Little is known of the life of Titus Maccius Plautus before he became what Slater describes as "the first professionally self-supporting playwright in the history of world literature" (9), but it seems likely that he was an actor, probably in the Atellan
farce, a style of improvised theatre involving stock characters, akin to the commedia dell'arte (Slater 8-9).
But Plautus always presents parasites as worse and more voracious like Dossenus [a trickster type in the Atellan
farces of south Italy, mentioned by Horace], never better; he attended to such characters almost exclusively, falling flat with the others.
The tradition is, of course, not only English and recently scholars have been exploring the interplay between scenes that sound unscripted in Plautus's drama, often with links to earlier improvisational Atellan
farce, with scenes that sound decidedly adapted from Menander's Greek New Comedy.
68,7, where a beautiful Alexandrian boy serving hot water imitates a nightingale and varies the melody according to Trimalchio's command, (55) and this spectacle is followed by another that consists of a poor combination of Virgil and Atellan
farce and some sort of pantomime performed by Habinnas' favorite slave Massa.
Much has been said about the orality of Plautus and of Plautine texts; about his dramatic ancestry in improvised Atellan farce; about his status as `man of the theatre' rather than of the study (Terence providing that neat counterpart which has seemed to give validity to such oppositions); about his paradigmatic status for the inferiority of Roman culture to Greek.(3) In this corner of Plautine studies, the debate has been strongest among Germanic scholars.
When Pseudolus pretends to be improvising, Plautine drama does indeed show its ancestry in improvised Atellan farce and its reliance on an Atellan-type mask which is always threatening to make up its own script.(20) It is eminently probable that Plautine actors really did mess around with their lines--and that's particularly fun when the author acts the part of the controlling character: but what this play-text gives us is a pose of improvisation.(21) This produces a paradoxical anti-realist realism, by making you think there is something `real' behind the mask.(22)
The fabula Atellana ("Atellan
play") was the earliest form of native farce in ancient Italy.
If no one agrees any longer with nineteenth-century scholars that the commedia dell'arte derived directly from the late ancient Atellan
farce, a more temporally proximate theatrical phenomenon has frequently been proposed in recent years as a generative antecedent: the performances in Venetian piazzas, banquet halls, and state venues of buffoni such as Domenico Taiacalze (d.