Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254 – 184 BC) was a Roman playwright. His works are the earliest complete surviving literature from Ancient Rome. Little is known about his life, but he probably came from Northern Italy. Twenty of his plays, most likely based on Greek originals, survive complete. The Captives, dating from around 190 BC, is unlike his other works; it does not deal with sexual matters, but focuses on slavery, freedom, and war—serious stuff for a comedy!

The German poet and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing famously considered The Captives to be the greatest play ever written. The Dutch statesman Janus Dousa had a similar opinion. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson adapted the plot into his play His Case is Altered in 1609. A century earlier, the poet Ariosto used it in I Suppositi. Yet today it is virtually unknown.  

Actually, most of Plautus’ work is unknown today. Although his play Menaechmi was the basis for Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, and pieces of his plots and characters were the inspiration for A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on the whole, one rarely encounters his plays onstage.

The text used in this production is based on the 1893 translation by Edward Sugden, a Methodist clergyman from England who became a college administrator in Australia. He translated a number of Plautus’ plays, maintaining the original meters. Although the original Latin does not rhyme, Sugden rhymes large sections of the text, which gives it a humorous quality. His translation does not rhyme the prologue (which is not considered to be by Plautus), so we have substituted a different version, which was translated and performed by students at St. Francis Xavier College on West 16th Street (which is now Xavier High School). These students alternated performances in Latin and English in May of 1890. This may have been the last production of the play in New York. It must have been quite a spectacle—the sets and props were prepared and donated by the great impresario Augustin Daly. We have altered these texts where appropriate to make the script more intelligible to the 21st century audience.

The Plot!

Hegio’s son, Philopolemus, has been captured in war by the Elians. Similarly, Philocrates, an Elian, has been captured by The Aetolians. Hegio, himself an Aetolian, buys Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus in an auction. His plan is to trade the two for his son, his only loss being the money he has spent to purchase them. Tyndarus and Philocrates devise a scheme where they will switch roles and names, so that the latter might arrive home sooner and better facilitate the exchange of Hegio’s son. Hegio, unknowingly, agrees to send the disguised Philocrates to Elis. What Tyndarus does not count on is Aristophontes, another Elian prisoner and friend of Philocrates who he is familiar with. Aristophontes, without understanding what he is doing, gives up the plan, although Tyndarus does his best to inform him of his intentions.

Hegio believes that all is lost and sends Tyndarus to the stone-quarries to be worked to death. Philocrates has remained loyal, though, and returns with Philopolemus. Also with him is a former slave of Hegio–Stalagmus. Stalagmus speaks of Hegio¹s lost son who he kidnapped many years ago. This is determined to be Tyndarus, who is rescued from the quarries. All are reunited by the end and happy.