- Plautus in Twenty-First-Century Australia: Does the Roman Playwright Still Influence People’s Identity?
The Australian dramatist David Williamson (b. 1942) is regarded today as one of Australia’s most successful and influential living playwrights and screenwriters.1 Over the course of his long and varied career, this reputation has been based not in the least on the fact that he became known for dramatizing contemporary subjects and discussing topics that are central to Australian society,2 the most obvious example being his play about an Australian election in 1969, written immediately afterwards (Don’s Party; performed 1971, published 1973). This choice of topics agrees with his general aim to create an independent and creative Australian theatre.3 Accordingly Williamson stated in an interview in 1988:
I have never seen myself as writing for a world market. From the very earliest days I was writing Australian plays for Australian people. Australian playwrights before me, who were consciously writing for a world market, would not put any local references in, would not put any place names in. They would either locate their plays in hypothetical lands that didn’t have place names or in other countries. We’ve had a tradition of that sort of writing, but I’ve always seen myself as an observer of the life around me and reflecting that life. If the writing is good enough and does travel to other cultures I am delighted, but the writing is not predicated with that ambition. Someone said, of all the art forms, drama is the most parochial. It really is rooted in its particular tribe. The very best of that tribal writing transcends the boundaries of that tribe.”(Quoted from Willbanks 1988, 105)4
The box office profits of David Williamson’s plays in Australia confirm that he managed to appeal to local audiences and to their interests and concerns, although his dramas and screenplays were later taken to the United States and also to the United Kingdom with some success. Against this background it is all the more astonishing that in 2004 he [End Page 207] produced his first proper drama on a non-contemporary topic, going even back to classical antiquity.5 This play, which was shown in Sydney and later in Melbourne,6 was entitled Flatfoot: A Roman Comedy of Bad Manners at the first performance and Flatfoot, incorporating the comedy The Swaggering Soldier by Titus Maccius Plautus in the printed version of the same year.7
Williamson had been attracted to Plautus, since, to his own surprise, he found himself laughing at 2200-year-old plays8 and realized that Plautus, particularly in his Miles gloriosus, had superbly used the basics of all successful comedy.9 And according to his statement just quoted, Williamson must have regarded Plautus as a great playwright, even though he refers to Aristophanes more often in his interviews and discussions and seems to think that Greece was ahead of Rome in terms of cultural achievements.10
Nevertheless, in view of David Williamson’s preceding career, a drama going back to a Roman model raises some questions: Did he believe or why did he believe that such a play might attract modern audiences? Did he expect or how did he expect such a plot to touch on topics relevant in the contemporary world? And can national and social identities of twenty-first-century audiences be affected by a play based on Plautus? These questions shall be examined and possible answers put forward in what follows, after a brief overview of the drama’s structure, including suggestions on the meaning of individual scenes.
The play opens with an introductory speech by the character Plautus (pp. 1–2), who has reappeared for some unknown reason after having been dead for a very long time, during which period he observed life on earth. This Plautus introduces himself to the audience and informs them of his reactions upon seeing how his memory and his legacy have been handled by later writers. He is absolutely disappointed and disgusted, since “Two thousand two hundred years ago I was a celebrity.... Now my memory’s kept alive by a handful of beady-eyed...