Laughing at Live Latin: Plautus' Poenulus in Production

by John H. Starks, Jr.

Picture telling a classicist that you plan to stage a Plautine comedy, and you might visualize that scholar mulling over a short list of five or six of Plautus' most famous and influential plays. Tell that classicist that you are staging the Poenulus, and you will see question marks appear in true cartoon fashion above his or her head. And the classicist's surprise at your announcement is only surpassed by that of your non classicist friends who think you're missing a few marbles for staging a play in Latin with hopes of entertaining teenagers. But that's where the Poenulus worked so well in our 1994 production at UNC Chapel Hill, as a comedy with "something for everyone," even among those with no Latin. Since the focus of this play and our accompanying workbook (containing a text, commentary, director's notes, glossary, and oral exercises) was to excite high school and college students about the potential for fun and drama in live, oral Latin, our edited version of the Poenulus proved an apt choice for stage and video audiences alike. With a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, and support from CAMWS and scores of private donations, we were able to present a polished, well-acted, Latin play of just over one and one half hours duration to about a thousand live audience members and countless video viewers. So, who said Latin is a dead language?

Our greatest challenge as educators of the classics is to make Latin more understandable and lively, a rule which is as true for our classrooms, in general, as for the narrower scope of the staged ancient drama. Plautus possesses the natural blend of colloquial, conversational language that I have heard students of all ages clamouring for as a relevant supplement to our traditional focus on the written word. Contrary to the usual objections to Plautine vocabulary and archaisms, I have found many common themes, phrases, and constructions that made the Poenulus an excellent addition to my intermediate college Latin course, where the humour, insults, and love themes proved an excellent introduction to Catullus, and the religious elements and Carthaginian connections fed into Book 4 of the Aeneid. In fact, student evaluations listed reading the Poenulus with the added instruction from the videotape as their favourite part of my Latin literature class.

But, as my title suggests, the success of Plautus is in the humour, and the conveyance of that comedy especially to the non Latin audience. And while one cannot deny that Plautus can be profoundly unfunny at times, any modern production, must move the audience from one funny moment to the next, or find or create funny moments, using the stock qualities of the characters, with a little help from the plot (apologies to Aristotle) to move the humour along.

Our Poenulus was successful as comedy in several ways, but most importantly because of its ever-changing parade of characters undominated by any one individual, notwithstanding Plautus' penchant for such scripts. Plautus' frequent fondness for loading down the servus callidus with most of the juicy insults gives way in the Poenulus to a distribution of this character across several slaves and a chorus of advocati. A few examples of the power of characterization to convey meaning:

The stock crafty slave, Milphio, is a bundle of mischievous energy and boisterous intrusion, but to add to the comedy of his bustling about, he was cast as a hunchback à la Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. This characterization was inspired by Milphio's first (lines 138 139) in which he complains of his lumps brought on from the adulescens' love-crazed passion for taking it all out on his slave.

More women than men auditioned for our production, so I had to work two characters into roles of females imitating males. Collybiscus, who serves only as a dress-up character to fool the pimp, was easily cast as a woman, who is ridiculously asked by Milphio to act like a miles. Since she then becomes a self-aware actor within a play, we were able to cast her as a bad actor, delivering her lines so awkwardly and deliberately that only the gullible pimp could be fooled, not the all-knowing audience.

Syncerastus, the pimp's whiny slave, was also played by a woman in the guise of a rotund eunuch with a Minnie Mouse voice. This worked culturally since she could then be a logical choice as slave to a pimp, but most of all it placed on stage two funny, physical types, Milphio the hunchback and Syncerastus the eunuch, in the otherwise plot-driven fourth act. How could you miss with such a combination? Although I must confess, students who didn't know what a eunuch was thought she was a pregnant woman.

Two prostitute sisters present a dichotomy of their profession, with the older sister cast as a priggish, prudish, "Mary Poppins-like" snob who moralizes frequently about the proprieties and religious obligations of prostitutes in a deliberate, school-mannish tone. Her foil is her younger sister, concerned only with beautifying herself to catch the attention of some trick or at least best their competitors at the prostitute state fair, the Aphrodisia. I cast this sister as a ditzy Valley girl, whose accent and mannerisms, while they might be passé in Southern California, were perfectly suited to convey a dingbat to North Carolinians.

The rare Plautine chorus of parasitic, mooching advocati / testes in Act 3 offered the most pleasant and exciting possibilities for comic staging. They required the greatest attention to blocking of scene movement and flow, but also produced some of the funniest moments in the play. I decided on a chorus of three to allow for an interesting blend of individual and choral delivery that made them a troupe that casually drifted in and out of personal- and group-think. They wore large name-plates reading, respectively, TARDUS, TARDIOR, TARDISSIMUS, an idea inspired by the use of each of these words in the adulescens' description of them at the opening of Act 3. Of course, it also allowed for the humourous presentation of a paradigm on stage. To counter this characterization of slowness, they wore high-top sneakers. Their comic shtick went from Three Stooges greetings (Salve, Salve, Salve! sung in the old familiar rising thirds), to removable beards, to paper bag masks, to Keystone Cops bouncing off of each other. They were always a presence on stage, especially when they were only supposed to be part of the background.

An example of one of the advocati's best scenes (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 711-745)
Since Agorastocles, the adulescens, is here testing the resolve and awareness of his would-be professional witnesses, and Plautus clearly wrote their snippy, one-word responses as a play on juridical procedure, especially interrogation, I had them snap to attention on queue and proceed to imitate the famous monkeys, See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil. Agorastocles interrogated them, with legal pad in hand, pacing back and forth in front of them like Perry Mason, giving a clear description to the audience that this was a mock trial. We left in the bad pun on the similarity between pultem the verb and pultem the noun (lines 728-729) with the obvious signal that the advocati thought it was a real knee-slapper, while Agorastocles, as any normal person would, rolled his eyes and waved off the smell of the bad joke. After this punning, Plautus clearly indicates that the advocati, whose attention-spans are as short as teenagers', get bored with the question and answer and proceed to repeating the rhetorical question, "Quippini?" 'Why not?" as a sassy, pithy retort. We added several repetitions of this answer, taught it to the audience, put it in big letters on the back of their name plaques, and got the audience to chime in with the perfect motto for Generation X.

While on stage personalities were clearly essential for conveying the flavour of Plautine comedy, our most important character was inspired from a previous production of the Curculio (I was very privileged to co-direct and act in this production with Dr. Kenneth Reckford at UNCCH in 1991 - this show was clearly the catalyst that made the Poenulus possible three years later), and the famous prologue to the Poenulus. The prologus served as plot explicator and English interpreter for the non-Latin audience. At three separate breaks in the play, his interjected combination of charisma, modern humour, and instruction in key Latin phrases and useful words generated audience understanding without sacrificing the integrity of the natural, continuous, oral Latin within the scenes of the play itself. This helped keep the audience focus on Latin dialogue for a bearable 20-30 minutes at a time and maintained a proper balance of theatrical illusion that the actors were genuine Latin speakers carrying on their natural conversations. In fact, many audience members said they thought this juxtaposition between all Latin scenes and English interpolation, spiced with a little Latin, made the whole experience more believable as a piece of ancient drama.

While I do believe that stock characterizations are critical to understanding Plautus, the play goes nowhere if the director and actors (no matter how amateur) do not bring the individual personalities to life as believable, if exaggerated, people. In transferring Plautus from "page to stage" for a non-Latin audience, the director should:

1) encourage broad, intense gesture and significant voice modulation, especially when the information to be presented has a quality that is easily conveyed by over-expression. Example: Milphio employs a game-show host voice with Agorastocles when he offers him "the pimp and his whole household behind door number 1" (lines 168-169).

2) create purposeful stage movement encouraged by the natural flow of the scene, not too much stationary dialogue or mindless meandering. Characters should cross the stage or interchange positions fairly regularly with any significant change of emotion or intent. This especially applies for silent characters, like our little ancilla who had one line (332), but spent the entire scene helping the two prostitute sisters get dressed for the Aphrodisia, including hunting for an electrical outlet for their hair curler, picking up props from the previous scene, and trying to clean graffiti off the leno's wall.

3) use the entire stage space, and the audience space when called for, to avoid the two-dimensional feel that makes ancient drama seem stiff and lifeless. For example, Agorastocles' prostitute love-interest, Adelphasium, while verbally assaulting him for breach of promise (lines 359-363) literally backed the adulescens against the proscenium slapping him in a fit of rage that made him look extremely uncomfortable in all kinds of ways.

4) bring important references to interior action, like the dressing of the prostitutes in Act 1 Scene 2, and the matching of the two halves of the recognition scene necessity, the tessera in Act 5, Scene 2, out onto the live stage.

5) finally, never treat Plautus as a pure sacred cow of Latin literature. It sounds ludicrous even to suggest that one would do so. Be free and easy with dropped and added lines, within reason, that help get the idea of jokes or references across to an audience that struggles with every word of the oral text. For example, at the opening of Act 3, Scene 4, when the advocati call the Agorastocles out with the line "specta ad dexteram," I had to make him look to the left so that the advocati could turn him and shout, as one might expect, "alteram dexteram," which nearly everyone in the audience understood. It also played with the common confusion between stage right and stage left.

I firmly believe that Plautus would concur that anachronistic references and props are also key, as witnessed by two very successful updated allusions I used. In place of an off-hand suggestion in the text calling for the painting expertise of the ancient stand-bys Apelles and Zeuxis to capture a tender moment (lines 1271 ff), we had the characters pose in the recognizable patterns of Michelangelo's Creation, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Rockwell's Thanksgiving Dinner. Our best prop should have been listed as a performer in the program: an enlarged milk carton with "Vidistine me?" written on it in large print along with pictures of two busts of young children expressed for everyone present the modern concept of the search for kidnapped children. Hanno, the Carthaginian, wore a double picture frame with similar images about his neck in imitation of a locket, and at one point even matched the pictures to the milk carton, sobbing at this extra bit of comic coincidence.

I will end with short scene explications from our production to indicate some successful elements of my directing technique. I have provided these notes along with the grammatical commentary in our teaching materials so that teachers or students interested in performing, but unsure of how to generate ideas can get a visual and written sense of how to bring Latin text to life.

My first scene explication is one of the more familiar moments in this play, Act 5 Scene 2 (lines 982-1034), the first meeting between the Carthaginian and the tricky slave, in which the original text bears some semblance of Punic. To make these lines work, we made Hanno's dialogue English with the Boston accent that our actor grew up with. This worked as a language just foreign enough to North Carolina ears and allowed Hanno to say he "Pahked the cah in Cahthage yahd." The English lines were the sorts of innocent things a lost traveller might say, but we carefully crafted them to match the sounds of the oddest words in Milphio's text. These were clearly the same words Plautus intended us to think Milphio, the false translator, was making up to lampoon and stereotype this Punic stranger. The premise behind using English instead of the textually garbled Punic is that the humour of the scene lies, not in the audience's understanding of authentic language on both sides of the exchange, but on one side only. The original audience understood Milphio and laughed at his putting down Hanno; our audience could understand Hanno, and therefore see by Milphio's actions that the slave was mistranslating Carthaginian badly and probably on purpose.

As he begins his version of Punic mannerisms, Milphio puts on a tall dunce cap in mocking imitation of Hanno's equally humourous headpiece as he proclaims himself "the Puniciest Punic around." (line 991) They begin their exchange by correctly understanding greetings, but that, of course, is not very difficult with enough gesture. Yet still Milphio manages to pronounce Hanno's Bostonian "Hello", as "Hahllo," similar to the mispronunciation mistakes of the average American abroad. Likewise, Hanno imitates the tourist, speaking to Milphio in that tone whereby the speaker thinks his loud, slow speech will make him better understood. When Milphio says "Hahllo," I had Hanno proclaim "Mother of Baal! This one speaks a little Carthaginian. I'm Hanno, I'm from Carthage!" To Milphio's ears, this "Mother of Baal!," plus the obligatory introduction of name and origins, becomes a set up for the logical interpolation of Hanno's patronymic, Mytthumballis (line 997). We came up with the funny phrase "Mother of Baal" from playing off this name in Milphio's translation.

Next Hanno says to Milphio "Don't know much Punic, do ya?" which to the slave sounds like "Here's a gift for you." playing on donum. (line 998). Though he is told to speak Punic, Milphio just keeps talking in slow, deliberate Latin. When Hanno says, "Maybe you could help me" while scratching his chin, Milphio goes off on assuming that Hanno has some mouth malady (miseram buccam, line 1003). Hanno tries to explain himself more clearly: "My reason for being here..." and "My friend's kid..." are converted into Milphio's ridiculous mures Africanos on parade (lines 1011- 10 12), for which I added a snippet of Sousa music. Hanno's next line "Look, would you stop being a nuisance!" gets interpreted as a very strange assortment of goods for sale (ligulas, canalis, nuces - lines 1014-1015) since in Milphio's stereotypical view, Hanno must be a sneaky merchant. Hanno responds, "This is hopeless!" so Milphio, continuing his prejudicial line of thought regarding Hanno as a dishonest salesman retorts my added line "Opes habet.." Hanno answers, "Oh crap, I suppose I'll just have to speak to him in Latin." Which Milphio interprets as lines 1025-1026, sub cratim ut iubeas se supponi atque eo lapides imponi multos. ut sese neces. Hanno very humourously translates Milphio for us, showing us just how dastardly the slave is. Hanno then chastises Milphio in Latin, which sends Milphio reeling (even clinging for dear life to our small stage bush), but then the slave comes back with a handily tailored insult that plays again on Hanno's words (lines 1029-1034), this time in Latin. Milphio even gets in a double entendre with his insult that Hanno has a forked tongue like a snake, (bisulci lingua quasi proserpens bestia) which means both that Hanno "talks out of both sides of his mouth, i.e. with a forked tongue" and plays on the Roman stereotype that Carthaginians were tricky multilingual tradesmen ready to trap innocent people with their language skill.

Shortly after this translation scene, Hanno returns briefly to English/Punic to describe the most bizarre piece of recognition proof imaginable, after having already received two other fairly conclusive proofs, which we spoofed with equal cheek (note the corny matching of the tessera halves). The final proof is a monkey bite that Hanno claims the adulescens should have on his hand if he is indeed his lost nephew (lines 1073-1074). I had Hanno searching for the words for such an odd act and trying to act out "monkey" since he didn't know the word. Finally he just asked the prompter how to talk about a monkey bite while our "Latin-speaking" adulescens stood by seemingly understanding none of this.

To these comments, I only add a short note about the final scene of our play. There are two different endings in the text as we have it, so I merged together the best elements of each into one scene to achieve as much conflict as possible. The text itself is rather bland without the blustering attack by the miles, Antamoenides. So, in many ways, even when other actors were speaking, the miles was the focus of attention. While Hanno and Agorastocles were trying to get their due out of Lycus the leno, Antamoenides was busy flirting with his love interest, the other prostitute, Anterastilis. Likewise, after Antamoenides has made his verbal attack on Lycus, and Hanno begins to speak about winding down his affairs in Calydon (lines 1402 ff), Antamoenides draws the audience's attention to his thrashing of the pimp, just for the fun of it, in a really stylised version of the supreme acting job, professional heavyweight wrestling.

Thus ends the Poenulus, which turned out to be the best proof that Latin can instruct and entertain even the most unlikely of audiences. More importantly this event gave us graduate students not only the chance to perform and entertain, but also a unique opportunity to share our love of oral Latin and the humorous potential that it holds if only we let it out for all to see.

by John H. Starks, Jr.

(We would be very happy to provide interested parties with the videotape and workbook from our production as a great teaching tool for Plautus or for Latin in general. Keep in mind that the text is edited, but it is complete and well annotated. We can offer you these materials at cost for $25 US made payable to UNC-CH Classics Department. Please send to the care of: John H. Starks, Jr., Department of Classics, UNC-Chapel Hill, CB #3145, 212 Murphey Hall, Chapel Hill NC 27599-3145. If you have questions you may contact me at this address or by calling (919) 383-1228.)