Students had read Plautus’ “Menaechmi” in English translation, and they brought to class their notes from watching the Wash. U. performance of Plautus’ “Rudens” last Saturday. The primary consideration – How to stage the play? What would the time period be? And costumes? Diction?
(See “Past Performances” page in this blog for photos of my past students’ interpretations of Plautus, the most recent a staging replete with zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And lest you think this too far-fetched, this student performance tied for First Place in the 2012 Gustavus Festival of Dionysus! The script was dynamite, as were the student performances.)
The students this Spring have been reading secondary sources on social issues prevalent in Plautus’ day – social status, slavery, gender, human trafficking, and aristocratic industria. They agreed that some of the original jokes would not be funny to a modern audience, especially those regarding gender identity. While Zero Mostel’s physical humor in the role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966) had them howling with laughter, the students agreed that the gratuitous objectification of women in the movie was more in the mode of 1960’s Playboy than could be found in the original Plautus. In fact, some scholars think that the playwright himself may have been a former slave, as his slave characters are often more intelligent and clever than their masters. And Plautus’ understanding of social roles is surprisingly modern – he gets that prostitution is human trafficking and that young girls and women are all too often exploited into an industry for which they are then condemned because they are considered to be morally transgressive. Plautus’ courtesans (the polite word for “prostitute”) are treated sympathetically, often as innocent, virtuous, and with hearts of gold.
The student conversation then turned to movies from the 1980’s, such as John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Pretty in Pink (1986), and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls (2004). These films are now considered problematic, although at the time they were released, they were mainstream cinema. Students thought that a 1980’s vibe would be appropriate for a staging of Plautus, and that a high school drama would be perfect. Further, they could dive into their own closets for costuming, and 80’s hair and makeup would be a lot of fun.