BMCR 1994.04.15

1994.04.15, Plautus non manu sed lingua

Attention, all peregrini et studentes hilaritati whose road will take them to the CAMWS-Southern Section meeting in Chapel Hill this October: you will not want to miss the revival of UNC’s smash hit, scheduled especially for the conference. The production is a significant achievement and rare treat. When I heard that UNC would be tackling the Poenulus, it surprised me. Not the Mostellaria, the Aulularia, the Miles Gloriosus ? Then as I began to read the play in anticipation of the performance, I was even more impressed. At about 1400 lines, the Poenulus is a sleek and well-fed beast. Even for those of us to whom the Latin language is an everyday companion, the play would have its slow stretches. Yet on further reflection the play is timely in light of the American university’s recent preoccupation with multiculturalism. The title character of the Poenulus is, after all, as the flyer for the production points out, “A North African of Semitic origin.” The theme was continued by Professor Cecil Wooten of UNC, who before each act delivered companion notes to the audience in English. “If there is a message in this play,” Professor Wooten said, “it is that we are to be kind, and decent, and tolerant of others who are not like us.” He went on to point out that, extraordinarily, Plautus had written a play with a sympathetic Carthaginian less than two decades after Hannibal had ravaged Italy and come close to taking Rome. Such magnanimity reflects well on Plautus and on the Classics in general, notorious discipline of IDWEM (Intolerant Dead White European Males). One hoped that there were influential administrators present.

The audience was, furthermore, never in danger of having to sit through the entire length of the play. Director John Starks, a doctoral candidate and theater veteran, cut sizable chunks of unintelligible (to us ‘Mericans) Latin dialogue from his script while striving to keep intact both the thread of the plot and whatever lent itself to the physical comedy which would have to be the mainstay of the production. Starks set himself a significant challenge, and succeeded: though a little rough around the edges, especially as concerned the miles subplot, the production moved snappily to its denouement, helped along by generous commentary from Professor Wooten.

The storyline of the Poenulus is, mercifully, not difficult to follow. The players include, as in many Plautine creations, a young man (Agorastocles, played by Chris Brunelle) and a courtesan (Adelphasium, Liza Reynolds) who are blocked from uniting by a slimy ( lutulentus) leno (Lycus, David Johnson); the supporting cast includes Adelphasium’s “valley girl” sister (Anterastilis, (undergraduate Rebecca Benefiel, with verve), and a clever slave (Milphio, Matthew Panciera moving niftily under the awkward weight of a hunchback outfit!) who relishes the idea of outwitting aforementioned slimeball. The main intrigue takes only about half the play. The rest of the piece presents various escapades, some of which add insult to the leno‘s injury, but which are unnecessary for his demise. The last two acts, in fact, are devoted to just plain fun: leno -bashing, recognitions, extraneous tomfoolery.

The production revels in this relaxed pacing. From the earliest moments of the first introduction I could almost sense several high school Latin teachers squirming in their seats as Plautus’ R-rated comedy unfolded before their teenaged charges. Horny young men, prurient old men, audience mooning (tunic up, shorts on), endless puns on “testes”, a eunuch with a bag of “marital aids”, tongues on side of mouth, Hulk Hoganesque leno -bashing, references to Lorena Bobbitt, all combined to give the impression that Latin is not only about getting Catiline out of town or making 16 miles a day by forced marches. This is strong stuff, but salutary, bringing the Romans alive with a startling vigor. After the performance on Friday night, I heard that one high school student had asked his teacher whether the man doing the English commentaries was a real Roman, as he purported to be. His teacher told him to judge for himself once the student had seen the whole play. “He’s a real Roman,” the student concluded.

Certainly the sight gags and updated jokes helped to draw in the audience. One of the most memorable came from a reference in the play to two famous ancient painters, Apelles and Zeuxis. Instead of mentioning these two, Agorastocles dons a beret and the group on stage recreates famous paintings of Michelangelo (God and Adam), Botticelli (Venus “on the half shell”), and Norman Rockwell (remember that famous Thanksgiving scene?), with hilarious accuracy. In a most inspired sequence, Christopher McDonough as Hanno the Carthaginian entered speaking, not pseudo-Phoenician, as Plautus’ script indicates, but a kind of Boston-influenced (“Caaaa-thidge”) Jewish- accented English. Director Starks concluded that since in the original production the audience could understand one side of the conversation between Hanno and Milphio, it was only fair that the modern audience have the same experience. The decision enabled the Latinless to appreciate some of the verbal humor found in the scene. The Roman audience would have laughed as Milphio “interpreted” for Agorastocles Hanno’s strange speech: we moderns laughed when McDonough interpreted for the audience some of what Milphio was saying. It was an effective bridge, restoring audience stamina for the recognition scene and the end of the play, which offer less in the way of slapstick relief.

With at least some of the play done in English, one wonders whether it would really be best to do all of it that way, and so enable the audience better to appreciate Plautus’ verbal mastery. The actors are asked to do a lot, perhaps too much, to make the Latin intelligible, and these demands sometimes make it seem as if they are trying too hard. But to call for this would be to miss the point of the UNC production. Starks and company energetically publicized the performance to high school programs across the state of North Carolina (helped by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council) with the idea that hearing Latin spoken conversationally is invaluable in helping students to see the language as more than a code or cypher to be broken. The point, therefore, is not that anyone understand the Latin, though that is a noble goal, but that everyone hear the Latin and sense it as living. As Professor Wooten pointed out, in one evening the audience was provided with an effective subsistence proficiency in Latin: by the end we could all say “eat,” “drink,” and “Oh my god, the young man loves a prostitute.”

The performance also gives the scholar much food for thought. The multicultural aspects mentioned above are not manufactured, even if they were trumpeted with too obvious pride by the flyer, introductions, and playbill. 1 It is eerie to watch as the Roman-garbed miles (Antamoenides, Ed Weil) guffaws narrow-mindedly at Hanno’s effeminate Eastern garb, only to be faced down by Agorastocles (himself a long-lost Carthaginian boy) and his muscled bouncer; miles and easterners then join forces to punish the real villain, the odious pimp. Here, as if in the flesh, is the Plautus as humanitarian and social commentator whose existence scholars have for some time now been arguing.

There is much else to mention: the strong and uncompromising characterization of Adelphasium, for example, which makes one eager for the continuing good work on women in Plautus; 2 on the technical side, the presence of mute characters on stage and their effect. 3

The UNC production provides abundant confirmation, if we needed any more, that seeing a performance of a text meant to be performed yields important insights hardly to be discovered in a study carrel or classroom translation session. Perhaps the most meritorious of this production’s achievements, not to be understated, is its wildly successful outreach to the schools, whose boisterous and appreciative students packed the house each night. I do not doubt that next year there will be first-year students in my Latin classes who saw the Poenulus and were spurred because of the experience to make Latin part of their academic program. It has therefore managed to marry, in one fell swoop, teaching, research, and improved relations with the schools: altogether an excellent argument for continuing to get serious about Roman comedy.

  • [1] There is, for example, an entire single-spaced page in the playbill on “Carthage and the Carthaginians” while Plautus himself only merits a two-line identification below the dramatis personae. [2] It helped that I had heard a most informative paper on Adelphasium at the recent CAMWS meetings in Atlanta, given by Indiana University doctoral candidate Annalise Rei. [3] This very question, with emphasis on women, has been taken up in the forthcoming dissertation of Mary Womble Gerdes, an advisee of Kenneth Reckford at UNC.