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


Timothy Moore
Department of Classics
The University of Texas at Austin

Facing the Music: Musical Accompaniment and the Performance of Roman Comedy

Many basic questions about the musical element of Roman comedy remain unsolved, and, probably, unsolvable. Many scholars, however, have accepted the theory of Friedrich Ritschl regarding the basic distinction between diverbia and cantica: diverbia were passages in iambic senarii, during which the tibicen did not play; cantica were passages in all other meters, which were accompanied by the tibiae. Ritschl's distinction between diverbium and canticum is of great significance, for it means that we can tell from the text which passages were and were not accompanied. In this paper I will consider the implications of Ritschl's theory for the interpretation of Roman comedy, and I will propose that in performing Roman comedies today, we can recreate at least part of the effect intended by Plautus and Terence if we follow their metrical cues for accompaniment.

Many factors, including tradition, tone and emotion, plot, and structure, helped to determine which passages were or were not accompanied in Roman comedy. In most plays of Plautus and some of Terence, however, the most significant factor governing accompaniment was contrast between characters: certain character types tended to be accompanied, while others usually spoke without accompaniment; and patterns of accompaniment helped determine which characters spectators found most sympathetic. Musical contrast between characters is especially evident in Plautus' Amphitruo and Menaechmi, and in Terence's Adelphoe.

Plautus' Amphitruo offers a clear association between accompaniment and character. The gods Mercury and Jupiter, when alone on stage, are almost always unaccompanied, while music almost inevitably accompanies the appearances of mortals. The only exceptions to these patterns are an unaccompanied scene where Jupiter is at pains to calm Alcumena; a running slave scene performed by Mercury (running slave scenes are always accompanied); an unaccompanied scene between Amphitruo and Alcumena at the play's moment of greatest crisis; and Jupiter's deus ex machina speech at play's end. Patterns of accompaniment thus underline the extent to which the gods control the plot of the play. While the mortals, in their confusion, are confronted always with a distraction from the tibiae, the gods calmly share their plans with the audience without any such distraction.

In Menaechmi Plautus distinguishes the twin Menaechmus brothers through musical accompaniment. Menaechmus of Epidamnus is always accompanied, and at each of his entrances except his last he brings musical accompaniment with him. Menaechmus of Syracuse, on the other hand, brings a stop to the music at each of his entrances except his last, and after each entrance he remains unaccompanied until he is affected by a music-bringing character from Epidamnus. Music thus distinguishes the serious Syracusan from his more carefree brother and the Epidamnus he inhabits. When Menaechmus of Syracuse reenters for the last time, however, he uses an accompanied meter, foreshadowing the reunion of the brothers which will ensue.

Terence's Adelphoe includes similar patterns of contrast between characters, and a reversal of those patterns near play's end. After the prologue, the first scenes between the senes Demea and Micio remain unaccompanied. The music stops for the lively entrance of the young lover Aeschinus. It stops again later, but starts for the parallel entrance of Aeschinus' brother, Ctesipho. Music then stops each time the old man Demea enters, except for once when he enters a stage already occupied by his son. Late in the play, however, Demea enters alone to musical accompaniment: the change to accompanied meter underlines a reversal in the plot. The brunt of everyone's jokes throughout the play, Demea had been unaccompanied except when he was being ruthlessly mocked. Here Demea has had a revelation, and he changes in such a way that he takes control of the plot.

In these three plays and elsewhere, then, Plautus and Terence manipulated their musical accompaniment to achieve many effects, most notably contrast between characters. While the melodies and the details of accompanied performance in Rome are lost to us, it would certainly be worth our while to follow the playwrights' metrical cues when performing their plays. Any kind of musical accompaniment, starting and stopping where the metrical evidence suggests it should, would recreate one element of the original performance, adding liveliness to productions, and reinforcing the distinctions between characters.

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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:34 CST
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