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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


C. Thomas Ault
Theatre Department
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Performances of Plautus and Terence Done in Italian at the Court of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara, Between 1486 and 1508

My research indicates that the first performance of a classical humanist drama to be done in translation took place in the palace court yard of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara, on January 25, 1486. I have a number extracts from court diaries, chronicles and letters, etc., which describe this and subsequent performances in Ferrara, ending in 1508. This brackets the early phase of vernacular Renaissance Theatre performance which abandoned Latin and rhetoric (i.e. Pomponio Leto's recitazione in Rome) for the livelier theatre of action, using essentially late Medieval theatrical structures. The following extract from an anonymous Ferrarese court diary will illustrate the type of material I wish to present:
January 25, 1486
On the twenty-fifth day, the Duke Hercole da Este caused a festival to be done in his court and there was done a work of Plautus called the Menaechmi. There were two brothers who looked like each other, but did not know each other; and it was done on a tribunale of boards, with five houses with battlements and a window and door for each one. Then a pirate ship with oars, a real sail and ten people inside came across from the larder and kitchen and crossed the court; and here the brothers met one another; who had not seen each other for a long time. And the expenses for this play were more than 1,000 ducats.
I shall begin my papers with a short introduction regarding the acquisition of the Plautus Codex by the Este and its early editing and translation into Italian/Volgare. I shall continue with a letter by Baptista Guarino which defends his "modern" translations against the attacks by the classical purists. The rest of the paper will be devoted to short, selected extracts, such as the one above, describing performances till 1508, with emphasis on the infusion of classical humanist plays into other entertainments of the times.

I shall focus on staging and scenery, a legacy of the medieval sacra rapprasentazione, spectacular effects from diverse sources such as Carnival and secular festivities (marriages, births, triumphal entries, etc.) and popular dances (Moresche), inserted as interludes between the acts of the plays. I shall end in 1508 with a brief look Nicolé da Corregio's Il Cefalo, which employed the first perspective stage setting (by da Udine) in performance, thus ending the early phase of vernacular Renaissance Theatre.

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