Ancient Roman comedy was meant to be acted, not read. Yet the vast majority of classes teaching Plautus do so solely through the medium of the printed page. In recent years certain attempts have been made by classicists to produce and tape versions of various plays, but the results are often less than ideal. Today’s media savvy students expect high acting skills and modern production values.
This paper is designed to show the ways in which modern films can be used to demonstrate not only Plautine plot structure, but individual elements of his comedic arsenal – alliteration, word play, stereotypical character types, and more. The author will present several classroom activities and projects that use modern film to teach Plautus as a comedic master. Visuals will be used as time allows.
The first project involves the Quellenforschung, or source investigation, of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Students are first shown the film and are then given the task of reading two or three Plautine plays and identifying elements of Plautus that Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart incorporated into the screenplay. The most commonly agreed sources for Funny Thing are Casina, Pseudolus, and Miles Gloriosus (Malamud) but students engaged in this project invariably find many points of similarity between the film and other Plautine plays. As they read they must track also types of jokes, stock characters, and stock situations that appear in both Plautus and Funny Thing.
The second project involves trying to understand the nature of the Plautine hero and the fact that Plautus and Terence alike set their plays in Greek locales. Famous modern characters ranging from Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers to Captain Jack Sparrow serve to illustrate the comic hero who wins, not through strength, but through guile necessitated by not being among the powerful and influential in one’s society. Words can convey this, but images drive it home. Students are put in groups to watch certain clips of selected films and write communal reports on what a trickster is. These reports are presented to the class.
The Roman tendency to cast comedies in foreign lands populated by Greeks has been well explained by Segal. Scenes from Blazing Saddles, where rampant racism is “defused” by setting the film in the Wild West of the past and making the protagonists cowboys, make this point well. Various other film clips can address individual scenes. Groucho and Harpo Marx’s mirror scene in Duck Soup is a perfect way to teach the humor of the Sosia/Mercury scene in Amphitryo. Other examples will be brought forth, each coupled with a specific teaching strategy. Plot complexities can be demonstrated through films of Shakespearean comedies, proving that visuals help simplify things for the audience.
In summary, for students to appreciate the comic instincts and lasting influence of Plautus, nothing surpasses actual performance, and today’s digital world makes performance more accessible than it has been in the past.