Rhyme, Women, and Song: Getting in Tune with Plautus

By Anne H. Groton
St. Olaf College
E-mail: groton@stolaf.edu

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1995 APA annual meeting in San Diego.

Every year or two, St. Olaf College Classics students stage one of Plautus' comedies in a musical mixture of Latin and English. Most of the actors are recruited from our Latin courses, but some know little or no Latin. In acting ability, they range from novices to theater majors. In singing ability, they run the gamut from tone-deaf to divine. They are always frantically busy with coursework and other activities at the college. With so many strikes against us, the fact that we are able to get our extracurricular show off the ground at all is something of a miracle.

Because the majority of the people in our audience do not know much Latin (they include students from junior and senior high schools and families from the local community), our actors speak a hybrid of English and Latin, designed to be intelligible to anyone. Even when peppered with English, however, a barrage of Latin words can quickly tire the ears and minds of spectators, especially since we perform without intermission. To refresh the audience without sacrificing momentum, our actors break into song every ten minutes or so. For each play I compose five songs, basing them either on Plautus' ready-made cantica or on dialogue or recitative passages. For accompaniment we use the piano and whatever other instruments our cast members can play (e.g., violins, oboes, bassoons, recorders, flutes, sometimes even a krummhorn).

Rather than speaking in general about our Latin play music, I would like to concentrate on three songs, each of which helps to depict the relationship between a female character and the man she loves. The first song demonstrates how iambic senarii can be transformed into a canticum, the second how a canticum itself can be transformed, and the third how a canticum and a dialogue scene can be profitably conflated. These are neither the best songs I've ever written, nor the worst; they are simply interesting examples of what one can do to make Plautus merrier, and often more meaningful, for a modern audience.

The opening of Plautus' Pseudolus--a long conversation between the crafty slave and his young master Calidorus--contains information vital for the spectators to know, yet its more than 100 lines are not only too many for our actors to memorize but also too many for our audience to absorb. At one point in the scene Calidorus begs Pseudolus to read aloud a distressing letter from Phoenicium, the courtesan whom Calidorus adores. It occurred to me that it might be more dramatic to have Pseudolus sing that letter (vv. 41-73). The challenge facing me was to express through the song's lyrics both the misery of Phoenicium (she is shortly to be sold to a soldier) and the miserable quality of her writing; my goal was to make the song so wretched that no one could possibly miss its humor or fail to catch the joke later on when Calidorus and Pseudolus give their gut reactions to the letter (v. 74):

CA: est misere scriptum, Pseudole.
PS: oh! miserrume.

To capture the flavor of Phoenicium's Latin, which is full of rhymes, diminutives, and tortured expressions, I tried to invent English lyrics that would sound sad and silly at the same time. Preserving the iambic senarii proved too restrictive, so I switched to a vaguely anapaestic waltz rhythm and made up a tune that allowed our singer to put a comic pause, if she wished, before the final syllables at the end of each line. The opening of Phoenicium's letter (v. 41), Phoenicium Calidoro amatori suo, gave me the idea of beginning each of my four English stanzas with the same refrain, 'Calidorus, hello; this is Phoenicium.' This meant that the word at the end of the second line always had to rhyme with 'Phoenicium'--which at first I feared would be a problem. It turned out, in fact, to be a source of amusement for the audience, as you will hear in a moment when I play a portion of the videotape from our 1989 show. The last line of the song, 'Now you know all I know; that's all I know. Goodbye!' is a reworking of verse 72: haec quae ego scivi ut scires curavi omnia ('all these things which I knew, I took care that you might know'). For the two Latin stanzas, I mixed together distinctive phrases from the start and the finish of Phoenicium's letter. I considered it a tribute to the timelessness of Plautus' humor when our audience laughed aloud at the mere sound of suavisav'atio. I was also pleased to see how effectively this simple song was able to convey not just Phoenicium's love for Calidorus but also much about her personality and his.

Pseudolus (vv. 41-73)

1. Calidorus, hello; this is Phoenicium.
Without you I am blue; my life is
I love you, you love me; you love me,
I love you.
That is why I must cry; tears fill my
eyes--boo hoo!

2. Calidorus, hello; this is Phoenicium.
I've been sold to a soldier who's
He has already paid money to Ballio.
When he sends someone to fetch me,
I'll have to go.

3. Calidorus, hello; this is Phoenicium.
I'm to go tomorrow. Oh, it's too
There's a ring he will bring that will
that he's been sent to fetch me by the
soldier guy.

4. Calidorus, hello; this is Phoenicium.
I can see no way out; I'm feeling
When I remember the games that we
played--oh my!
Now you know all I know; that's all
I know. Goodbye!

5. Calidor' amatori suo Phoenici',
nisi qu' in te mihi salus in me tibi.
Salut' et salut' ex t' expetit animo;
nunc amores, mores, suavisav'atio!

6. Calidor' amatori suo Phoenici',
leno me peregre vendidit militi.
Miles hic reliquit symbol' ex anulo;
voluptat' omnium venit distractio!

Different difficulties presented themselves when I set out to adapt a canticum from the Mostellaria (vv. 690-716). In this scene Tranio, the servus callidus, observes Simo, the senex, escaping from the unwelcome advances of his aged, amorous wife. As Simo slips out of his house, he performs a cretic solo; this soon turns into a duet as Tranio blends his asides into the old man's song. Eventually the slave steps forward to address Simo, and, as their talk becomes less rollicking and more to the point, the meter gradually subsides to iambic senarii. While I usually try not to tamper too much with Plautus' designs, here I was forced to make some changes, for three reasons: first, the length of the scene had to be cut in half to ensure that the show lasted no longer than our normal 65 to 70 minutes; second, the actress playing Simo's wife dearly wanted to appear on stage and have a few lines of her own; and third, the actor playing Simo could not carry a tune.

My solution to this cluster of problems was to make the song primarily Tranio's, with participation in each stanza by Simo's wife; as the two of them sang, Simo crawled through the audience, hiding from his uxor behind the backs of unwary spectators. Thus, although Simo lost the chance to introduce himself and his wife to the audience through a canticum all his own, as compensation he was allowed to chum around with the spectators and ingratiate himself with them, while another character handled the introductions.

These changes worked well in the end, but I was never entirely satisfied with my lyrics; it was difficult to force Plautus' words into the new pattern I was imposing upon them. Moreover, since we advertise ourselves as family entertainment, I had to tiptoe carefully around the idea that Simo's wife had fed him a perbonum lunch to entice him into bed with her:

non mihi forte visum ilico fuit,
melius quom prandium quam solet dedit:
voluit in cubiculum abducere me anus
(vv. 694-696)

('right away it appeared to me not accidental when she gave me a lunch better than usual: the old woman wanted to entice me into the bedroom'). I did manage to retain some of that thought in the Latin stanza, but the corresponding English stanza is so tame that it makes no mention of lunch, let alone of sex. While I was disappointed with my inability to compose snappier lyrics, I was pleased to have found a way to keep the trace of a duet in the scene: the student playing the part of Simo's wife loved bursting into Tranio's stanzas with her piercing cries.

In the last stanza of the song, I attempted to make a smooth transition from Simo's marital difficulties to Tranio's upcoming trickery. I am not sure that I succeeded--the transition still seems abrupt to me--, but why don't you be the judges of that?

Mostellaria vv. 690-716

1/3. Look at this poor old man! He's stuck
with a wife he just can't stand.
When she wants him at home, he sneaks
out the door and leaves her all alone.
'Simo!' I hear her shout.
'Simo! Have you gone out?'
Let her yell; let her cry!
He has no intention of staying nearby!

2. Si quis dotat' uxor' atqu' an' habet,
neminem sopor.
Tota turget domi; parata est mala
in vesper' seni.
'Prandi'' uxor dedit; 'non mi forte fuit.'
Hoc habet; repperi qui ducerem senem;
nunc est adloqui.

4. Now he thinks all is fine, but I have
another plan in mind.
Watch and see what I do; I'm sure that my
antics will entertain you.
Simo, better beware! Simo, better take care!
I have tricks up my sleeve;
I'm so doggone crafty, it's hard to believe!

The first Latin play that I ever directed at St. Olaf was the Menaechmi; I directed the same play again eleven years later. Most of the songs that I had composed in 1982 could be recycled for the 1993 performances, but one, a canticum sung by Erotium, the meretrix, had to be completely revamped. The most pressing reason for revising it was the fact that I had borrowed its melody for the finale that we now do each time we put on a Latin play. It also occurred to me that, with a different tune, I might be able to squeeze more out of the song than I had in 1982. When I first began to compose music for our plays, my main concern was to have the rhythm accurately reflect the meter of the Latin verse. It took me two or three years to realize that my songs were all turning out to be either impossibly hard to sing or tediously predictable. Since then, I have come to care much more about the aesthetics of the music than about its Plautine credentials. I have also learned not to be afraid of taking liberties with the text.

In its original form Erotium's song (based on vv. 351-368) opened with a Lutheran psalm tune--appropriate for St. Olaf College:

The doors must be left open, slaves; my orders to you are these.
The house must look its very best, my rich customer to please.

The lines that followed remained rigidly faithful to Plautus' anapaestic rhythm:

Is he here at the door? Ah, I see him, my man,
of great value to me--and my financial plan!
Hello, dearest! How odd that you stand here outside
when the doors are apart and it's comfy inside!
Omne paratumst, ut iussisti
atqu' ut voluist', animule mi.

The second stanza (there were only two) offered more of the same:

All the food's piping hot; all the couches are spread;
all the pillows are fluffed; you're expected in bed...

Not that these lines aren't amusing, but a little of them goes a long way. As I was looking over the script for our 1993 show, trying to find places to cut or condense, I had a brainstorm: why not contaminate Erotium's canticum with lines from the preceding iambic dialogue (vv. 335- 350), making the song a duet between an acquisitive courtesan (Erotium) and a disapproving slave (Messenio)? In one fell swoop I would be able to characterize both Erotium and Messenio and reveal two different views of Erotium's relationship with her client; the song would also help the audience perceive the quandary in the mind of Menaechmus II over whether or not to accept a strange woman's strange invitation.

Weary of anapaests, I turned to a well-known folk song that is strong on trochees: 'Frere Jacques.' For Erotium's stanzas I used a major key, for Messenio's a minor key. The net result would have been even better, had the student playing Messenio in the 1993 production been a male, or at least a contralto: her first alto voice didn't make enough of a contrast with Erotium's second soprano. But part of the challenge of our Latin plays is working with whoever volunteers to be in them; we have no auditions and can usually dig up a part for everyone who wants to be involved. Desire and enthusiasm are what count, not talent or experience. Our students may not be great actors or singers, but they do have a great time with Plautus and radiated their enjoyment to the audience in the second production:

Menaechmi vv. 335-368

1. Lunch is cooking. I am looking
for my guest; he's the best
when it comes to money,
presents for his honey;
all the rest fail the test.

1. Who's that lady? She looks shady.
I'd beware; don't you dare
give consideration
to her invitation.
Danger's there in her lair!

2. Sine fores, sine fores
sic, abi, sic, abi.
Nolo operiri, nolo operiri
amanti, amanti.

2. Servatote, servatote
haec sultis, haec sultis.
Habitare istic, habitare istic
meretric', meretric'.

3. Lunch is boiling. I am toiling
for my beau; he's got dough.
Leave the doors wide open;
keep my lover hopin'.
I'm aglow; does it show?

3. What's she saying? Is she praying?
No, I doubt she's devout.
I suspect she's devious
like all women previous.
I'd watch out: she's got clout!

4. Lunch is brewing. I am doing
all I can for my man.
Please don't keep him waiting;
he's anticipating
something grand--cash in hand!

4. Let's keep going; don't start slowing
down your speed. Please take heed.
Tragedy could wham us
here in Epidamnus.
While we're free, we should flee!

I hope that my remarks about rhyme, women, and song have encouraged some of the more hesitant among you to give ancient drama a try. Why not invite your students to stage a scene, or even a whole play, by Plautus, Terence, Aristophanes, or Menander, or by one of the tragedians? Whether the students perform in English or in the original language, you are sure to be amazed, as I have been, by the delight they take in the project and by all that they learn from it. And I predict that you too, like your audience, will leave the theater whistling a happy tune.

Anne H. Groton
St. Olaf College
E-mail: groton@stolaf.edu

Latin Play Songs copyright Anne H. Groton

(Anne Groton is a classicist who directs student productions of ancient drama.)