Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 49.

Regine May, Apuleius and Drama: The Ass on Stage. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xv + 379. ISBN 0-19-920292-3. UK£65.00; US$110.00.

Niall W. Slater,
Emory University

The present volume is the first such comprehensive study of the influence of drama (principally comedy, but with due attention to tragedy, mime, and pantomime) on Apuleius's work. As the subtitle indicates, the evidence and interest skew heavily toward the sophist's novel, the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass (although May studiously avoids the latter title); eight of the thirteen chapters are devoted to it.

The first two chapters lay out the need for a comprehensive study and the case for drama as a living part, not just of sophistic education, but of Roman culture in the second century A.D. The case for a living dramatic performance tradition in Apuleius's day remains unfortunately tantalizingly thin; a brief section on 'Theatrical Archaeology in North Africa' (pp. 22-25) points to a relief mask from Khamisa, perhaps from Terence's Eunuch, and friezes decorating the theatre stage at Sabratha, but proof of links to contemporary performances elude us. Comparison of Apuleius's interest in archaism to that of Fronto and Gellius yields more. Situating her work in the company of Finkelpearl's[[1]] study of literary allusion, May stresses the significance of Plautus for the archaists, not just on a linguistic but on a literary level also.

The two succeeding chapters focus on the minor works and the Apology. Analysis of the Florida and the shorter works shows Apuleius using comedy to push the metaphor of life as a stage further than his philosophic contemporaries. Of particular interest is a short poem entitled Anechomenos, purportedly adapted from an otherwise unattested Menander play, in which Apuleius plays at being Plautus with a neoteric difference. The chapter on the Apology builds a convincing case for Apuleius's use of tragic along with comic motifs and characters to portray his opponents as not only comic characters but bad actors, deserving to be hissed off stage. At the same time, Apuleius skillfully dissociates himself from the comic plotting and retains his position as philosopher, aware of, but above, the foibles of others.

While these earlier chapters lay a sound methodological and historical foundation, the later chapters devoted to the Metamorphoses will likely prove to be of the widest interest. A chapter on 'The Texture of the Metamorphoses' (pp. 109-27) revisits Smith's characterization of the novel's prologue as comic and especially Plautine,[[2]] then quickly surveys clusters of dramatic terminology throughout the novel. The next chapter reads Aristomenes' and Socrates' story as a drama, emphasizing competing or ambiguous dramatic references -- with the intriguing claim that Socrates' language moves from tragic to emphatically comic after his apparent resurrection. Indeed, 'this multiplicity of dramatic intertexts is . . . employed throughout . . . to increase suspense and confuse the first-time reader . . . (my emphasis, p. 134).'

Chapter 7, 'A Parasite in a Comic Household' (pp. 143-81), makes a persuasive case for a persistent characterization of Lucius as a comic parasite, even when an ass, with a Plautine rather than Menandrean hunger for food as well as stories. Photis becomes a pert ancilla with an equally Plautine pedigree, though the pair then become adulescens and meretrix in the seduction scenes. The Risus festival is paradoxically more resistant to a theatrical reading, the references much more of a stretch (especially an attempt to follow Fick-Michel in finding an obscure Aristophanic reference behind the name of Byrrhaena[[3]]). May ends up suggesting the dramatic intertexts will be clearer for a second-time reader.

The chapter on Cupid and Psyche makes a case, in a very broad sense, for reading the narrative as a tragicomedy (as seen in the Amphitruo), with tragic elements at the beginning and comic motifs predominating at the end. This will prove to be important groundwork for May's reading of the ending of the novel as a whole. Charite's story, wrapped around the old woman's tale, forms a counterpoint, with its mixture of comic and tragic elements at the beginning, moving toward an apparently comic happy ending of the marriage, then undercut completely by the unexpected tragic ending.

Book 9 apparently proved quite resistant to a reading through dramatic intertexts. Though one finds a few scattered references earlier, only as a second-time reader did this reviewer note that May's sequential analysis skips straight from the end of Charite's narrative in Book 8 to Book 10, where metamorphoses of comic into tragic narratives and vice versa come faster and faster. Thus, 'the Metamorphoses becomes a rhetorical exercise in the crossing of genres, which appears to be Apuleius' underlying structural principle . . . ' (p. 274). Particularly striking among many promising ideas here is May's proposal that Apuleius might have based the horrifying frame narrative (the young man who honorably tries to provide for his abandoned sister, only to provoke his wife into murdering the girl) on the prologue of a now lost play.

Chapter 12, 'The End: Isis: Dea ex Machina?' (pp. 307-28), tackles the familiar problem of the novel's ending and the apparent tragic (and therefore serious) pedigree of Isis as dea ex machina. Here May points to the evidence for such figures in the lost mythological travesties of Middle Comedy (unless we find an antecedent of the Amphitruo here). She then explores Isis' identification with Tyche and Fortuna and their comic pedigrees. Thus Isis, 'despite some tragic elements, is ultimately seen in an essentially comic light' (p. 324), though that does not make her a laughable figure. A brief conclusion wraps up the whole volume.

May's thorough study does much to ground Apuleius in the intellectual world of the Second Sophistic and draws welcome attention to many dramatic intertexts, especially within the Metamorphoses. Her Apuleius bears no small resemblance to Sullivan's Petronius -- a literary opportunist.[[4]] One suspects, though, that the debate over the import of these resonances has a long course yet to run.


[[1]] Ellen D. Finkelpearl, Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius: A Study of Allusion in the Novel (Michigan 1998).

[[2]] W. S. Smith, 'The Narrative Voice in Apuleius' Metamorphoses,' TAPhA 103 (1972) 513-34, reprinted in S. J. Harrison, Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel (Oxford 1999) 195-216.

[[3]] N. Fick, 'Die Pantomime des Apuleius (Met. X.30-34.3)', in J. Blänsdorf, Theater und Gesellschaft im Imperium Romanum (Tübingen 1990) 223-32.

[[4]] J. P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius: A Literary Study (London and Bloomington 1968).