A Theatre for the Oppressed? Dr. Amy Richlin on Slavery and Plautus
Mike Lueger: Hey everyone, a quick note before we begin: This episode contains two brief mentions of sexual violence.
Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Theatre artists from Shakespeare to Sondheim have looked to ancient Roman comedy as a model, but the world of Roman playwrights, such as Plautus, was a grim one, characterized by constant violence and the omnipresent institution of slavery.
How can we square this ugly legacy with the long-term influence of the plays that came out of such a world? Professor Amy Richlin has been exploring this question, most notably in her book, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy. Professor Richlin is a professor of classics at UCLA who's written extensively about what she calls “out groups” and “muted groups” in the Roman Empire, and she's also translated a number of plays by Plautus. She won the Society of Classical Studies Goodwin prize in 2018, for this book, Slave Theater. And today we're lucky to have her as a guest on the show.
Amy, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Amy Richlin: It's a pleasure. I'm happy to be here.
Mike: Your book contends that slaves in the ancient Roman Republic, quote—I'm quoting directly here—“went to the theatre, and that their experiences shaped the early palliata, which primarily addressed slaves, freed slaves, and the poor.” So before we dig into that argument and a little bit about what it means, could you please give us a little bit of context, just starting with what the word “palliata” means?
Amy: Okay. The word “palliata” means dressed in a pallium—big help that is. So the pallium was a kind of a poncho, like what I'm wearing now, that was worn by Greeks. This is a form of Greek dress and would've been seen as such. And there's a pervading fiction in the plays that they are set in Greece, and the characters have Greek names, and this is all about Greece. But the scholar, Adrian Gratwick memorably said, and everybody echoes this, that “the plays are really set in what he calls Plautinopolis.” And I would push that a little further and say, that the plays are set in Rome. They were performed in Rome, and it was outside, and people were like sitting on benches in front of this temporary stage that was put up somewhere in the city, and all around them they could see Rome, and Rome very often pushes its head up through the words of the play.
So it's kind of set in Greece with a big wink; it's not really Greece, but this Greek outfit kind of let the actors get away with saying a lot of things that, they're not talking about Rome, they're talking about Greece. So this is a fiction that is played with and thrown up in the air and juggled with all throughout the plays. And it's a lot of fun.
So furthermore, not only is there a running joke in the plays about where they're actually being performed, and what Gratwick meant by Plautinopolis or sometimes Plautopolis, is that they're being performed nowhere; they're being performed in fantasyland. And I think that's very, very misleading. Because these plays often make topical, political critique of what's going on, let's say, in central Italy. Because I don't think these plays were only performed in Rome, I think that the actors toured around to various cities in central Italy. And it's just kind of for obvious reasons that we have them associated with the city of Rome itself, because, for example, Rome's next door, very powerful ally Praeneste—we don't have Praenestine literature, we have Roman literature.
So the plays are full of topical allusions to what's going on in these cities. Also, there's another running joke in which the actors talk about where they are as Barbaria, that is barbarian land. And this is what the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff memorably called, “Claiming an identity they taught me to despise.” Because Greeks in this period thought of Italy and the west as barbarian land, just as the Greeks thought people who didn't speak Greek were barbarians. And there is a major reclaiming of that barbarian status of Latin as a language by the speakers in these plays.
And I think it is probably exclusively slaves who talk about themselves as barbarians, or about performers as barbarians or speak of themselves as being in Barbaria. And they don't mean to put themselves down. They are joking about other people's tendency to put them down.
From a top-down perspective, what does this mean? Rome in the two hundreds BC wasn't yet a world power. And if anything, the Hellenizing of the Roman upper classes was, at this point, still aspirational. They weren't players on the international literary scene, or their whatever it was they wanted to write or be, was they would not have been recognized as any great shakes in Greece, which was still very much occupied with its own personal meltdown.
So I think that this is tied in with the slave trade and the fact that a lot of the slaves that the Romans were taking were Greek-speaking because Greek was what was spoken in the south of Italy. So Rome, as yet, was still a central Italian power reaching out to clobber various non-Latin speaking groups within the peninsula of Italy.
And now increasingly with its great nemesis, da, da, da, Carthage, just across the Mediterranean, which spoke a Semitic language. So you see a multilingual cultural clash here. So, the fact that this form of drama was dressed in the pallium, was the palliata, is really, really a complicated phenomenon. And in the book, I used palliata as shorthand to mean early Roman comedy as written by Plautus and his earlier contemporaries. And it's a term of art used by experts in the field, but, yeah, it's not a term in common usage.
Mike: This world that you describe, these different sort of competing political entities and cultures within this world, as you write, slavery is this sort of constant presence. How did slavery function in the Roman world at this time?
Amy: Okay. It wasn't a Roman world, and I think only really people who are living in the city of Rome itself would've described it that way. I always start with Alexander The Great, who memorably died in the memorable year 323—3, 2, 3. Alexander's death cast a deep, deep shadow over the whole Mediterranean basin. The first thing Alexander did was completely steamroller the Greek city-state system in Greece itself. And then he marched through Asia Minor, which was very heavily Greek, and not to mention Persia and points east of there, he famously got to India. But the main thing is, that when he died very young, he left the eastern Mediterranean in the power of three of his successors, and they immediately fell to making war on each other.
And so the whole eastern Mediterranean is thrown into turmoil. And this has repercussions that soak into or reach out to the western Mediterranean. But the main thing that war did in that period, and throughout antiquity, is lead to incidents of mass enslavement. Because when a city was taken, they would, essentially, take all of the fighting age men out and shoot them. Or if they were not soldiers, but say just craftsmen and slaves, they would keep those. And then the women and children were all raped, and then they were enslaved, and they were marched off as slaves. There are harrowing descriptions of this from all over the Mediterranean, again, in this period and through late antiquity.
And the Greeks did it to each other, happily. Some cities had pacts between them where they wouldn't do it. But the Romans, meanwhile, in the Italian peninsula were one of a number of powerful city-states, including Tarentum in the south, Praeneste, their neighbor, and some other southern Italian cities. Well, they made war no differently and they would take slaves.
But the real difference comes in when the Romans fought Carthage for the first time in the First Punic War. And there was mass enslavement on the shores of North Africa of like ten thousand people at a time. And these people would then be divided up and some of them would be brought by... They were usually sold near the point at which they'd been captured, and then slave traders would take them and sell them. But a lot of them were sold into central Italy. And so you have an enormous demographic change within the Italian peninsula itself, as all these slaves come into the market from North Africa, as well as from southern Italy, when the Romans finally took Tarentum, which was this huge wealthy city in the south of Italy.
So those people were all Greek-speaking, but then people from the countryside around there and from, say, around Pompeii, spoke Oscan, a different language. And it's just like a huge mishmash of people. And then, also, due to war, people were not only enslaved but if they could get away, they were separated from their homes. Anyway, they were made nationless. They had to find refuge somewhere. They became refugees, basically.
So you can imagine the roads being crowded with groups of people, just walking along with their possessions, just what they could carry. Because often those were the terms of the defeat of a city after a siege; when the city surrendered, the people were sometimes let go just with what they could carry. So all the pictures you've ever seen of people walking down the road like that, these so-called caravans from Central America or anywhere in the world, just carrying what they could take, the things that meant were to them, with their children, leading their children by the hand, it would've been a common sight on those roads. “Displaced peoples,” that's what I was thinking about; displaced populations.
So within Italy, some of them would've gone to Rome, where they might have relatives or some hope of maybe finding somebody else who'd been lost. Then what really, really chops things up in Italy is the Second Punic War, the second war with Carthage, which started only about twenty years after the first one was over. And it was during the Second Punic War that Plautus' plays first began to be produced. And during that war, Hannibal invaded Italy, and he and his troops were in the peninsula for fifteen years, which as I like to use an analogy, that's three times as long as the Nazis were in France. So it must have had a major effect on the population, due to rape.
Mike: So out of these horrifying experiences, you get these plays, which as we've said, your book explores how those plays were shaped by the experiences of these people who have gone through these horrible, traumatic things, who had in many cases been enslaved. How did that come about? And what do the plays tell us about what it was like to be a slave at this time?
Amy: One of the things I'm trying to counter is this image that was propagated by Erich Segal. With the best of intentions, he analyzed these plays as Saturnalian, as part of a kind of carnival atmosphere, with these happy slaves who don't want to be freed, who say in the plays they don't want to be free. That is in fact not true. There are a couple of places where people say that, but in context, it really doesn't mean that they don't want to be free. Whereas many, many times slaves express an ardent desire on stage to be free.
So how does it relate to slaves' experiences? I believe very much that people joke about what they're afraid of, and they make jokes in comedy, sometimes, like whistling in the dark to keep... Well, I had a graphic illustration of it this spring, when I was teaching in comedy, this past spring, as the country locked down. And I had a class full of senior theatre majors and their hearts were just broken by what happened. They lost all the things they've been looking forward to, all their hopes and dreams. They had to give them up, and comedy, for some of them, was a way that they could start to get back on their feet.
And one of the final projects for the course, if you wanted to, for the theatre majors, you could stage a scene, and they're like, “How can we stage a scene?” And this is like the very beginning of people trying to stage things on Zoom. And I had a couple of students do a kind of IM back and forth of one of the scenes from one of Plautus' plays. That's kind of a very small to very big comparison of what the making of this comedy was like.
So for people who had lost everything, this comedy grew up; it was made out of the plotlines of Greek comedy of several generations earlier. When I first started working on this, I thought of the movie Kiss of the Spider Woman, where the main character is in prison, and he tells his cellmate, the plot of a movie called Kiss of the Spider Woman, as he remembers it. And they use this drama as a way of keeping their act together under the face of terrible brutality and misery. And I personally think that this borrowing of the Greek plotlines was similar to the borrowing of the screenplay of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the story.
So fine, they got the framework from these plays, but the Plautus plays feel nothing like those plays. You can see they're related, but they're being used for different... just because the cultural circumstances were completely different. They were playing for, I think, on a regular basis, whatever audience they could pick up in a town. I don't think that they just performed these plays for festivals. They had to eat. I think they performed them year-round, and that the best ones got picked up by the state authorities in some rich city to perform at the festival.
So they're performing for crowds. They had a temporary stage, which they carted around with them in a cart. And the people sat on benches, they didn't have a rake. Because in central Italy, there were no stone theatres in this period. This isn't allowed by the higher-ups in the state until 150 years after this time, more because they thought it was conducive to uprisings. They thought that it's in the theatre that these things get started. So they didn't want to have a stone theatre there.
So these troops are schlepping around. They themselves were low-status. Actors didn't have any prestige in central Italy in this time, that came, again, much later. Actually, about the same time as they started to build stone theatres. It took the Roman state a while to kind of glom onto the idea of, ooh, actors, celebrities, that that was a Greek thing. And it was a big Greek thing. In Greece, an actor was a big shot. They were called the “Companions of Dionysus.” They went from city to city and they would get inscriptions in their honor and the freedom of the keys to the city. This is heavily attested, and it's fascinating. It goes really far east into what's now Iran and Iraq, the Greek players were there. But in the western Mediterranean, not so much, and especially in the Latin-speaking part of it.
So at this time, these are rag-tag troupes of players. And some of them were clearly slaves, because there's jokes about that in the plays. So they're probably not all enslaved, maybe some of them were freed slaves, and some of the actors owned some of the other actors. And then in the audience are sitting whoever would come to hear them. They would pass the hat, if they were like contemporary Greek street performance, about which we do have a tiny shred of evidence about passing the hat.
But I saw a group very much like this at the Renaissance Fair in Michigan, a couple of autumns ago, not this past one. And I interviewed the troupe leader afterwards, because I thought, I am seeing what existed then. So one of the things we can tell also from the jokes in the plays is that this is comedy from below. The jokes that are made are jokes that are really about ordinary people. They don't have a rich person's perspective, au contraire. So they're critical of the upper classes, and especially critical of slave owners, especially of mean slave owners.
Mike: Yeah. I'm really interested in that idea, because I mean, I think plays by playwrights like Plautus kind of get lumped in with this larger idea that this is the sort of cultural historical legacy of the winners. The old cliché about “history is always written by the winners.”
It sounds like from what you're saying, they were performed by and possibly written by and performed for people who were really close to the bottom of society. I'm just curious, I mean, why does that matter? Why does that sort of reorient what we've traditionally thought about these plays?
Amy: Well, there's no doubt in my mind at all that the writers were also lower-class. It's pretty clear that Plautus himself, and I say brackets, Plautus or any one of these playwrights, because there were two before him, particularly a guy named Naevius, who was a Roman citizen, that they also acted in the plays, which again, at the time, was a pretty lowly thing to do. So there isn't really a bright line between the playwright and the actors.
And actually what really got me started on this was, there's a great historian of early Roman comedy, C.W. Marshall, and in the final chapter of his book, Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy, he talks about how improv played a part in what was going on onstage. That is, to what degree were these plays scripted? And he's an Equity actor himself and he has done some work in improv, and he points to places in the play where you can see that improv is going on, or what I call, well, but you know what everybody calls shtick. But it's just like shtick in burlesque, where there's... I don't know if you've read any of the histories of burlesque, but they had like kind of scenario books, frameworks, and then for an old, seasoned comedian, there was all kinds of shtick that you could plug into these different plotlines, and old jokes where you go back and forth.
And there's a lot of that. There's runs of shtick in Plautus. I have an article called “The Traffic in Shtick” about the circulation of these jokes around the Mediterranean, because some of these jokes you do find in Greek... Some of them go back to Aristophanes and I'm sure predate him. And you find some actually in Egypt and Alexandria around 270, which is about say 40, 50 years before Plautus gets going. So you can see these jokes kind of circulating around the Mediterranean.
Anyway, but the big thing was, once he said that, that they were improvising on stage, I thought, Wait a minute, then this is slave theatre, because some of the actors were slaves. And if the troupe as a whole was participating in the making and the fabric of these plays, then this is really generated from this pretty low place on the social order.
Now, people have a tendency to lump all ancient writers together as upper class. And, in fact, there aren't that many upper-class writers from antiquity at all. When you think about it, how many aristocrats really have taken up the pen of a professional writer? That's a big question. In any case, in this period, the answer is, basically, maybe one: a historian. But at this point, the aristocrats didn't write, they had people to do that for them. So it wasn't even an upper-class thing, but was it backed by the upper class? Signs point to no. Later, only less than one hundred years later, Terence comes along, himself, probably a freed slave. He had a patron. Plautus did not have a patron. Naevius did not have a patron. These guys are just free-floating crumbs floating down the history river.
They didn't have a patron. And so little is known about them that for each of them, there's really only one short biographical paragraph floating around, also, in the ancient super-biography. Most people don't believe that these are real biographies, although I don't myself see any reason why it couldn't be real. And it locates Plautus as somebody who started out, he was working as an actor, and he was working on stage, and then he lost all the money that he had, and so much so that he had to go to work at a mill—a grain mill. Which was very, very, very low labor and something that was also used as a slave punishment. And the story is that, while he was working in the mill, he wrote two plays and then he gradually recouped, and went on to fame and fortune.
And then it's thought that he came from Sarsina in Umbria, which is the back of beyond, it's like saying he came from East Kneebone, Wyoming. It was a wild place in northern Italy, where they also didn't speak Latin. They spoke Umbrian. And so Latin would've been his second language. And that was true of a lot of the early... Actually, the few people that we know of in the early theatre, there's a sketchy biographical information, and also Latin was not their first language.
One of my favorite ones, Caecilius Statius, who was a little younger than Plautus, he's supposed to have been a Celt from northern Italy. The story goes that he was an Insubrian Gaul, that is, he was one of these Gaulish tribes that fought the Romans tooth and nail in the Po River valley up around Milan. And that he came from there. He came from up there, and somehow made his way down to Rome, and became a comic playwright.
This is the kind of story, and maybe I'm projecting then, but that we're familiar with from the theatre. The kid from nowhere who slams the door on his way out of the house, and says, “I'm going to the big city to make my fortune,” and occasionally does. Plautus' name in fact is just a silly stage name that he must have made up for himself. His name means as I've translated, so it was Titus Maccius Plautus, which translates to “Dick Harpo Clown Shoes.” So I don't think that was his actual name, just to guess here.
So it's comedy from below. At this point, there was also—see it exists, but only in fragments, so people don't really know about it or read it, you can't read it—at this point, there was also tragedy. And at these big festivals, there were horse races. So the aristocrats who were funding these festivals, they were into the tragedy apparently, to some degree, but everybody, like the main attraction at these festivals was the horse races, that's what people were there for. This was a side show. However, it very quickly, historically speaking, by two hundred years later, it became recognized that it was a very valuable side show. And so it was preserved by scholars.
Mike: So you're painting this picture of a world where there's this kind of lower-class artists, to some degree, talking about sort of the intermixing, the wars between the different parts of the Mediterranean world. It sounds like a kind of multicultural milieu. I'm curious too about where women fit into this, both specifically in terms of theatre, but also in how they appear in the plays—particularly with regards to women who are enslaved.
Amy: So I would just say that central Italian culture, but certainly Rome, about which we know the most, in general was much more coed than other ancient Mediterranean societies. So to have women on the streets or women present at a public festival, even very respectable women—really non-problematic. You'll sometimes hear it said that the audience was all male at the productions of ancient tragedy. It's possible that was true in Athens, which was, P.S., in parentheses, one of the most conservative Greek cities; other cities, in fact, may not have even considered having single-sex audiences. Athens, you could believe it. Although I tend to think, yeah, there were some women there or women standing in the back. But in central Italy, it wouldn't have been a problem for women to be present.
So were they in the audience? One of the plays has a prologue, this was a common structural feature of these plays, to start with a prologue. And the play Poenulus has a prologue where somebody who's in the cast, but he's not playing a role, he's just being the prologue speaker, he comes out and he gives directions to the audience. He starts bossing the audience around, and he says all these funny things. He says, “No overage boy prostitutes sitting on the stage, get out of here.” And then he tells all the women, married ladies to “be quiet and stop yakking, and don't be a pain to your husbands here, like you are at home.”
He gives a shout-out to nannies, to slave nannies. Well, he doesn't say “slave nannies,” he just says “wet nurses.” But this was, typically, a slave position, who are there with the little children. He says to keep the babies home or take them home, so you can nurse them. And then he addresses slaves in general, and he addresses people who get up late and just like some acting troupe—well, our local acting troupe—he yells at latecomers and he does all this stuff.
So in terms of women in the audience or slaves in the audience, were they there? I think the Poenulus prologue proves, conclusively, that they were there, and there are a few other prologues and jokes in the plays that give shout-outs to or directions to slaves who are also audience members. In addition, there are jokes inside the plays where a slave character talks about something he's seen at the theatre recently. These are like metatheatrical lines where people... And they're clearly like inside jokes for people who like to go to the theatre a lot.
I mean, if you work with comedians or if you try to stage comedy, it seems to me just overwhelmingly clear that you don't say, “No overage, teenage prostitutes sitting on the stage,” unless you've got a couple of guys sitting on the edge of the stage, who can then leap up and move off; maybe they're plants. Okay. But there's like somebody there. Likewise, you don't shout out to people in the audience like to be quiet unless there are. And that this is being recognized from the stage like this, is one of the great delights of going to see comedy. My husband and I like to go to Cirque du Soleil, and one time a clown picked on my husband to chase around the audience. I have really hardly ever seen my husband so delighted, and he was laughing. It's wonderful.
But a very distinguished scholar of Plautus, Peter Brown, who very sadly died, gosh, sometime in the recent past—which is now just a general storm of misery. Anyway, Peter Brown argues that, “No, these are actual, literally, meant commands to stay away. Proving that women were not allowed to be there. And slave women with little children were not allowed to be there. And all these other people who are told to leave actually were not allowed to be there.” Oh, like there's a line that says, “Slaves, move over. If you're taking up too much room, move over and make room for the free or else pay for your freedom.” And I think this is teasing of people who are actually there. I don't think the joke is that, of course, they could not be there, but there are two points of view on that. Just being fair about it. However, I am right. So, all right—
Mike: Well of course.
Amy: Of course, I'm right. Yeah. And the other side of this question was: Were there any women on stage? Probably not. So, however, this is not known for certain. It is an extrapolation based on what we know about the stage and antiquity. There's almost no evidence about who these actors were, except the hint that Plautus and a few other guys were on the stage, but it is thought that all the roles were played by male actors.
And so I've written kind of extensively about drag on stage, and what it meant to be an actor completely encased in a costume, which is this very voluminous costume, and then the masks were full head masks, so that your face was the only thing that showed were your ears, which for obvious reasons had to stick out of these things, so you could hear. And there was a big mouth hole, so that your mouth could be seen inside, maybe, and your hands. That would be all of you that would show: your ears and your hands. So who was underneath that costume? So from later periods, there are descriptions of male actors playing female, and the effect that that had on the audience, and so on.
I have written, as if we knew that was true for this period, because I think that the whole phenomenon of drag on stage is doubly meaningful, when some of the actors are enslaved and under the costume, you can't tell which is which. Not that you could tell who was a slave just by looking at them anyway, in antiquity, since race was not a crucial part of enslavement then. Although, there would've been North African slaves in Rome, and, well, we know of some.
However, they were probably darker-skinned than central Italians—certainly than Gauls. Likewise, the Gauls, for that matter, would've stuck out. The Romans thought that Gauls were particularly stupid and they thought, also, that their pasty skin was abnormal and weird, an indication of their low IQ, basically. So if you want a counter to whiteness, in fact, you can just look to what the Romans said about the Gauls and the Germans. You won't have to worry; white was not superior in Roman culture.
Mike: So we've got sort of this complicated institution of slavery at the time. But in many cases, the plays, as you say, are being written for, possibly, by an audience that's largely composed of or has a large number of slaves in it. So what do these plays have to say about slave owners and more generally just about the institution of slavery? Are they kind of accepting of it or are they kind of quietly revolutionary?
Amy: So slave owners play a major role in these plays and, typically, these plays are taken to be about the slave owners. Although if you've seen, for example, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, you know that Zero Mostel is the lead in the movie, and so in the play on which that movie is based, that slave is the lead, is the central character. These characters are often called “clever slaves,” which to me sounds too much like “good dog.” So I think of them as central slaves.
But very often what drives the plot is the slave owner's need for something, often, but by no means always, it is the need for a pretty girl that he's in love with that he needs either the money to buy—he's not talking about getting married, he just wants to have an exclusive sex slave—he needs the money to buy. He needs the money to lease her for a year, so that some soldier doesn't get her instead. He needs to get his girlfriend away from a soldier, which was part of another play that was folded into A Funny Thing.
So these plays have often been written about, as if it was the owner's wishes that were driving the bus. However, I think that there is like a double thing going on a lot in the plays. And that very often the viewpoint that you're seeing the action from is that of the slaves’, over and against the owner. An easy example is Plautus' play, Amphitruo, which also, I think some people have seen or heard about because, uniquely, it's a mythical story. It's about King Amphitruo and his wife, and how Jupiter, king of the gods, sneaks in, making himself look exactly like Amphitruo, and has sex with Amphitruo's wife.
Well, the first third of the play is taken up with a verbal duel, like a rap battle between the god Mercury, who has been transformed into the exact shape and size of Amphitruo's slave, Sosia, and Sosia himself. And Sosia is the central speaker, essentially, of the first third of the play. And his viewpoint continues to pop up throughout the rest of the play. So it's like the owners are there, but to what extent are they really driving the bus? And there's twenty and a half plays, and you can run through them and you can see it say, well, Amphitruo kind of fifty-fifty, Bacchides also kind of fifty-fifty, and then they go up and down, some of them a little more so, some of them less so. So kind of two points of view.
But one of the main things that's going on is that you have many, many speeches where slaves mock their owners on stage; sometimes slaves mock their owners to their face. And I actually made a collection of places where slaves say to their owners, “You are stupid. Nobody is as stupid as you.” One slave actually says to his owner, “I've seen rocks that were smarter than you.” Oh man, they say outrageous things. And then the play Asinaria, which is, the title is “the play about the donkey.” In Asinaria, one slave forces his owner to beg him for something he wants. And then in order to really humiliate his owner, he climbs on the owner's back and makes him give him a horsey ride around the stage. So the owner is not exactly king, let's put it that way. And many of them are made to look like complete fools.
However, you asked: Do they just accept slavery as part of life? Or is there something more subversive going on here? You'll also often hear it said that there was no real concept of abolition in antiquity. And I think that that is close to true. Maybe there are some kind of utopian writers that imagine a society without slaves, but mostly even utopian writers just imagine utopia as a place where you'll have all the slaves you need. Where you will have all the slaves you need, so who are you?
Ah, that's what I wanted to say, about the audience. It's made up, not only of a lot of slaves, but also a lot of freed slaves. One of the remarkable things about Rome in this period, and this was commented on by Greeks, is that manumission was relatively available to city slaves, to urban slaves. If you were a field hand out in the country, you could forget about it. But in the city, there was a chance of manumission. And when a Roman slave was manumitted, he or she became a Roman citizen, and this was amazing to the Greeks. They never did any such thing. They always had a second-class citizen status. So freed slaves in the audience had experienced this real transformation.
Did it keep them from owning slaves themselves? No. But I think that at least for some of them, it would've given them a really gut understanding of what it means to be a slave. And maybe they weren't like the rich owners who are skewered in these plays as being cruel and insensitive. And Sosia, he has a big song when he first comes on and talks about what it means to be the slave of a rich man. And he says, “Your owner has no idea what it means to do his beck and call. And rich men are idiots, they don't understand what they're asking for and they don't care either.” But do these slaves on stage then wish that there could be no more slavery ever? No, they do not.
And when they have utopian songs, like “If I were a Rich Man”, like the fisherman in Gripus in Plautus' play Rudens, he has a big, big song where he says, “Oh, if I get to keep this money,” that he's found, “oh, the things that I'll do.” And he says, “I'll buy me a big place with lots of land. I'll buy slaves. I'll build a big house and I'll get a ship and I'll go trading.” And I'm pretty sure at the concept of trading, for him, involves trading in slaves as well as in other things. So that's the answer to your question, and it's not such a happy answer.
Mike: I understand—I mean, you've done a number of translations of Plautus in the past. You're currently working, I understand, on a translation of a play called Captivi, and that one seems to have some interesting stuff to say about slavery in particular. Could you tell us a little bit about that particular play?
Amy: Yeah. Captivi is a wonderful play that I've never seen performed. I don't know of any performances of it. It completely doesn't fit the cookie-cutter idea that people have about these plays. It is my great dream to see Martin McDonagh stage my translation of this play, and set it in Northern Ireland, which is geographically ideal for how the play is set up. And the translation that I've written of it, also, it's another dream of mine, and this turns out to be surprisingly hard to engineer, to get together a group of veterans—military veterans—to help me rewrite the play into actual army slang, actual lines that actual soldiers might actually say. So I deliberately made a vanilla translation to facilitate this transformation.
The setup for this play is so complicated that the prologue, I think, must have made people's heads spin, and I think intentionally. So the play begins with a backstory. And I think it's a lot clearer if you start with a backstory. So twenty years before the date of performance—so it's twenty years before today—there was a man who lived in, let's say, there was a man who lived in Dublin and he had two sons. And a wicked slave of his kidnapped the younger son and took him across the border to Belfast, where he sold him as a slave to a citizen of Northern Ireland. This is all set in central Greece, but, geographically, I think Dublin and Belfast are intelligible. Anyway, okay, so that happened twenty years ago.
Well, the kid is raised in this family as a slave, and he's set to be the companion for the son of the house. So they grew up together and they are friends, inasmuch as man and his slave can be friends. All right, so the two are growing up together, the son of the household and the young slave. Meanwhile, back in Dublin, the man has his older son, well, there's war between Northern and Southern Ireland, and all three of these young men go to war together. And in a terrible battle, the older son from Dublin is taken captive in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the free son from Belfast is taking captive in Southern Ireland, along with his young slave. Okay? So there's a change of places.
To complicate things further, when they are captured the Northern Ireland guy and his slave decide that they're going to change identities so that the slave will be wearing the uniform of the owner, and the owner will be wearing the uniform of the slave. And this is the setup. And as the play opens, you see the door of the house, and two men are standing chained there before the door of the house, and that is this young Northern Ireland guy and his slave, only with their uniforms changed.
And the prologue speaker makes this all clear by pointing to them. Inside the house lives the father of the older brother of this young slave, but he doesn't know that he has just purchased these two prisoners of war. And one of them is his own young son whom he last saw at the age of five. He doesn't know that. Okay, he's just bought his own son.
Meanwhile, his older son is up in Northern Ireland and he wants to do a prisoner exchange to get his older son back. He just thinks his younger son is just gone. And that is the setup. And it all has to do with the two main characters or the young man from Northern Ireland and the enslaved son, and now they're both slaves. And they go back and forth a lot about, essentially, who owes what to whom. And the owner from Northern Ireland promises the slave, his slave, that in return for this noble thing that he has done by changing identities with him, that he will see to it that he gets freed.
And the tension in the play is: Is that really going to happen? Is this kid going to make good on his word? Because you're given every reason to believe, in the first part of the play when there's all this argument going on, that he is not really that trustworthy. And slaves in the plays often say that “you can't trust what an owner promises you, especially when it comes to a promise of freedom.”
So there's a certain amount of suspense here as to whether—they're all slaves at this point—the boy who was kidnapped, whether he will ever be recognized and freed. So I'll leave that up in the air, no spoilers. But the exchanges between the two Southern prisoners, when they're trying to figure out what they're going to do are really, really—they're kind of gut-wrenching.
Often when I talk about Plautine comedy, people say that this doesn't sound like it's funny, but it is... However, Captivi is black comedy. It's very dark. That's why I'm looking for Martin McDonagh. Yeah. This is a shout-out to Martin McDonagh, if you're listening, this is a great piece of material. The play title should be translated “POWs,” that's what it's about.
Mike: So these conclusions that you've come to in studying these works, I understand that they're perhaps a little bit different from what people have traditionally thought about who Plautus' plays are for, who they were performed or written by, what the plays have to say about the institution of slavery in ancient Rome. Have you met with any sort of disagreement over the conclusions of your book? And for those of us who aren't specialists in the field of classics, how does somebody in your field—how do you all go about sort of resolving those disagreements, those arguments?
Amy: Okay, well, I'm really happy to say, as you might suspect, different fields have different vibes. Probably this is true for any field of study or endeavor. And the people who work on Roman comedy, really Roman and Greek comedy, just an extraordinarily generous, openhearted group—I think because a lot of them are really into performance and into staging plays, which is a group endeavor. And I think especially when they can see that you're really interested in performance that they're really open to talking to you, because I kind of crash into this sideways. I started out working on the history of sexuality. So I've really only been working on Plautus, well, for about twenty years, before that I did a lot of other stuff.
So how do we settle anything? On the other hand, the academy, like every place else, is a world where everybody's entitled to their own opinion. And everybody hopes, perhaps, that their own opinion is going to carry enough weight to be generally accepted. I don't expect that my views on Plautus will be generally accepted, in this generation, but I hope they will be after that. Basically, people already have committed themselves to a position on what they think was going on with these plays. And if what I say conflicts with that, they're not just going to throw up their own lifetime of work to go along with what I have to say. I think that the evidence I present in this book is pretty overwhelming. A lot of people who think that this is upper-class literature, first of all, don't think about performance at all whatsoever. And second of all, they really haven't read the whole corpus of place.
And that's a lot of reading, and a lot of specialized reading, and the Latin's not so easy. It is once you get going, but it's time-consuming, for one thing. For example, all the people who say that all of these plays are about Cinderella stories. Yes. Six of them, six out of twenty are Cinderella stories, but the rest are not, so people who are speaking on limited knowledge. But then there's, some people are just committed to the idea that all Latin literature is top-down, and the great Greek historian, Moses Finley, said that “there is nothing in Latin literature that will tell you anything about the psychology of slaves,” and he included Plautus in that. And he said, “You don't look at literature to know anything, except what owners thought about slaves.”
Finley, first of all, was a Greek historian, he just didn't know very much about Plautus. And so, I mean, I say it, it sounds very dismissive, but I think that my ideas are the most persuasive to people who know the most about Plautus, basically. And then there's some people who are very committed to some statements that are made by the historian Livy, about who was in the audience. And they're also committed to an idea that these plays are translations of Greek literature, and they belong to the aspirational wish of Roman aristocrats to be literate in Greek. And I think that the evidence for that in Livy is really, really strained, really does not support that argument. And I've had thrashed this out in print.
Yeah. But all you can do with an idea... now, mind you, P.S., also, I will say that a lot of what I'm arguing is noncontroversial; the idea that the playwrights are all lower class, most of the reputable handbooks will just say so, even though the biographies are taken to be kind of bogus. A conservative or a kind of very solid authoritative scholar like Gesine Manuwald, she just says, “These are lower class performers.” And also a lot of these people take the Poenulus prologue seriously, or comically, as it should be. So that part of it isn't really that controversial.
And then on the other hand, a lot of people think that what I'm arguing is that these plays were by slaves for slaves, which is an oversimplification of what I'm saying. I want to make it clear, I think the audiences are mixed, but mainly not senators and their families. I mean, there might have been some there, but it's just like, you'll occasionally see somebody who's very rich at the stock car races, but mostly, not so much.
Mike: So to kind of just wrap it up, for a big-picture question here: You mentioned that you describe the plots of some of these plays that deal with this context of war and slavery and violence and all these kind of horrible things—but they're comedies. And I noticed this strange tension in your book, where, on the one hand, you're referencing these touchstones of twentieth and twenty-first century humor: Monty Python, Flight of the Conchords, just a few of the references kind of sprinkled throughout the book. And then at the same time you are, as you've said, kind of going to these comedies that are based on these really grim experiences. Does this say anything to you about the nature of humor back in Plautus' day? And by comparison, how we view what is or isn't funny today?
Amy: All right. Well, as I use a kind of mantra in the book, and something I think is very true, Jerry Seinfeld once said, “All comedy starts with anger.” And Freud says as much, although at greater length, in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where he talks about the relation between jokes and hostility. And I should just add that, and I use for my students as an exemplar, Richard Pryor, and we watch a concert tape in my comedy course of Richard Pryor's. That nobody could be coming from a grimmer place than Richard Pryor came from, in terms of his life, his early life, what he lived through, and the comedy that he made out of it.
In this concert tape, for example, there's a long sequence where he talks about being beaten by his grandmother as a child with a switch. And you tell the kid to go out in the backyard, pick the switch, then come back in here, and she's going to hit you at this switch. He does an imitation of that, and people are laughing, people in the audience killing themselves laughing, is a good parallel for the jokes that are made in Roman comedy.
Well, it's not the darkest aspect of Richard Pryor's early life, let's put it that way. I mean, he was raised in a brothel. So I think that there is not such a long distance between comedians now and comedians in antiquity. We don't have the complicating factor of slavery, although we have the complicating factor of the history of slavery. And Key and Peele, for example, did a slave auction sketch, which is available on YouTube—which also is optional in my class. But I think that people laugh at what they fear, or sometimes they laugh at what they hate, and sometimes they laugh at what would otherwise make them cry. And that's what I've been trying to do with my students now; making jokes and gallows humor.
There's an excellent essay by a guy with an... well, I'll just spell it out, since this is going to be oral, a guy named Antonin Obrdlik, O-B-R-D-L-I-K, a sociologist who escaped from Nazi Czechoslovakia in the Second World War. And he wrote an essay called “Gallows Humor,” which I assigned to my students. And he talked about the jokes that people told as the Nazis were invading his country, until they hit a point where it really just wasn't funny anymore.
So I think that the jokes and humor always do have this survival aspect to them that they are something that people do just to keep going. And I felt vindicated when a Netflix series came up, just as of four episodes, called Larry Charles' Dangerous World of Comedy, where he went to the most dangerous places in the world with the film crew— they were so brave—and they interviewed a warlord in Liberia, and they went to Syria. And they went to all these places that the streets were filled with rubble and interviewed comedians, and talked to comedians or people who were just kind of joking around in the street about what it meant to do comedy in those circumstances.
And then there's a terrific episode on race in the U.S., and my favorite part of that one was when they interviewed three young women from a Native American reservation in the upper Midwest who do comedy. They're aspiring comedians. Everybody speaks to an audience that, first, maybe is only of the people who share the same trauma so that you can say, “Don't you just hate that,” to people who really have experienced that.
And then, like you see for Richard Pryor—actually, in the book, I talk about what I call the Richard Pryor at Long Beach phenomenon, which is, this concert tape was from a concert held at Long Beach, and the camera pans over the audience. You could see that the audience has lots of white people and they're just killing themselves laughing. And to me, one of the funniest things in that routine is when he imitates a white woman, and he does like a lady voice. And I just completely lose it when he does that.
And I know where it's coming from. And if he said it in prose, as it were, I wouldn't be laughing. I would be mortified. So the human psyche is a complicated thing. But I don't think it's any different or complicated in different ways now than it was then. And I think that all humor is related and helps you understand; we can understand what happened two thousand years ago through humor; through our own experience in humor. That's what I think.
Mike: We'll post links in our show notes that will let you explore the world of ancient Roman comedy. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.
Amy: It's really been a pleasure. I'm always happy to talk to the world of the theatre.
Mike: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts, and subscribe to receive new episodes.
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- To find out more about Amy and her work, visit her page at UCLA: https://classics.ucla.edu/person/amy-richlin/
- If you want to learn more about recent performances of Roman comedies, visit this website from the National Endowment for the Humanities: https://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/featured-project/roman-comedy-in-performance
- Watch scenes from the NEH Summer Institute’s 2012 Roman Comedy in Performance: https://sites.wustl.edu/tjmoore/roman-comedy-in-performance/
- For more on the ancient Greek comedies that partially inspired Plautus’s work, check out: https://bacchicstage.wordpress.com/
- To read or watch some of the sources that Amy mentions in the interview, visit these links:
- Amy Richlin’s translations of Plautus: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520242753/rome-and-the-mysterious-orient
- Antonin Obrdlik’s essay “Gallows Humor” (paywall): https://www.jstor.org/stable/2769536
- C.W. Marshall’s The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/stagecraft-and-performance-of-roman-comedy/35AC63FDAFFA6D7A66F06FE18738041E
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