Fretting over Family Drama in Gnapheus’s Acolastus

Fretting over Family Drama in Gnapheus’s Acolastus

by Felipe Vogel

Humanist drama as a medium for retelling Bible stories is one of the most fascinating genres of Latin literature of the Reformation. All over Europe Protestants and Catholics alike wrote biblical comedies and tragedies for their schools, each camp often using the other’s plays since in the first decades they rarely strayed from narrative into confessional statements. These plays aimed instead to teach good Latin style and to teach piety and virtue by example. If this sounds like a recipe for bland moralizing devoid of theology, we need only turn to the granddaddy of all humanist biblical plays to see that they can indeed explore the depths of God’s mysteries delightfully through story.

Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son, c. 1496

Acolastus is a dramatic retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. It is the first play of the Dutch schoolteacher Wilhelm Gnapheus, who wrote the play around 1525 amid persecution under the Inquisition. During one of his imprisonments he met Jan de Bakker, who became the first Dutch Protestant martyr, and whose biography Gnapheus later wrote. After fleeing to northern Germany, Gnapheus continued his career as a teacher and playwright, but his first work remained his greatest, and it inspired a whole genre of educational drama, classical in form but biblical in substance.

In the third scene of Act 3, the father (Pelargus) confesses to his wise counselor (Eubulus) how worried he is about his absent son. Following is the Latin original along with an idiomatic translation. (For a more literal translation, see John Palsgrave’s 1540 English edition. Gabriel Dupréau edited a good student edition of the Latin original.)

P: Sed eccum in tempore ipso advenit! Eubule, Salve plurimum.
E: O mi Pelarge, non praevideram te. Si vales, bene est.
Nam hac gratia ad te ibam, quo quid valeret animus discerem.
P: Omnes mihi curae coeunt. E: In quo? P: In quo censeas nisi
in gnato? E: Num quid audisti de eo, quod nobis tam cito?
P: Nihil. Sed quid valeat miror. E: Bene equidem spero. P: Utinam. E: Quid est
quod te sollicitat autem? P: Gnatus. E: Minue vero hanc improbam
curam. P: Non possum, Eubule. Gnatus est. E: Ut sit, quorsum attinet
te excruciare? P: Mihi sic est usus. E: Si istuc certum est tibi
sic facere, abiero. P: Potius quam te caream, quidquid iusseris

P: Speak of the devil! It’s Eubulus. Hello, Eubulus.
E: Hello, Pelargus. I hadn’t noticed you there. I hope you’re well.
I was coming to see how you’re doing.
P: I’m very worried. E: About what? P: What do you think?
About my son. E: You mean you’ve heard news of him already?
P: No, nothing. But I wonder how he’s doing. E: I hope he’s okay. P: We can only hope.
E: So what’s got you worried? P: My son! E: Stop worrying about what you shouldn’t.
P: I can’t, Eubulus. He’s my son. P: Still, what’s the use of
torturing yourself with worry? P: I tend to do that.  E: If that’s what you’re
going to do, then I’ll leave you to it. P: No, wait! Don’t leave me. I’ll do
whatever you say.

Eubulus then reminds his master of God’s providence:

E: Imprimis, quod scio, tibi videbitur durum: cave
nimium sis sollicitus, quando hinc nihilo meliorem feceris
gnati statum. Quin magis, eum fatis totum relinquito
curandum, a quorum cura neutiquam exciderit. Nec audias
Epicureos, qui contendunt, deos nihil mortalia
curare. Melius Homerus, qui τύχην vagam cum nesciat,
soli decreto Numinis regenda credit omnia.
Tu filium tractasti, dum tempus tulit, ut decuit patrem.
Nunc amandatus est. Feras! Satis pro officio feceris,
aequus si perstet filio animus, de quo quidquid Numini
visum est decernere, laudandum fuerit utroque pollice.
Cum diis quis umquam vel pie pugnavit, vel feliciter?

E: First of all—and I know this will be hard for you to hear—
be careful not to be too worried, when it doesn’t help
your son’s situation at all. More than that, leave him to Providence,
from whose care he never fell away. Don’t listen to the
Epicureans, who claim that the gods don’t care at all about human affairs.
Homer is closer to the mark since he doesn’t know of any blind chance,
and entrusts everything to the decree of God alone.
You treated your son, while time allowed, as a good father should.
Now he’s far away. Bear it! You will have done your duty,
if you continue favorably disposed toward your son, and if you praise
God for whatever end he chooses for your son.
Who has ever fought against gods either piously or successfully?

Then the clincher, that it is a sin against God to worry:

Sane haud vacabis impietatis crimine, si vel ultra fas tuam
extendas sollicitudinem, quando exitum futuri habet
Deus in sua unius manu. Quid hic tantum trepidas miser?
An diffidentia tua voles mendacii reum
facere Deum, nostri qui curam se suscepisse perhibet?
Qui capitis nostri etiam pilos omnes in numerato tenet.
Ecquem te ipsum facis, ut ex adverso Deo responsites?
An invides ipsi μοναρχίαν rerum mortalium?
Deos quaeso, ut tuam tibi dent mentem.

If you worry too much, you’ll be guilty of unfaithfulness,
plain and simple, since God has the future in the
palm of his hand. You poor man, why are you so afraid?
By doubting do you intend to charge God with lying?
God, who takes it upon himself to care for us?
God, who knows the number of hairs on our head?
Who do you make yourself out to be, answering against God?
Do you envy him for being the monarch of mortal things?
I pray that God would put you back in your right mind.

Pelargus acquiesces, but Eubulus slips in one more tough lesson:

P: Cogis tu quidem
me ire in tuam sententiam. Faciam ut post hac quietior
sim. Dulcis interim commemoratio fuerit de filio.
Homo sum, Eubule. Humani nihil a me est alienum. E: Quaeso, vide
ne stulto affectu hinc gnatum prosequare, quem quidem putes
zelum illi debitum, cum sint (nolo erres) affectus mali
recti specie commendati, unde exspectes non nisi noxiam

You force me
to agree with you. I’ll be sure to be quieter from now on,
savoring sweet memories of my son.
I am human, Eubulus. Nothing human is foreign to me. E: Just please
don’t chase your son with that silly emotion which you think
to be the deep love that you owe him, when there are (don’t you doubt it) evil emotions
that are disguised as good ones. But in fact they’re nothing but a harmful


As we read excerpts of Latin drama, it’s easy to forget that it’s a play, meant not only to be read but also to be performed on a stage, not only to be thought about but to be experienced as well. Certain scenes are vivid even to us readers: the rejection of the penniless prodigal by his courtesan as he is literally kicked out by the “friends” who cheated him of all his money, his near-suicidal soliloquy among the pigs, his nerve-racking and joyful reunion with his father. But for the dressed-up student-actors belting out lines infused with emotion from their voices and faces and bodies, these scenes must have been unforgettable. We can’t even come close to this participatory experience of the story merely by reading it.

But this does raise the question, How can we learn and teach in a more participatory way? Some of the most memorable moments in my education in Latin were hilarious skits riffing on classical themes. But how can we create these moments as we teach the Bible and theology? If skits are what it takes to capture the hearts of our students, then perhaps we can look to Acolastus and other biblical drama to help us navigate the confluence of theology and storied imagination. And as we do, perhaps we will find ourselves young again, lost in wonder at old truths in a new dress.

Felipe Vogel and his wife Hannah teach in Liberia, West Africa, with the Rafiki Foundation. Felipe earned his M.A. at the University of Kentucky, where he lived every day in Latin at the Institute for Latin Studies.