BMCR 1999.05.03

The Theater of Plautus

, The theater of Plautus : playing to the audience. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. x, 263 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780292752085 $17.95.

This is a good book. Moore gives a careful, judicious analysis of Plautine theater. He does not dazzle with flamboyant new interpretations of the plays; rather, he provides a sound overview of Plautine theatricality and intelligent readings of individual plays. This book can be recommended to anyone engaged in the study of Plautus, from beginner to advanced scholar.

The central questions of the book are: “how did Plautus mold and manipulate the relationship between his actors and their audience, and to what ends?” (4). Answers to these questions necessarily rely upon performance criticism, which is dependent upon an evaluation of actors and audience. Unfortunately, we have scripts of the plays and very little else. What is to be done? Moore takes a sensible, cautious approach by combing the scripts for indicators of the relationship between actors and audience. He does not indulge in imaginative reconstructions of how an actor might or might not have played a given scene, and thus he avoids the kind of idiosyncratic readings that sometimes give a bad name to studies in ancient performance criticism. The occasional speculative remarks are confined to the endnotes (e.g. p.204, n.4 on delivery; p.209, n.37 on the psychology of the audience). The result is a quiet demonstration, based on sound philological methods, of how an appreciation of Plautine theatricality can augment rather than supersede other readings.

The book has two parts. The first outlines the basic principles of Moore’s approach and the second applies that approach to six plays ( Pseudolus, Amphitruo, Curculio, Truculentus, Casina, Captivi). There are also shorter (4-9 page) discussions of Miles, Rudens, Trinummus, and Aulularia. Moore has not restricted his study to only those plays he finds congenial to his arguments, but instead he has chosen representative plays. The index of passages cited confirms that his arguments are applicable throughout the extant corpus.

Chapter One, “Actors and Spectators,” proceeds from the observation that actors are vulnerable, that is, they require the approval of the audience to succeed. Dying is easy, comedy is hard. To secure approval, Plautus’ actors confront the audience “with a mixture of fawning obsequiousness and brazen arrogance” (9), engaging them now with flattery, now with teasing. Such modes of address, although particularly evident in prologues, are pervasive in the extant scripts as actors continually engage the audience with monologues (roughly 1/6 of the extant corpus is made up of monologue), imperatives, and “pointing words” ( ecce !). Speakers chart their progress in meeting the many expectations of plot and character inherent in the palliata, inviting praise when expectations are met, seeking appeasement or showing defiance when they are not, and touting novelty. In short, for Moore, direct acknowledgement of the audience is merely the conscious expression of a desire to please. Though this observation may strike some as banal, it is, as I will attest from having acted in and directed plays of Plautus, a fundamental truth. The desire to please does not preclude mockery and satire, because the Saturnalian element of Plautine theater allows actors of low social status to tease the audience, thereby opening the way for social commentary.

Moore does a good job throughout the book of distinguishing actors from fictional characters, whenever such distinctions are meaningful. Chapter Two, “Characters and Spectators,” considers such issues as monologues, asides, and eavesdropping when characters acknowledge the audience but stay “in character” rather than speak as self-conscious actors. Moore signals the importance of what he terms the “hierarchy of rapport” between characters and audience. Characters try to persuade the spectators to see the situation through their eyes and thus they actively seek a rapport with the audience by monologues and asides. Competition for closest rapport with the audience often arises, and clever slaves generally have the most success in obtaining it over the course of a play. They are often the eavesdroppers allowed to make clever asides and the architects of deceit who share their plans with the spectators. Rapport can be built or lost during the action as, for example, Euclio’s steady loss of rapport with the audience in Aulularia reflects and reinforces his alienation from society onstage. This concept of competition within a hierarchy of rapport is a useful means of evaluating the many addresses to the audience, for it suggests a method to Plautus’ madness rather than undisciplined revelry in metatheater.

The third chapter addresses the Greek settings of the plays. There is nothing new or extraordinary here, but many sensible observations (e.g., that few would pause during the fast pace of a play to reflect on whether such elements as crucifixion are Roman rather than Greek). Moore draws attention to what he calls “juxtaposition jokes” (jokes where an emphasis on the Greek settings are paired with conspicuous Roman references) and “hyper-Hellenization” (where references to things Greek are excessive), and he observes that references to Greece, the land of deceit, punctuate key moments in deceptions. The end result is that the Greek setting still allows for commentary on contemporary Rome in a “paradoxical mixture of escapism and relevance” (66).

Chapter Four, “Metatheater and Morality,” argues that despite the presence of moral sententiae in his plays Plautus aimed for pleasure rather than moral edification. Explicit moralizing in Plautus can only be taken seriously if one ignores its theatrical context. For example, Daemones’ long moralizing speech in Rudens (“O Gripus, Gripus,” etc; 1235-48) is effectively undercut by its theatrically self-conscious ending: “When I have acted in a play, I do not care at all for any profit for myself.” Or again, the nobility of the long debate between Lysiteles and Lesbonicus in Trinummus, sometimes seen as a play of higher moral tone, is undercut by the remarks of eavesdropping Stasimus (705-8), who treats their exchange as a theatrical performance and thereby leads the Roman audience to do likewise. Noble sententiae are invoked most frequently in the context of deception, when characters are engaged in a play-within-the-play to deceive someone. While shysters use moral maxims to gull the targets of their play-within-the-play, obsessive moralizers appear ridiculous. The net effect for the Roman audience is entertainment, not moral edification. Moore rightly points out the distinction between morals and moralizing: Plautine metatheater mocks moralizing, not morality itself.

The second part of the book turns to individual plays. Moore proposes that Pseudolus is a special play (he repeats “tour de force” rather too often) for the special occasion of the dedication of the temple to the Magna Mater. Actors draw the audience’s attention to the ways in which their characters exceed the expectations of traditional roles. Pseudolus the servus callidus, for example, has two “I don’t know what to do” monologues, two “I do know what to do” monologues, a philosophizing monologue, a monologue of anxiety, and a song of triumph (94). The players race to cram in extra characters, scenes, and monologues that have little to do with the advancement of the plot. While Pseudolus is perhaps an extreme example of outright flattery of the audience and much clowning based on little plot, claims of its “uniqueness,” and that this perceived uniqueness was in response to the demands of a special occasion, do not convince. An earlier version of the chapter on Amphitruo appeared in an online publication Didaskalia [ non vidi ]. Much of this chapter deals with the interplay of tragic and comic genres. While Sosia and Amphitruo express an inclination towards the tragic mode, Mercury and Jupiter, in an attempt to please the audience, work hard to keep the play a comedy by means of humorous asides and jokes.

While Pseudolus and Amphitruo use blandishment to establish a connection with the audience, Curculio and Truculentus use teasing and satire. The chapter on Curculio is largely a reprint of an article from AJP. 1 The extraordinary speech of the choragus establishes a correspondence between the character types (pimps, bankers, prostitutes and johns, boastful soldiers) of the theatrical Epidaurus and the real Roman forum; the Roman audience thereby cannot dismiss the immoral antics of Greek characters as irrelevant to Rome. Moore contends that satire of Rome itself is also indicated by the emphasis on courts of law and the role of Lyco the argentarius, a role probably added by Plautus. While these points are well taken, it seems tendentious to argue that deception in Curculio is “more varied and widespread than that of most Plautine plays” (127). According to Moore, characters in Truculentus seek to establish their connection with Rome from the outset by addresses to the audience and conspicuous Roman allusions, thereby opening the way for satire of Rome itself. The play’s satiric vision of prostitution identifies the main problem as male profligacy rather than female wickedness; consequently, the female lead Phronesium is not portrayed as the scapegoat.

The analysis of Casina is a particularly good application of the “hierarchy of rapport.” While matrons in Plautus seldom have rapport with audience, Cleostrata proves an exception. Cleostrata may start out as a shrew, but she and her allies gradually gain a greater rapport with the audience while Lysidamus and his allies fare badly in their attempts to plan a ruse, eavesdrop, and deliver private monologues. As background to Casina, Moore observes that outright criticism of wives is usually undercut by context, especially by the fallible or disreputable nature of characters delivering the criticism. As with moralizing sententiae, a Roman audience may have endorsed the words themselves, but the total effect of delivery was laughable. Moore does believe that passages in Aulularia relate to contemporary controversy about the Oppian Law. This is a big step, and one that requires a leap of faith in Plautine topicality to follow Moore here. Plautine commentary on specific legislation is a very different matter from generalized satire of women, or of professional types such as we can see in Curculio and Truculentus. While the portrayal of Cleostrata must have challenged the Roman audience’s assumptions about genre, it is debatable that Plautus “encourage[d] the audience to view from an entirely different perspective contemporary controversies about the proper role of married women.” (180)

Moore argues that just as Casina challenges the audience’s assumptions about wives, so Captivi“uses metatheatrical techniques to contest the notion that slaves are inherently inferior” (181). The multiple ironies of Captivi preclude any normative reading of the play (Tyndarus was freeborn but raised as a slave to an Elean. He switches roles with his Elean master and thus pretends to be free when the two are captured in war. Tyndarus is now a captive slave to his own father). When Tyndarus utters noble sententiae, is he adopting the role of servus callidus or showing his freeborn ingenium ? Must we even decide? Moore detects references to slaves in the audience. These references, coupled with the blurring of slave and free onstage, lead him to conclude that “Plautus produced one of antiquity’s most powerful challenges to comforting assumptions regarding the inferiority of slaves” (196). Perhaps. But that same paragraph warns that “it would be unwise to exaggerate the subversiveness of Captivi.” These plays, after all, are designed to please. One might accuse Moore of trying to eat his cake and have it too when dealing with Plautine relevance to Roman society, but Plautus himself seems to do so with his ambiguous Greek settings and his paradoxical use of flattery and mockery in addressing the audience.

Disappointments are few. One grave omission, however, is any substantial discussion of meter and music. Moore’s recent article on “Music and Structure in Roman Comedy”2 reveals his competence in an area that should be of great significance for any analysis of the theatricality of these plays. The infrequent allusions to meter (only nine citations in the index) enrich the analysis; for example, the fact that the tibicen stops when Hegio orders Tyndarus (his son) be bound in chains does indeed signal that “something is not right” here (190). Second, while the book confines itself to analysis of scripts, some attention to the archaeology of the Roman stage might have been fruitful. Just as Moore does well explaining the impact of the proximity of the Roman Forum on Curculio, his first chapter might have considered, in broad terms, how size and shape of theatrical space influenced the relationship between actors and audiences.3 Third, Moore often speaks of “plays” when “scripts” would be more precise, especially in a book paying so much attention to performance. For example, his conclusions about the length of plays may not be valid since our only evidence is the length of scripts (e.g. p.165, 179). Depending on context, twenty lines might take anywhere from one to five minutes in actual performance (think of any film by Bergman). Fourth, both chapters One and Two end with jejune remarks on Aristophanes, Menander, and Terence. The cursory nature of these comments can be forgiven because this book is concerned with the scripts themselves rather than comparisons with Plautus’ originals, Atellan farce, or other such aspects of the comic tradition. Finally, the book’s concluding remarks do more than summarize, they attempt “to evaluate in general terms Plautus’ response to his social surroundings” (198). But that is the subject of a different book, and the three pages of general comments do not satisfy. Indeed, these final pages may be the weakest in the book, and that is unfortunate.

The prose is clear and free of jargon, with focused and coherent paragraphs wherein the progress of an argument is usually marked by signposts (“first … second … finally”). Moore gives quotations from the Latin and Greek in the original and in straightforward prose translations. All discussions draw responsibly upon a wide array of relevant bibliography, both in classics and theater studies. Endnotes are generally brief. This brevity can become frustrating on occasion (for example, p.29, n.13 says only “cf. Terence Andria 217” without suggesting what the reference will confirm; one must open the text of Terence to see the point). References to modern scholarship are generally restricted to author and year without indication of the contents. While one might wish Moore had advised the reader with a few comments on the strengths and weaknesses of other studies, one should appreciate his detached professionalism; that is, Moore’s notes are refreshingly free from fawning praise of those with whom he agrees and petulant sniping at those with whom he does not.


1. ” Palliata Togata : Plautus, Curculio 462-86,” AJP 112 (1991), 343-62.

2. “Music and Structure in Roman Comedy,” AJP 119 (1998), 245-73.

3. For the impact of a confined space on performance, see now S. Goldberg, “Plautus on the Palatine,” JRS 88 (1998), 1-20.