Ancient Roman drama


The Eunuch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Phaedria has been thrown out of his lover Thais's house. And, to add insult to injury, he had paid for his right to be there. He doesn't know what he should do – he fears losing his place in the pecking order to his rival Thraso – and has only his trusted companion, and slave, Parmeno, for advice. Parmeno, who knows what freedoms can be bought with gold, suggests a gift: a slave girl, and a Eunuch.

But when Phaedria's brother Chaerea falls in love with another girl (a gift from Thraso hoping to woo Thais), he conspires to have himself substituted for the Eunuch, and placed inside Thais's house, causing untold complications for Thais, Phaedria and, not least, himself.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'the comedy in Terence is allowed to revolve around the discomfiture of those who lose their dignity from jealousy, greed, lust, envy, any or all, in fact, of the seven deadly sins. The initial transgressions are not condoned but where would comedy be without human frailty?'

The Haunted House

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Philolaches is a good for nothing so-and-so: he seems to live purely to spend his father's cash, or, when he can't get it, to borrow against it. Everything he loves is paid for by someone else's efforts, including the lady of his dreams, ex-courtesan Philematium. Now while his father is away earning money, Philolaches is spending it all on one big house party.

But when his father returns unexpectedly, Philolaches is stumped. Luckily, his trusty slave Tranio has a plan: he bundles his master's guests into a closet, and distracts the father with a tall tale that the house his haunted. As foolish as Philolaches is, so is Tranio quick-witted, building yarn upon fib upon lie to keep his master's father in the dark.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that The Haunted House 'is a play with strong narrative and a number of stock characters. Beyond that, it exemplifies the Plautine plot about family relationship, where the driving factor in life is less love than money: who has it – a wealthy father; who is spending it – a wastrel son; who wants it – who doesn't?'

The theatre flourished in ancient Rome for about 800 years, during both the Republic and the Empire. It developed from village entertainments such as the Atellana, and from Greek Drama.

The earliest Roman drama probably evolved from jolly carnivals and bawdy fertility rites performed on religious occasions. Its development was influenced greatly by the traditions of Greek colonists living in southern Italy and Sicily. The first documented Roman playwright was Lucius Livius Andronicus (c. 280–204 BC), a freed Greek slave who translated Greek works into Latin. The first recorded production took place in 240 BC at the Roman Games (Ludi Romani). Unlike their Greek predecessors Roman playwrights, such as Ennius, Naevius, and Andronicus wrote and published non-dramatic poetry.

Few Roman tragedies survive; most of the plays seem to have been adaptations of Greek originals, although Lucius Accius is thought to have written some original works. The role of the Chorus diminished, until it functioned as little more than a source of interlude music during scene changes. At the same time rhetoric grew increasingly important, with plays containing long set speeches. It is not even certain that the nine gory tragedies of Seneca were written to be performed on stage.

Roman comedy derived from the Greek New Comedy, with such authors as Plautus and Terence basing many of their works directly on plays by Menander and others. Although the plays were often set in Greece they tended to satirize Roman society and featured stereotypical Roman characters. Bawdy and brutal mime and the performances of the pantomimus eventually superseded literary comedy.

Roman drama was generally performed on festival days, together with gladiatorial contests, circuses, and races; popular actors could be very highly paid, one of the most successful being Roscius. Theatre buildings were originally wooden, and took their design from Greek theatres. The first stone theatre was built in Rome in 55 BC. Roman theatres became considerably more elaborate than the original Greek models; they were built to be freestanding, and had complex arrangements of curtains and scenery. There were even some indoor theatres. The amphitheatres designed as arenas for races were also used for theatrical shows. Performances were sometimes given in private; players could be hired to entertain dinner guests, while members of the literary elite would hold prestigious private readings of their works.

Roman drama disappeared in the 6th century AD when Christian opposition to acting resulted in the emperor Justinian closing down all the theatres.

from Jonathan Law, ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre, (London, 2011).