WHAT THE ROMAN PLAY WAS LIKE

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 92-6.

LATIN plays were presented in the daytime, sometimes before, sometimes after, the noon meal. The average comedy was about two hours long. The characters wore Greek dress, with or without masks. Paint and wigs were employed, a gray wig for an old man, black for a young man, and red for a slave. For the greater part of Roman history the profession of acting was confined to men, the women's parts being taken by youths. The ordinary setting was a stage with a street and three or four houses in the background. Two doors led from the wings on to the stage--one at the left of the spectators for the entrance of persons from foreign parts, that to the right for ordinary citizens. The doors between led into the various residences of the characters in the play. There was no limit to the number of actors. The chorus was never as important as in Greek drama, and in time it was abandoned altogether. Division into acts or scenes was made only when the actor left the stage to prepare for the next appearance. During such intermission a flute player entertained the audience. In both comedies and tragedies probably some of the dialogue was sung, as in modern opera. Thus there arose curious artificialities. Livy relates that Livius Andronicus (who first replaced the Fescennine songs with a regular plot) was so frequently encored as actor and singer that he lost his voice; in consequence he obtained permission from the city officials to introduce a boy to sing by his side, while he himself interpreted the action by appropriate gestures.

Theaters and spectacles. Although the best Latin plays belong to the second century before our era, yet at that time Roman theaters were of the crudest description. They were built of wood at the foot of a grass-covered slope, with almost nothing in the way of accommodation for either actors or audience. The stage was a narrow platform, elevated, and backed by a simple architectural design. There was no curtain, no scenery that could be changed, no sounding board to carry the voice. An altar was placed on the stage, in front of the "set" described above. The audience, out on the sloping amphitheater, either reclined, stood, or sat on stools brought from home. In Rome the theater was never a place for worship, as in Greece; it was always a scene of noisy confusion, pushing, and crowding. The aristocracy would not mingle with the more or less disgusting crowd, which was, for the most part, deaf to the elegances of such a writer as Terence. Even Plautus, with his boisterous humor, his bustle and high spirits, was obliged to explain the subject and story of a play in a manner that almost seems suited to an audience of half-wits. In his prologue he tells the whole plot, then he points and re-points the facts during the performance. Terence, in one of his prologues, asked the spectators not to hiss his play off the stage until they had heard it out.

During the republic various attempts were made to improve the theater structures, and at least one temporary wooden auditorium was built after the Greek model. In the year 55 B.C., Pompey the Great erected the first permanent theater in Rome. It was of stone, seated perhaps seventeen thousand people--Pliny said forty thousand--was situated on the Campus Martius on level ground, and had separate sections for knights and senators. About the time of Horace, roofed-in play-houses also began to be built, though even then the greater number of such structures were after the Greek style. Thirteen years before the beginning of the Christian era two new, roofed-in auditoriums were constructed for the purpose of staging huge and costly spectacles consisting of games, military exercises, combats between slaves, captives, condemned criminals, and not infrequently contests between beasts and men. Sometimes panthers or foxes, infuriated by burning firebrands tied to their tails, fought among themselves. Pompey is said to have furnished troops of cavalry and bodies of infantry for some of these performances, with real booty for the successful combatants. These spectacles naturally had little or nothing to do with drama, but their significance should be understood, for they explain its lethargy and final death. The money and enthusiasm which might have promoted the art of the stage was diverted to these noisy and brutalizing shows. Slaves who drove the chariots in the races won fabulous sums, and often became the petted favorites of the nobles. Huge structures were required, and builders contrived curious plans to meet the need. In one case, two whole theaters constructed of wood, each in the form of a half-circle, were so placed that they could be united to form one immense amphitheater.

Roman mimes. The most popular of the stage entertainments which survived were the mimes--short scenes given by two or three actors, with spoken dialogue. In these skits the actor impersonated rustics, sight-seeing provincials, pompous officials, and other decent but dull types, often with obscene and indecorous accompaniments. A contemporary writer has recorded how Horace and his friends laughed over the representation of a bombastic rural priest who wore a loud purple robe with broad stripes and carried a pan of coals, according to the requirements of his office. Of course such a figure, once connected with the ancient dignity of the patricians, could easily be converted into burlesque. The dialogue of the mimes was in verse, and Roman knights sometimes employed themselves in their composition. The prosperous, as well as the lower class delighted in them.

Pantomimes. Pantomimic shows, usually given by a single dancer, were of three kinds: simple mimicry without music or words, but with dancing; secondly, mimicry with instrumental music; and thirdly, mimicry with music and words--the latter frequently given to a chorus. Some of the pantomimes were modifications of the Atellan fables and saturæ. Often they reproduced tales of abnormal depravity, and always they were salted with coarse buffoonery and indecent humor, exhibiting, fully and unmistakably, by exaggerated gestures, the various passions and emotions of mankind. Cymbals, gongs, castanets, rattles and drums were used. In time these entertainments became so gross that even easy-going citizens were forced to discountenance them. Dill, the historian of Roman society, writes: "The theater and the circus were for five centuries the great corrupters of the Roman world."

Reasons for the decline of the classic drama. It goes without saying that such associations did not improve the drama. The Roman world, or such part of it as frequented the spectacles, was not of the sort to find delight in the more subtle revelations of character. Thrilling scenes were for them almost daily enacted in real life: their malefactors were stretched on the cross, or tossed to the beasts of the arena; their generals, returning from war, led their captives in chains through the streets. Such plays as were given had to compete, very unequally, with the spectacles and circuses, as well as with the turbulent and sensational life of the city; and they were further degraded by being placed, on occasion, on the circus programs between the gladiatorial shows and the wild beast combats. Moreover, the political and social condition of the city was averse to the cultivation of the arts. As the empire expanded it was the custom for sons of patricians to serve in the wars and to administer the government in distant provinces. In consequence whole families became extinct and the aristocracy dwindled, while the prestige of the city drew into its confines a strange crowd of outlanders, barbarians, prisoners of war, tradesmen from foreign countries, hangers-on and scamps of all sorts. The result was that many of the people in a theater audience knew but little Latin--only sufficient to enable them to trade--and their taste was inevitably low. They honestly preferred rope dancing and bloody sights of the arena. It followed naturally that playwrights found scant market for their wares; and even the lowest actors despised the verdict of the masses.

It is not wholly fair to say that Roman drama was smothered by the Greek; it is quite as true to say that it was starved out by the Romans themselves. Oratory and law interested them more than poetry. They were perhaps too impatient to sit quietly through a representation of an experience of the heart, to reflect on its meaning, and to appreciate its wisdom and beauty. It had been the aim of Ennius and other early teachers not only to familiarize Romans with Greek literature, but also "to enlighten their minds and banish error." Gradually this purpose was forgotten. Seneca and such writers as he only arrested for a moment the national decay; they could not stop it. Although the mimes were popular, yet they reflected the worst traits of a debauched and crumbling civilization, and in time they were condemned by all decent Romans.

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