A Production of Plautus' Casina and Menander's Samia

Kenneth Hamma
J. Paul Getty Museum
Malibu, CA
E-mail: KHamma@Getty.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.

In October of 1994 the Getty Museum presented two comedies: Menander's Samia in the translation by Michael Walton [in the Methuen Series] and Plautus' Casina in a translation by Richard Beacham [now published by Johns Hopkins]. There were eleven performances over three weeks in the inner peristyle garden of the museum. The plays were presented in conjunction with the exhibition of selections from the collection of Barbara and Larry Fleischman. They were directed by Michael Hackett of the UCLA Department of Theater and were a co- production with the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television. The cast was composed of eight professional actors and five student actors; direction and design likewise included both professionals and students.

Richard Hornby in his short notice on these comedies in the Spring 1995 Hudson Review touched immediately on what had been from the beginning of the production a very self-conscious concern for us: ''Museum piece' is a term of scorn among American theater people; historical plays are all supposed to be updated.' Thankfully he went on to say that 'this production with its splendid sense of history was the liveliest and funniest of the whole theatrical season in L.A.'

It is a commonplace among philologists that any performance in translation, as ours were, is also an adaptation. I mean not only the translation of the text, but also all of the inevitable mutations introduced by the exigencies of a public performance, by the choices made for sets, lights, music, props, costumes and so on. Although undertaken with a sense of the needs and expectations of a modern theater-going audience, we tried for this kind of adaptation while avoiding what Hornby really means by 'museum piece.'

It is difficult to describe the series of compromises and resolutions that led to the productions under this general light except to say we tried to preserve the soul of the Greek or Roman original -- so far as we have it and as we imperfectly understand it -- yet create a valid contemporary theater experience. If that sounds non-specific and fairly wide open, that was part of the plan for from the Museum's point of view we were less interested in setting specific parameters than providing an opportunity for classicists to work with professional actors and production staff.

In the program notes, Richard Beacham, who translated Casina, described the conflicts as 'particularly acute in the case of Plautus.' Michael Walton, translator of The Samian Woman, felt the same way about his task with Menander. Both translators had a contemporary audience very much in mind. I mean this emphatically not in the sense of Hornby's 'updating', which I take to be something more like what Peter Sellars did in a recent production of Aeschylus' Persians (which some found an ear- beater for CNN-news-watchers, bereft of hope), but in the sense that what Menander and, with somewhat more artifice, Plautus dealt with is common to the human experience regardless of the century. Hence our aim was to make this element of human experience evident to different sensibilities, to the minds of a particular time and place that neither of the playwrights could have imagined. Walton wrote by way of introduction, 'The Woman from Samos treats people as creatures of both affection and passion. This above all ensured that the playwrights of Rome returned so often to Greek New Comedy as the source of their own material. It ensured too that this new seam, of which recognizable human behaviour was the core, would fuel an entire European tradition and end up, tired but not yet exhausted, daily on the small screens of our living-rooms.'

In order to infuse this sense into the productions and to keep a professional production company on track, both Beacham and Walton were mainstays in the production as something like super-dramaturges. They participated to some extent in the casting and were present from the first day of rehearsal through opening night. Their work with the director and production team, as you might expect, was not without difficulties and the occasional conflict. But as often as not a better and more refined sense of what we were up to grew out of those conflicts. The presence of Beacham and Walton at rehearsals was initially intimidating for the actors and others, and presented, I think, the biggest potential hurdle for the production. But in the long run their working together instilled a feeling of authenticity in the actors' movements and interpretations, a feeling for the cast and crew of participating in a theater event securely grounded in a tradition they may not have perfectly understood but which they could access through these two.

I know this short description does not do justice to an aspect of the production which I believe in the end permitted the actors and other professional staff more freedom in engaging their professional talents. This interaction between professional actors and crew is, at least from the point of view of this program at the Museum, one of the most important reasons for producing ancient comedy and tragedy although it remains unseen by any audience. It is also the reason we would eventually like to establish an on-going workshop where professional actors and directors could work with philologists and specialists in ancient theater over longer periods of time and truly take advantage of each other's expertise. This is particularly important when most actors coming to the project bring a background primarily in film and television. That is not necessarily a problem (neither is it an advantage), but it does point to the need to establish a community of actors and directors who can create their own theatrical sense of Greek and Roman comedy without the pressure for performance.

The musical accompaniment and the musical preludes and interludes were one of the least intractable of the production elements, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the state of ancient evidence and the varied feelings of contemporary scholars. In the end it was one of the easiest in large part because of the skills and sensibilities of Nathan Brinbaum, who composed music based on percussion and woodwinds in close conjunction with the development of the plays during the weeks of rehearsal. Initially present on the stage welcoming the audience as it assembled, the musicians remained unobtrusively on the stage for the course of the Menander, providing many background transitions and choral interludes. In the Casina the musicians were more active participants throughout; with whistles, drums, woodblocks, and a host of other noise- makers they extended every slippery entrance, emphasized every creaking doorway, punctuated every raised eyebrow, and universalized each and every of Olympio's heartfelt sighs, burps and wheezes.

The ease with which the music insinuated itself into the production was delightful: imagine sound effects appropriate to 'The Three Stooges' for the fight that broke out over the casting of lots or the raucus rap style that accompanies Pardalisca's outburst when she can no longer contain herself with the plot her mistress is part of:

The whole house is in turmoil and all in a flurry
since Master is mad to make the cooks hurry.
Don't fidget in the kitchen, but make haste now
our tempus fugits so give us the chow.

And on she goes. Perhaps this would happen as easily with very different scores and conceptions of the role and purpose of musicians in and around a production of Plautus. And the reasons for it may be simply in the lines of the play itself, already strongly indicating the rhythm of the performance.

Moving from the text to the stage imposes certain conditions; prime among them is that you must choose to depict things in one way or another. While reading the text of Casina, you are free to imagine the appearance of the screechy and manipulative Cleostrata any way you choose. Creating the persona for others demands specificity. I believe there is room for a wide spectrum depending on the purposes of the performance. Because our performances were held in the Museum, we very self- consciously choose to create obvious parallels between the visual aspects of the performance and objects in the collections.

Representations of phlyax plays from the later fourth century provided inspiration for the costumes of the chorus which provided a kind of continuity throughout the evening performance, from galleries to Menander to Plautus. Without getting into the interpretation of what plays or characters are represented on the bell kraters in question, I would only point out that they werethe source both for costuming and for elements of the set intended to accommodate the numerous entrances and exits which feature in the works of both playwrights, and the near-exits which result in the overheard conversations so often used by Plautus to further complicate the plot. The manifold anachronism (the bell kraters predate Menander by a century and Plautus by two) didn't dissuade us in the least from using these and similar sources to create an impression we hoped our audience would carry back and forth between poetry and painting. In Menander the chorus was relatively tame, entering as amusement for the intervals, providing moments of high artifice and occasionally striking poses taken directly off Greek drinking cups which were also on display. In the Casina they were a much more boisterous chorus of rude fellows, as they had to be to compete with the musicians and principals for attention. They carried phalluses, unnatural both in their size and their possession of wings, and came squealing and guffawing about the stage whenever Lysidamus' ill-conceived lascivious machinations and drunken sexual appetite got the best of him.

Even artifacts from periods substantially later than those of the plays were useful not only for details of costume design but for overall sensibility. When the plays had been cast, but before rehearsals began, I discussed a few objects such as these with the actors and design staff. The set and the skene were also constructed on the premise that we know something of Roman temporary stage construction and decoration from Pompeiian wall painting. Our stage was set directly against, and so incorporated, the architecture of the museum building; the audience was around the peristyle and in the garden. We owed this aspect of the production to work Beacham has done trying sort out the actual theater scenery Vitruvius tells us Romans depicted in wall paintings from the more general perspective paintings that were based on the same techniques of skenographia originally developed for theater. In building an obviously temporary stage (the audience was free to wander around the back), we were on safe ground, historically speaking.

The doors, columns, colors, and the like drew on two Roman paintings, from the House of Augustus in Rome and from the Villa of Oplontis near Pompeii. This set, based fairly closely on that evidence, was built to a scale which allowed the 'real' architecture of the museum to continue the illusion. Conveniently, or quite naturally, it also provided all the doors (swinging doors as in a Western saloon) necessary for quick entrances and exits that Plautus requires. It also provided for different physical levels of activity and for the niches behind columns and pilasters which are so necessary to Plautine plot devices such the overheard conversation mentioned earlier.

One real difficulty presented itself when the set was painted. Following as closely as we could the coloring suggested by the assumed stage setting in the Villa of Oplontis, we quickly created a set which to English and American eyes looked like the interior of a certain kind of Chinese restaurant: guilt by association rather than historical inaccuracy. A slight modulation of colors, in fact bringing them somewhat closer to those used for the wall paintings on the exterior of the museum itself, helped enormously. This color episode really had a lot to do with our expectations and assumptions, but we were not about to risk an initial bad reaction from audiences because we felt obliged to teach them something about Roman color sense. After a short episode of repairs occasioned by an unexpected rain we had a set which worked very well for the requirements of Plautus, and in conjunction with the museum itself provided a seductive environment for the audiences.

Inherent in the general proposal and the particulars of the production is an overriding effort to join for a broad public the remnants we have of Greek and Roman civilization: visual arts and artifacts on the one hand, poetry on the other. Because of the training and experience we possess we do not always see these as separate. But for much of the population creating instances where poetry and painting conspire is an extremely happy and enlightening event. There are things to be gained from the juxtaposition and insights which cannot otherwise be easily interpreted or conveyed. And in our particular case, audiences that had access to the galleries before, during and after the plays felt a depth of association with the characters and their foibles which might otherwise have been more difficult or impossible to achieve. Being confronted with a diadem that Alcesimus' wife Myrrhina might have worn or a marble pot in which the protagonists might have tossed their lottery tickets provided a direct and uninterpreted link to antiquity.

Similar direct connections come up in Plautus, of course; it may be more difficult to convey it, although there are exceptions. Opening night, when directors of Getty Trust programs and members of the board of trustees were in attendance, Plautus' prologue had the intended effect for an audience he probably would have recognized:

Away with sorrowing,
thoughts about your borrowing,
not to mention work.
It's fun and games, so put your cares away,
why even bankers get a holiday.

I mentioned earlier the kind of intellectual and interpretive activity that went on among production staff, visiting scholars and the actors as part of creating the performances. This too we would like to share with a broader public through colloquia, panel discussions or other kinds of formal presentations. Unfortunately the best of this sort of thing is experienced only in the process: in rehearsal, backstage or at a weekly production meeting. It is difficult to see how to share this in a more general way. In the end perhaps we will have to leave it as the reason we risk this activity for the sake of inviting others to witness (as only Plautus himself could describe it):

A titillating tale, to charm, amuse and move;
the sort of stuff the older crowd approve.
You younger folks who don't remember Plautus
we'll also do our best to win your plaudits, with such a play!
The greatest glory of its age,
once more before you on a modern stage!

Ken Hamma
E-mail: KHamma@Getty.edu

( Kenneth Hamma is associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.)

Richard Beacham's description of the project.

Judith Maitland's production of Casina.

Mary-Kay Gamel's review of the Getty productions (Didaskalia).

Marianne McDonald's review of the Getty productions (Didaskalia 1.5).