145. Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (c.165 BC)

Plot: Young Pamphilus is convinced to break off his affair with the courtesan Bacchis and marry Philumena. But seven months later, Philumena runs back to her parents’ house, and it is generally believed that it must have been some quarrel or  insult from Pamphilus’ mother Sostra that caused her to flee. In reality Philumena is trying to hide a pregnancy resulting from her being raped by an unknown man two months before the arranged wedding.

My copies of the comedies of Terence are all taken from the Penguin Classic The Comedies, translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044324X)

My thoughts:   And here was I thinking that the dating of Terence’s plays was straightforward and past dispute. While The Girl from Andros (166 BC) is agreed to be the first, the fate of what I will treat as the second (The Mother-in-Law) is a little chequered. Originally staged in 165 BC, the play was interrupted by a surge of people responding to a rumour that a tight-rope walker was appearing. In its second outing in 160 BC, again a mob interrupted proceedings expecting a gladiatorial battle. Finally in its third outing, again in 160 BC, the cast got through to the end and the play was a success. In the meantime, three of Terence’s other plays had been performed. Anyway as Lucius Ambivius Turpio, lead actor and producer of this third attempt would have undoubtedly said, let’s get on with the show.

By now, prologues are no longer used to set the scene of the play but to beg the audience’s indulgence, or to respond to the attack of critics. Dialogue between two characters in the opening scene is used to explain the background to the situation where the story begins, in this case that Pamphilus has married Philumena and stopped his attentions to the courtesan Bacchis, and that Philumena has gone back to her parents without explanation.

The play itself is  more like a soap opera than the comedies that Plautus wrote, but with the same misunderstandings and coincidences abounding. The women are all treated badly because of the misunderstandings, yet each behaves nobly; even and perhaps especially the courtesan Bacchis who agrees to visit Philumena’s family home and swear that she has not seen Pamphilus since his marriage.

The mother-in law in question is Pamphilus’ mother Sostrata, who is ill used by all. Suspected of having driven Philumena away, and used as an excuse by Pamphilus to abandon his wife, she is also accused by her own husband of causing the problem;  just as Philumena’s father Phidippus blames his wife Myrrina for using the pregnancy to try and break up the young couple. Worst of all, poor Philumena has been raped, forced into marriage with a man known to be obsessed with a prostitute, and now has to somehow hide her pregnancy from her husband and his family.

As I try to never tell readers the entire plot, I will leave off with the obvious spoiler that there is a happy ending so it ranks as a mild domestic comedy, but it has all the potential of a tragedy.

Personal rating: 5/10

Next : Terence’s ‘third’ play,  Heauton Timorumenos  (The Self-Tormentor) (c.163 BC)

PS The excellent pic attached to this post comes from Monica Dorkface at DeviantArt

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