Sunday, August 05, 2007

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

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

[Continued from last week.]

Enea Silvio Piccolomini: Chrysis

This is one of the shorter plays in this volume. There's nothing particularly amusing, let alone funny, about it. Two priests, Dyophanes and Theobolus, are avid frequenters of two courtesans, Chrysis and Cassina, but they seem to be offended by the fact that the girls have other lovers besides them, namely two young men named Sedulius and Charinus. Initially I was under the impression that the girls are actually fond of the two young men (see e.g. p. 289 and p. 303), and are seeing the priests only for the sake of their money; but eventually they profess genuine love for the two priests (p. 343), and the two couples are reunited for a reasonably happy ending of the play.

There is much to complain about here. First of all, the plot seems quite thin and somehow rambling, with plenty of loose ends. Too many of the characters are just peripheral, appearing in one or two scenes without a good enough connection to the rest of the story. Secondly, you won't be exactly roaring with laughter while reading this play; there are a few (very few) passages where you might smile, but that's about it. And this brings us to another, even bigger complaint: perhaps you could argue that there is humour in this play, but if so, it is of a very, very dark sort; namely, you could see the whole play as one big sustained act of mockery at the horrible faults of human nature. The author never misses the slightest opportunity to emphasize these faults, and often actually goes out of his way to do it: thus, for example, if most of the play deals with problems brought about by appetites for sex and money, the author has taken the trouble to also insert two completely gratuitions scenes in which Artrax the gluttonous cook extols his appetite for food (scenes VII and XVI: they are completely peripheral to the rest of the play, and could be taken out and nobody would notice anything at all).

And really, the whole play is one big sordid catalogue of human faults. In scene I, we have Dyophanes smugly explain how good he and Theobolus have it as priests (“We have wealth, resources, luxuries; we are born but to eat and drink; we can sleep and relax as much as we want. We live for ourselves; others live for others. [. . .] We don't have to take a permanent wife [. . .] if a lover suits our fancy, we return to her; if we don't care for her, we simply change course”, p. 285). In scene III we have Lybiphanes and Pythias agreeing that neither men nor women are ever faithful in marriage (p. 295). In scene IV Charinus praises his own hedonistic lifestyle, spent in complete disregard of any wider social or political issues. In scene V we see Canthara, the cynical old madam (“A little healthy lovemaking is a good thing [. . .] but the kind of billing and cooing these two are getting up to is positively sickening”, p. 303) and avid drinker of wine. In scene VI we see Theobolus' grim view of the relations between the sexes (“I know how women act and think: whatever you want, they don't want, and vice versa”, p. 311), as well as Dyophanes' candid admission of lust (“I can deprive myself of food and drink, but not of sex. I want to sleep in the arms of my Cassina, even if she does smell like a goat”, p. 309). In scene VIII we have Charinus's bitter complaints about love (“nothing but merciless torture, savage and horrible [. . .] Love makes such a mockery of my shattered reason”, p. 313). In scene X the two courtesans, Chrysis and Cassina, cynically discuss their habit of dumping their lovers on a regular basis (“A brand-new lover wants to please you right away” and is thus more generous, p. 319; “Cassina:  ‘No lover tastes good to me for more than a month; the Kalends of each month always brings me new lovers.’ — Chrysis: ‘You are far too constant in your love! It's really a better idea to celebrate fresh nuptials on the Nones and Ides’ ”, p. 321). Theobolus and Dyophanes exhibit, in several passages, a regrettable degree of misogyny and contempt for prostitutes (made worse by the fact that they themselves frequent these very same prostitutes); pp. 307, 327, 329. Archimenides contributes his own cynical monologue in scene XIII. In scene XV Dyophanes, still angry at his Cassina, provides one of the few really funny scenes in the play by describing in great detail the violence he would like to perpetrate upon her, interrupted after every sentence by utterly sycophantic (and undoubtedly quite insincere) expressions of approval by the slave Congrio (“D.: ‘I have a mind to rip out her eyes.’ — C.: ‘What strength!’ — D.: ‘I'll break a few bones.’ — C.: ‘She deserves it.’ — D.: ‘What if I decided to cut off her nose?’ — C.: ‘I say, do it.’ — D.: ‘And I'm not going to spare her ears either.’ — C.: ‘She doesn't deserve to have ears.’ ”, p. 337).

The play ends with another splendid bit of sarcasm: “Know that the moral of the play is this: that you should work hard to be virtuous, stay away from courtesans, pimps, parasites and wild parties.” (P. 347.) Of course, the rest of the play has hardly done anything to encourage such a moral. By and large, the thoroughly non-virtuous protagonists of this play do just fine; it isn't clear that it would be any better for them if they had really taken up the path of virtue.

A memorable quote from Archimenides (scene XIII, ll. 611–3, p. 329): “Pleasure is a paltry thing in the life of a man, but miseries endure. Sorrow is always a companion to pleasure.” This one belongs into the pessimistic hall of fame, right next to the opening lines of Poe's Berenice (“Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch — as distinct too, yet as intimately blended.”).

A nice bit of sarcasm from Chyrsis, from the passage where Theobolus and Dyophanes announce their intention to break their relationships with her and Cassina: “This is getting serious. What are we going to do, Cassina? If we hang ourselves now, the effort will be wasted. [. . .] we'll lose the cost of the rope and bring pleasure to these two, who'll enjoy themselves at our expense [. . .] Better to go on living and filling our bellies. That will bother these two more than they'd like to believe.” (P. 329.)

There's a curious inconsistency in this play; on p. 285 Sedulius is described in the dramatis personae as “a young man”, but on p. 291 his friend says: “you're in your sunset years”. Admittedly the dramatis personae was supplied by the translator rather than by the author himself, so maybe that's just a translator's mistake.

Anyway, what to say about this play? Far be it from me to complain when somebody has a low opinion of human nature; after all, so do I; but nonetheless, the relentless emphasis on it, with so little in the way of comic relief, makes this ‘comedy’ a less enjoyable thing to read than one would have liked.

(Incidentally, the author went on to become a pope — it's curious to see a future pope write a play about prostitutes and their customers, and what is more, a play that doesn't make the slightest effort to explicitly moralize, nor to mention religion. That such a thing was possible is one of those fascinating things about the renaissance, I guess. Compare this with the recently deceased pope John Paul II, who also wrote some plays, but they all seem to be much more religious in character.)

Tommaso Mezzo: The Epirote

I think this was my favourite play in this volume, or maybe it ties for first place with Philogenia and Epiphebus. It has at least a few funny passages and a genuinely happy ending. Clitipho and Antiphila are in love, but they dare not marry as she has no dowry. Their plans are further threatened by a confusion between Clitipho and a friend of his, who happens to have the same name! This second Clitipho has been seeing a prostitute, and due to a confusion of names the first Clitipho got momentarily blamed for it. However, the truth comes out, and furthermore Antiphila's uncle (the Epirote, i.e. he's from Epirus) returns home after many years abroad; he turns out to be fairly well off, so he provides a dowry for Antiphila, who can now finally marry Clitipho. There's also a supblot involving an old woman, Pamphila, who is also in love with Clitipho; there's a scene, either funny or sad depending on how you look at it, in which she pathetically attempts to cover her wrinkles under heroic quantities of makeup. At the end she gets married to Antiphila's uncle. There are also a couple of amusing scenes largely unrelated to the rest of the plot; in one we observe a quack doctor in action, and in one a group of musicians cunningly manage to avoid having to pay for their dinner at an inn. All in all, this was quite an enjoyable read; of the five plays in this volume, this one is the closest to what I imagine a comedy should look like.

Apparently the Latin word for an old woman is anus :)) (p. 354). According to the Lewis & Short dictionary at the Perseus web site, it differs from the Latin word for anus only in the length of the a vowel. But judging from the etymologies mentioned in that dictionary, the similarity between the two words is probably just accidental.

The uncle from Epirus says a curious sentence on p. 409: “Dramburi te clofto goglie”. The translator's note on p. 450 says that according to Ludwig Braun, the editor of a German edition of this play, the sentence is “Albanian for ‘Please shut your mouth!’ Braun points out the parallel with Plautus' Poenulus, where the character Hanno speaks his native Punic in several places.” This certainly makes sense, as Epirus partly overlaps with present-day Albania and a language related to Albanian was probably already spoken there in ancient times. Anyway, I've found the same sentence cited on several Albanian web pages, always in reference to this play by Mezzo. According to the Wikipedia, the oldest surviving documents written in Albanian are from 1462; this would make the sentence from The Epirote, which was first printed in 1483, one of the earliest recorded bits of Albanian language. And anyway, the sentence sounds just great; what a pity that Dante didn't know Albanian — “Dramburi te clofto goglie” would make a perfect addition to “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi” (Inf. 31.67) and “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe” (Inf. 7.1). :)


There are unusually many typos in this book, e.g.: “goard” (instead of “gourd”, p. 123); “these deed” (p. 157), “I can't helped” (p. 181), and missing full-stops on pp. 215, 267, 273 and 429.

In many books, translations from Latin seem to have a slight tendency towards stuffiness; so the translator of this book has to be commended for the valiant efforts to use a more colloquial tone in many parts of these plays. “I came in to sow some wild oats. [. . .] Or rather, I came on a panty-raid” (Paulus, p. 33); “I shall be appointed the censor of the dining-room: either I shall be chief of the chow or general of the jugs” (Philodoxus, p. 137); “Oh, come off it!” (Philodoxus, p. 163).

“In a broader sense it may very well be that because comedy always pits those in the grip of convention against those who desire to love and flourish (bene esse), it will always find a deeper resonance in the hearts of those living in times of political authoritarianism and strict social codes.” (Translator's introduction, p. ix.) I agree with this description of comedy, but then I can't help feeling that several of the plays in this volume can just barely be considered comedies at all.

“As late as the tenth century, Hrotsvitha, a nun at Gandersheim, rewrote in Latin the plays of Terence ‘substituting for so many incestuous vices of feminine lust the chaste actions of holy virgins.’ ” (Translator's preface, p. ix. The quoted sentence is apparently (p. xxviii) from a preface to Hrotsvitha's works in the Patrologia Latina, vol. 137.) Two things: (1) looks like I'll have to read some Terence :) (2) looks like I'll have to start maintaining a list of gloriously silly names of medieval nuns. Hrotsvitha is almost as good as Austrebertha and certainly better than Wereburga.

There are several other interesting passages in the translator's introduction.


I'm starting to fear that I'm repeating myself like a broken record :) As with many other ITRL volumes, this one wasn't exactly a thrilling read as a whole, but some parts of it were enjoyable after all. I'd say about two of the five plays were reasonably enjoyable, the others not so much; and the translator's introduction is interesting and informative.

Maybe one thing I could learn from this is that the idea of what a comedy should be like changes through time. Or maybe just our sense of humour changes? I wonder if the 15th-century readers laughed while reading the plays from this volume. I certainly didn't; but I did laugh e.g. while reading Oscar Wilde's comedies. And I at least smiled every now and then while reading Molière. On the other hand I hardly ever smiled while reading ancient Greek and Roman comedies. Maybe they were funnier if you actually saw them performed on the stage rather than just reading them? Or maybe comedy just happens to be one of those things that don't age so well.

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