Five Technical Things About Ancient Roman Comedic Stages You Were Dying To Know

We know about the plays, at least if we have read them. But how much do we know about ancient stages? We’ve asked PPAA classics expert Mara Miller for a quick primer on the stage architecture of Ancient Roman comedic theaters.

1. Most theaters in Roman comedy’s heyday weren’t permanent. When it was time for a festival (drinking, enjoying some slapstick, and honoring the gods), the theater and open-air seats were built of wood. When it was over, down it all came, like it never even happened. So did it really happen? Discuss.

2. The stage usually depicted a city street, with two main exits: stage left meant the harbor or the countryside, and stage right meant the town or forum. Which harbor and which town varied by play, but if an actor said “I’m off to the market” and then headed ad sinistram (left, for the uninitiated), you’d suspect he was still under the influence of Bacchus, shall we say.

masks-for-greek-theater 3. No props, minimal scenery. There were usually three big doors as part of the backdrop, as comedies featured lots of comings and goings. They led to a standard handful of places like The Brothel or The Old Man’s House. The doors also tended to sneak into the scripts, almost like stage cues.

In my imagination it went something like this—a tunic-clad actor, with his hand up to his ear, shouts over the rudely babbling audience: “Hark! I hear the door knocking, that must be Periplectomenus coming.” [Pause, he doesn’t show] “I SAID, there’s the DOOR, that MUST BE. . . . Oh greetings, dear Periplectomenus!”

4. Seeing as this was all part of a religious festival, and that drama was technically a form of worship, there was probably an altar right there onstage. In one popular comedy, a character even climbs up the altar to flee from his master, who’s angrily chasing him. Where does the stage end and the play’s setting begin, hmm? Tricksy, Romans, very tricksy.

And 5. Yes, they probably did wear those heinous smiley-frowney masks. But you knew that.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.

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