Zero Mostel and Tricky Slaves


New Comedy in a nutshell — including a brother and sister kidnapped in infancy by pirates — from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  This clip includes Mostel as Pseudolus (right), Jack Gilford as Hysterium (left) and Buster Keaton (centre) as Erroneous.  (Michael Hordern makes a brief appearance as Senex.)

Today is the great comic actor Zero Mostel‘s birthday (1915-1977). His performance as Pseudolus in Richard Lester’s 1966 film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum nicely represents the eiron character Frye in Anatomy calls the “tricky slave.” Then again, the plot of A Funny Thing is a playbook for the formulaic conventions of New Comedy, to the extent that two of the characters bear the names of the types Frye identifies them by: Senex and Miles Gloriosus.

From the “The Mythos of Spring” section of “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths”:

Another central eiron figure is the type entrusted with hatching the schemes which bring about the hero’s victory.  This character in Roman comedy is almost always a tricky slave (dolosus servus). . . . The vice, to give him that name, is very useful to a comic dramatist because he acts from pure love of mischief, and he can set a comic action going with the minimum of motivation. . . One of the tricky slaves in Plautus, in a soliloquy, boasts that he is the architectus of the comic action: such a character carries out the will of the author to reach a happy ending.  He is in fact the spirit of comedy itself. . . . (CW 22, 161)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *