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Plautine and Terentian Devices and Resulting Reflections of Society
in John Hughes' Uncle Buck
Brent R. McFarlane
The Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus represent very different schools of comedy: the former is acclaimed for his subtle moral humor and his humanity; the latter, for his command of the ribald and the ridiculous. Both approaches to comedy and moralizing have proved influential; one can see the mark of these ancients even in modern film and theatre. The 1989 film Uncle Buck, one of many popular comedies produced by writer/director John Hughes during the 80s, illustrates the point quite well. Hughes mixes the two forms, showing us farce alongside "serious" moral comedy. In the main character in particular, John Candy's Uncle Buck Russell, Hughes has given us a blend of the Plautine clever slave and the serious moral characters of Terentine comedy; we are given a humanized Pseudolus, an outsider who gleefully inverts the status quo, but must also face ethical decisions. Both Roman playwrights reflect the realities and mores of their times; so, too, by examining the Plautine and Terentian devices used in Uncle Buck, can we see the imprint of the 1980s, particularly that of the emerging pro-family neo-conservative movement.
The films of John Hughes typically surround complex and dynamic primary characters with exaggerated secondary stock characters (De Vaney 212). The idea of a realistic protagonist who faces a moral choice and is rewarded is distinctly Terentian; the ridiculously drawn stock characters are reminiscent of those in works by Plautus.
The minor characters in Uncle Buck do serve an important satirical purpose, and, like Plautus' minor stock players, they give a record of their times. A common Plautine archetypical object of ridicule was the "Sponger" character. Peniculus in The Brothers Menaechmus speaks of going to banquets with Menaechmus as a source of free food because he is "running out of [his] own dearly bought supplies" (Menaechmus 108-09). Clearly this was a consequence of the emerging dominance of the latifundia, the large farms owned by the aristocrats and run by gangs of slaves that put many smaller farmers out of work and caused the unemployed to flock to Rome. It is also likely a reflection of the client-patron relationships that existed at this time; the rich landowning noble was surrounded by poorer clients, hangers-on who often made great demands on their patron, and must have often seemed very much like sponges.
In a similar manner, many of the one-dimensional characters that are the targets of Hughes' satirical barbs show quite clearly some cornerstones of New Right thinking. The parents, Cindy and Bob Russell, are capable of emotional depth, and the scene in which they learn Cindy's father has had a heart attack requires it of them, but they are really little more than caricatures. The "mother figure," as Tia labels her, is a distant, slightly neurotic career woman preoccupied with her job. Over dinner, she asks her son Miles about hockey a full two weeks after the season has ended. She is not involved in her children's lives, and they are dysfunctional as a result. The neoconservative doctrine reinforced here is that employment "means [women] have insufficient time to socialize or control their children adequately" (Abbot 14). Bob Russell is an equally simple character — he is hopelessly ineffectual, so much so that young Miles must help him use chopsticks at dinner. The family dysfunction may also stem from his inability to assert control over his family; according to the New Right, a man is the head of his household, and must "control" his wife (Abbot 12). A very marginal character, next-door-neighbor and divorcee Marcie Dahlgren-Frost, important, like Peniculus, for little other than comic relief and a plot twist, blatantly pursues Buck romantically; she is a very clear parody of the "man-hungry" divorced woman, and is meant to make the point that divorce (something which was becoming more common in the 80s) undermines the moral fiber of society (Abbot 9).
These minor characters are not only important for the societal issues revealed by their much-ridiculed character flaws, but also for how they relate to the main characters, the Russell children, particularly Tia. These secondary characters are all shown as inferior to the clever children in the story, and reflect the usual power gaps felt by young people in society (De Vaney 212). Teachers in this film are egregiously cruel, but so transparently so at the same time that they are laughable. Other traditional authority figures, as shown above, are equally flawed. The young people, usually made to feel inferior to authority figures, appear superior, as the only sane and reasonable characters. In situations where traditional power structures are inverted, we have entered the Plautine world of Saturnalia, holiday comedy.
Like the title character of Plautus' Pseudolus, Buck is an outsider who is able to act in ways someone of a higher class would not. While Pseudolus was a slave to Calidorus, the distinction is not so great in Uncle Buck, but it is clear nonetheless. The Russell family lives in a spacious home with white picket fences in an affluent neighborhood; when we first meet Buck, he is in a seedy pub in an old part of town, and we later see that he lives in a small, dingy apartment in an equally bad neighborhood. He defies the prevalent societal conventions his brother and his wife exemplify. He has no real job, but makes his living by gambling on sporting events. He is not married, and seems to also resemble the irresolute aging bachelor Periplectomenus from Plautus' The Swaggering Soldier. Buck explains his lifestyle in the following manner: "I know me, and I know what I like. I like my friends, I like my freedom. I like knowing I can throw my sticks in the back of my car and go golfing anytime I want. I don't hurt anyone — I don't see what the problem is" (Uncle Buck), while Periplectomenus declares, "my house is a free house; and I'm a free man, thank God; I like to be alive (Soldier 710-11). Both in Roman times and in the conservative 80s, this was not a mainstream life choice.
Like Pseudolus, Buck seems to suspend the usual consequences for unorthodox behavior by his wit and charm, and simply by his willingness to stoop to levels those of a higher social level will not. He acts as an agent on behalf of the children — both those in the movie, and those watching and experiencing these things vicariously — to enact revenge. The vice-principal at an elementary school, a traditional authority figure, is unceremoniously berated — not only is her educational technique lambasted, but she is told to "go downtown and have a rat chew that thing [a large mole] off [her] face"(Uncle Buck). This bit of irreverence calls to mind Calidorus telling Pseudolus not only to rob his father, but his mother, too (Pseudolus 148-50). In ancient Rome, the control of a father over a son was near-absolute; this underscores how large the teacher looms in the mind of a 1980s teen.
However, the greatest act of vengeance committed on behalf of the children (so that they need not themselves be involved in this dirty business, just as Pseudolus acts on behalf of Calidorus) is undoubtedly commited against Tia's ex-boyfriend Bug. However, as the revenge plot unfolds, Hughes begins to gradually shift the film toward a more serious, dramatic tone.
This serious side of Buck's story very much resembles The Brothers by Terence, the focus of which is also parenting methods. In the Terentian play, the actions of Aeschinus, the adopted son of middle-aged bachelor Micio, are constantly testing his father's lenient brand of Greek-inspired philosophical parenting, his belief that "the children of gentlemen should be treated honorably and like gentlemen," that he should not prevent his son from partaking in the peccadilloes of youth (Brothers 57-58).
Throughout the play, Micio's actions and methods are justified, and his strict, traditionalist brother Demea finally seems to admit defeat and come around to Micio's ways of thinking. However, at the story's conclusion, Demea turns the tables on his brother, and forces him to accept a series of quite unreasonable requests, including marriage to a neighbor. He shows that there must be a limit to how permissive a father one can be, and throws light on a golden mean between tyrannical and lax parenting. Demea becomes more tolerant, and Micio conforms more to his society's expectations, particularly by taking a wife. Terence, as a philhellene and member of the pro-Greek Scipionic Circle, most likely favors the enlightened view of parenting; yet, knowing of the criticisms it is subject to, he attempts to salvage the system by attaching Demea's caveat at the end.
John Hughes is doing much the same thing in Uncle Buck. Buck's parenting style when it comes to Tia's questionable romantic relationship is justified throughout; her over-amorous beau, Bug, is a morally reprehensible scoundrel who seems to be interested only in a physical relationship, and is constantly pushing Tia towards levels of intimacy she is not emotionally prepared for, as witness the following tender exchange:BUG. Let's go out to the car, huh?
TIA. I just don't feel right yet.
BUG. You ever gonna feel right? . . . (Uncle Buck)
Buck's response to this repulsive attitude is intimidation; upon first meeting Bug, he mocks his laugh and asks, "Ever heard of a ritual killing?" (Uncle Buck) However, he finds that his approach drives Tia away from him and only leads her to further pursue Bug's alleged affections. Like Micio, he realizes that there must be a reasonable limit to his parenting technique. Buck has good intentions, and, indeed, has correctly deduced the nature of Bug's character; after Tia runs away and is found, she tells Buck, "You were right. Everything you said would happen, happened" (Uncle Buck). However, Buck realizes he has been approaching the situation the wrong way, and instead begins to talk openly and honestly with Tia. Hughes reinforces the neo-conservative idea that parents are to strictly supervise and control their children's moral and religious (and therefore sexual) education (Abbot 8). However, he is adding a qualification to strengthen his argument, much like Terence in The Brothers. An open parent-child dialogue must take place. There is also the implied caveat (to be found in The Brothers as well) that sometimes children must make their own mistakes.
As mentioned above, there are Plautine elements intermingled with the Terentine thrust of the love/revenge plot. As Buck and Tia talk on the way home, Buck reveals that he has locked the adolescent lothario in his trunk. While this seems a bit harsh, it also shows another power gap between male and female adolescents. Tia feels victimized by Bug; although normally he would go unpunished, here, the rules do not apply in Uncle Buck's Saturnalian wake.
The film ties up its loose ends by reverting to Terentian mode; Tia admits she has been wrong and makes the decision to stop acting out her anger by rebellion, while Buck apologizes to his long-time girlfriend for "stringing her along for eight years" and promises to marry her (Uncle Buck). By owning up to their actions, both are rewarded, presumably, with a happy family life, reinforcing neoconservative ideals about the subservience of women and the family as the natural social unit and foundation of western society (Abbot 16).
By his use of a blend of both Plautine farce and Terentine moral comedy, John Hughes is able to produce both insight and laughs. He trots minor characters on and off as quick gags, but allows his central protagonists room to grow and change. He manages to humanize a Pseudolus archetype without taking away the off-kilter edge that makes him so engaging. We learn lessons — Hughes defies moral convention and at the same time gently reinforces it with the dramatic elements of his film. He also takes a relatively accurate snapshot of his age, particularly the reemergence of social conservatism. Stripped to its message and devices, Uncle Buck could very well have been written for the Roman stage.
Abbot, Pamela, and Claire Wallace. The Family and the New Right. Colorado: Pluto Press, 1992.
De Vaney, Ann. "Pretty in Pink? John Hughes Reinscribes Daddy's Girl in Homes and Schools." Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. pp. 201-215.
Plautus. The Brothers Menaechmus. Watling 97-146.
Plautus. Pseudolus. Watling 213-268.
Plautus. The Swaggering Soldier. Watling 147-212.
Terence. The Brothers. In Terence: The Comedies. Betty Radice tr. London: Penguin Group, 1976. 331-387.
Uncle Buck. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. John Candy, Jean Kelly, Gaby Hoffman, Macaulay Culkin, Amy Madigan. Universal, 1989.
Watling, E.F., tr. Plautus: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays. London: Penguin Group, 1965.
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