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


John C. Gruber-Miller
Department of Classics
Cornell College

From the Roman Forum to the Steps of Armstrong Hall: Staging Plautus' Curculio

In the middle of Plautus' Curculio, a play set in Epidaurus, the Choragus comes on stage and gives a speech about the sights and sounds of the Roman Forum. The pointed references to specific Roman buildings, monuments, and streets and the satiric references to Roman institutions and professions can be explained, slowly and painstakingly, in a classroom, but can easily confuse or bore a modern audience. So what should a modern production of the play do with the scene? One solution might be to cut or at least shorten the speech. Another might be to rewrite the references so that they would be understandable for a modern audience, leaving the rest of the play unchanged. Plautus, however, offers another solution. Recast the play in such a way that it stresses the similarity of situation between the ancient world and our world.

As Timothy Moore has shown (AJP 112 [1991] 343-62), Plautus puts this speech into the mouth of the Choragus to blur the distinctions between the imaginary world of Epidaurus and the "real world" of Rome and to encourage the audience to view the action of the play, not as alien, but as applicable to their own lives. In other words, Plautus invites those who produce the play to make explicit the connection between the imaginary world on stage and the real world of our lives. So, at Plautus' encouragement, we recast the play as a satire of college social life. Instead of a pimp and a prostitute, there was a pledgemistress and her pledge. Instead of a lover and his slave, there was a pledgemaster and his male pledge. The banker was transformed into a college professor. Curculio the parasite metamorphosed into a recent college grad who had not found any meaningful employment. And the location for the performance was no longer the Roman forum, but the steps of Armstrong Hall on the campus of Cornell College.

In the rest of the paper, I will argue that recasting the play as a satire of campus social groups helps shed light on the theatrical conventions and cultural constructs of second century Rome. First, where in Curculio, besides the Choragus' speech, does Plautus encourage us to break down the differences between the audience and the imaginary world on stage? Where does Plautus' script invite modern producers to rewrite passages that make connections between stage and life for a midwestern college campus? In short, what conventions does Plautus use to create a distance or familiarity between the actors and the audience? And how do these conventions differ from those of the modern American stage? Second, where does our adaptation, while creating a familiarity for our audience, mask differences between Roman cultural constructs and our own? In particular, how does changing the gender of the pimp Cappadox reveal something not only about gender relations in our own time and place, but also clarify gender relations in the Roman world? Furthermore, to what extent do the power relations between pledgemaster and pledge reflect (or not) those between pimp and prostitute or between master and slave? Finally, how does the issue of Planesium's citizen status play with American audiences and what does it say about Roman attitudes about citizenship? In short, by exploring some of the results and challenges associated with this 1996 production, we can come to a better understanding of the Roman theater and Roman society as well as our own.

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