Updating Ancient Roman Comedy for the 21st Century

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Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy at the Getty Villa in full swing. Photo: Craig Schwartz


As Plautus’s Haunted House takes the stage at the Getty Villa, an archaeologist and a classicist share key facts about the play, its historical setting, and adapting ancient jokes for today.


By Shelby Brown and Amy Richlin / 09.12.2016

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Written 2,200 years ago, Plautus’s play Mostellaria (Haunted House) has a premise that suits a movie or sitcom episode today: while his father is away, a rich young man parties nonstop, falls for a prostitute, gets into debt, and tries to dodge getting caught. The Troubadour Theater Company is performing a 21st-century version of Mostellaria, renamed Haunted House Party, at the Getty Villa through October 3. The play evokes the spirit and setting of a Roman comedy around 200 B.C.

Working with the Troubies was, in a word, hysterical. They can’t stop being funny. Wanting to understand the ancient play, they did multiple readings, using different translations, asking questions about the original Latin, and cracking each other up. As time went on, they became a Plautine troupe in their minds. With their stage set, they reproduced the feel of a crowded, open-air performance space in ancient Rome and introduced a pre-show with the distractions of a Roman festival. Even the standard interruptions of our modern outdoor plays—feral parrots, helicopters, and barking dogs—were seamlessly incorporated. And if you come late and interrupt, be prepared to become part of the show!

To add historical context to the experience of watching Haunted House Party, here are some of our favorite facts about the original play, the playwright, and the context of ancient Roman theater, plus insights from seeing Haunted House Party come alive on stage.

From the Archaeologist

Shelby Brown is a classical archaeologist at the Getty Villa who works with the theater companies putting on the Villa’s annual outdoor classical plays.

Plautus survived poverty and debt to attain enduring fame.

Playwright Titus Maccius Plautus was possibly a former slave turned famous comedy star. Our best surviving sources on him were, unfortunately, written centuries after his death, and are filled with gaps, but we can nevertheless conclude that he was a popular funnyman, writer, and actor who lived from around 250 to 184 B.C.

Supposedly, after being connected with the theater in some way, Plautus went into business and lost his money. He was reduced to turning a grindstone in a flour mill, but managed to write plays and became well known (Gellius, Attic Nights 3.14).

Early Roman theater appeased the gods and amused the people.

Plautus witnessed a time of Roman expansion and military conflict in the Middle East, South Italy, and North Africa, when an influx of new ideas, plunder, and slaves was starting to change the traditional Roman way of life. Performances of comedies took place at festivals to the gods, introduced to ensure the safety of Roman citizens and soldiers.

The scene on this mixing bowl for wine and water from southern Italy shows Greek-style comic actors performing on a wooden stage in grotesque costumes and masks. Such comedies eventually shaped performance in Rome.

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Apulian Red-Figure Bell Krater (detail), 370–360 B.C., Greek, made in Apulia. Terracotta, 13 3/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AE.113. Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Image: Bruce White Photography

Plautus’s “funny” is much like sitcom humor today, with more insults and violence.

The comedies of Plautus were fabulae palliatae (“stories in a Greek cloak”), based on Greek New Comedy models and set in Athens. Exactly how much the playwright changed the original lost Greek plays is debated, but clearly he translated them, Romanized them, and put his own stamp on the singing and dancing that were an essential component of the performances.

The plays are a lot like sitcoms today: they make fun of social situations and the problems of families. Awkward situations and social inversions make people laugh, and although many themes became standard in Roman comedy (“overindulged young male acts up”), a new twist on a familiar topic was enjoyable then, as it still is today.

People also never seem to grow tired of watching one character mock another who doesn’t notice, or make fun of people in the audience, or collude with the crowd. Humorous miscommunications and misunderstandings were core features of ancient comedy, along with making fun of the socially higher-up. And then there’s the over-the-top slapstick, ad libbing, innuendo, and very bawdy jokes. The Troubies employ all these elements of ancient comedy.

A little harder for us to understand today is the prominence of slaves and the violent humor in Plautus’s plays; slaves are insulted and threatened with extreme violence, from beatings to crucifixion. Yet they are also powerful characters. A central figure of Haunted House is a deceitful male slave who tricks his gullible owner, and a key character is a freed-slave prostitute.

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Tranio, the cunning slave (right), with Theopropides (left), the rich father. Matt Walker of the Troubies, who also directs the play, plays Tranio; Michael Faulkner plays Theopropides. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Ancient jokes need updating to remain funny.

Do jokes really last 2,200 years? Well, no. At least not jokes based on word play and social and topical allusions. They’re just too hard to understand without elaborate clarification.

Look how long it takes to explain that Plautus’s full name, Titus Maccius Plautus, is funny: Roman actors in the 200s B.C. were generally slaves or freed and free men of low status. Plautus’s three names spoofed high citizen status. “Titus” in Latin is slang for penis, like the nickname “Dick” in English. Maccius reflects the name of a buffoon in indigenous Latin farces, and Plautus has a root that can mean flatfoot, a nickname for comic actors. Here’s how Amy Richlin translated the name into a modern form in the introduction to her 2005 book on Plautus: “R. Harpoe Clownshoes III (just call me ‘Dick’).”

So updating jokes and language is important for keeping the funny in ancient comedy. For a time, the Troubies toyed with the idea of holding up a sign with an asterisk and interrupting the performance to explain an ancient joke or lost context. It was very funny, but it took too much time. Only two small asterisk moments survive—without the physical asterisk (spoiler alert: they involve slave punishments).

Plautus’s audiences were not used to watching plays in a dedicated space where they could focus closely just on the actors. This elaborate Athenian marble theater seat for a dignitary (below) dates to about a century and a half before Plautus, and Romans would wait that much longer after his death before they had access to a stone theater.

Ceremonial Chair (The Elgin Throne)

Throne, 300s B.C., Greek. Marble, 32 1/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 74.AA.12

Going to the theater in ancient Rome wasn’t what you think.

Permanent theater buildings were not allowed in Rome in Plautus’s time (they were fun, but too degenerate, liable to weaken moral fiber), so his plays were not performed in stone venues with wide seats and good acoustics. Magistrates in charge of religious festivals arranged for temporary seating, brought in acting troupes, and ordered sets—often the two front doors of neighboring houses and an altar needed as refuge for a slave who had deceived his master.

The Getty Villa has a beautiful bronze incense burner in the form of a slave seated on such an altar. This beautiful piece probably belonged to a theater-lover with good taste:

Incense Burner Shaped as a Comic Actor Seated on an Altar

Thymiaterion in the Form of a Comic Actor Seated on an Altar and a Separate Theatrical Wig, A.D. 1–50, Roman. Bronze with silver inlay, 9 1/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 87.AC.143. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Religious festivals offered many distractions besides plays—some provided by the magistrates but many not—and so the Troubies present jugglers and “prostitutes” to set the tone. Actors competed to be heard and to keep the attention of diverse audiences keenly aware of social hierarchy. At different moments, actors’ attention might focus on one social group rather than another, or attempt to unify the crowd. The actors also referenced themselves as both actors and slaves.

Ancient actors were masked men.

We have no images of actors from the Rome of Plautus’s time, unfortunately, but we can guesstimate based on theatrical art from Greece and Magna Graecia (Greek southern Italy), and from literary descriptions, that actors were male, and masked.

Festival magistrates first decided to produce a Greek-style play in Rome on the occasion of the successful conclusion of the First Punic War against Carthage. Having no local tradition, they called upon a southern Italian Greek named Livius Andronicus to produce a Greek play.

This was in 240 B.C., when Plautus would have been a child; Livius is thus credited with establishing a theatrical tradition in Rome and adapting Greek meters to Latin (Cicero, Brutus 72). This south Italian model of a comic actor’s mask is roughly from Andronicus’s time:

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Comic Mask, 300–200 B.C. Terracotta with white slip and polychromy (brownish red, pink), 3 9/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AD.247. Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Bronze lamps and statuettes depicting theatrical characters served as knickknacks for those who could afford them, while clay souvenirs were cheaper, and we can picture peddlers hawking them at festivals.

The small comic figure below wears a grotesque costume with a padded belly and a floppy penis. The open mouth of the mask reveals the teeth of the real actor, grinning behind his comic costume. Chances are, he was a slave.

The little figurine reminds of us the layers involved in ancient performance; masks hid faces, but did not keep actors from toying with status and identity.

Statuette of a Comic Actor

Statuette of a Comic Actor, 100s B.C., Greek. Bronze, 4 13/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AB.155. Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Image: Bruce White Photography

From the Dramaturg

Amy Richlin is an expert on Plautus and a professor in UCLA’s Department of Classics.

Slaves are at the center of Plautus’s work—as heroes, comic foils, and commentators.

I became aware of this only slowly. The first Plautus play I translated started out in 2000 as a class handout: Poenulus, which literally means “The Little Carthaginian.” Not a funny title in English, but it was an ethnic slur in Latin, especially in the years during which Plautus’s plays were produced, when Hannibal and his Carthaginian army were hammering Italy. This play is a mystery, though, because the title character, a wealthy Carthaginian, is the good guy who saves the day. How could that be? Was this play the equivalent of Springtime for Hitler, or was something more complicated going on? After all, by 200 B.C., there were plenty of mixed-ethnicity people in Italy, and plenty of Carthaginian slaves.

In 2005 I published this translation, along with two other plays that involved relations between Rome and the Near East, including Persa (“Iran Man”), a play in which the lead characters are all slaves. At this point, I started to realize how central slavery is to these plays.

W. Marshall’s 2006 book Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy pointed out how improv played a part in shaping the texts that have come down to us; I put that insight together with the fact that many of the actors were slaves themselves and realized that we have something big here: slave theater.

Roman historians often say that slaves left no writings of their own. I think that Plautus’s plays are a huge exception, with a lot to say about slaves’ experience. This set me to work on a book, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy, which will be out from Cambridge University Press next year.

To understand ancient comedies, you need to see them performed.

I have had the chance to work as dramaturg on several productions of Plautus’s plays, including Persa, Rudens (“Tug of War”) here at the Getty in 2007, and now Mostellaria (“Haunted House Party”). This has taught me more about the meaning of the plays than anything I’ve read in books.

Watching skilled comedians block a scene taught me what the Latin words on the page originally meant in ways I never would have realized, had I not seen the words worked out in four dimensions. The original plays featured song and dance; to imagine a Roman comic actor, you have to imagine someone with skills like Joel Grey—also about the same height and weight.

In Haunted House Party, watching actor Matt Walker play the slave Tranio and do a crazy dance around his befuddled owner as he tells him a pack of lies made me see, again, what a mistake it is to just read these plays. The original plays are full of Latin shtick, too; watching Rick Batalla double the role of the curmudgeon next door and the curmudgeon’s slave, dodging in and out the door and changing his voice each time, reminded me how very old some old jokes are, and how their familiarity itself can make you laugh more than anything.

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Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy, left to right: Michael Faulkner (Theopropides), Rick Batalla (Slave-Boy/Simo), Leah Sprecher (Pinacium/Phoenicium), Matt Walker (Tranio/director and adaptor), and Nicholas Cutro (Philolaches). at the Getty Villa. Photo: Craig Schwartz

The Troubies are a modern “Roman” acting troupe.

The Troubies as a group have a lot in common with a Roman grex (theater troupe). They’re influenced by commedia, which itself probably goes back to Roman comedy, and they have the same kind of athleticism and the same commitment to improv.

Timing is everything. I imagined the grex as a bunch of guys trudging through war-torn Italy with their cart full of gear and their portable stage (no stone theaters in central Italy in the 200s B.C.): hungry, tough, highly skilled, moving from town to town to perform at market days and big religious festivals. Rome’s Ludi Romani were the bigtime.

The Troubies took this vision and brought it to life with a wonderful cart and a makeshift stage, brilliantly ragtag costumes, a few musicians, and a lot of silly props. They’ve kept the action close to the audience, as it would have been in Rome, and move around and into the audience, insulting audience members, as Plautus’s actors did. While you’re laughing hard, it’s hard to step back and see how actors make comedy, but it’s worth a look.

Next time you read a play, think about how it worked in real time, onstage, even long, long ago, in a place like Plautopolis.

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Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Richlin, Amy. Rome and the Mysterious Orient. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. See the introduction on Plautus, and if you enjoyed Haunted House Party, check out the modern translation of other plays of Plautus.

Marshall, CW. The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. An academic but essential book on Roman comedy.

Hart, Mary. Art of Ancient Greek Theater. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. This exhibition catalogue offers many illustrations of comedy in Greek and Roman art and provides related background on performance.

Fontaine, M., and A. C. Scafuro, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. An updated and readable look by experts at many aspects of comedy.

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