A Staged Reading of Mother-in-Law by Terence
translated by Betty Radice
Directed by Michael Evenden,
Theater Emory, Atlanta, Georgia
24 April 1994.
Reviewed by Niall W. Slater
Department of Classics
We know (or think we know) of no classical play with so troubled a production history as Terence's Mother-in-Law. Those troubles are alluded to rather than detailed in the present state of the prologue, which combines apparently at least two versions, one for the failed second and another for the third, ultimately successful performance. While there have been occasional productions of Terence in this country, I know of none of the Mother-in- Law (and would be grateful to any readers with such knowledge who might write to me). The play seems a surprising choice for a staged reading but one proved eminently justified in the event.
The single performance of this staged reading was given at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in connection with the current exhibition, From Hannibal to Saint Augustine: Ancient Art of North Africa from the Musee du Louvre. It began as reader's theatre in the reception hall of the museum. The audience sat in three rows of chairs, arranged as for a lecture and facing a more varied array of seats for the performers, somewhat grouped by their familial relationships (e.g., Phidippus next to Myrrina, Laches somewhat near but separated from Sostrata, and Pamphilus down center---with an empty chair beside him for Philumena). The play dispensed with the prologue and began immediately with the dialogue: Syra, Philotis, and Parmeno strolled through this array of seats as they read the opening scene, with Parmeno moving the empty chair to indicate the peregrinations of Philumena, an effective device for charting the rather complicated history leading up to the play's beginning. Also highly effective was the choice to have the characters quoted by Parmeno in this scene speak in their own voices from their seats. At the end of the scene the director, also playing Phidippus, rose from his seat, went to a lectern which is part of the regular furnishings of the reception hall, and delivered a brief interjected speech, giving some background to Terentian drama and also some justification for including such a reading in a program based on North African art and culture. He then returned the audience to Parmeno and the script, inviting the spectators to follow the performance into the galleries of the museum.
The rest of the reading made imaginative and successful use of the space in three galleries, one of classical casts and two used for the visiting exhibition. The audience of some twenty-five accommodated itself nicely into these intimate spaces. At times the performers used the classical background for parodic effect: Laches imitating the pose of the cast of one of the Athenian tyrranicide group in an angry speech, for example. The effect was not, however, a cheap joke at the expense of the material but a persuasive frame for the notion of stereotypical character which Terence plays both with and against. Later Parmeno made use of heads on display as focal points for his narrative of the wild goose chase on the Acropolis for the non- existent Callidemides: they became the strangers he haplessly interrogated on his way. The finest effect was reserved for last, however. On display in the exhibit is a remarkable head, perhaps from a funeral monument (a suggestion offered by Naomi Norman in a lecture earlier this year), of an actor wearing his mask: most unusually we see the eyes and mouth of the actor carved behind the larger openings in the stiffly rendered mask. This astonishing image of the actor behind the character he represents became the focal point for the metatheatrical exchange at play's end, when Pamphilus tells Bacchis that they need not tell his father he is Philumena's rapist, since it needn't be 'like the comedies, where everyone ends by knowing everything.' Preceding this final scene was a second interruption of the text by the director speaking in propria persona. He and some in the cast felt it necessary to dissociate themselves from the notion of rape as an instrument of the 'happy ending,' where the discovery that Pamphilus is his own wife's unknown rapist makes him willing to take her back and therefore makes the comedy of remarriage in this play possible. I have suggested elsewhere that there is already in Terence recognition of what is objectionable about this ending: see Slater, 'The Fictions of Patriarchy in Terence's Hecyra,' Classical World 81 (1988) 249-260. It may be possible then that this directorial intervention, telling us how much the performers object to the casual violence entailed in the plot, actually short- circuits the audience's experience of that violence. Perhaps like the readers of Milton in Stanley Fish's view of their experience, we should be 'surprised by sin' in our initial complicity with the violence of the plot---which we will on reflection come to repudiate.
The experience of witnessing this staged reading was profoundly revealing, despite the many problems of Radice's translation, which was never conceived with performance in mind: Terence can and should hold a modern stage. The women of the play are particularly appealing, caught as they are in the shifting accusations of the men around them who never bother to listen to what they are saying, but indeed all of the characters are capable of surprising us. Caesar may in fact have been wrong: in the elliptical phrases and arguments of Terence's dialogue there may be even more depth than in Menander. The analogy of Chekov, flawed though it may be, comes to mind: Terence's plays are comedies without many laughs in them. Indeed, what jokes there are can seem embarrassing, a diversion from the real and painful plights of the characters. Those characters, as realized in this remarkable staged reading, engage our sympathies even as we deplore the follies that put them in such situations. Aided by new, much more speakable translations, the time may be right for a revival of Terence.
Niall W. Slater
Niall Slater is about to depart for the Humanities Research Centre in Canberra, Australia.