Saturday, July 28, 2007

BOOK: Grund (ed.), "Humanist Comedies"

Humanist Comedies. Edited and translated by Gary R. Grund. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 19. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017447. xxx + 460 pp.

This book contains five 15th-century comedies (well, actually one is from the late 14th century).

Pier Paolo Vergerio: Paulus

I don't see why this one is even called a comedy. There's certainly nothing funny about it. Paulus is a university student from a reasonably rich family, and apparently he isn't untalented either, but he cannot bring himself to sit down and study instead of squandering his time and money on partying. Finally an inspiration comes to him in a dream and he decides to mend his ways, but his wily slave Herotes does his best to turn him back to the path of vice. (As long as Paulus remains on that path, there are many opportunities for Herotes to take a cut for himself here and there, ll. 341–55.) Paulus, although he is starting to feel that he is being led by his own servant rather than vice versa (ll. 167–72, 227–8), and although his other slave, Stichus, is trying to get him to become more serious about studying (scene 3), nevertheless cannot resist the temptation and goes along with Herotes' suggestions. Herotes hires a prostitute for Paulus, but tries to have sex with her first. This leads to one of the few funny scenes in the whole play (p. 55): Paulus, annoyed at being kept waiting for so long, hears the noise from the next room and thinks that “Herotes has gotten into a fight” (l. 681). This gives the playwright an opportunity to employ a series of double entendres based on the fact that, in Latin, “the words for ‘to be ruined,’ ‘to die’ and ‘to pine away from love’ (perire) are the same as the word for ‘to have an orgasm’ ” (translator's note, p. 442). Fortunately these puns also translate quite well (“ ‘I'm coming!’ ”). The play ends with Herotes bragging about this and his various other unethical exploits to another man's servant, Papis.

As I said, there aren't many funny things in this comedy; but the thing that annoys me the most is its general tenor. My understanding of comedies is that at the end, the good side is supposed to win, and the bad guys get exposed for what they are, laughed at, and possibly shamed and/or punished. This is e.g. how Moliere's comedies work. See also the wikipedia page on comedy, and also this web page. But here in Paulus, the bad side, with Herotes as its chief representative, is in fact triumphant and ends up openly flaunting its shameless, amoral cynicism. There's nothing sympathetic about Herotes, so he shouldn't end up winning. Nor can you say that the end of this play is in any way a happy end in the usual sense of the word (but a happy end is another basic requirement of a comedy).

So this is really hardly a comedy. But of course, it isn't a tragedy either; it fits those specifications even less. What is it then? A sordid little piece of reality with few or no redeeming features, that's what.

Incidentally, Vergerio was born in Koper (p. 3).

Leon Battista Alberti: Philodoxus

This play is somewhat better than the previous one. It still isn't very funny, but at least it has a happy end, and it's mostly the right characters that win. Interestingly, practically all the characters have names that mean something in Greek, and the author explains them all in a preface (pp. 73–75). Thus, Doxia is ‘glory’, Philodoxus is the ‘lover of glory’ (or of Doxa), Doxia's sister Phemia is ‘fame’; another character is Fortunius, who has a slave Dynastes (“for, indeed, power is especially subject to fortune”), etc. So the whole play has a nice and refreshingly obvious allegorical meaning. Fortunius, the “insolent young man” (p. 83), tries to win glory but ends up achieving mere fame instead (and even her he has to abduct), while Philodoxus, a much better character, with the help of his wise and prudent friend Phroneus, ends up getting married to Doxia.

Overall, it was a reasonably pleasant play. The one thing that really annoyed me is everyone's response to Fortunius' rape of Phemia. Actually I'm not sure if this is just rape in the old sense, i.e. abduction, or also in the modern sense. Only an abduction is described on p. 137, but on p. 163 it is referred to as a rape. Anyway, even just a kidnapping is bad enough. What annoys me is everybody else's response, which is to suggest that the pair should get married: “the ill fame of a rape may be blotted out by proper nuptials” (the voice of authority — old Chronos, captain of the city watch, on p. 163); Phemia's sister, Doxia, also approves: “Seeing that the matter has come to this pass, and since there's no reason to expect any better results, I think it's prudent to choose the lesser of two evils” (p. 165). Doxia's old maid-servant Mnimia (‘Memory’) also approves (on the same page). Phemis herself doesn't seem to have been consulted. I mean, ick. Marriage as the reward of rape — isn't that a bit much? I guess this is what you get in a patriarchal society where it's unimaginable that a young woman could stay single for a while and choose her own husband (if she wants one)...

There's a curious episode regarding the authorship of the play: “I fooled the people who were asking from what source I'd compiled it into believing it was excerpted from a very ancient manuscript. Everyone was easily convinced, for it smacked of the comic genre and of antiquity, nor was it hard to believe that I, a youth occupied with canon law, was quite incapable of acquiring any merit for eloquence. Moreover, comic wit was held not to be flourishing in these times.” (Pp. 77–9.) Only some ten years later did he publicly acknowledge his authorship.

Ugolino of Parma: Philogenia and Epiphebus

This was one of the two most enjoyable of the five plays in this volume, but once again it doesn't strike me as very much of a comedy. In fact, the main theme is rather sad. Philogenia is a girl whom Epiphebus, a young man, seduces and persuades her to elope with him. After a while it becomes clear that they won't be able to live together indefinitely without being discovered, and Epiphebus finds a peasant named Gobius, lies to him about the girl being a virgin and thus persuades him to marry her. At the same time he makes arrangements that Philogenia will still be able to see him and cheat on her husband.

Maybe the problem is just that social mores have changed so much since that time; anyway, the end of the play doesn't seem particularly happy to me. It's rather sad and sordid. I cannot help feeling sorry for Philogenia. As far as I can tell, she's from a reasonably good family from the city, and now she ends up being married to a dimwitted peasant, and all this because the unscrupulous Epiphebus wanted to have a bit of fun with her. She's really mostly a victim here, partly of Epiphebus' advances and partly of the restrictions that society has placed on the behaviour of women. In fact it's only from the point of view of this kind of restrictive patriarchal society that the play can be considered to have a happy end: from that point of view, she can probably count herself lucky that she ended up married to a reasonably decent (if dull) husband, rather than being locked up in a convent, burned at the stake or left on the streets to fend for herself in a life of prostitution and beggary. But from a present-day point of view, it's all rather sad and hardly a suitable theme for a comedy.

Epiphebus is a bit of a misogynist, at least by present-day standards. He seems to believe that if he loves a woman, she is obliged to reciprocate these feelings (¶1, p. 173), and has a generally antagonistic view of relationships (“no one, or very few at most, can have their way with a woman without being importunate or an incessant plotter”, ¶5, p. 177). Incidentally, he also lies to Gobius about Philogenia's age (“she's just sixteen”, ¶55, p. 237; but “I'm already twenty”, she says in ¶8, p. 181).

In ¶34 (p. 211) a friend of his, Emphonius, he has a very curious proposal: “Whenever you meet a woman, avert your eyes, show that you don't want to look at her, and scorn her. Every man should to the same to every woman he meets. Surely it will then follow that women, desperate and furious, consumed with anger and lust, will beyond doubt go insane with love; they'll turn somersaults to ingratiate themselves with men again and restore themselves to our good graces. [. . .] they'll follow us wherever we go [. . .] And when they meet up with us they'll snatch us up like manna from on high.” To which all that needs be said is on this picture. Maybe I should take back my complaints that this is not a good comedy. This paragraph alone must have had people falling off their chairs with laughter.

Another somewhat bizarre statement from Emphonius, commenting on Epiphebus' idea to marry Philogenia off to Gobius (¶44, p. 223): “But if you bring it off happily, as we hope, afterwards other girls will let us have our way with them, too, as they'll know we can find husbands for our girlfriends once we've satisfied ourselves with them. Everyone will think your plan is pious and holy, too, and praise it to the skies.” I guess this is supposed to be hilariously funny, right? Because it sure as hell doesn't make any sense any other way. I guess something must be wrong with my sense of humour these days.

There are some curious inconsistencies in the play. The argument (i.e. the summary of the story at the beginning of the play) says that Epiphebus is “desperately in love with Philogenia”, and in ¶1 he says that he has “always sincerely loved this girl”, but then in ¶29 Emphonius says of him that “our friend Epiphebus has once again ravished a virgin”. Once again, mind you!!! OK, so he's lying in ¶1; I can understand that; but why is the author supporting his lie in the argument?

Lest I be accused of painting Philogenia as entirely a victim, I must admit that she is not completely without agency in this whole matter. In ¶8 (p. 181) she has a few eloquent sentences in acknowledgement of female sexuality: “Really, how long is it right to keep cloistered in the home a virgin who is ready for a man? Until she is sixteen, I hear it said; I'm already twenty, and it's killing me. I was born with flesh and blood like any other girl; my body is shaped for love, so I can't help being excited by sexual desire. And the more nature has made us inclined to this sin, the more it must be forgiven”. And in ¶42 (pp. 219–21) we see that there are other options, better than elopement, to work around the societal constraints: “What an ignorant thing to do, to leave home in the middle of the night, abandoning my parents without even a goodbye. Certainly I could have taken my pleasures at home, as I know other girls my age have done.” And there's a fairly funny scene when she goes to confession before getting married (¶71, pp. 257–9): “ ‘My father, many men have had sex with me.’ ‘And this happened of your own free will?’ ‘Oh, no, not at all! I was seduced by clever flattery [. . .] I was naïve, as all of us young girls are. That's why I had to service the lust of so many men.’ ‘This, then, is no sin. [. . .] if it wasn't your own will but necessity that forced on you this shameful act, I say that you are innocent.’ ‘[Aside.] Well, thank God I was always able to satisfy my passion without doing anything wrong!’ ”

Interestingly, Philogenia mentions in ¶41 (p. 219) a hypothetical man who “thinks he's a conquering hero, as they say, if he keeps a list of his many girlfriends in his little black book”. I'm intrigued by this — did they have little black books back in the 15th century? I thought this was a relatively recent invention, used just to write down people's phone numbers. My first thought was that this was a translator's effort to modernise something from the original, to make things more familiar to the modern reader; but then I looked at the original text, and although I don't understand Latin, I can't help feeling that the original also speaks about something written down in a book: “et pro munere palmario sibi ducit si plures, ut aiunt, in codice descripsit”.

Epiphebus in ¶5 (p. 177) mentions that “fortune always favors the brave”. I always thought of this as a quote from Virgil (see e.g. here; but my first encounter with the phrase was many years ago in Jules Verne's A Captain at Fifteen). But, to my surprise, the translator's note (p. 445) identifies this as a quote from Terence's Phormio, 1.4.26. I was surprised by this — why not quote Virgil, who is widely thought of as the source of this phrase? But then it occurred to me that Terence pre-dates Virgil by more than a hundred years. Interestingly, the Latin form of the phrase seems to vary slightly all the time. In the Perseus e-text of Phormio, the form is “fortes Fortuna adiuvat”, which they translate as “fortune helps the brave”. Ugolino here in Philogenia and Epiphebus says “fortibus fortuna semper favit” (p. 176). And Virgil's text (Aeneid, 10.284) on Perseus has “audentis Fortuna iuvat”.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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