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Navigating Tricky Topics: The Benefits of Performance Pedagogy

Christopher Bungard

Mary-Kay Gamel reminds us, “Roman playwrights wrote for performance, not for reading,” (2013: 466). Yet students at all levels easily forget this when presented with a printed text. Turning the written word into a living performance engages the work of traditional scholarship, putting forward an interpretation demanding audience response. It is a process of making the play meaningful for a specific audience, a process involving the collective interpretation of playwright, actors, and audience. Through performance, teacher-scholars challenge students to think more deeply about the ways that ancient drama engaged its audiences and the messages that still resonate with modern audiences.  This paper addresses three ways in which performance can be incorporated into discussion of Terence’s Eunuchus and its uniquely disturbing presentation of rape: watching live or recorded performances, performance by students, and role playing.

Rape, always the elephant in the room in discussions of New and Roman comedy, presents its greatest challenges in Terence’s Eunuchus, where a rape is particularly egregious (James 2013, 2014). Slater (1999) offers three ways to deal with this problematic scene for modern performance: break action to indicate the audience has to endure it as part of Roman comedy; rewrite the play to include outrage; rewrite the prologue to defend the playwright. Gamel (2013) offers another perspective, using non-verbal cues to signal the possibility of mixed responses to the resolution. At the end of the play, her production featured a visual contrast between the joy of the men on the street who have made deals about the raped girl and the frustration/sorrow of the women inside: “This was a happy ending only for some.” (2013: 479). Such an ending opens space for the audience to discuss appropriate responses to the disturbances caused by sexual assault in relation to the supposedly happy ending in Terence’s play.  Providing students with a live or recorded performance such as Gamel’s Eunuch and continuing with focused discussions can help make Eunuch a superb jumping off point for thinking about sexual assault.

Teacher-scholars can deepen the impact of performance by having students enact scenes or condensed versions of Roman comedy. Requiring students to perform challenges them to interpret a text in different ways than the traditional essay. Students must think about the ways words, postures, gestures, and costume interact to support or subvert the message suggested by the written text. For example, students who themselves perform the scene of Eunuch in which the rapist reports his actions on stage can ponder how things such as inflections and gestures might change an audience’s response to the speech.

For teacher-scholars interested in pushing students to think about why “unfunny” moments in preserved texts might have worked for ancient audiences, a Roman theater audience exercise is particularly useful (Richlin 2013): students are assigned a character sketch of an ancient audience member through whose eyes they interpret performances. They are then encouraged to share how they feel their character would have responded, enabling students to appreciate that there cannot be one way to respond to a performed comedy. A female slave, for example, might respond very differently from a free male audience member to the rape of an enslaved woman in Eunuch.

Performances demand a response. Through performance, teacher-scholars can engage students at all levels more deeply with ancient drama. Students must think about the relationship between performance and audience, and in so doing, they can come to a deeper appreciation of the relationship between the values of modern audiences and their ancient counterparts.

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Performance, Politics, Pedagogy

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