Performing Plautus in the Provinces

By Leslie Cahoon
Department of Classics
Gettysburg College
Gettysburg, PA 17325
E-mail: Leslie.Cahoon@jupiter.cc.gettysburg.edu

An earlier version of this paper was presented as part of the 'Comedy Today' panel at the 1995 APA annual meeting in San Diego.

Plautus's plays notoriously feature inversions of the social order, reversals of traditional patterns of dominance. James Tatum's splendid translations of Truculentus and Bacchides encouraged my students to bring Plautine abuses home to America--our Truculentus is loosely cast as a western drama in a fictive Athens, Wyoming with Native American slaves and Bacchides is vaguely situated in the 1920's. In both plays, characters who purport to represent traditional Roman moral values-- fathers, tutors, soldiers--turn out to be just as morally compromised and self-seeking as those who represent subversive Greek decadence and irresponsibility--lovers, courtesans, and slaves. Again, in both plays, courtesans and slaves triumph over the ruling classes and reveal their depravities, as well as the unjust and abusive nature of the Roman social order.

Somewhat similarly, the social order at Gettysburg College is confounded by the necessity for the dominant 'Greeks' (fraternity and sorority members) to work with various 'geek' sub-groups in order to put together successful final performances in my ancient drama courses. In an early scene in Truculentus, the young lover Diniarchus criticizes the morals of his day, while a mime represents ancient Roman prosperity and implies a concomitant condemnation of the modern American audience. Diniarchus is played by an first-year science major; the mime within his speech is played by a sophisticated, senior fraternity member, who would never have met or spoken to the geek otherwise, even on so small a campus. Gettysburg College's own alterities and demonizations are collapsed for the local audience, along with ancient Roman social distinctions.

In two other scenes from Truculentus, more campus distinctions are surprisingly blurred as Stratophanes the miles is played by a popular and successful fraternity member and completely demolished by the maid Astaphium (a senior classics geek and star Latin tutor), by the courtesan Phronesium (played by a shy heterosexual intellectual and literary geek in drag), and by Strabax (a first year geek whose success in the play led, I believe, to his being invited to be Greek instead).

In Bacchides, a cross-dressed senior classics major and sorority member played Pistoclerus for further blurring of gender distinctions. Furthermore, our mime of Roman rectitude was played by a classics major, ROTC member, and fraternity member while Greek decadence was mimed both by a very conservative sorority sophomore and by a recently (and flagrantly) out-of-the-closet gay theatre major, two students who would never have worked together on anything under any other conceivable circumstances.

For Bacchides we also made use of a superhuman footnote, FLASH, who (dressed in red lycra with a cape) explains points of Roman culture or the audience might not otherwise catch. The actor playing FLASH is a popular fraternity member--the campus equivalent of a superhero.

Our Bacchides explored the disintegration and hypocrisy of the priggish tutor Lydus (played by a brilliant classics major in a bit of type casting) and the hypocritical and patriarchal complacency of the father Philoxenus, played by a cross-dressed feminist senior theatre major. Finally, a senior management major and fraternity member played Mnesilochus in another burst of typecasting.

At the conclusion of Bacchides we brought the two plays together through a contaminatio from the end of Truculentus. The two Bacchises were subdivided to accommodate 4 actresses: a senior English major, feminist geek; a senior radical and theatre major geek; and two very popular senior sorority members in history and psychology. The slave who closes the play (together with one of the sorority members) by including the audience is the recently-out gay theatre major mentioned above.

In closing, I shall only say that although in graduate school I had the privilege of working with one of the world's leading specialists in Roman comedy and did once write what was accounted by him an unusually fine essay on Plautus and Terence, I neverthless think that I have learned even more about what is most important in Plautus from the happy conjunction of Professor Tatum's translations with my students' growing recognition and understanding of the grim abuses of Roman culture portrayed through the medium of Plautus's comedies.

Leslie Cahoon
Gettysburg College
E-mail: Leslie.Cahoon@jupiter.cc.gettysburg.edu

(Leslie Cahoon's APA paper relied heavily on videotapes which we are unfortunately not able to reproduce here.)