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CJ-ONLINE  February 2008

CJ-ONLINE February 2008

Subject:

CJ Online 2008.02.04 MARSHALL, Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy

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The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy. By C.W. MARSHALL. Cambridge 
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii + 320. Cloth, 
$90.00. ISBN 0–521–86161–6.

Order this text for $83.50 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Print Version: CJ 103.3: 322-4

Our understanding of Plautine performance is greatly hindered by the nature 
of the evidence. C.W. Marshall (M.) aims to enrich our appreciation of 
Plautus by offering a new synthesis of the limited evidence surrounding the 
production and performance of Plautus’ comedies (and, while Terence makes 
brief appearances, M. focuses on Plautus). Building on the studies of Moore 
and Slater, [n. 1] M. distinguishes himself by his creative reconstruction 
of the backstage Realien of the theater, and by his perspective on comedic 
performance. M. brings his expertise in theatrical production and 
improvisation to his critical work, and this greatly informs his 
understanding of the Roman stage. [n. 2] Herein also lie some of the 
shortcomings of his work, as his visualization of the performance of 
Plautus’ plays sometimes seems more at home on a modern stage than on the 
temporary wooden structures of Republican Rome.

In his introduction, M. elucidates Plautus’ ability to blend literary and 
performance genres into a dramatic format with broad appeal to his 
audience. He traces the primary influences on Roman comedy (Greek New 
Comedy, fabulae Atellanae and mime), and discusses their impact on Plautus. 
An ambitious first chapter, “The Business of Comedy,” investigates how 
financial considerations affected performance space, the troupe, set, 
costumes and even the audience. This chapter contains a wealth of 
information, and M. in the end favors a sparse stage with minimal props to 
accommodate the vicissitudes of performance. His enlightening discussion of 
the composition of the audience shows how they actively engage in 
performance, and how Plautus caters to the tastes of different social 
classes. Here, M.’s own experiences as a producer of the plays enliven his 
examples and lead to plausible conclusions.

Chapter 2, “Actors and Roles,” treats the activity of Plautus’ troupe and 
the importance of actors on stage. M. again stresses the economic pressures 
on the troupe, which “is competing for a limited resource (contracts) and 
must offer a product that will generate wealth (a satisfied audience) so 
that future magistrates will make future purchases from the same source” 
(p. 84). A small troupe would lead to the doubling of roles, and M. 
generates a list indicating how many performers were needed in each play 
(pp. 109–11). This leads to speculation that one or two actors from the 
troupe would enjoy celebrity status and thus deliver a majority of the 
lines. M. claims that the audience “will acknowledge and reward challenges 
accepted by an actor, that it wants to see an actor exhibit dramatic range, 
and that it wants to identify star actors beneath their masks” (pp. 
114–15). When M. considers the doubling of roles, however, he does not 
discuss how this might affect the play’s reception; e.g., in the Pseudolus 
the actor playing the eponymous character also plays the cook in M.’s 
system, but there is little discussion of how this bears on the spectator’s 
interpretation of the play (p. 117).

The doubling of roles necessarily raises the question of masks, to which M. 
devotes his third chapter. [n. 3] Here, he displays a sensitivity to 
performance often lacking in critics who address this inveterate issue. 
Masks do not limit the emotional register of the actors, but rather 
highlight the emotional significance of their physical movements and 
posture. M. asserts that Atellan farces broadly influenced masks, 
especially in regard to the presentation of the pimp, and argues that masks 
were more individualized, and characters less stereotyped, than might have 
been assumed from Pollux (Onomasticon 4.143–54). This leads to a nuanced 
discussion of the comic potential of an individualized slave’s mask in the 
Pseudolus and of the way masks amplify the themes of slavery and freedom in 
the Captivi.

In his fourth chapter, M. analyzes four aspects of stage action: focus, 
pace, tone and routines. He provides examples of the importance of the 
physical reality of performance, of how “some interpretations of the play 
were actively encouraged, and others were discouraged or even precluded” 
via stage action (p. 187). M. believes that a “breathless” pace enhances 
the comic nature of the performance, and contends that the juxtaposition of 
dramatic time and actual time could be played for laughs in (esp.) the 
Menaechmi and the Andria. He questions whether there is room for 
seriousness in Plautus, but his conclusions about tone are hampered by his 
primary example, Alcumena in the Amphitruo, about whom he equivocates, 
treating her as simultaneously serious and comic. When he turns to the 
various routines of Plautine comedy, e.g., servus currens, M. is on surer 
ground, and his discussion reveals how Plautus creates humor through these 
lazzi.

The final two chapters of the book are the most speculative and 
thought-provoking. Chapter 5, “Music and Metre,” offers many insights on 
the effects of music on the structure and movement of the plays. M. argues 
that alteration between unaccompanied and accompanied meters created 
structural units the audience recognized as the building blocks of the 
play. M. traces these “arcs” through Plautus’ plays, and asserts that this 
patterning of music and meter shapes the audience’s interpretation of 
scenes and characters. Likewise, M. views the tibicen as an integral part 
of the performance, and reveals his influence on the pacing and 
architecture of plays. While it is difficult to prove exactly how music 
aids the interpretation of Roman comedy, M. attempts to show its influence 
in the Rudens and the Pseudolus.

Improvisation occurs when actors diverge from a script. In his final 
chapter, M. discusses the role of improvisation in contemporary theater and 
theatrical workshops, before delving into how improvisation might have 
affected Plautus’ plays. M. places an extraordinary amount of creative 
freedom in the hands of the actors, and believes that the texts that we 
possess of Plautus’ plays represent a collaboration between the poet and 
the actors in his troupe. For M., performance precedes text, and it is 
through performance that a (tran)script is created: “Plautus is crafting a 
play, constructed from different pieces over time with the help of his 
associates, and not simply ‘writing’ a document that remains unchanged” (p. 
263). This is M.’s most radical idea, which he supports through 
Shakespearean parallels as well as marks of improvisation in the text. M. 
destabilizes the text and the idea of authorship, and favors instead a 
fluid view of the comedies that survive under Plautus’ name. While most 
critics believe that improvisation occurred in Plautus to wring out the 
most from successful comedic routines, this elevation of actors may 
unfairly diminish the author’s own status.

M.’s work may raise more questions than it provides definitive answers. He 
offers imaginative solutions to issues such as the role of masks, the stage 
building, improvisation and music, but these are often only plausible 
hypotheses, stitched together from the scanty source material and M.’s own 
modern productions. While this work should be read by anyone interested in 
the performance of Roman comedy, it reveals the formidable difficulties in 
determining how performance not only affects, but creates meaning in 
Plautine comedy.

CHRISTOPHER TRINACTY
Amherst College

[n. 1] N.W. Slater, Plautus in Performance: the Theatre of the Mind 
(Princeton, 1985); T.J. Moore, The Theater of Plautus: Playing to the 
Audience (Austin, 1998).

[n. 2] For more information about M.’s contemporary productions of ancient 
comedies and tragedies, see his website MASC (Modern Actors Staging 
Classics): http://www2.cnrs.ubc.ca/masc/.

[n. 3] His account fundamentally follows that of D. Wiles, The Masks of 
Menander (Cambridge, 1991), but M. believes that “some refinements are 
necessary when the Greek New Comic tradition is transferred to Rome” (p. 
126 n. 3).


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