Plautus' Asinaria

Translated by Peter L. Smith
Directed by C.W. Marshall
Staged in conjunction with the Department of Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria, and taught by John G. Fitch.

University of Victoria
March 3-7 1997

Reviewed by John G Fitch
University of Victoria
British Columbia

If you know Plautus' Asinaria well, press #1 now; if you have seen it in performance (prior to February 1997), press #2 now. The numbers pressing #1 will be small, those pressing #2 surely minuscule, so an introduction is perhaps in order. The plot outline is standard: impecunious young lover is deprived of love-object by mercenary pimp, but overcomes obstacles with help of tricky slave. Asinaria, however, has some enjoyable variations on the familiar pattern: there are TWO cunning slaves for good measure; the pimp is a 'lena' (pimpess? pimpette?), none other than the courtesan's own mother (shocking!); and the loverboy's father not only assists his son in his affaire, but insists on enjoying the girl's favours for one night as a reward (scandalous!).

All this immorality has proved too much for some. 'Plautus carries bad taste to the pitch of infamy,' fulminated Gilbert Norwood - a quotation cheekily used as a come-on in the publicity for this production. But of course Plautus is simply extracting humour from the reversal of normal values and structures. The cunning slaves invoke Perfidia in place of Fides, and their 'great achievements at home and in the field' are malefacta, not virtutes (lines 545, 558-59). Pietas paradoxically requires the party-girl to obey Mom and satisfy paying customers rather than her True Love, and Pietas similarly requires her boyfriend to smile dutifully while Dad hugs his girl (507, 831). The central scene, in which the young master not only acknowledges his slave's superiority by such terms as 'freedman, patron, god,' but also physically by carrying him on his shoulders, receives a cogent analysis on pp. 104-09 of Erich Segal's Roman Laughter, and is a prime text for Segal's thesis that Plautine humour depends on the Saturnalian quality of such reversals. The production at the University of Victoria aimed to show that such broad humour can still be enjoyable, particularly in a production similar in style to the original performance.

Accordingly an outdoor venue was chosen, to replicate the challenge faced by actors and producers in Rome, viz. how to hold an audience amidst the multiple distractions of the outdoors. Concern about the audience's attention is a recurrent theme of Plautus' and Terence's prologues, and the fact that the Hecyra was twice abandoned by its audience proves that the problem was serious. This production met the challenge by establishing from the beginning a relationship between actors and audience. The first actor not only appealed to the audience in the words of the prologue but also asked them about their day and admired their haircuts; later he consulted them about ransoming his slave (106); later still the courtesan flirted enthusiastically with members of the audience (ignoring her mother and so giving a new spin to line 505). These interactions involved a certain amount of ad-libbing by the actors, though the most successful such moments were those which had been planned in advance.

Metatheatrical ploys contributed to the relationship between actors and audience: the second actor twice pushed back his mask to comment dead-pan on the political incorrectness of aspects of the performance. (The many metatheatrical elements in the texts of Plautus' plays surely gave the original actors a bond with their audiences in a similar way.)

In general this production succeeded in creating an atmosphere of spontaneity. The possibility was always present - though actually used sparingly - that an actor might at any moment drop out of role and refer to the X-Files or Quebec separatists or the weather (not inclement, despite February showers: this is Victoria, after all). This precluded any sense of the actors being enclosed in a framework of reality separate from that of the audience. And a good proportion of the audience did indeed stay to the end, not only classical loyalists but also casual passers-by who got hooked.

The atmosphere of spontaneity was matched by a delightful inventiveness on the part of director and actors. Three examples must suffice. In the absence of doors, the notorious 'creaking hinges' cues were supplied by oral squeaks and creaks from entering actors. (Doors were not missed in this minimalist set consisting only of two door-frames, despite one character's comic affection for the housedoors as his 'fellow-slaves,' 386). A potentially obscure joke about 'elmwood' (341) was explicated by thrashing sounds and gestures. And the lists of activities at 560-73 were itemised with Roman numerals formed by the actors' arms, which became hilariously entangled by the time they reached VIII.

Toph Marshall's interest in masks and in the doubling of roles is well known. In this production he used a grex of five actors (two female) for the ten speaking roles of the play. Masks, of course, facilitate role-changes. This was particularly true, I noticed, when the top of the actor's head was covered. The third actor, for example, had a shock of blonde hair as the young lover, but a black beret as the (Quebecois) mercator, which effected a remarkable transformation; in contrast, the first actor's own hair was visible above his masks as Dad and Tricky Slave, and this detracted from the role-change. It was interesting to watch how actors adapted their body-language to a change of persona. The second actor, energetic and often crouching as the second-string slave, later achieved a strikingly matronly presence as Dad's wronged wife by adopting a more erect, dignified stance and incessus.

The director rightly encouraged his actors to use emphatic body-language to compensate for the unchanging expression of the masks. Frequently one recognised with a frisson living versions of poses familiar from ancient illustrations. The youthful actors perhaps pushed body-language rather far in the direction of exuberance; this middle-aged reviewer, for one, would have welcomed more finesse with less energy. Energy sometimes overwhelmed the text, when line were spoken too fast or physical busy-ness distracted attention. Some might think this scarcely matters in Asinaria, but Plautus' claim is justified, 'inest lepos ludusque in hac comoedia' (13), and the audience should be able to savour it.

Both masks and the open air can detract from audibility, but lines were generally audible in this production, at least to the bulk of the audience, seated directly in front of the players. If spectators sat to the side, however, or if the actors turned aside, audibility became a problem. It was notable, in fact, that because masks represent the front of the face, and because they cut off an actor's side vision, they encourage an playing style in which actors direct their lines out front rather than to each other.

The translation was commissioned from Peter L. Smith, also of the University of Victoria's Department of Greek and Roman Studies. Admirers of Smith's Plautus: Three Comedies (Cornell 1991) will know what to expect of his Asinaria, viz. a verse translation which is actable, bouncy and colloquial yet accurate. 'These twenty minas, don't you see,/ Possess a powerful potency./ 'Cause he can waste them, he's O.K;/ Because I can't, I waste away.' This not only conveys the sense of 636-37 but also matches their alliteration and the word-play on perdo/pereo. Some of the most crowd-pleasing moments inevitably involved sexual humour. Lover: 'I gave what you and I agreed.' Lena: 'And I supplied you with the girl./ Fair requital: tit for tat.' (171f). Courtesan to critical Mom: 'Dear gracious Pollux, that's not so!/ Such conduct would be wrong, I know./ I do complain about my luck,/ When kept so far from him I - love!' (514f). We look forward to publication of this translation, and of any other Plautine versions which Smith may have up his sleeve.

This Asinaria was staged in association with a UVic course taught by me on ancient comedy. The conjunction provided a rare opportunity to combine academic study with observation of the practicalities of performance, a combination that was highly instructive for both Classics and Theatre students. This is a good moment, finally, to acknowledge Toph Marshall's almost unique blending of the roles of director and scholar of ancient drama. Anyone who has heard him lecture will know that he is also a virtuoso actor and mime. A man of many parts, indeed.

John G. Fitch
University of Victoria

(John G. Fitch is Profesor and Chair of the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Victoria.)