COMMENT on the COMEDY TODAY panel APA 1995

By Mary-Kay Gamel
University of California
Santa Cruz
E-mail: mkgamel@macmail.ucsc.edu

I have nothing but praise for these accounts of innovative productions, all of which demonstrate the theatrical vitality of Plautus when imaginatively adapted to local, contemporary conditions. Such adaptations, far from being a perversion of the original, are more 'accurate' and 'faithful' than useless attempts to replicate the original conditions of performance. I confess I came with a certain prejudice against performing ancient drama in Greek or Latin, but Sparks and Groton have changed my mind.

As my contribution to this panel I suggest that the continued vitality and usefulness of the themes and theatrical techniques of New Comedy are demonstrated nightly on television and on the movie screen. Only one classicist seems to have discussed this: David Konstan in 'The Premises of Comedy' in *The Journal of Popular Film and Television* 15 (1988). The points of comparison are many:

  • 1. a small number of stock characters (Roseanne as *matrona*; Seinfeld as *adulescens*; friends as *servi* (*callidi* or not); authority figures often take the role of *miles gloriosi*; one difference: *puellae* get to speak now
  • 2. similar themes: negotiation of wide range of social problems: conflict between the generations, between spouses, over status, deference, freedom, money, property, sex
  • 3. similar plots: problems invariably end in reconciliation, assurance that no problems are beyond solution, no humans (or at least no Americans) irrecoverably outside the social sphere, though range of attractiveness, social skills, values ensures that people find their 'right' place as pairs and in the social order
  • 4. similar setting: the interiors shown in sitcoms are interchangeable apartments, slightly differentiated in terms of age, class, etc. (Konstan concentrates on difference between public setting of New Comedy and the private setting of sitcoms, but the former's street, though public, is still an enclosed space; what counts is the domestic establishments whose facades are shown onstage, not the forum which is always offstage.) By comparison, the big dramatic series ('NYPD Blue' and so forth) have multiple plot lines, many exotic characters, and a variety of outdoor and indoor settings.
  • 5. similar function-mediation: these dramas provide reassurance on individual, familial, social levels that all breaches can be resolved; 'normalcy' (sexual, social) is upheld, threats (adultery, divorce, homosexuality, poverty, death) are repelled, at least temporarily; conflicts and resolutions are naturalized. Explicit references to topic social or political conflicts are avoided. 'Saturday Night Live', a very different form, more closely resembles Old Comedy.
  • Like all commercial television, these programs are designed to sell products, but the big product being sold is the stability, vitality, fairness, appeal of American social and economic institutions. As a concrete example I propose a film version of the sitcom plot, the resolution of 'Moonstruck', (1987, written by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Norman Jewison). Like Plautus' plays, this film is considerably more complex and elegant than most TV sitcoms. Problems are rampant in the Castorini family: Loretta, close to old-maidhood, agrees to marry Johnny Camereri when he returns from his mother's funeral in Sicily, but while he is away falls in love with his brother Ronnie; meanwhile, her father is having an affair of which her mother is painfully aware. In the final scene, with all the major characters gathered in the family kitchen, all the problems are resolved in an conclusion as satisfying as it is preposterous.

    'Moonstruck' works, I suggest, because Italo-Americans (like Plautus' Greeks) are just exotic enough to make their odd living arrangements-three generations in one house), beliefs and superstitions ('bad luck', curses which work), larger-than-life passions, and self-dramatization-believable. Meanwhile, frequent metatheatrical references (especially the visual and aural references to Puccini's La Boheme which run throughout the film) remind the audience that they are viewing a representation. Unlike sitcoms, but like such bittersweet Plautus plays as Amphitruo and Captivi, 'Moonstruck' acknowledges that its happy resolution is only possible in a representation.

    Mary-Kay Gamel
    University of California
    Santa Cruz
    E-mail: mkgamel@macmail.ucsc.edu

    (Mary-Kay Gamel has produced several adaptations of Greek plays at UC Santa Cruz.)