things happen on the way to the Forum . . .
Photo by Chris Hammond
The audiences investment in the show is less,
which means that the actors have to work harder to get their
attention. Plautine theatre on the steps of the
QE II Library.
(Toph) Marshall is acting, staging and researching his way to
an understanding of one of the great comedians of the ancient
In early 2000, Dr. Marshall of the Department of Classics won
a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant
to study the Roman playwright Plautus (flourished circa 205-184
Plautus wrote the earliest Latin literature still surviving.
Plautus starts off the scene and he starts it off with
a laugh, Dr. Marshall related about the subject of his
Getting at the heart of this ancient laugh is what
Dr. Marshalls research is all about. The themes of stagecraft,
performance conditions, troupe dynamics,
and the role of improvisation are the core of his
With these themes, Dr. Marshall has built an image of what ancient
Plautine comedy was like.
Plautus presented a very raw form of theatre that is interactive,
that is taking into account people walking across the performance
space, that is free to let the actors expand on a given routine,
Plautus staged his plays in public spaces such as the market,
using stairs or other parts of the environment as stage and props.
His actors had to grab the attention of milling crowds who had
probably come to buy food and other goods, not partake in a little
comedic distraction. This picture intimately associates Plautine
theatre with the cultural, economic, and material life of classical
What types of jokes did Plautus tell? According to Dr. Marshall,
Plautus humour works on a variety of levels: the
verbal, physical, situational, musical; jokes can be based on
character, on metre. There is high brow and low brow. He aimed
to entertain senators, slaves, prostitutes, little boys, as well
as ordinary Romans.
Photo by Alexander
Dr. Christopher (Toph) Marshall: If we ignore what the
Romans found funny, we really dont understand the Romans.
up with this basic picture, Dr. Marshall has had to be creative
in his use of sources, as documentary evidence is scarce. For
instance, hints at the visual appearance of the classical Latin
stage can be found on vases roughly contemporaneous to Plautus.
Theatre is often a pictorial theme, and Dr. Marshall has made
efforts to interpret these images. However, his research mainly
consists of intensive examination of Plautus plays.
Once we allow for improvisation and a looser connection
between the actors and the text, knowing that the actors had
the freedom to temporarily depart from the script, this opens
up a lot of opportunities to see where the possibilities for
One angle is from Shakespeare scholarship. By examining
troupe dynamics, Im taking a lot of questions that have
been asked of Shakespeares drama and transferring them
to Plautus, he said. Answers to such questions suggest
how actors worked under Plautus direction.
However, the vitality of Dr. Marshalls scholarship comes
from doing as the Romans did in other words, directing
his own plays.
Ive directed three Plautine plays, the most recent
two years ago on the steps of the (QE II) library, he recalled.
In these performances, Dr. Marshall used contemporary actors
and audiences to recreate the basic conditions that Plautus
troupe faced: the library steps became temple stairs, milling
crowds of contemporary Canadian students replaced the shopping
and worshipping hordes of ancient Latins. No tickets were to
be sold, thus making the actors job to draw in a
crowd who probably think they have better things to do. The audiences
investment in the show is less, which means that the actors have
to work harder to get their attention.
Besides his experimenting as a director, he draws on his own
experiences as a comedian. There are indications that Plautus
drew heavily on an unscripted theatre tradition (of Latin plays).
My own performance background is largely in unscripted theatre
and improv comedy, so I have a vocabulary for describing Plautus
that (previous researchers) have not had.
A number of insights have followed. One has to do with plot structure.
Very rarely is anything important given away at the beginning
(of Plautine plays), Dr. Marshall explained. A fluid audience
dynamic meant a flexible play: Generally you can come in
mid-way through, see part of it, see to the end, and catch the
beginning the next day. I think that was the experience of ancient
Roman audiences as well.
And, to Dr. Marshall, how the Romans laughed says a lot. Everyone
in society could get something from these plays. By understanding
what is just entertainment, we come to a better understanding
of Roman culture if we ignore what the Romans found funny,
we really dont understand the Romans.