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Plautus' Amphitryo as Tragi-Comedy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


J. L. Styan in his book The Dark Comedy quotes a comment of Federico Garcia Lorca, ‘If in certain scenes the audience doesn't know what to do, whether to laugh or cry, that will be a success for me'. A friend and colleague suggested in a conversation after witnessing my production of the Amphitryo in Perth in 1991 that he found that play similarly fascinating, because at times it made certain parts of the audience feel so uncomfortable, even as it was making them laugh. Riotously funny the Amphitryo undoubtedly is from time to time, but there is often a savage bite to the humour and a feeling evoked by the action which is not dissimilar to the effect of tragedy, especially when the unwitting humans have their lives and fortunes distorted by the amoral antics of the immortals. In short, the play shows signs of being of mixed genre, a fact which is acknowledged by the famous statement of Mercury in the prologue:

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1999

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1. The Dark Comedy (Cambridge, 1962), 1Google Scholar, quoting Intro, to Three Tragedies of Federico Garcia Lorca, trans. Graham-Lujan, and O'Connell, (New York, 1955), 13Google Scholar.

2. Typical is Giangrande, L. in The Use of Spoudaiogeloion in Greek and Roman Literature (Hague, 1972)Google Scholar who credits Plautus with the invention of the term tragicomoedia, but dismisses the playwright as a writer of mere ‘buffoonery and slapstick'.

3. ‘How Is It Played? Tragicomedy as a Running Joke: Plautus’ Amphitruo in Performance', Didaskalia Supplement 1–May 1995.

4. Forehand, W. E., on the other hand, is convinced that Plautus utilized his sources to produce a more serious play than his successor and imitator Moliere; see ‘Adaptation and the Comic Intent: Plautus’ Amphitruo and Moliere's Amphitryon', CLS 11 (1974), 204–17Google Scholar.

5. Tragicomedy (London and New York, 1984), 8Google Scholar.

6. De argumentis satiricis et parodiam redolentibus apud Plautum obviis', Eos 60 (1972), 5169Google Scholar.

7. Hirst, , op. cit, 4Google Scholar.

8. E.g. Büchner, K., ‘Plautus' Amphitruo und sein Verhaltnis zur Amphitruon’, Studien zur romischen Literatur Band 7 (Wiesbaden, 1968), 152207Google Scholar and Sedgewick, W. B., Plautus, Amphitruo (Manchester, 1960), 26Google Scholar.

9. ‘The Amphitryo Theme’ in Dudley, D. R. and Dorey, T. A. (edd.), Studies in Latin Literature: Roman Drama(London, 1965), 90Google Scholar.

10. Tragicomedy and Contemporary Culture, 'Edinburgh Studies in Culture and Society' (London, 1991), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. Ibid., 3.

12. Ibid., 3.

13. Ibid., 4.

14. This view was investigated by Martin, P., ‘Plaute, Amphitryon v. 292–462’, Caesarodunum 5 (1970), 171–7Google Scholar.

15. Op. cit., 12.

16. Roman Laughter: the Comedy of Plautus (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 99Google Scholar.

17. Op. cit., esp. the note on Alcumena's soliloquy at 634–53: ‘Whenever Alcumena appears, P. forgets his clowning and the tone changes to something not unworthy of tragedy, a high seriousness such as would befit a Roman matron. P. makes free with the gods and the general, but is overawed by the ideal wife and mother.’

18. The Herakles Theme (Oxford, 1972)Google Scholar.

19. On women in comedy see Mack, A. M., Mulieres Comicae: Female Characters in Plautus and his Predecessors (Diss. Harvard, 1967)Google Scholar.

20. On the audience of Plautus see ‘Plautus and his Audience’ in Roman Drama (n. 9 above).

21. For this view see Thierfelder, A., ‘Su alcuni particolari del comico in Plauto’, Dioniso 46 (1975), 99Google Scholar.

22. On Plautine comic slaves in general see Stace, C., ‘The Slaves of Plautus’, G&R 15 (1968), 64–7Google Scholar.

23. On Plautine metatheatrics see Slater, Niall W., ‘Amphitruo, Bacchae, and Metatheatre’, Lexis 5–6 (1990), 108. 3Google Scholar; see also Dupont, F., ‘Signification theatricale du double dans l'Amphitryon de Plaute’, REL 54 (1976), 129–41Google Scholar.