Roman Theatre is the latest in the Cambridge Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts series aimed at advanced secondary school students and undergraduates. Like others in this series, this book seeks to provide students with an easy entry into the ancient world through “new translations of extracts from key texts” set alongside discussions of their “historical, social, and cultural contexts.” (back cover) As Timothy Moore notes, “when we think of ancient theatre today, we tend to think of Greek theatre,” (v) but this emphasis in general education courses in Classics and theatre history courses elsewhere overlooks the important influences of the numerous Roman theatrical traditions that continue to affect drama today. This book provides an easy entry point for considering the lasting impact of those traditions.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had the opportunity to work with Moore and others as part of the NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance. His interest in the theory and practice of staging Roman theatrical traditions in the modern age formed the premise of the month-long exploration of what modern scholars might learn through the performance of ancient comedy.
The structure of Texts and Contexts, combining texts and images in a crisp format, provides Moore with an excellent avenue to provide an engaging discussion of Roman theatre from the well-known fabulae palliatae to tragedies and to lesser studied traditions like the fabulae togatae, mimes, and pantomimes. Moore provides varied evidence (ancient texts, mosaics, frescoes, reliefs, and manuscripts) in order to allow students multiple points of entry into the study of Roman theatre. At the same time, Moore is careful to remind the reader that our sources for Roman theatre, textual and non-textual, are more problematic than those of other areas of study (“some are much later than the works to which they are relevant, and all reflect the idiosyncrasies of their genres and the biases of their producers.” (v)). Given the highly visual nature of theatre, the interplay between written texts and visual evidence enables Moore to highlight the importance of always keeping one eye on performance.
Moore’s opening two chapters succinctly lay out the pre-Roman traditions that influenced Roman theatrical performance as well as the nuts and bolts of performances (stages and their settings, gestures, costumes, masks, and music). Throughout this section, Moore adeptly interweaves excerpts from Livy, Nepos, Quintilian, Plautus, Terence, etc. with frescoes, mosaics, and manuscript illustrations in order to highlight how ancient theatrical practice intersects with and diverges from what we know about modern practice. Moore makes skillful use of his experience with non-Western traditions to show, through the example of a mask from the Japanese Noh tradition, how a static mask can portray a wide array of expressions through the tilt of the actor’s head. He also taps his immense expertise in Roman theatrical meters in order to present a notoriously tricky topic for students of Roman comedy in a very approachable way. With each of the major meters, Moore presents a line, translated into English, that roughly represents the major stresses of the meter to reinforce the beat. For example:
iambic senarius: “All ríght now, drínk this dówn. Befóre he líked his drínk,”
trochaic septenarius: “Cóme, my hóneyed sweétness, dánce: and Í will dance along with yoú.”
Urging readers to feel the pulse of each line helps them sense the liveliness of Plautus’ innumerable meters without getting bogged down in the alienating particulars of the technical terminology.
Moore dedicates Chapter 3 solely to the largest surviving body of Roman theatre, the 21 plays of Plautus. Using excerpts solely from Mostellaria, he walks readers through important issues such as Plautus’ relationship with Greek originals, the use of Greek ‘talking names’, Plautine language, the role of stock characters, particularly the servus callidus, and Saturnalian inversion. Moore’s translations of the passages provide a lively, highly readable text for modern students. The questions that appear after passages in separate yellow text boxes offer a good variety. Moore easily moves between passage-specific questions (e.g., the significance of musical starts and stops) and broader questions (e.g., ones that ask students to imagine how they might stage scenes for contemporary audiences). Finally, the chart that ends the chapter provides a convenient list of Plautus’ extant plays and an English translation of their Latin titles. Though, for the sake of space, Moore could not summarize every single play, he has chosen his summaries well with the explicit goal of emphasizing the variety of plots in the Plautine corpus. The choice not to summarize some of Plautus’ more well-known titles (i.e., Casina, Miles Gloriosus, or Pseudolus) may stem from limited space and the desire to achieve maximal variety.
As Moore shifts attention in Chapter 4 to Terence, he frequently highlights the differences between Terence and Plautus, a discussion point aided by Moore’s own shift in translation tone in the passages selected from Heauton Timoroumenos. Throughout the question boxes, Moore steers readers to contemplate the nature of relationships between major figures of the play, echoing Terence’s own deeper interest in the way characters worry about how their household will be viewed by those from outside it. This chapter makes ample use of manuscript illustrations as an opportunity to illustrate one way to stage particular scenes while inviting readers to imagine others. Though Moore highlights the way that Terence played with audience expectations of stock characters — particularly by forcing his characters to fail to meet audience expectations — he could have better capitalized on the relationship between the slave Syrus and his Plautine counterparts. Like the Plautus chapter, the chapter includes synopses of Terence’s other plays, more fleshed out than those in the Plautus chapter.
Moore begins Chapter 5 on tragedy in the Republican era by placing side by side the openings of Ennius’ and Euripides’Medea. Given the fragmentary nature of Republican tragedy, such an opportunity to compare the Latin fragment with the extant Greek play provides the novice student a window for exploring the kinds of adaptations these early authors were likely to make. Moore rounds out the shortest chapter of the book with examples from Pacuvius and Accius, including a passage of Accius’ Brutus in order to illustrate the presence of the fabulae praetextae (tragic plots based on Roman history).
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the most popular theatrical forms of the late Republic and Empire, mime and pantomime, respectively. More than previous sections, these two chapters capitalize on the opportunity to bring visual evidence to bear on our understanding of these ancient traditions. The illustration of a Roman theatre and discussion of its components (p. 115) is particularly handy, though a bit more in-depth discussion of the Greek counterpart would be helpful. Given the largely non-scripted nature of mime, it should not be surprising that the discussion draws upon the most varied textual sources, from a papyrus fragment to Valerius Maximus, Suetonius, Martial, Festus, and Macrobius. Moore’s discussion of pantomime draws primarily upon Lucian’s On the Dance, and the questions following the selections do a nice job of pushing beginning students of theatre to consider the extent to which the fictional elements of a text might interfere with accurate descriptions of theatrical practice. Moore rightly steers students not to fall into the easy trap of taking these accounts purely at face value.
Much like the chapters on Plautus and Terence, Moore makes use of Seneca’s Thyestes to focus discussion of Senecan tragedy in Chapter 8. The blue information boxes on Seneca’s life, declamation, and Stoicism provide useful information for the beginning student to contemplate what is different in Seneca’s tragedies from those of the Republic. Moore’s thoughtful selection of passages allows students to contemplate different philosophical approaches to life, comparing Atreus’ reveling in his power as tyrant to the chorus’ desire to avoid the turbulence of power or to Thyestes’ internal struggle between the desire for the obscure life and the life of power. Moore also handles well the arguments on both sides of the question of whether Senecan tragedy was meant for performance, ultimately leaving the decision up to the reader.
The final chapter considers the enduring legacy of the Roman theatrical tradition. Walking briefly through the afterlife of mime and pantomime, Moore focuses primarily on the influence of Seneca on Renaissance tragedy and that of Plautus and Terence on various Western comic traditions. Drawing on excerpts from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Moore is able to highlight the connections with Senecan drama (i.e., acute sense of the power of evil, extensive use of declamatory rhetoric, grotesque and violent action, attention to madness and its effects (pp. 151-152)) before laying out the more subtle links in other Shakespearean plays. Discussions of the influence of Roman comedy on later traditions is enhanced by the choice to set side by side passages from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Molière’s The Miser with equivalent ones from Plautus. This technique puts into stark contrast the similarities and differences between comic playwrights, and Moore capitalizes on them with questions that explicitly encourage students to think about reasons why a later adapter might choose to stick closely to or diverge widely from his model. Any discussion of the enduring legacy of Roman comedy seems to require a nod to Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Moore obliges with excerpts from two scenes that highlight the improvisatory cunning of the slave Pseudolus. The chapter concludes by mentioning the less obvious influences of Plautus and Terence on later traditions in plays, movies, and novels.
Moore’s “Recommended Reading” list provides an accessible list, broken down by chapter subjects, of translations and secondary works for students looking to delve further into any particular aspect of Roman theatre. The glossary that concludes the book provides a handy reference point for students who may be thrown off by Latin terms employed throughout the text. With the exception of some omissions (“patrician” is not included though “plebeian” is; similarly “cothurni” are not though “socci” are), the glossary covers key terms well.
Overall, Moore’s Roman Theatre will be a useful resource for Classics instructors looking to incorporate a unit on Roman theatre into a Roman civilization course or those thinking about sprinkling some cultural elements into introductory or intermediate Latin courses (e.g., Jones and Sidwell’s Reading Latin makes ample use of Plautus in the first three sections). This book should also be a welcome resource for non-Classics instructors of theatre history courses who are less familiar with the breadth and enduring influence of Roman theatrical traditions. The mixture of text excerpts and well-reproduced visual elements will make it an inviting text for students.