BMCR 2008.03.29

The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy

, The stagecraft and performance of Roman comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiii, 320 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521861616 $90.00.

Table of Contents

Marshall (hereafter M) by his own admission (ix) accepts the challenge of Goldberg (1998.2) that ‘books on The Stagecraft of Plautus and Roman Theatre Production seem beyond our capabilities’. In this M achieves what Beacham (1991) in his Roman Theatre and its Audience did not do, and in fairness did not set out to do: M has given a lucid and believable account of how an extremely heterogeneous genre could have been performed in antiquity in all of its manifestations in all different sorts of conditions. He has also done so without becoming bogged down in the details, or surrendering to jargon. Like Beacham before, this is mainly a Plautus book; Terence gets only the occasional nod. M’s touchstones are Duckworth (1952), Beare (1964) and Moore (esp. 1998); when he attempts to define his own position, Slater (2000) and Goldberg (esp. 1998) most often come to mind.

M is not concerned to present Plautus as either derivative or original but looks instead at the process by which a distinctive Latin play was forged for an Italo-Roman audience. In this, to simplify, M sees a Plautine play as a creative negotiation between the playwright and players, and between the players and audience. It is acknowledged that sometimes Plautus himself might have been the main actor, but this is not essential to his over-all view of performance. The introduction also assesses the potential of cross-fertilisation of other genres, such as Atellan farce and mime, which were of obvious importance to Plautus. The circumstances of performance for these genres, that is smaller venues with unsatisfactory acoustics, closely parallel the Plautine stage. Parallels with Menander’s Dis Exapaton are thus dismissed in a single page and emphasis rather is given to Plautus’ superb craftsmanship.

After the introduction, the book is divided into six chapters: the Experience of Roman Comedy, Actors and Roles, Masks, Stage Action, Music and Metre, and Improvisation. The first chapter is far and away the longest, twice the length of the others. It starts by listing with brief comment the festivals, both annual and irregular, at which plays could be performed. In some instances it has proven possible to assign the premiere of some plays to individual festivals. For that of the Magna Mater, for example, performances of Pseudolus, Hecyra and Trinummus show that the celebrations could have a focus wider than skits relevant to her cult. M’s estimate that there were 25-30 days per year with performances of plays during the lifetime of Plautus underscores that a troupe could not expect to make a living performing just in Rome. This leads into M’s discussion of the economics and division of responsibilities: he strongly separates payment to the poet from the fee paid to the manager of set design and seating. In M’s view plays need not be site specific, either; the mention of the forum Romanum in the Curculio could suggest that location rather than require it just as actors standing on a roof in the Amphitruo do not automatically necessitate a multi-storey scaenae frons, problematic for the early period. Audience interruptions in plays and diversion of the audience to a rival entertainment would seem to imply a temporary, canvas setting more like fairs or carnivals than more imposing structures with adequate space between performance sites. This also makes sense of M’s observation that ‘stage left’ and ‘stage right’ are not fixed in Plautine comedy but adjust themselves to circumstances.

The first chapter (The Experience of Roman Comedy) is far and away the longest, double the length of other chapters but divided into well-marked sub-sections (as with all parts of the book). As to ‘opportunities for performance’, M’s essential point is that plays were part of a day or days of festivities, and were not presented on their own. The section on ‘performance spaces’ correctly challenges the common interpretation of Tacitus ( Annals 14. 20) on stone theatres: the need to return performance venues, such as the Forum Romanum or forecourt of the Temple of the Magna Mater, to public use on the following day has as much or more to do with temporary theatres as with moral conservatism. ‘The business of comedy’ supports this view since the troupe bought the play from the author and the aedile then hired the troupe to perform and a manager to take care of physical properties. It was in the interest of the aedile to pay as little as possible for the greatest impact. The cost or value of competing entertainments, such as tight-rope walkers, affected the amount an aedile was willing to pay for a play. M. sees the ‘set’ as imposing some kind of uniformity. Wood frame and canvas sets were not specific to individual plays but could form the backdrop to different performances by several troupes within a festival. Efficient in set up and break down, they were also cost effective in re-use. ‘Costumes’ also seem to have been on the whole contemporary dress and not elaborate; i.e. not expensive. When needed, a body sock suggesting nudity was used. Props or stage properties could be moved on or off quickly or could be suggested by the dialogue. What props seem required from references in texts were minimal and portable, but M is correct to stress that comedy lives or dies on misunderstandings and that props are often at the centre. The most intriguing part of the chapter is on the audience (73-82), specifically on how it was manipulated into becoming part of the action. Appeals to the audience in asides are complicated by the different social and literary backgrounds of spectators, and therefore the level of humour that would engage and appeal.

The second chapter (Actors and Roles) continues the economic analysis of chapter 1. The size of the state grant ( lucar) and of the amount the aedile or praetor might be willing to add directly affected the number of performers who could be hired and also the level of talent of the principal performers. Speaking of plays (83-84) in terms of modern capital investment is possibly not as helpful as other types of analysis, yet M’s point is important that there are many non-performance aspects which directly affect the quality of script and performance, and ultimately the audience’s enjoyment. At another level, the aedile or praetor competed for prestige with other officials who might have put on the same play since scripts could be sold to more than one company and be performed on more than one occasion. Role-doubling and the size of Plautus’ troupe is thus both a financial and artistic decision. M notes both that Plautus’ plays observe on the whole the three actor rule and that they need not do so. He also problematizes the assigning of roles since in his view it sometimes makes more sense to assign as many lines as possible to the best performer in the troupe rather than apportion as many lines as possible more or less equally among the lead performers, leaving some short walk-on parts. Sometimes there are jokes, such as the pregnant Alcumena followed on stage by an obese slave, that would seem to require that the audience realizes the same person is playing both parts, at least in one performance. This would require some doubling and M calculates the greatest number of performers required in each of Plautus’ plays, concluding that they vary between 4 and 9, from which he understands a core troupe of 4 or 5 plus tibicen with others hired on an ad hoc basis.

Masks (chapter 3) starts out provocatively with the section head ‘Greek masks and the Roman stage’. After stating that the five main types of mask in Roman comedy come from Greek new comedy, M considers how the semiotics of types must further differ in detail so that different kinds of slaves, e.g., can be distinguished while still suggesting similar characters in other comic genres. As often M sees Plautus moderating Greek precedents with contemporary practices in Atellan farce. M’s greatest concern, however, is on the impact in performance, on how the fixed gaze of a mask organizes the focal point of the person speaking, and equally rigidly fixes the line of sight of other roles on stage. M (138) cites Duckworth’s dictum that characters are differentiated not individualized just before examining ‘the problem of Plautus’ pimps’ by way of looking at ‘individualized comic masks’. He compares the five pimps in Plautus and concludes that while they wear the standard mask (with possible differences in detail), distinction among them was probably achieved more by gesture and costume. ‘Individualized comic masks’ considers the possibilities for changes in a mask, such as straight or supercilious eye brow, within a performance. The well-known scene from Pseudolus 636-39 will be hilarious whether or not Pseudolus changes details of his mask on stage in an attempt to avoid detection.

Stage Action (chapter 4) starts with rehearsal and makes the essential but often overlooked point that with temporary stages potentially used by more than one entertainment, there would have been little opportunity for rehearsal, and almost certainly none for full dress rehearsal. The ancient practice, on which M has published elsewhere, of providing partial scripts by role protected (in M’s view) the intellectual property of the play but also allowed some advance memorization. Stage action, though, returns M. briefly to masks and the issue of focus, which delays his more important discussion of pace. By his assessment and practical experience, M estimates the performance time of one of Plautus’ plays between one to two hours, with no act or scene divisions. All of the lines would have run one after another, and ‘jumping cues’ (one exchange almost interrupted by the following one) is M’s solution to what he sees as the risk of losing the audience with a slower delivery or pause. Here I am not entirely convinced by his arguments, but timing and pace is one of the most difficult things to achieve in both ancient and modern comedy. Sub-sections on ‘tone’ and ‘routines’ are intelligent, but harbour no surprises until M looks at the ‘audience stake’ (187-92). Performance in and of itself moderates the number of possible meanings while opening up others. The audience attending a play comes there wanting and wishing to be entertained, which gives it a stake in the success of the plot and performance. How the poet manipulates the audience, and how the audience in turn manipulates the performance is opened up in chapter 4 but is key to chapter 6.

In between, chapter 5 is on Music and Metre, a specialization for which M has attracted praise already in his work on tragedy and satyr drama. Central to his argument is that iambic senarii were a recitative metre without accompaniment but that the other metres would have been accompanied by a tibicen. Female characters have a disproportionate number of songs. M (239) considers that much of a play’s music would have been improvised, composed in performance before a live audience. It is not without importance that in this chapter and the next, his most frequent points of comparison are jazz and commedia dell’arte.

Improvisation (chapter 6) is the fitting cap to a book that will deservedly be influential on Plautine studies and on performance studies in general. M sees the tug between scriptedness and improvisation as a continuum with Goldberg towards one end, Slater more to the middle, and himself the furthest towards improvisation. In part it is because M delineates four different types of improvisation: improvisation that can be used to create a scripted performance; improvisation in rehearsal or in performance that is meant to improve the script; improvisation that is meant to give the appearance of ex tempore; and using audience suggestions, many of which in my view can easily be anticipated if the evidence of the Second Sophistic is a trustworthy comparison, and in which I think M means to include reacting to routines that elicit guffaws or silence. Improvisation creates risk for the actor (and hence satisfaction), but also gives the performer some ownership of the script. I think what M finds most attractive about improvisation is that it is by nature a collaborative process that yields a composite creation whose main goal is fluidity of presentation. In the end that means that the ‘text’ of the playwright is a plot with scene scenarios and suggested lines of interaction; elaborate jokes with set up probably must have been scripted. He ends (262) with the observation that improvisation in and of itself is metatheatrical. The audience expected the actors to improvise (M suggests that this is what would have made seeing repeated performances attractive), and the actors delighted in it. Each fed off the other, tying their mutual conspiracy to a text supplied by a poet.

M’s book allows us to envision Plautus on stage, or more correctly on several different stages. It is really a book for advanced students and professionals, and, in M’s own words is ‘not a how-to manual’. Even so, I am using it now in an undergraduate class to challenge the students to argue which staging, or range of costumes and masks, or kinds of music and gesture would have yielded the most stunning spectacle or the one they would have personally enjoyed most. Few books provoke simultaneously so much thought and unguarded enjoyment.