Tragicomedy as a Running Joke: Plautus' Amphitruo in Performance

Timothy Moore, University of Texas

Since the 16th century, so-called tragicomedies have contributed significantly to the generic ambiguities which lie at the heart of this conference. The term 'tragicomedy,' however, predates the Renaissance by many centuries: it first appears in Plautus' Amphitruo. Mercury, delivering the prologue of that play, speaks as follows:

argumentum huius eloquar tragoediae.
quid? contraxistis frontem, quia tragoediam
dixi futuram hanc? deus sum, commutavero.
eandem hanc, si voltis, faciam ex tragoedia
comoedia ut sit omnibus isdem vorsibus.
utrum sit an non voltis? sed ego stultior,
quasi nesciam vos velle, qui divos siem.
teneo quid animi vostri super hac re siet:
faciam ut commixta sit: tragicomoedia.
nam me perpetuo facere ut sit comoedia,
reges quo veniant et di, non par arbitror.
quid igitur? quoniam hic servos quoque partes habet,
faciam sit, proinde ut dixi, tragicomoedia.

'I will give the background of this tragedy. What's that? Did you make a face, because I said this would be a tragedy? I'm a god, I'll change it. If you want, I will turn this tragedy into a comedy, using the very same verses. Do you want that, or not? Silly me, as if, being a god, I didn't know that's what you want. I know what you desire: I will make it mixed: let it be a tragicomedy. For I don't think it would be right for it to be continually a comedy, since there are kings and gods in it. How about it, then? Since a slave also has a part here, I will make it a tragicomedy, just as I said' (51-63).

What are we to make of Mercury's words, and what does Plautus mean by tragicomoedia? Only with a good deal of special pleading can we find in Amphitruo the kind of mixture of the comic and the serious we have come to expect in tragicomedy since Giambattista Guarini's 1601 treatise on the genre (Compendio della poesia tragicomica). This does not mean, however, that we need dismiss Mercury's words as merely a joke, without significance for the play as a whole. Rather, if we look more closely at the passage, we find that Plautus has his own definition of tragicomoedia, quite different from those of Guarini and his successors, and that Plautus' brand of tragicomedy will indeed apply to the play as a whole.

Mercury's pretense here is that he wants to make the play a tragedy--'I will give the background of this tragedy'--but he agrees to make it a comedy in response to real or imagined discontent in the audience. Only after he has established that the play will in fact be a comedy does he go on to discuss his proposal that the play be a tragicomoedia. As he continues the prologue, Mercury will twice refer to the play as a comedy (88, 96). The second of these references echoes almost verbatim his first attempt to produce tragedy: 'I will give the background of this comedy' (huius argumentum eloquar comoediae) Plautus' tragicomedy, then, is not a separate genre, but a subdivision of comedy. Mercury's words suggest a kind of one-sided generic battle, in which comedy triumphs over tragedy.

In introducing this war of the genres, Mercury establishes three central rules by which it is to be fought. First, he promises to make a comedy out of a tragedy with the same verses (isdem vorsibus). This cannot be taken literally: there are a good number of comical verses in Amphitruo which could never have appeared in even the most daring of tragedies. There are, however, several scenes in the play where Mercury can be taken at his word, where extended passages which in their style, content, and tone could fit comfortably into a tragedy are made comic by their visual context or the events which surround them.

Second, Mercury defines the two theatrical genres in terms of their characters: kings and gods appear in tragedy, slaves in comedy. This distinction, besides being an interesting glimpse into Roman notions about comedy and tragedy, will be important throughout the play in two ways. First, there is a continual fascination with the fact that the gods, who belong in tragedy, are the play's most comic figures. Second, it is the slave characters, Sosia, the real slave, and Mercury, who is pretending he is a slave, who accomplish much of the disruption of others' and their own attempts to produce tragedy.

Finally, and most importantly, Mercury connects generic choices with the desires of the audience. The play will be a comedy rather than a tragedy because that is what the spectators want. This pattern too will recur throughout the play, as characters suggest that in performing comedy they are serving the audience.

When the play begins Jupiter, disguised as Amphitruo, has impregnated Amphitruo's wife, Alcumena, while Amphitruo is away at war, and Mercury is disguised as Amphitruo's slave, Sosia. Sosia, sent ahead to report Amphitruo's victory, enters and practices the speech he will deliver to Alcumena (203-62). Every word of his fifty-eight line battle report would be at home in tragedy. Its subject, war, Plautus explicitly associates with tragedy elsewhere (Captivi 61-62). Its patriotic and eulogistic content, its serious tone, and its numerous religious and legal formulas are all reminiscent of what one might find in the tragedies of Ennius or Naevius. (1)

This 'tragic messenger speech,' however, is made comic by its context. First, Sosia introduces it by saying that it is all a lie: he hid inside his tent during the battle, and all his high-falutin' descriptions are merely hearsay. Second, however he may speak, Sosia establishes himself as a typical comic slave. He says, 'If I lie, I will do what I usually do'; that is, being a comic slave, he can be expected to deceive (198). Third, we know Sosia's battle report is too late: Mercury has told us that Jupiter is at this moment inside telling Alcumena what happened on the battlefield (133-34). Finally, the audience sees Sosia through the eyes of an eavesdropping Mercury, who undoes any possible tragic effect of the speech with an aside delivered near its end: everything Sosia said, he tells us, was actually true, for he, unlike Sosia, really was present at the battle (248-49). (2) Sosia, then, has fulfilled the promise Mercury made in the prologue: tragedy has become comedy in the same verses.

The speech concluded, Mercury reveals that the tragic messenger speech will be further undone, for he will prevent Sosia from delivering it. 'Because,' he says, 'I have taken this fellow's appearance, it is fitting for me to be like him in deeds and manner. So I should be bad, clever, and tricky, and drive this fellow from the house with his own methods, trickery' (265-69). Here we see clearly the connection between character type and genre: because Mercury looks like a comic slave, he will act like one. We also see that Mercury's slave costume is a metaphor for the play as a whole. Just as the god Mercury, who rightfully belongs in tragedy, is turned into the comic slave by his costume, the properly tragic story of Hercules' birth is turned into comedy by the accouterments, visual and verbal, which accompany the basic plot.

The ensuing scene, as Mercury convinces Sosia that he (Mercury) is Sosia, is one of the play's funniest. It nevertheless contains two passages where characters make the abortive attempts to introduce tragedy which so characterize this play; in both cases the failure of tragedy is connected with Sosia's status as slave. The first attempt is a teasing one by Mercury. He addresses Sosia with a pompous allusion to the lamp he carries: quo ambulas tu qui Volcanum in cornu conclusum geris?: 'where are you going, you who carry Vulcan in a container of horn?' (341). The tragic tone collapses when Mercury asks whether Sosia is free or a slave. Sosia's response that he is whichever he pleases leads to typical comic jokes about slave beatings. Soon thereafter, Sosia makes an attempt at tragedy. Asked his name, he responds, Sosiam vocant Thebani, Davo prognatum patre: 'the Thebans call me Sosia, the scion of Davus' (365). Besides being undermined by its incongruous source, a slave who by Roman law has no parent, Sosia's tragic tone is instantly destroyed by the long string of puns which follows it.

Three decidedly comic scenes follow the expulsion of Sosia: a second prologue by Mercury (463-98); a parting scene between Alcumena and Jupiter disguised as Amphitruo, complete with humorous asides by Mercury (494-550); and the ancient equivalent of an Abbott and Costello dialogue, as Sosia somehow cannot convince the returning Amphitruo that there are two of him (551-632). Then Plautus again offers us the words of tragedy. Unobserved by Amphitruo and Sosia, Alcumena enters and mourns the departure of Amphitruo in a monologue (633-52). She begins by complaining that voluptas (pleasure) is always overcome by grief, just as she took more grief from Amphitruo's departure than pleasure from his presence; and she concludes with an encomium to virtus (virtue).

Like Sosia's messenger speech, Alcumena's lament could in itself fit comfortably in a tragedy. Also like Sosia's speech, however, it is made comic by its context. First, the audience is aware that Alcumena is being deceived; that it is not Amphitruo but Jupiter who has just left her; and the returning Amphitruo and Sosia, present on stage, underline her error visually. More importantly, Alcumena is very obviously in the last stages of pregnancy, as Sosia will point out in the next scene (667). Besides being humorous in itself, Alcumena's pregnant state casts a comic light over her lines about voluptas, a word often used to mean sexual pleasure. (3) We have an excellent modern analogy for this, the scene in Funny Girl where Fanny Brice sings her tender bridal song with a pillow tucked under her dress.

It is now Amphitruo's turn to make abortive attempts at tragedy. His first words to Alcumena are: Amphitruo uxorem salutat laetus speratam suam, quam omnium Thebis vir unam esse optumam diiudicat, quamque adeo cives Thebani vero rumiferant probam: 'Amphitruo joyfully greets his longed-for wife, whom her husband judges the best in all of Thebes, and about whom, furthermore, all the citizens of Thebes truly spread rumors about... saying she is virtuous' (676-78). His attempt at tragic bombast collapses with the unfortunate rumiferant--'spread rumors about.' Sosia further brings the tone down, pointing out the all-to- true fact, that Alcumena, who thinks her husband has only returned to play a trick on her, greets him about as enthusiastically as she would a dog (679-80).

The scene which follows, which climaxes in Amphitruo's accusation that his wife has been unfaithful, is the closest the play will come to real tragedy. It is the slave character, Sosia, who makes sure the play remains comic with many humorous comments and asides (700-701, 707, 718-19, 723-24, 738-40, 775-76, 784- 86, 801, 814, 825-29, 843, 845-46, 855-56).

In spite of Sosia's comic interjections, however, the plot may appear to some to be heading towards tragedy. This will not do, as Jupiter makes clear in his entrance which immediately follows. He tells the audience, 'Now I come here for your sake, and I will certainly complete this comedy we have begun' (nunc huc honoris vostri venio gratia; ne hanc incohatam transigam comoediam, 867-68) (4); and he promises a comic plot: he will bring maxima frustratio--the greatest possible confusion--to the household; and he will make sure everything turns out OK.

Here we see again the connection between genre and the audience's wishes. The connection gains extra significance if we consider what we might call Jupiter's metatheatrical status. Mercury had established through some telling double-entendres in the prologue that the actor playing Jupiter was the leader of the theatrical troupe of the company performing the play (26-31, 45). Entering here, Jupiter reminds the spectators of his position as actor by joking on his ability to be either Amphitruo or Jupiter: 'I am that fellow Amphitruo, who has a slave named Sosia, who becomes Mercury when it is convenient for him; I live in the room up above, and I become Jupiter sometimes when I want to' (ego sum ille Amphitruo, quoii est servos Sosia, idem Mercurius qui fit quando commodumst, in superiore qui habito cenaculo, qui interdum fio Iuppiter quando lubet, 861-64).

This is, of course, backwards: Amphitruo doesn't become Jupiter, Jupiter becomes Amphitruo, and Sosia does not become Mercury, Mercury becomes Sosia. The backwardness calls attention to the fact that what we see on stage is not actually Jupiter or Amphitruo, but an actor, capable of playing both roles. It is in this capacity as actor that Jupiter continues: 'but when I come here, straight-away I become Amphitruo, and I change my costume' (huc autem quom extemplo adventum adporto, ilico Amphitruo fio et vestitum immuto meum, 865-66) It is thus not only as Jupiter, but as the chief actor responsible for the production that Jupiter promises a comedy for the audience's sake. (5)

After further confusing Alcumena and Sosia, Jupiter yields the stage to Mercury, who returns to the association between genre and character type. As he warns people to get out of his way, he pretends that, being a god, he is certainly not just a comic character: 'for why should I, a god, be any less allowed to threaten people, if they don't get out of my way, than a little slave in comedies?' (nam mihi quidem hercle qui minus liceat deo minitarier populo, ni decedat mihi, quam servolo in comoediis?, 986-87). The joke, of course, is that, god or not, Mercury is playing the most stereotypical of comic roles, the running slave. After adding that he also plays the stock comic role of parasite (subparasitor, 993), Mercury goes unusually far out of his way to call attention to his next action: he describes in detail how he will go onto the roof and, pretending that he is Sosia, drive away Amphitruo.

No other plays of Plautus make reference to a roof on the scene building, or even to a second story: the roof seems to have been reserved for divine epiphanies in tragedies. Just as he has turned a tragic character into a comic one, Mercury will now convert the ultimate tragic stage appearance into the play's most farcical comic event. Again, this conversion of tragedy into comedy is associated with the will and pleasure of the audience. Mercury is redundant, lest anyone miss the point. He says: 'I will see to it that he is mocked excellently, spectators, while you watch,' (faxo probe iam hic deludetur, spectatores, vobis inspectantibus, 997-98); and later, 'now he will be excellently mocked, as long as you all wish to pay attention and listen,' (iam ille hic deludetur probe, siquidem vos voltis auscultando operam dare, 1005-1006).

Unfortunately, much of the next scene, in which Mercury douses poor Amphitruo with water, has been lost, along with several other scenes. When our text resumes, both 'Amphitruos' are on stage. Amphitruo's friend Blepharo, who has been called upon to decide which is really Amphitruo, gives up in bewilderment, and Jupiter sneaks into the house to help Alcumena give birth (1039). Left alone on stage, Amphitruo makes his most determined attempt to turn the play into a tragedy. He exclaims: 'I tell you that guy, whoever he is, will not mock me and get away with it' (numquam edepol me inultus istic ludificabit, quisquis est, 1041), and he proposes to bring the imposter before the king (1042), a figure we heard associated with tragedy in the prologue (61). When he sees that Jupiter is gone, he threatens to dash into the house and kill anyone he meets, and he concludes: 'neither Jupiter nor all the gods will stop me, even if they want to, from doing as I have decided. Now I will go into the house' (neque me Iuppiter neque di omnes id prohibebunt, si volent, quin sic faciam uti constitui. pergam in aedis nunciam, 1051- 52). The words are classic tragedy, echoing the hubris of Capaneus, who boasted that even Zeus could not stop him from climbing the walls of Thebes. Fortunately for Amphitruo, he is in a comedy, not a tragedy. His determination stands out more for its comic irony than for its tragic hubris, since Jupiter is inside as Amphitruo speaks. Amphitruo's attempt to produce tragedy is promptly ended by a bolt of Jupiter's thunder, but he is not killed as Capaneus was; he is rather left unconscious on the stage.

Bromia, Alcumena's maid, now enters and delivers the third long monologue which in itself could fit in a tragedy. In emotional and elevated language, she reports her own terror and the supernatural events which surrounded the birth of Hercules (1053- 71). Her tragic speech, however, is made a travesty by the presence on stage of the thunderstruck Amphitruo, especially when she finally notices him and says, 'what's this? who is this old man lying like this in front of our house?' (sed quid hoc? quid hic est senex qui ante aedis nostras sic iacet?, 1072).

Bromia now tells Amphitruo about the birth and parentage of Hercules. Even as he becomes more 'in the know,' Amphitruo still wants to be in the world of tragedy. He plans to go and consult Tiresias, a character with stellar tragic credentials (1128- 29). Before he has a chance to do so, Jupiter once again uses some stage thunder to make sure the play remains a comedy. This time he not only thunders, but appears in his own persona. Here we have another excellent opportunity for tragedy; a god, this time not in disguise, appears on the roof. Jupiter's speech, however, is matter-of-fact and prosaic, with no tragic pretensions. He has accomplished his purpose of amusing the audience with a long string of comic tours de force. Now he simply goes through the motions of providing the necessary ending. Amphitruo finally gets the message. He decides to forget Tiresias, the tragic seer, and go inside to his wife. Before he leaves, he asks the audience to applaud, Iovis summi causa, 'for the sake of great Jupiter' (1146). Jupiter, we recall, is not only a character, but the chief actor: he and his company have given the audience what they wanted, a comedy.

Plautus' tragicomoedia, then, is hardly a mixed genre in terms of tone or effect. Rather, Plautus fulfills Mercury's pledge by making comedy overcome tragedy at every turn, even when the very words spoken could fit in a tragedy. As Mercury promises, Plautus accomplishes this especially through the machinations of the gods, who really should be in tragedy, and the slave characters, most indicative of comedy; and he never lets it be forgotten that this ruthless squelching of the tragic is done in order to give the audience the greatest possible pleasure.


1. Cf. Eduard Fraenkel, Elementi Plautini in Plauto (Florence, 1960), pp. 332-5. 2. Cf. Niall W. Slater, 'Amphitruo, Bacchae, and Metatheatre,' Lexis 5-6 (1990), p. 108. 3. Cf. Luciano Perelli, 'L'Alcmena plautina, personaggio serio o parodico?,' Civilta classica e cristiana 4 (1983), pp. 383-94; and J.E. Phillips, 'Alcumena in the Amphitruo of Plautus: A Pregnant Lady Joke,' Classical Journal 80 (1985), pp. 121-6. 4. On the translation of these lines, see Benjamin Garcia- Hernandez, 'Plaut.Amph. 867-868: Solucion semantica de una cuestion de traduccion y de critica textual,' Habis 15 (1984), pp. 117-24. 5. Cf. Florence Dupont, 'Signification theatrale du double dans l'Amphitryon de Plaute,' Revue des Etudes Latines 54 (1976), pp. 135-6. Timothy Moore, University of Texas