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REVIEWS David Konstan. Roman Comedy. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983. Pp. 182. $19.50. On the whole, students of Roman comedy have not served the general public very well. Because metrical technicalities and abstruse debates over lost Greek originals dominate the scholarly literature, non-specialist readers interested in this engaging and seminal genre are too often left to their own devices. The only reliable guide in English is George Duck­ worth’s The Nature of Roman Comedy (Princeton, 1952), badly dated now after thirty years. Gilbert Norwood’s The Art of Terence (Oxford, 1923), an odd book even in its own day, remains in use only for lack of a successor, and much the same is true of Erich Segal’s Roman Laughter (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968), which deals with Plautus. David Konstan’s new book is thus especially welcome. It has both the thorough grounding in contemporary scholarship to satisfy the specialist and the breadth of vision necessary to interest the generalist. It is also both a little less and a little more than the title suggests. This is neither a hand­ book nor a survey. Its introductory chapter introduces not the genre itself, but a particular way of looking at the genre. Eight chapters follow on individual plays, six of the twenty-one Plautine plays (Aulularia, Asinaria, Captivi, Rudens, Cistellaria, Truculentus) and two of the six by Terence (Phormio, Hecyra). There is then a brief conclusion. Four of these essays have appeared previously as articles, but they gain from being drawn together and developed into an explicit statement of the author’s approach to Roman comedy. Just what is that approach? Let Professor Konstan speak for himself: “Taken together, the dramas of ancient comedy map out the ideology of city-state society and reveal to us the sensitive areas where the borders were vague, weak, or changing under the pressure of new historical circumstances” (p. 21). For each play, Konstan discusses the social tensions that the comic medium explores: tensions among family mem­ bers, between individual and society, between citizen and non-citizen, etc. This emphasis on comedy’s social role is analogous to that of Segal’s Roman Laughter, but with a vaguely Marxist rather than Freudian overlay and with much closer, more careful reading of the plays them­ selves. Since Konstan concentrates on comedy’s social function, other purely literary aspects of the genre receive only passing mention, but the sacrifice is worth the cost. His precisely focused vision is arrestingly clear and succeeds in making Roman comedy truly interesting. Each chapter is packed with interpretations of actions and characters that force the reader to confront basic questions too often ignored in scholarly discussions—e.g., what is the appeal of the genre? What gives eternal 175 176 Comparative Drama youth to its formulae? What are its true concerns? These essays stimulate an exhilarating process of thought and analysis, but even as we learn to read Roman comedy Konstan’s way, certain caveats are in order. Consider again the sentence quoted above. “Ancient comedy” em­ braces both the New Comedy of fourth- and third-century Athens and the Latin hybrid that flourished at Rome in the third and second centuries B.C. “City-state society” thus encompasses both the Athenian polls stifled under Macedonian hegemony and the imperialistic republic of central Italy as it began its meteoric rise. Menander’s Athenians faced the political demise of their city-state system. The Romans scrapped theirs for something better. The “new historical circumstances” were adverse and externally imposed in the one case, self-generated and advantageous in the other. Were the Athenian and Roman “city-states” nevertheless a single society? Did they have a single ideology? A little later, as Konstan narrows his focus to the Roman plays, he addresses this problem: “What­ ever degree of native invention in the comedies that have survived, the world they represent is clearly of a piece with Menander’s” (p. 23). Despite the confident “clearly,” readers must recognize that the thrust of Latin scholarship since the 1920’s has been to display how great is that “degree of native invention” and to demonstrate that, where Menander put his own world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 175-177
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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