CJ 111.1 Sophie Klein, “When actions speak louder than words: mute characters in Roman Comedy” 53-66

tl;dr version: focusing student attention on non-speaking characters on stage can illuminate the tone/effect of a scene and shed valuable light on more marginal status groups

as with all of the articles in this volume, undergraduates could easily understand/benefit from the piece, but it is aimed explicitly at teachers

stakes: a fuller and more nuanced understanding of how comedy worked on the stage and in its society

The first time I was ever involved in a full staging of an ancient drama, one of the most unexpected things I learned was the power of non-speaking characters on stage. Once you’re reminded of this it seems totally obvious, but as you read a play script your focus is always on the lines you’re reading, so anyone on stage without lines requires an act of imagination to visualize. But of course they will immediately present themselves in any performance, and can have enormous influence on the way the audience perceives the action. It is this insight that Klein develops in this article.

Starting with a general sketch of the benefits of attending to these figures especially when reading Roman comedy, Klein’s article presents three separate levels of focus, with suggested classroom activities for each. First is simply the task of locating mute characters: this can require careful reading, down to noting plural imperatives in Latin. Klein suggests giving students reading the texts in English copies with the stage directions, usually added by translators, redacted, and having them locate mute characters and suggest blocking for them.

This exercise is taken up and expanded in the third section on dramaturgy, where she discusses the tonal shifts that mute characters can effect depending on the ways in which they respond to speaking characters. In the Ballio scene of the Pseudolus, for instance, our reaction to Ballio will be radically different if his slaves are genuinely terrified of his threats rather than mocking him behind his back. Thus in a continuation of the initial classroom activity, Klein suggests having students actually stage the scenes they had blocked, to get a sense of the range of effects possible.

While mute characters and their effects are a core aspect of staging any drama, those in Roman comedy tend to come from lower status groups: slaves, prostitutes, cooks, etc. Thus these figures offer a good opportunity to consider power relations generally in these works, and to think about responses from the different status groups represented in the diverse audiences of the comedies. The central section of the article helpfully points teachers and their students toward good references on these topics and suggests possible assignments to help think through how far the figures on stage actively subvert or reinforce normative social roles.

Again, as with the other articles in this volume, there are nice video examples available from the 2012 NEH Summer Institute collection — a great resource for teachers and students going forward.