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Terence and the Death of Comedy Sander M. Goldberg The creative age of Roman comedy died with a man named Turpilius in 103 B.C. That was actually half a century after the death of Terence, the last great writer of stage comedy at Rome, and nearly a whole century before Latin literature reached maturity in the time of Augustus. The golden age of Roman comedy is thus quite clearly divorced from the golden age of Roman literature itself, but something more than a minor literary genre died with Turpilius. The very interest in stage comedy that had survived the change in conditions from Aristophanes to Menander and the change in culture from Greece to Rome died with a whimper late in the second century B.C. No further comedy of literary stature was written in antiquity, and the ancient tradition lay dormant until revived by the Italian humanists of our own fourteenth century, l What happened? Why did the Romans lose interest in stage comedy? The death of a genre is as common an occurrence in the history of literature as it is complex, and there can be no simple answer to such a question. Yet some of the responsibility must lie with Terence, the author who brought to Roman comedy both a peak of sophistication and an end of creative vitality. What was it about his achievement that brought the develop­ ment of ancient comedy to a halt? Since all Roman drama, both tragic and comic, evolved from Greek forms, it may prove helpful to begin with the place of drama in Athenian culture. The constant, creative re-working of old myths that gave fifth-century tragedy its intellectual ten­ sion and vitality established drama as a legitimate medium for serious thought, and tragedy’s profound appeal enriched the substance of Athenian comedy even as the comic poets parodied SANDER GOLDBERG, author of The Making of Menander’s Comedy (Univ. of California Press, 1980), is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 312 Sander M. Goldberg 313 its mannerisms. The Old Comedy of Aristophanes took not only such useful stage devices as narrative soliloquies and ex machina endings from tragedy, but also a sense of urgency that led to the building of comic fantasies around matters of cultural, political, or intellectual substance. The so-called New Comedy of the following century represented the culmination of dramatic development at Athens and was thus heir to both the technical and intellectual traditions of tragedy and comedy. Menander, the best known but long-lost master of New Comedy, has recently been restored to us by the minor miracle of papyrology, and it is now plain that his domestic comedies, although cer­ tainly not pointed fantasies in the old style, are not simply trivial restatements of established topoi either.2 They too have a respect­ able intellectual base, using the romantic plots of lost children and obstructed marriages to explore legitimate problems of social and family relationships. In such plays as The Shorn Girl (Perikeiromene) and The Hated Man (Misoumenos) Menander created soldiers who lose their traditional swagger and confront genuine problems of integration into civilian society. The Arbitrants (Epitrepontes) deals with a young husband in agony over his wife’s apparent infidelity who finds that her fault is no more than his own. Young Charisios was himself the pre-nuptial rapist, and he discovers his own moral failing in an emotional climax that, like Aristotle’s best kind of tragic plot, combines a sudden realization with an abrupt reversal in the direction of the play’s action. Such comedies have many serious moments, and to signal them Menander’s characters frequently strike a tragic pose or speak in tragic style, but the dramatist’s purpose is not parody. Menander aims instead to borrow some of tragedy’s seriousness by assuming its manner. A play called The Man from Sikyon (Sikyonios), for example, has a messenger’s speech that shares the function and echoes the language of a similar speech in Euripides’ Orestes without ridiculing the tragic prototype. Meter and staging combine for a different kind of tragic effect in Dyskolos when Knemon, the misanthropic grouch of the title...


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