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
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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
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
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
[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
[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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