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(July 12, 2001, Gazette)

Funny things happen on the way to the Forum . . .
Classic humour

By Alexander Dalziel
SPARK Correspondent


Plautine theatre on the steps of the QE II Library.
Photo by Chris Hammond

“The audience’s 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.

Dr. Christopher (Toph) Marshall is acting, staging and researching his way to an understanding of one of the great comedians of the ancient Western world.

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 BC).

“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 research.

Getting at the heart of this ancient “laugh” is what Dr. Marshall’s research is all about. The themes of “stagecraft”, “performance conditions”, “troupe dynamics”, and the “role of improvisation” are the core of his work.

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,” he said.

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 Roman society.

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.”

Dr. Christopher (Toph) Marshall
Photo by Alexander Dalziel

Dr. Christopher (Toph) Marshall: “If we ignore what the Romans found funny, we really don’t understand the Romans.”

In coming 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 humour lie.”

One angle is from Shakespeare scholarship. “By examining troupe dynamics, I’m taking a lot of questions that have been asked of Shakespeare’s drama and transferring them to Plautus,” he said. Answers to such questions suggest how actors worked under Plautus’ direction.

However, the vitality of Dr. Marshall’s scholarship comes from doing as the Romans did – in other words, directing his own plays.

“I’ve 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 actor’s job to draw in a crowd who probably think they have better things to do. The audience’s 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 don’t understand the Romans.”

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