- The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy
C. W. Marshall’s book features a fine balance of desirable traits. It familiarizes the reader with the fundamentals of Roman comic-stage production taking as its primary focus the plays of Plautus (fl. 205–184 bce). Some attention is also given to the six plays of Terence (195/185–159 BCE), the only other comedian whose work survives from the Roman period. The first chapter in particular (“The Experience of Roman Comedy”) has an accessible format with headings like “Set,” “Costume,” and “Audience,” and is supplemented by examples from Plautus’s twenty-one extant plays. There is also a healthy amount of space devoted to the many unknowns that exist in this field, and to reconsidering some old givens from new angles. In both cases, Marshall’s concern for performance is kept at the forefront and dexterously guides his analysis. He considers the works of Plautus from an experiential perspective, and his approach yields many fresh insights concerning the physicality of the script and its status as commodity, the idiosyncrasies of Roman (versus Greek) masked performance, and the boundary-defining role of the tibicen, or pipe-player, in his discussion of music and meter in chapter 4.
It is a welcome change to read a book on Roman comedy that deliberately tries to step away from the literary prejudices that frequently (over)determine classical analyses of ancient drama. Marshall reminds his reader of the collaborative and improvisational nature of the genre and calls attention to the play not as a static text authored by one playwright, but as an ever-changing entity. He closes the book with the proposal that “the most distinctive feature” of Plautus’s plays was precisely their “rough edges” and “raw” quality (277–79). His point is a necessary one for modern scholars to take into account when discussing Plautus.
Marshall is honest about points on which he can only speculate, but at times it is unclear what kinds of evidence he consulted in constructing his hypotheses. To offer one brief example, he suggests that we should see “the troupe [as] sell[ing] an audience to the magistrates for a price,” instead of thinking of “the troupe and its plays [as] the product being sold to the Roman audience” by the magistrates (83). This idea, which is compelling, requires a sophisticated understanding of the power dynamics involved in producing a dramatic performance as well as recognition of the predominance of economic concerns over simple top-down politicking. Yet Marshall never says whether anything like the “fixed contracts” between magistrates and troupes he discusses in this context exist in the written record from this period, or whether they are only referred to in later literary sources. His broader argument further impels one to ask, to what extent did ancient spectators, magistrates, or troupes think about performances in explicitly economic terms? Or, more specifically, in the economic terms that Marshall uses—investment, return, risk, commodity—which derive from a decidedly more modern, capitalistic model? [End Page 510]
Marshall offers an insightful discussion about how performance spaces are created to ideally suit the drama produced within them, and how each of these spaces produces a unique relationship between the actors and audience. He explains how all performance spaces in Rome were essentially “found spaces”—temporary venues with fluid boundaries, which served as “focal points” during a festival (47). These important points also raise further questions: why were these found spaces ideal for the performance of Roman drama for such a long time? What does this mean for the relationships that Roman audiences had with their “theatres” and with what was inside them? Does the lack of permanent stages signal a lack of broader cultural influence, or does it reflect conservative bias and moral aversion? Or, is it that performance was so ingrained as a social practice in other aspects of Roman life that there was no need to create a distinct and permanent space for it? I would have liked Marshall to take the discussion a...