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Greek and Roman Comedy

Greek and Roman Comedy
Translations and Interpretations of Four Representative Plays
Translated by George Fredric Franko, Timothy Moore, Shawn O'Bryhim, and Douglas Olson

Four plays that introduce ancient comedy to a modern audience.

June 2001
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330 pages | 6 x 9 |

Much of what we know of Greco-Roman comedy comes from the surviving works of just four playwrights—the Greeks Aristophanes and Menander and the Romans Plautus and Terence. To introduce these authors and their work to students and general readers, this book offers a new, accessible translation of a representative play by each playwright, accompanied by a general introduction to the author's life and times, a scholarly article on a prominent theme in the play, and a bibliography of selected readings about the play and playwright.

This range of material, rare in a single volume, provides several reading and teaching options, from the study of a single author to an overview of the entire Classical comedic tradition. The plays have been translated for readability and fidelity to the original text by established Classics scholars. Douglas Olson provides the translation and commentary for Aristophanes' Acharnians, Shawn O'Bryhim for Menander's Dyskolos, George Fredric Franco for Plautus' Casina, and Timothy J. Moore for Terence's Phormio.

  • Preface
  • Aristophanes and Athenian Old Comedy by S. Douglas Olson
    • Introduction
    • The Politics of Comedy and the Problem of the Reception of Aristophanes' Acharnians
    • Select Bibliography
    • A Note on the Translation
    • Acharnians
  • Menander and Greek New Comedy by Shawn O'Bryhim
    • Introduction
    • Dance, Old Man, Dance!: The Torture of Knemon in Menander's Dyskolos
    • Select Bibliography
    • Dyskolos; or, The Grouch
  • Plautus and Roman New Comedy by George Fredric Franko
    • Introduction
    • Cleostrata in Charge: Tradition and Variation in Casina
    • Select Bibliography
    • Casina
  • Terence and Roman New Comedy by Timothy J. Moore
    • Introduction
    • Who Is the Parasite?: Giving and Taking in Phormio
    • Select Bibliography
    • Phormio

Shawn O'Bryhim is Associate Professor of Classics at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.


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Every year several new translations of ancient tragedy appear. If not for the relatively few translations of ancient comedy, the general reader might think that the Greeks and Romans were humorless wrecks, obsessed with death and disaster. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ancients had a robust sense of humor that encompassed everything from politics to sexuality. The scarcity of new translations of ancient comedies may stem from any number of factors, including the erroneous belief that what is serious is by definition more worthwhile than what is humorous. It is my hope that this book will dispel this misconception.

Although this volume will be of interest to the general reader, it is meant primarily as a textbook for university students in basic courses on classical civilization, classical literature in translation, Great Books, English, and theater. I have taught several of these courses over the years and have been frustrated by the lack of a text that contains representative works of all extant comic playwrights and includes introductions to each author and essays on their plays. My only recourse has been to instruct my students to buy several different texts in order to cover these authors, which is very costly and inadequate for our needs. Hence the impetus for this book.

Four scholars of ancient comedy have contributed to this volume. Since every comic playwright whose work survives is represented here, the reader can form a fairly good picture of the types of comedy that were produced in Greece and Rome from the fifth to the second century B.C. It is not our intention to present the "greatest hits" of ancient comedy or those works that are most easily produced on stage. On the contrary, we chose these plays because they are representative of each author's corpus. The inclusion of Lysistrata, for example, would have been a mistake, because it is not representative of Aristophanes' work and would give the reader an inaccurate picture of Aristophanic comedy. The substitution of Menander's Samia for Dyskolos would have required substantial additions by the translator because of its fragmentary state, thus making it more of an adaptation than a translation.

Some readers favor loose translations that border on adaptations. However, the creation of modernized versions ofthese plays runs contraryto the philosophy behind our translations: they should be smooth and readable, but should stay as close to the ideas and tone of the text as possible. As a result, they will be usable twenty years from now, when older adaptations filled with ephemeral slang will have been replaced by newer adaptations filled with ephemeral slang. And while all translations are, by nature, adaptations, very loose ones can often mislead those who wish to understand the culture in which the originals were written. In an attempt to avoid this, the translators have followed a few general guidelines in preparing their translations: avoid anachronisms; remain true to the original; translate all songs and significant changes of meter into verse; and include the bare minimum of stage directions. Stage directions are not found in the ancient manuscripts, so only exits, entrances, and a few directions that are absolutely necessary have been included here. Cues imposed by translators can act as a straitjacket upon imagination and creativity; their absence frees each reader to determine how each play might have taken shape on stage.

Since ancient comedies are sometimes inextricably bound to the time in which they were written, the best way to understand these translations is to read the elements of each section in the order in which they appear. The introduction includes information about the author and the category into which his comedy falls. A plot summary at the end of the introduction provides the background necessary to understand the events and characters discussed in the essay, which concentrates on an important theme in the play. After reading these sections, the reader will be in a better position to fully enjoy the translation and to appreciate the artistry of the author of the play. However, the format is very flexible, thus allowing the book to be used in several ways. The reader can concentrate on just a couple of authors, gain a general understanding of ancient comedy by reading all of the introductory chapters in order, or simply read the plays in isolation.

One word of caution: relatively few ancient comedies survive. There were other authors who probably wrote significantly different—and perhaps better—plays than the ones presented here, but their works have been lost. Therefore, to know the plays in this book is not to know all there is about ancient comedy. This is only an introduction to the genre. Some of the plays in this book are incomplete; sometimes substantial elements are missing, and other times just a few lines. In such cases, the translators have supplied what they deemed necessary to make the plays comprehensible to the modern reader. These additions are contained within brackets and in most cases are guesses based upon a few surviving words or letters. Other interpretations are possible and are encouraged.

Shawn O'Bryhim, Arcadia, Indiana, January 24, 2000



“Those of us who teach ancient comedy in translation are well aware that it is frustratingly difficult to find readable translations and affordable editions of the ancient texts; this collection ably fills this gap.”
Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“We need for teaching and for the general public good books about Greco-Roman comedy, and this is one. . . . It is for ordinary literate people who would like an intelligent introduction to Ancient Comedy and direct contact with some fresh translations of four plays.”
William S. Anderson, Professor Emeritus of Classics, University of California, Berkeley


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