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Dramatic Irony and Dark Humor in the Plays of Plautus

Aristophanic and Plautine comedies clearly share many important similarities: modeled as they were on Greek originals, the plays of Plautus often re-cast the ancient theatrical conventions and themes -- caricatures, political commentary, prologues and epilogues, moral sermons -- in a slightly Romanized world. One of these conventions, however, namely the concept of theatrical self-consciousness, takes on a different role and a greater importance under Plautus' hand. This self-awareness, which can take the form of metadrama, dramatic irony, or any other device by which the dramatic illusion is broken, seems with Aristophanes to be merely a comic trope, used to praise the comedy itself, whereas by Plautus it has become an accepted and plot-dependent 'humorous' escape from the reality of the play. At the same time, the effect of Plautus' dramatic irony works directly on the tone of the plays: while Aristophanic characters are relatively open with their aside remarks, Plautine figures speak with psychological overtones, enriching the deeper, darker comedy of these works.

Dramatic irony, when strictly defined, appears in fact very rarely in ancient comedy; instead, it becomes common in Shakespearean and other European comedies. The classic example is, of course, the hero who remarks to the audience, "I would rather die than fail now" -- he means simply that he intends to succeed, but the audience reads this correctly as a foreshadowing of the hero's imminent death. In a broader sense, however, dramatic irony develops a meaning that allows its application to ancient comedy. The dramas and novels of the German Romantic authors, for example, exhibit a form of dramatic irony that mirrors the "illusion-breaking" role so familiar to us. In the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the narrator interrupts the story at frequent intervals to exert his creative presence, reminding the audience to discard their disbelief and try to imagine the situations as he describes them, regardless of how outrageous it may seem -- and regardless of whether or not the tale is true.

A remarkably similar form of irony appears, then, in the works of Aristophanes. Often during the course of his plays, the audience is directly addressed by the actors; this is of course true in the parabasis, where it becomes a defining element, and also in the prologue, where it is necessary to set up the details of the story. However, aside remarks made to the audience continue to appear, sometimes in unexpected places -- in the middle of dramatic conflicts or battles, amidst arguments or vehement discussions, or in other scenes where the action seems to take a more serious turn. The asides then relieve the tension produced at these moments, and add to the humor and comic character of the plays.

The purpose of the Aristophanic asides, however, upon closer examination, does not seem to be a furthering of the comic situation; instead, the author uses the characters in his drama as mouthpieces through which he praises his own creation, the drama itself. Such is the case in this scene from The Birds, where --the Hoopoe is first introduced: the two men laugh openly at his plumage, calling attention to the strange costume he is wearing; the Hoopoe then defends himself, saying, "I'd have you know it's copied exactly from the description of me in the Tragedy of Tereus, by Sophocles." (p. 159) By drawing on a reference to the famous dramatist, Aristophanes here attempts to authenticate and support his own production, at the same time bringing attention to the transparent fictionality of the work. The same phenomenon occurs, significantly, in almost all of the other aside remarks to the audience: another prime example, in the parabasis, occurs when the characters try to bribe the judges of Athens by relating to them "the good things we shall give them all if they award the prize to us." (p. 191) Once again, by an open admission of his dramatic self-consciousness, Aristophanes praises his own comedy, setting it above and beyond the scope of contemporary playwrights.

The asides in Plautus' comedies, however, take on a very different character from those of Aristophanes. Admittedly, the prologues. although often "delayed" in Plautus until the action is already underway, seem for the most part to play the same role as their Aristophanic counterparts: an explanation to the unknowing audience of what events are to be described in the play. But once the action of the drama is underway, when aside remarks are made by the actors, they are, with very few exception, never addressed directly to the audience. Instead, observations are simply stated aloud, to no-one in particular: this creates the illusion that the character is either talking to himself or to another character who is "in" on the joke. These asides are, no doubt, said for the benefit of the audience, but they are not as decisive, and do not call attention to the audience itself as a separate entity. Instead, the remarks are contained within the plot and events: they arise out of a specific situation, then indirectly call attention to the humor of the proceedings. Such is the case in The Swaggering Soldier, during the play-acting scene of Milphidippa, who confesses her love for Pyrgopolynices. In the midst of this scene, the following dialogue occurs:

 MILPHIDIPPA [to PYRGOPOLYNICES]: ...those handsome features, that noble figure, that fame for courage and daring deeds. Was ever a man more godlike?
 PALAESTRIO [aside to her]: He's not a man, my dear; a vulture is more of a man than he is, I should say.
 PYRGOPOLYNICES [aside]: I'll play high and mighty, since she admires me so.
 PALAESTRIO: Look at him - strutting about like an idiot ... Well, sir? Won't you answer her? ... (p. 194)

The almost bewildering array of aside remarks here shows clearly the character differences in Plautus: these asides, directed as they are at other figures in the drama, serve to let the audience in on the joke, but in a much subtler way than the Aristophanic conceits. Here, also, we see the importance of the plot for the dramatic irony of Plautus: these remarks are entirely dependent on the scene in which they are played, and serve for the characters as a humorous escape from the situation in which they stand.

It is also true that the asides of Plautus have a more outwardly "funny" effect: in most cases, they will bring forth a bellowing laugh from the reader, and in some cases, they even lean toward a slapstick-like effect. The scene in the prologue of The Swaggering Soldier, for example, where the audience is told to watch the movements of Palaestrio carefully, as he carries out his "dramatic" thinking role (p. 160), is an illustration of this: the descriptions by Periplectomenus here develop the feel of a cabaret or vaudeville director, introducing to the audience the members of his cast and showing off their talents as they perform their humorous tasks. In contrast to Aristophanes, however, who might have written a scene similar to this in order to call attention to his own creations, the only unveiling here regards the actors and their talents; nothing is mentioned of the playwright or unfolding drama.

Another way in which both playwrights remind the audience of their place and bring out the comic elements in the dramas comes with the addition of "metadramatic" scenes, where a play within the play is introduced. This does not, of course, always take the form of a "real" play; in fact, Shakespeare's use of this tactic is far less complex and interwoven than in the ancient comedies. Disguises, play-acting, pretending, and even lying can take the role of metadrama here: in all forms, the characters of the drama, themselves actors, take on a part to play and become actors within the dramatic events. The purpose and effect of this should be clear: the audience is immediately reminded of the illusion that is being produced, and thus becomes conscious of the illusion to which they are a spectator.

As in the use of asides by Aristophanes, the function of metadrama in Old Comedy seems far less tied to the real action of the play, but instead to a need to substantiate and praise the playwright's own creation. By setting up instances in which a "play" of some kind is put on, the occasion then arises for the deviser of the situation to be praised and flattered; this inevitably leads to the praise of Aristophanes himself, the master creator. The mock trial set up in The Wasps, for example, is a clear case of metadrama: Anticleon sets the stage for a trial at home, in order to cause the repentance of his father by tricking him into acquitting the accused. In the process of setting up the house for the trial, objects and requisite items are brought out from the house, shown to the audience as their purpose is carefully described, and then put into use. The pots, for example, are the urns into which votes are cast, and the pig-pen gate becomes the wooden bar of the court. This ingenious use of mundane items, which under pretense take on a life of their own, shows the audience the "resourcefulness" of Anticleon, and thus in turn reminds them of the creative spirit of the author of the whole scene, Aristophanes. The same is true in The Birds, when the two Athenians first arrive at the Hoopoe's tree and are attacked by the angry flock of birds: they defend themselves by picking up kitchen utensils to use as armour, and proceed to stage a fake military battle. Peisthetaerus' creativity in the matter is even called directly to attention: "Quite a military genius, aren't you? Talk about resourceful," Euelpides remarks to his companion and to the audience -- underlining clearly the resourcefulness of his creator as well.

Plautine metadrama differs greatly, however, from its counterpart in Aristophanic comedy. Here, instead of subtle illusions and lies carried out within the larger whole, the disguises and fictions put on by Plautus' characters are immanently tied to the development of the plot; occasionally they make up a large portion of the play's action, such as the role-playing scenes of The Swaggering Soldier, but wherever they appear, their function is clear: to move along the action of the play. In Casina, for instance, the disguising of the male servant for the female Casina is clearly plot-dependent; in fact, it could be said, this is the plot. Once again, the theatrical self-consciousness of Plautus relies less on the appraisal of his own works, and far more on plot-related themes. Indeed, the disguises and the metadramatic elements in Plautus are for the most part the funniest elements of the story, while in Aristophanic comedies they are merely a sidelight to the true humor of the commentary.

Despite their use as comic and/or humorous scenes in Plautus, however, the elements of metadrama in his plays almost always take on a rather sinister cast. Casina, for instance, has the famous disguising and then the discovery scene: while outwardly funny, there seems to be an undercurrent of darker thought here -- as if one never really knows with whom one is dealing, or even more metaphysically stated, as if one never really knows who one is. Even in The Swaggering Soldier, which is in general a much lighter comedy, there remain dark elements: the two-sidedness of Philocomasium betrays either the duplicity of women or the schizophrenic nature of mankind as a whole, and the attempted maiming of Pyrgopolynices at the end reveals the violent, dark nature of the desire for revenge.

In addition, the themes with which Plautine metadrama usually deals clearly reveal the darker side of human behavior: instead of the Aristophanic treatment of social problems (the overzealous jurymen, the discontented Athenians), the Plautine character traits are far more deeply embedded in the personalities of the characters involved: the braggart soldier who is unable to deny himself pleasure and forces others to bend to his will, the lustful and practically incestuous husband, who would risk the wrath of his own wife to possess Casina -- these types reveal not the ills of society, but the ills of mankind and human nature.

As noted, the dramatic irony of Plautus in the aside remarks also differs from the Aristophanic version in that the remarks are usually addressed, not to the audience, but to the other characters within the drama, or, quite frequently, to no-one in particular at all. This may in itself seem normal, but once again it presents a darker view of the situation: instead of revealing to the audience their innermost thoughts, these figures express their thoughts only to themselves or each other, keeping the secret intact: a far more psychologically motivated humor is thus established. In tune with the sinister themes working beneath the overtly funny layer of Plautine comedy, then, the aside remarks, while adding to the surface layer of humor, in fact reveal the inner workings of the play: the contemplation of personal evils is seen in the remarks directed among the players of a Plautine drama, while an Aristophanic comedy, dealing more with societal ills, draws the audience as a member of society into the discussion by addressing them directly. As such, therefore, Plautine comedy is indeed "the opponent of its own artistic order." Though it is outwardly funny and comic, the sinister, psychological workings of the drama suggest not comedy, but its antithesis, tragedy. The comedy of Aristophanes, on the other hand, does not seem to uphold this statement: the comedy itself is supported by humorous elements in the dramatic irony as well as by the authentication of the cross-dramatic references. This difference in tone and color, however, does not necessarily imply a difference in quality, but only in the intentions and effects of the works produced.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Classics 14 at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Dramatic Irony and Dark Humor in the Plays of Plautus." Website Article. 20 November 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/C14paper2.html>.