The Romans get bad press when it comes to literature. When (or if) we think of the culture of pre-Christian Western antiquity, we tend to think of the clever, original Greeks and the imitative Romans. This line of thinking reaches its apogee when it comes to drama. Most of the major centres of Western theatre don’t go more than a couple of years without someone producing a play by one of the Big Four Greeks (the tragedians Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, along with the comic writer Aristophanes). Since the 16th and 17th century vogue for Seneca, though, Roman drama is more often read than performed, and not all that often read.
Calgary playwright and novelist Clem Martini is a writer who has read Latin drama, and he brings both his knowledge of the Roman theatre and his eye for a good story to his latest novel, The Comedian. The comedian in question is Plautus, the father of Latin dramatic comedy and as prolific a writer as Martini himself. He’s a scrappy upstart of a man in a scrappy upstart of a city—this isn’t the golden Rome of Augustus, but the newly powerful city of the 3rd century BCE, engaged in a fight to the death with Carthage. This is a Rome before Ovid, Virgil and Horace, where Plautus and his fellow playwrights write adaptations of Greek plays to be performed by largely Greek casts, on makeshift stages a world away from the splendid stone theatres of Athens and Corinth.
Plautus’s Rome has a lot in common with Shakespeare’s London, with its taverns, bawdy houses and debt-ridden writers hoping for the support of a big patron. Martini brings it all to life with a kind of insouciant authenticity. He leaves it to the reader to absorb the incredible amount of detailed knowledge he packs into a short, lighthearted novel, and the passing strangeness of some of that detail (imagine a farce where the actors wear masks and sing their lines). Martini’s talent at creating flawed but sympathetic characters makes it easy to absorb and brings us closer to Plautus and his world.
The Comedian has a convoluted, crafted plot that, in some of its details at least, recalls the tightly woven, improbable but seemingly inevitable plots of Plautus himself. I can’t do it justice in a few words, but suffice it to say that the good, more or less, triumph—more or less. You really couldn’t ask for more. Nominated for the 2019 Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction, The Comedian is the seventh book in U of C Press’s ongoing Brave & Brilliant Series, edited by the seemingly tireless Aritha van Herk. She’s not a patron, exactly, but to the extent she made The Comedian possible, we’re in her debt as much as Plautus is in—well, pretty much everybody’s.
—Alex Rettie is a long time reviewer for Alberta Views.