Friday, July 11, 2014


In my last post, I mentioned that the next play is by Terence, a playwright of ancient Rome.  I should have mentioned that you can read 'The Brothers' online for free here.  If you have some time, I recommend it but I'm not going to pretend that it's life changing.  Terence was one of the most important Roman authors.  Not so much, in his time, but in the time since. 
From wikipedia:
Terence's plays were a standard part of the Latin curriculum of the neo-classical period. US President John Adams once wrote to his son, "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin...His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model."[11]
Two of the earliest English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, are thought to parody Terence's plays.
Due to his cognomen Afer, Terence has long been identified with Africa and heralded as the first poet of the African diaspora by generations of writers, including Juan Latino, Phyllis Wheatley, Alexandre Dumas, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.
American playwright Thornton Wilder based his novel The Woman of Andros on Terence's Andria.
 So he was a heavy and heavily influential.  The thing is, before this project, I'd never heard of him.  Ok, so there are plenty of playwrights that I've never heard of.  I'm not pretending that I'm some kind of subject expert or anything.  But Jean Genet, the author of 'The Balcony' that I just reviewed, published about 60 years ago.  It's very possible that a similar list compiled in 2100 AD wouldn't have him on it.  The play is relatively young and its star could fade quickly.  Not so with Terence.  His work has been around for more than two thousand years.  His 'classic' status is unquestionable.

Still.  It has been very enlightening to read a selection of lauded plays interspersed with some of the works of Shakespeare.  Terence was without a doubt a great influence.  His plot in 'The Brothers' is interesting and his characters are more like real people than, say, Euripides or Aeschylus.  But as classic as he (and the others) are, they don't really exceed the work done today.  Yes, modern authors are taking their plots and the tricks that these great men taught them.  Yes, they should be honored for being there first.  I'm not trying to devalue them one little jot.
But you know what?  Shakespeare is different.  If you asked 100 writers today to write a 'lost' play by Terence, you could get some reasonably close facsimiles, maybe some improvements.  If you tried the same thing with Shakespeare, you'd get 100 failures.  Yes, he was playing a somewhat different game than a modern like Stoppard, but no one can outplay him at that game
We can make stories that are loosely based on Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet or Macbeth, but we can't improve on them.  No one can make the characters more interesting.  No one can bend the language quite so sweetly.  No one else can take such a simple idea and make it absolutely flower into something so brilliant. 
People often glibly say that Shakespeare is the top playwright.  I've long taken that at face value.  Now that I have some more experience under my belt, I can only nod my head vigorously.  Yeah, he really is.

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