ElAnt v1n7 - REVIEWS - Hunting for Ghosts

Volume 1, Number 7
February 1994


Review of Richard C. Beacham,
Staging Roman Comedy: Pompeian Painting and Plautus
(video with transcript),
University of Warwick 1986

Available as #PM 1613 from
"Films for the Humanities"
PO Box 2053
NJ 08543-2053,


$89.95 seems like an enormous amount to pay for a videotape. On the other hand, this video was clearly expensive to make, as much of it was shot on location in Rome, Pompei, and Oplontis - in the complete absence of tourists. Anyone familiar with the Forum knows that there are normally as many tourists there as there ever were Romans doing business. Access to the House of Augustus, moreover, normally requires a special permesso .

It is this presence on location which makes Beacham's video a particularly valuable teaching tool. A wall-painting as reproduced in a book can be confusing to look at; to be led through the Room of the Masks in living color makes it much easier to distinguish architecture from backdrop and understand that this is, in fact, a stage being represented.

Some of the narrative which accompanies this quest for evidence on which to reconstruct the Plautine stage is, however, distinctly hokey. Beacham frames the bulk of his story in his 'lunch with the ghost of Julius Caesar'. Not only is the emptiness of the restaurant built on the ruins of the Theater of Pompey more jarring than a deserted Forum, the room's acoustics are appalling, and the whole device seems rather pointless except as a place for the camera to rest during narrative transitions. Beacham might better have done the in-between bits in his office at Warwick. Beacham presents his evidence like a man pulling rabbits out of hats: 'a picture . . . would be worth a thousand words . . . As it happens, the Romans left us some pictures' (Transcript, p. 6). I can see this approach working in a classroom, with the instructor leading the students to recognize for themselves what kind of evidence would be most helpful, but on video the pretense of immediacy and discovery becomes irritating. A more straightforward narrative, along the lines of 'literary evidence gave me some hints but to really get anywhere I had to look at these wall-paintings', would have been more plausible and less patronizing.

In fairness to Dr. Beacham and his video team I should point out that the tape is intended for students with very little background and the narrative devices are probably aimed at holding their attention. (Though the showing of Latin on the screen and the assumption, stated in the introduction to the transcript, that students will have read some Plautus before watching the video, raise some very interesting questions about educational procedures which can introduce language and literature without cultural background.) For scholars there is Beacham's book, The Roman Theatre and Its Audience (Cambridge, MA: 1992), more congenial in tone.

But even for serious scholars the video is instructive. The story it tells is that of the reconstruction of a Roman stage and its effectiveness for production. The Roman Theatre and Its Audience includes a section on this topic, and contains a reproduction of the replica stage, but is much less clear about the stage itself. The video takes us through the stages of construction (so to speak), showing models from several angles, discussing structural necessities, and explaining the workings of doors, curtains, backdrops. And it shows us the stage being used for its intended purpose, first in rehearsal (raising the fascinating question of where Plautus rehearsed and how long these 'temporary' stages stood) and then in performance.

Beacham devotes a good deal of time to the practical necessities of performing, with attention to the language of the translation, the spirit of Roman comedy, and the broadly physical acting style. Mention of the translation segues into an interview with Erich Segal, who is provided with an opportunity to voice his well- known views on Roman comedy as inversion of values. No one mentions the places where Segal's thesis falls down or brings in an opposing viewpoint (Konstan, for instance). This, however, is a necessity of the format: no one mentions these things in introductory lectures, either, and the bibliography at the end of the transcript includes Konstan and many others. We can safely assume that what Beacham actually brought to rehearsal, contrary to the implications of the tape, was a synthesis of scholarly opinion, subject to the actual workings of production.

Beacham emphasises the suitability of his replica stage for 'presenting and displaying the performance to the audience, rather as a stand-up comedian might be presented in a cabaret or nightclub' (Transcript p. 15). This is clearly so: steps to fall down and nooks to hide in are eminently useful, and no one would want 'realistic' scenery for such unrealistic comedy: the never-to-be-forgotten, metatheatrical point is that this is entertainment . The scenes shown in the video work splendidly well; I only wish I'd been able to attend the actual performance.

This beautiful replica stage, which obviously cost a great deal to build, is not necessary for the effective presentation of Plautus. Roman comedy can be staged quite well in a black box, provided there are doorways to enter through, and having the actors provide their own sound effects can add to the humor. The success of the Warwick productions does not in fact prove that this was Plautus' stage. (The wall-paintings do postdate the poet considerably, and theatrical scenery goes through fashions as quickly as clothing does.) But Beacham has found a stage which works for the text and not against it, and that says a great deal in his favor. If you can afford one, by all means build one. Just remember that it's built on spec.

As a general introduction to those encountering Roman comedy for the first time, and as a guide to stage structure, Staging Roman Comedy is invaluable. If you are planning a production of Plautus or Terence, don't be put off by the price tag. Write it into your production budget and keep it around as a departmental resource. And don't worry about ghosts.

Sallie R. Goetsch
e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 7 - February 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606