FEATURES: Crossing the Ancient Stage

Plautine Travesties of Gender and Genre:
Transvestism and Tragicomedy in Amphitruo

Pamela R. Bleisch
Dept. of Classics (Studies in Ancient Greece and Rome)
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602-6203
E-mail: pbleisch@uga.cc.uga.edu

Plautus' Amphitruo is not a typical Plautine comedy. From the very start the prologue reveals the peculiar nature of this drama (lines 50-63). Projecting a negative audience reaction to the word 'tragedy', Mercury offers to transform the play to a comedy on the spot - without changing a line - but then settles on tragi-comedy as the thing dearest to his audience's hearts. The genre of tragicomedy, and in fact, the word itself, are unattested elsewhere in ancient literature. Mercury defines the elements of the generic hybrid that is about to unfold (lines 60-63). This play cannot be entirely a comedy, for it includes roles for kings and gods which typify tragedy. Nor, since the drama features comic slave roles, can it be considered a tragedy. Mercury explains that Jupiter himself, who is both king and god, will take part in the drama, adopting the guise of King Amphitruo, while the god Mercury masquerades as the slave, Sosia. Mercury does not mention the prominent role played by a female character which is another element more typical of tragedy than comedy. The character of Alcmena, a female performed by a male actor, is, I argue, emblematic of Plautus' tragicomedy. The transvestism of Alcmena in performance serves as a vehicle for travesties of both gender and genre. Throughout the play Plautus deliberately draws our attention to the fact of cross-gender performance, self-consciously disrupts the dramatic illusion of the feminine, and in so doing highlights the genre-crossing of his play. Plautus' Amphitruo is an entertaining romp. It is also a highly sophisticated exploration of reality, mimesis, and the nature of identity - not least, sexual identity.

Discussion of Alcmena's character in the Amphitruo has largely focused on her tragic qualities, and on their moral implications for Alcmena's character. Even Erich Segal, who explored the play's emphasis on sex, adultery and cuckolding, nevertheless characterizes Alcmena as the model Roman wife, and simply a tragic victim of divine caprice and human error. This is to ignore the comic aspects of her character, including her humorously insatiable libido, demonstrated in two amorous scenes with Jupiter. Alcmena's tragic gravity and moral seriousness are further undermined by her costuming, which portrays her as pregnant-- full-term, expecting twins.

Sosia's pun on satura (lines 664-668) enhances the emphasis on insatiability and appetite in Alcmena's character. Sosia's pun also provides solid textual evidence for the pregnancy costume, as Jane Phillips has proved. This pun and its accompanying sight-gag-- developed over several lines-- indicate that Alcmena in the Amphitruo was costumed, as Phillips says: 'to represent a woman in the very last stages of a very fruitful pregnancy.' (Phillips, 122.) The pregnancy costume uncovers the humor in Alcmena's 'tragic aria' (lines 633-653). Alcmena's emphasis on voluptas -- repeated three times at the start of her song-- did not escape Segal's notice. Phillips points out that Alcmena's high-minded observations on life's economy of pleasure and pain - voluptas and molestum - take on a new sense when delivered by an amply pregnant woman. Who knows better than she what long travail may follow a brief indulgence?

Alcmena's song concludes with an encomium of virtus. Virtus is, before Cicero, a gender specific word. (See McDonnell, 78, n. 74.) These verses in praise of manly excellence become rather spicy coming from a figure who is walking evidence of the virility of both Amphitruo and Jupiter. Costumes, and sight gags, are one of comedy's standard devices for transforming high-style into low without changing a line - omnibus isdem vorsibus, as Mercury had boasted in line 55. Alcmena's pregnancy costume transforms tragic aria into comic canticum, and facilitates the play's generic crossing.

But Alcmena is not just a performer costumed as pregnant, she is a male performer costumed as pregnant. We see another level of comic irony operating in the performance of Alcmena's canticum; it presents us with the incongruous paradox of a transvestite singing about manhood, a man costumed as a pregnant woman singing about pleasures and pains. The content of Alcmena's canticum calls attention to the cross-dressing operating in the comedy, self-consciously disrupting the dramatic illusion for the sake of comic irony. A versatile comic actor would exploit this opportunity for humor, enhancing the gender-bending by gestures and postures, burlesquing not only the female, but the very idea of female impersonation, toying with mimesis and reality, and playing with the idea of the play.

The tragedic performance of the female would have been highly mimetic according to tragic convention, a performance accepted by the audience as the illusion of the female on the stage. The tragedic actor's concern to maintain the dramatic illusion of the female would, it seems to me, apply particularly to the 'masculinized' female characters on the tragic stage; Clytemnestra's masculinity would lose its frisson if the illusion of the feminine were not successful. It has been argued that female performance in Greek New Comedy was also highly mimetic, perhaps more naturalistic and less stylized than tragic female performance. Plautus' comedy seems to play with a broad spectrum of female representation--everything from the naturalistic to the paratragedic, from the mimetic to the burlesque, from successful illusion to deliberate exposure of the man under the dress.

From a Zeitlin has explored the interaction of travesty and transvestism in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae:

Just as the comic actor's discrepancies between character and costume threaten his mimetic integrity, so does parody ... address the critical questions of mimesis in the service of a fictive reality. The transvestite actor might succeed in concealing the tell-tale sign that marks him as an imitation with a difference, but parody, by its nature and its definition, is the literary device which openly declares its status as an imitation with a difference. (Zeitlin 1981, 181.)

Alcmena's song deliberately exposes the tell-tale signs of masculinity in the transvestite actor, and as the female impersonator openly declares his status as an imitation with a difference, so the dramatic text addresses critical questions of tragic and comic mimesis.

Alcmena's song is not only an instance of gender-bending, it also exemplifies the genre-crossing of this play. Alcmena's canticum seems to have been situated at the center of the play. Although the fourth act is largely missing, and must be reconstructed with care, it seems that the play has a symmetrical structure, with the last two acts mirroring the first two acts. Alcmena's canticum, which explores both tragedic and comedic female performance, linking transvestism with travesty, serves as the hub or pivot around which the entire drama revolves. The figure of Alcmena in some sense symbolizes Plautus' tragicomoedia itself. (Here I differ with Dupont, who finds the figure of Sosia to be the embodiment of Plautine theatricality.) The play is about expecting twins: Hercules and Iphicles, Jupiter and Amphitruo, Mercury and Sosia. Alcmena herself is yet another set of twins; she is both adulteress and chaste, both male and female, both tragic and comic. Because she embodies both alternatives at once, she becomes a third alternative entirely-- much as does the drama itself.

The Amphitruo deliberately calls its audience's attention to the fact of cross-gender performance, not only in Alcmena's aria, but throughout the play. The confrontation contained in lines 810-14 provides the clearest example. As Amphitruo becomes convinced of Alcmena's adultery he states at line 813: 'You say I'm your husband? Don't call me by that false name, false woman.' The slave Sosia takes the word vir in its literal sense; he says, in an aside: 'This is a sticky situation, if in fact this one now has been made a woman from a man.' The stress on the words quidem haec iam is telling. This phrase calls our attention to the fact that there is already one female impersonator on stage, already one male who has become female - the actor playing Alcmena. The demonstrative adjective haec has undergone a gender change as well; Sedgwick comments: 'a strange attraction to the gender of mulier; we cannot imagine Plautus juggling with genders, like Catullus 63.' (Sedgwick, 114, note on line 814.) Well, obviously we can - in fact, we should. The gender shift of haec implies that Amphitruo's sex-change is already complete--something like: 'This is a sticky business, if in fact this girlie now has had the sex-change.'

The issue of gender identity was highlighted even before Sosia's witty aside; Amphitruo's words had already focused on gender. Amphitruo called Alcmena falsa - false woman - which draws our attention to the cross- gender performance. And Amphitruo's question: Vir ego tuos sim? displays an interesting word order. The emphasis in this question should properly fall on ego or tuos. But the first position in the sentence, the position of emphasis, is taken by vir: I'm a man? Amphitruo's words bring the issue of gender to the fore. Sosia's comment highlights the issues of gender and performance: 'Things are really getting sticky now!'

As this scene between Alcmena and Amphitruo progresses, it continues to operate simultaneously on a theatrical and meta-theatrical level. As the character Alcmena defends her chastity, the actor playing Alcmena defends his femininity, asserting the veracity of his/her gender illusion (lines 831-853). Amphitruo voices the stock misogynistic sentiment of tragedy (line 836): 'You are a woman; you swear boldly.' This expresses doubt not only as to Alcmena's chastity, but also as to the actor's femininity. Alcmena responds, simultaneously in and out of character (line 836-7): 'She who has not failed ought to be bold, to speak out confidently and shamelessly for herself.' The adverb proterve is a clue to the tone of this speech. Proterve is by no means a synonym for audacter or confidenter; proterve means wantonly, shamelessly, in a forward or pert manner, frequently with a sexual connotation. (Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary does have a listing for proterve 'in a good sense'-- but the only citation is this speech of Alcmena's!).Proterve undercuts the character's assertion of her chastity, while it supports the actor's assertion of his femininity. As the actor playing Alcmena declares that he/she non deliquit, has not failed, in his/her portrayal of the female, he/she flirts with Amphitruo.

Lines 834-838 parody tragic stichomythia, as the language addresses both Alcmena's probity and the actor's femininity. Again, travesties of genre and gender intersect. Amphitruo declares: Enim verbis proba's, playing on the double meaning of proba: 'indeed, in words you are honorable, in words you are genuine.' As Amphitruo voices his doubts concerning Alcmena's chastity, the actor voices his doubts concerning his fellow actor's genuine femininity. Alcmena then speaks to her role as wife, in which her emphasis on chastity, modesty, sedate libido, and dutiful compliance is humorously ironic, given the play's depiction of her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. This invocation of the marital ideal of dutiful compliance is also ironic: Segal has pointed out how morigera and morem gerere in the play are used as metaphors for sexual activity. (Segal, 276, n. 21). These words undermine Alcmena's declaration of chastity, while asserting her impersonator's sexuality.

Sosia responds to Alcmena's noble speech, line 843: 'That woman, I swear, is absolutely the best, if she's speaking the truth.' Again, this line operates on a theatrical and metatheatrical level. The emphasis on ista, sandwiched between ne and edepol, encourages us to construe haec as the subject of the protasis: 'Indeed, that woman, by Pollux, is the very best, if this woman speaks the truth.' Sosia comments not only on Alcmena's claims to chastity, but also on the verisimilitude of her actor's performance--his female impersonation is so good, he has become a she! Deliberate ambiguity in the Latin admits a distinction between performer and character--ista and haec-- and collapses that distinction by referring to both as feminine. Amphitruo's confusion in the face of this conundrum is only natural: line 844: 'I'm so bewitched I don't know who I am!' The actor playing Alcmena has begun to convince his/her fellow performers that his/her femininity is not illusion but real. As a result, Amphitruo begins to doubt his own identity.

Gender is one of the fundamental categories which order human experience-- when that line begins to blur, all identity becomes problematic. Sosia reassures Amphitruo: 'You are indeed Amphitruo, but look out that you don't lose title to yourself--folks are so changed about nowadays, since our return from abroad.' The phrase perduis usu is a technical term for loss of title when property has been appropriated by another. This sense, and the more literal sense 'take care that you don't destroy yourself by habit,' both imply that the actor who portrays Alcmena has lost title to his selfhood, his masculinity. By portraying the female, he has lost his identity; he has become a she.

Judith Butler has suggested that gender is not essential, but constituted, that it exists only insofar as it is performed, and repeatedly enacted. Feminist critics have applied this idea to the phenomenon of transvestism (both on and off the stage), and argue that transvestism is one area, at least, where cultures acknowledge that femininity is constructed. Certainly this applies well to Alcmena's self-reflexive cross-gender performance, which suggests that femininity can be acquired through repeated reenactment in performance.

But this scene has important implications for masculinity as well. Amphitruo is unable to keep the upper hand with Alcmena; he has failed to assert himself, and so has failed to perform his gender. Laura Levine investigates texts of the English Renaissance which suggest that masculinity must be repeatedly performed lest men turn into, or turn back into, women. '[These] texts ... exhibit the fear that femininity is ... the underlying or default position that masculinity is always in danger of slipping into.' This fear that the self is really female is operating also in the Amphitruo. Amphitruo's masculine performance fails, and he becomes effeminized in the course of the play.

Plautus' Amphitruo seems to suggest that both genders are constructed. The agon between Amphitruo and Alcmena in lines 831-52 operates on two levels: a theatrical level, in which Alcmena defends her integrity, and a metatheatrical level, in which the actor portraying Alcmena shamelessly, pertly, even seductively defends the integrity of his/her female-impersonation. In this scene Amphitruo is put in the position of a man seduced by an effeminate man, and as a result, his own sexual and gender identity become confused. Alcmena's flirtation with Amphitruo seems to suggest that both gender identity and sexual orientation are fluid. This brings up a third way of viewing transvestism in performance.

Margorie Garber argues that transvestism should not be read at all for what it reveals about the 'real' gender beneath the costume, but as a third kind. (Garber, 1-40) Alcmena then is to be viewed not as male or female, but as a third gender--one which still evokes a sexual response from both Jupiter and Amphitruo. The humor of the scenes involving the flirtatious Alcmena is not wholly dependent on homo-eroticism, nor on hetero-eroticism. It suggests a wild comic option: allo-sexuality - love of the allos - which transcends the dualism implicit in both hetero- and homo-sexuality. This third gender option represented by Alcmena neatly parallels the third genre option represented by the play itself.

Froma Zeitlin has characterized tragedy as 'the feminized stage':
The feminine is a tragic figure on the stage; she is also the mistress of mimesis, the heart and soul of the theater. The feminine instructs the other through her own example--that is, in her own name and under her own experience-- but also through her ability to teach the other to impersonate her-- whether Pentheus or Dionysus. ...For the most part man is undone (or at times redeemed) by feminine forces or himself undergoes some species of 'feminine' experience. On the simplest level, this experience involves a shift at the crucial moment of the peripeteia from active to passive, from mastery over the self and other to surrender. (Zeitlin 1985, 80).

Amphitruo undergoes this process of tragic, feminized experience in the course of Plautus' drama; peripeteia intersects with comic inversion as he moves 'from active to passive, from mastery over the self and others to surrender'. Alcmena's masculinized character, the sex-role reversals in the play (including the divorce scene, lines 923-43), the repeated cuckolding of Amphitruo - these are all elements which place Amphitruo in a subservient, emasculated role. The means to this end is Alcmena, 'the mistress of mimesis, the heart and soul of the theater', the embodiment of gender and genre transgression. Plautus self- consciously exploits cross-gender performance in order to enhance the genre-crossing of his play. The Amphitruo problematizes the relationship between reality and illusion, a relationship expressed through tragedic and comedic mimesis, and especially through the performance of the female.

There is more than unresolved comic inversion operating at the close of the Amphitruo. This drama envisions a multivalent world of freedom, and play, a world where to the dualistic dichotomy of either/or there is added a third possibility which is simultaneously both/and and neither/nor. In the same way that Alcmena is and is not male and female--and embodies a third gender which is the transvestite, Plautus' Amphitruo is and is not comedy and tragedy--and embodies a third genre which is the tragicomoedia. Plautus' Amphitruo exploits cross-gender performance to comically subvert the essentialist concept of both gender and genre--both, the drama suggests, are constituted, both exist only in performance.

What of the end of the Amphitruo? Are the norms restored? Is the hierarchy reasserted? The fantasy resolutions of Roman comedy are frequently interpreted as a holiday from morality and social norms, and in this case, that involves also a holiday from gender categories and generic boundaries. Roman comedy is escapist, yet conservative. It serves as a release valve for societal tensions, a cathartic fantasy of transgression which enables the perpetuation of the existing social, gender, and genre hierarchies. The cathartic fantasy is usually of male transgression: male slave lords it over master, son over father. In the Amphitruo the fantasy of male transgression (Jupiter's, playing the role of the adulescens amator) involves also a fantasy of female transgression (Alcmena's, cast willy-nilly in the role of the meretrix or puella).

The tragic Alcmena, an innocent victim of divine caprice and human error, intersects in the Amphitruo with a more subversive model. The comic Alcmena is an adulteress who enjoys repeated sexual transgressions and does not suffer for it. Unlike her tragic counterpart, Plautus' Alcmena does not undergo a trial by fire, and she is even spared the artificially prolonged labor which is a traditional element of her myth. Alcmena also remains free at the end of the play to transgress again. Given Jupiter's proclivities and Alcmena's 'compliance', we are trained by this drama to anticipate that sexual and cosmic transgression will recur. Amphitruo's last words to Jupiter are 'I shall do just as you bid and I pray you to keep your promises.' Jupiter has made only two promises to Amphitruo. One is about his son. The other is his final statement: 'I am departing into the sky.' Amphitruo begs him to keep this promise, but has no power to enforce it. At the end of the play, the social and sexual norms are not restored. This comic resolution without restoration leaves room for further disruption.

So too, the generic norm is not restored. At the end of the tragicomedy Amphitruo declares his intention to summon Teiresias. Teiresias, the tragic prophet whose prescience is intimately linked to his experience of both genders, reasserts simultaneously the crossing of genres and crossing of genders in the play. But the figure of Teiresias never materializes on Plautus' stage. Instead, Jupiter himself appears, and, instructing Amphitruo to dismiss all soothsayers, explicates the future and the past. The play's self- conscious evocation and deletion of Teiresias signals the fact that there is no further need of cross-gendered men--Alcmena, and Amphitruo himself, fulfill that function. The omission of Teiresias seemingly affirms comedy by subverting the generic tragedic model, and yet Jupiter's prophecy in persona reasserts the specific tragedic model of Euripides' Bacchae, where the god Dionysus himself delivers the prophecy at the close of the play. Jupiter's presence at the end of Plautus' play ensures a happy ending, but at the same time the deus ex machina device reasserts the tragic genre.


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Pamela R. Bleisch
University of Georgia
E-mail: pbleisch@uga.cc.uga.edu

(Pamela Bleisch is currently an associate professor at the University of Georgia, Athens.)