar-Goad uses an analogy to explain what is going on here. Plautus, he writes, ratchets up the Greek feel of a certain scene “as when you’re watching a movie or TV show set in Paris, they have to show you the Eiffel Tower.”

Curculio features a “surprise monologue” that is “totally unique in ancient Greek and Roman comedy, and it’s the part of the play that has attracted the most attention from scholars.” In essence it is walk through Rome. “An exciting aspect of his speech is that it actually gives scholars evidence for historical Rome, evidence that exists nowhere else.” The author gives us a map of the Roman Forum, and a table listing the various buildings matched with the lines in the play. Fascinating and very well done by Gellar-Goad.

Like many modern comedies, Curculio has a dark underside. “The traumas and horrors of enslavement, sex-labor, economic oppression, and poverty lurk behind this comedy of deception, desire and family reunion.” Rome was not for the faint-hearted, which is certainly why comedic relief such as Curculio was so cherished, and preserved for more than 2,000 years for us to enjoy now. This “time capsule of funny business,” as Gellar-Goad describes it, is refreshingly told in this eminently accessible book.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages, Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

Plautus: Curculio is $68.40 hardcover from Bloomsbury. Books on five other ancient comedies have also been published in this series, including Casina by Plautus.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/plautus-curculio-9781350079755/

Scene from a modern production of Curculio. St. Olaf College, Minnesota.
About Dr. Cliff Cunningham 96 Articles
Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and a research associate at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books.

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