Judith Maitland


In the context of the early development of Attic drama, Aristotle briefly states that Sophocles increased the number of actors—as opposed to chorus—to three, and also introduced skenographia.1 He does not explain this term, which seems to be of his own devising. The term skene itself essentially refers to any temporary structure, particularly a tent.2 As the poet was in charge of the production, this term can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from any kind of constructed set to the details of scene painting.3 Archaeological investigation has shown that the skene was indeed a temporary structure till the fourth century, and analogy with such terms as logographia and mythographia makes it safe to suppose that Aristotle was referring to a process of artifice distinct from the built structure of the theatre.4 The nature and the extent of this scenography are hard to know, but it can surely be assumed that this was part of the creative process, knowing constraints only of imagination and finance.5

For these reasons I am inclined to follow the view that illustrations, particularly those found on ceramics, may be useful in reconstructing the temporary settings of dramatic action in ancient theatre.6 However, I would suggest that these settings were of little practical interest to the comic dramatist at the writing stage and subject at the least to financial constraint at the production stage. Portable properties, on the other hand, tended to be those essential to characterisation or action, and were more likely to engage the dramatist’s attention at the writing stage, and indeed be mentioned in the text.7 In making these suggestions, I will discuss some Greek and Roman comedies that I have translated, produced, and directed, and for which it was important that I stay within budget.

Ekklesiazousae [The Women in Council, or The Assemblywomen]

In Aristophanes’ play there are copious references to props and few to décor. In the early stages of the play we infer that we are viewing an outdoor space, but do not become sure that we are outside the house of Praxagora and Blepyros until the latter emerges in line 311. In 877ff. the first of three hags arrives to take advantage of the new city laws and grab a young lover. A young woman angrily calls to her:

Hey, you rotting corpse! you’ve peeped out before I could!

What does this mean? From where are the hag and the young girl peeping out? Each of them is singing to entice a lover, but there is no clue as to where they are. At any rate, in 936-7 both girl and hag announce that they will withdraw. The young man arrives, amorous, and the hag indicates (946) that she will lurk and see what he does next. The girl meanwhile reappears, delighted that she has deceived the hag, who thinks the girl is still endon (inside, 950). It is hard to know what is meant by this, but it may only mean that she is leaning out of the window, for shortly (961-2) the young man pleads with her to katadramousa ten thuran anoixon (run down and open the door). As soon as he hammers on it, however, the hag appears. It is from her remark (976), that we gain confirmation that there is something to knock on: houtos ti kopteis? (Oi! Why are you knocking?). We have to assume that the hag has continued to lurk since 946. From this point, the action is squarely onstage in the unchanged public space. This space, however, is fluid. It begins as the area outside the house of Praxagora and Blepyros, seems to include another character’s house later on, and still later becomes the street outside the house of the girl.

The foregoing is typical of the material that confronts a director of Aristophanes, and as such grants a pleasing degree of license. In my production of Ekklesiazousai, re-titled Women in Power, in 1991, I took advantage of the design of the Dolphin theatre at the University of Western Australia to position the hag upstage for purposes of ambush and the girl on a balcony adjacent to the acting space.8 The girl was thus reduced to the role of audience while the three hags vied with one another for the young man’s favours. The set consisted of three dwellings representing past, present and future; these were quite appropriate as a means for characters to move in and out and contributed a surreal aspect to the action.

If we turn again to this play for guidance as to the deployment of portable properties, things are very different. There is abundant and specific direction as to the use of portable properties. Praxagora’s speech indicates that she has a lamp (1ff.), and that her fellow conspirators will bring himatia (cloaks) and false beards with them (24-27). Two of them at least will bring more lamps (27-8, 50). Another is wearing her husband’s shoes (46-7), and they do indeed have beards and their husbands’ himatia, not to mention Spartan walking sticks (69-75). Another has let the side down: she has brought some wool to card while the assembly is sitting (88-9). It is only at 84-5 that we actually learn that the women are on their way to the assembly. All of these props have been clearly indicated at or before their first use; however, we do not learn until 122 that Praxagora also has a wreath with her, for the women to wear if they wish to speak (131-2). In the next scene (311ff.), a character explains his costume. This is Blepyros, husband to Praxagora, who has been forced to put on her clothes in the absence of his own. So, instead of his embadai (boots) and himation, he is wearing a hemidiploidion (shawl) and some Persian slippers.

When the women return from the assembly (504ff.) Praxagora instructs them to take off their husbands’ clothes and put them out of sight along with the Spartan walking sticks. In 711 Praxagora leaves, saying that she is going to the Agora. This is not so much an indication of locale as a means to get her off stage.

One of the resolutions of the new assembly has been the abolition of private property. Two male characters arrive and present opposing approaches to compliance. The first apparently drags on a motley collection of domestic items and proceeds to fuss over them, to the derision of the other. Again, the items are presented in some detail. The intention of the first man is to take his property to the agora to be added to the common store; the concern of the latter is to attend the free dinner without relinquishing any of his property. There ensues the scene with the young man, the girl and the hags, leading straight into the final romp. Throughout the play, the director is entirely at liberty to define the acting space in any way that is deemed appropriate, whereas every item handled by the characters is clearly indicated. This principle will hold good in the dicussions that follow.

The Clouds

Aristophanes’ well-known play suggests a complex setting while offering no help to the director. The action begins in the men’s sleeping quarters of Strepsiades’ house, but suddenly (92) moves to the door of the Thinkery, Socrates’ establishment. In our 1994 production, the door was not lit until Strepsiades and his son Pheidippides approached it, which they did by incorporating a small stroll into the conversation. This stroll must have been the only recourse available to the ancient production, since the dramatic festivals were conducted in daylight. Pheidippides refuses to attend the Thinkery and leaves in disgust:

I’m off; I can’t be bothered with you. (125)

There is no indication of where he has gone. All the subsequent action apparently takes place in this public space, outside the door of the Thinkery. The first plain indication of scenography is in fact scarcely such: when Socrates floats in Strepsiades calls out, “Good grief! Who’s that on the kremathra?” This term refers to a basket or sling in which items can be hung up. From this we infer that Socrates is indeed floating or swinging by, riding in some kind of sling. In 238 we have what is effectively a stage direction: Strepsiades begs Socrates to come down so that they can converse, and presumably he does.9 We are occasionally reminded that we are outdoors, as for example when the song of the Clouds is heard off stage and Socrates encourages Strepsiades to look up to Mt Parnes.10 Later, Strepsiades finally and reluctantly (509) follows Socrates into the Thinkery for his education. When they emerge Socrates gives plain directions:

I’ll call him out outdoors here into the daylight.(627)

In 801-3 Strepsiades goes to fetch Pheidippides. Once again, it is impossible to tell if he leaves the acting space through a door or simply leaves. The famous scene between Right and Wrong ensues, and then Pheidippides goes inside the Thinkery for his education. When he emerges, Strepsiades takes him home to feed him, and at this point we might have justification for another door, as a creditor arrives and announces that his money is due and he will call Strepsiades. However, he does not need to, as Strepsiades hears him and responds at once. There is no reason to suppose that father and son have reached anywhere near home until 1295-6, when Strepsiades chases the second creditor away from the house:

Won’t you chase yourself away from my house?

There is a short choral interlude after which Strepsiades calls for help. His son is now a father-beater. When the Clouds ask what has gone wrong, it turns out that they have had a quarrel over dinner (1354) and that dinner was indoors (endon, 1361). Even so, none of the foregoing strictly requires that the audience see the representation of a dwelling. In 1484-6 come the final clues as to scenography. Strepsiades, exasperated, decides to set fire to the Thinkery and summons Xanthias, a slave, to bring a ladder. They climb onto the roof and get to work. Socrates appears and protests; we can gather that he is now down and Strepsiades is up, since Strepsiades spitefully boasts that he is walking the air surveying the sun, as Socrates had observed from his sling. In a final touch, Hermes arrives and encourages Strepsiades. Presumably, though we have no way of knowing, Hermes appeared in a more prestigious conveyance than the humble sling used by Socrates.

In the modern production, it was not found necessary to have any suggestions of doors or dwellings on the stage. The performance took place in a skyscape appropriate to the notion of the Clouds, decorated with a large lips and tongue to signify fast talking. The structure of the theatre itself allowed of an elevated entrance for Socrates, and a triumphant finale for Strepsiades. The actors moved freely on the acting space. It is quite likely that the original called for two houses to be represented, but the play could be comfortably presented, if resources were strained, with one.

On the other hand, there is specific reference to physical appearance, garments, and portable items. When Strepsiades sees the acolytes (184) he calls them creatures and likens them to the Spartan survivors of the battle at Pylos.11 As though we cannot see them, he asks why they are squinting at the ground (187), bending over with their heads close to the ground (191), and have their anuses looking at the sky (193). In 200 ff. the student is asked to identify and explain a series of arcane “scientific” objects, although there is nothing in the text to indicate how they have arrived. In my production, they were on stage from the start of the play, as I could not see how the acolytes could crawl in, assuming the appropriate posture, and carry strange equipment at the same time. In 244-6 Socrates asks Strepsiades to sit on a couch and put on a wreath. There is no instruction to fetch the couch:

SOCRATES: Where’s Strepsiades? Are you coming out with your truckle bed?(627)

Here Aristophanes takes care to specify how this truckle bed arrives. At the very end of the play, Strepsiades suddenly calls on a slave by name to bring a ladder. If Aristophanes is consistent in incorporating into the script any instructions to fetch portable items, then we have to assume that items merely mentioned are on stage already. We have seen the same process in Ekklesiazousai. Some principles have emerged so far: it seems likely that by the fifth century BC temporary stage structures were in use in Athenian theatre, but the texts of Clouds and Ekklesiazousae show little or no dependence on any concept of setting. Both plays, indeed, as is generally agreed, show a fluid approach to setting, and they are not the only plays of Aristophanes to do so.12 In contrast, detailed attention is given in the text to portable properties.

Out of Athenian Old Comedy evolved New Comedy, on which Roman comedy was modelled. The work of Plautus provides a rich source of comparison with these antecedents. Two plays, The Rope and Menaechmi, while bearing out the general principles noted so far, are particularly interesting in their use of portable properties. There is much that is Aristophanic about Plautus: the cheerful physicality of the action, the full range of humour from the allusive to the frankly bawdy, the predilection for abandoning the tale in favour of a party. He also shows indifference to details of staging in comparison with his attention to costume and props. Indeed, I will show that he takes the use of the inanimate prop to a new level.

The Rope [Rudens]

This is a mischievous title, and clever as well, for it focuses the attention of the audience on an aspect of the action that Plautus chooses not to verbalise. The rope becomes a semantic marker. An audience could be excused for forgetting all about any rope long before it appears, as it is not mentioned until line 939, and could be considered the least important of the motley of objects to engage the attention of the characters.

The setting is made clear immediately, in the customary prologue and as soon as the action begins. The scene is the sea shore, where Daemones and his slave Sceparnio are repairing the damage of the night’s storm to the house. Two girls are seen swimming to shore; they take refuge in a temple, presided over by the priestess Ptolemocratia. This is quite a complex setting for Plautus; a number of his plays could be comfortably performed with one doorway or even none.13

The stage was easily set up; what required much more thought was the organisation of the direction in which characters came and went. In the two plays of Aristophanes already mentioned, and indeed in others such as Acharnians, the acting space is fluid, thus seamlessly increasing the scope of the action. Plautus by contrast has a static scene which characters enter and leave, announcing their destination on leaving and referring in detail on their return to what they have been up to in their absence. The acting space, however small, thus becomes a focus for a world of action. Terence is a master of this trick; in Adelphi I have counted 28 twists of the plot achieved by this means. This meant that it was particularly important not only to plan entrances and exits with care, but also to give considerable thought to the imagined geography of the play. When characters arrive from the port, the forum, the house of the pimp, or other places, a wide sense of space external to the stage can be cunningly created. This turns out to be a rewarding feature of any Roman comedy.

The world of the tale may be largely in the mind of the audience, but the equipment is not. The tale of The Rope, like many such, hangs upon a shipwreck and the disposal of the people and possessions scattered to the waves. The first hint of this comes in Palaestra’s first speech, when she announces that she has lost her luggage. Shortly some fishermen arrive (290ff.), announcing and displaying their rods, an early suggestion that something might be fetched out of the sea, but not necessarily by these fishermen who are perishing, “as fishermen do, from hunger, thirst and false hope.” (312) The fishermen are greeted by a forceful character, Trachalio, a survivor of the shipwreck and one of three slaves in the play. He controls the fortunes of the free characters, but not in the usual manner of the servus callidus. At this point he describes some people he is looking for: a handsome young man accompanied by three sub-human types with cloaks and knives (315), and a repellent old man with two pretty girls in tow (317-20). He finds one of the girls immediately and hears that Palaestra’s little cistula or treasure chest (389-90) has been lost in the pimp’s portmanteau (392) along with his gold and silver (396). Even if we fail to bear these separate items in mind, we will hear of them many more times before the play is over, but the important items are in Palaestra’s treasure chest. She was stolen from her parents when she was three years old, and the treasures are the proof of her parentage. The play proceeds on its merry way to the inevitable resolution, and in this context it is necessary to discuss the rope.

At the beginning of Act 4 we learn that Daemones has sent Gripus, his slave, out to catch fish. Having imparted this information, Daemones hears his wife calling him and retires indoors, leaving the scene clear for Gripus, who arrives having caught, not a fish, but the pimp’s portmanteau. He is about to hide it for later unpacking when he is accosted by the honest Trachalio, who immediately offers to help him pull in whatever is on the end of his rope (939). There ensues a long musical sequence which clearly involves the two characters arguing from each end of the rope, as in lines 1015 and 1031 Gripus demands that Trachalio let go of the rope, and Trachalio persists in his demand that Gripus give up the portmanteau. The portmanteau remains the focus of the action throughout the dénouement, and the rope seems forgotten till 1189, when all have joyfully gone indoors to celebrate and Gripus, deprived of his hopes, is left alone. He is clearly still clutching the rope as he wonders why he doesn’t go and hang himself. There is a little more action as Daemones returns to settle matters with the pimp. In the course of this he confides to the pimp that he intends to set Gripus free. Poor Gripus sinks into despair and once more considers hanging himself. In the very last line of the play, Daemones invites both the pimp and Gripus to dinner, implying to Gripus that he is now a free man.

It is what is on the end of the rope that is important. The scenes containing the action with the rope and the portmanteau are full-blown song and dance routines of considerable length and complexity. If they are not set to music, such scenes are very difficult to run successfully. The rope provides tension between Trachalio and Gripus and must have been an interesting feature of the choreography. We certainly made a great deal of play with it in our production of 1992. I then saw no point in parting Gripus from it; indeed I left it in his hands until the final moment. He clutched it as the symbol of his hopes; once deprived of hope he wrapped it around himself as the symbol of his servitude, and fashioned it into a noose as he spoke of death. In the very last line of the play, as it dawned on him what was meant by the invitation to dinner, he flung away the rope, leapt for joy, and ran into the house a guest and a free man. Thus we did justice to the title of this play. The eponymous rope is more than a mere property; it has a semantic significance of its own.14 Properties are also used in this way in Plautus’ Casina, where the cloak and stick of Lysidamus, which feature amusingly in the text, stand for his respectability and his manhood respectively.15


Menaechmi, produced in 1998, is another play that makes extensive use of portable properties, in this case to exploit the amusing possibilities of mistaken identity. When properties are used in this way, I choose to term them “portable markers”. In this play, Plautus makes extensive use of visual cues to reinforce the humour of the situations he creates. These cues are by no means always explicit in the text, and during the process of staging the play I felt entirely justified in studying the text closely, or even improvising, in order to do this great comic author justice.

Two props, a frock and a bangle, are introduced and repeatedly mentioned throughout the play. The difference between the frock and the bangle is that after their introduction the frock changes hands but the bangle does not. There is also reference to a third prop, a wreath.

The frock is introduced first:

MANAECHMUS 1: I’ve just nicked this frock from her inside, I’m taking it to my girl-friend. (130)

Some problems arise here. If Menaechmus 1 is wearing the frock, how does he get it out of the house unnoticed (uxori... surripui 130)? We must assume that Menaechmus 1 has first donned the frock and then covered it with another garment in order to leave the house without arousing more than the usual suspicion. We can therefore assume that he makes a surprise display of it to the audience—hanc... surripui (130)—and covers it up again when he is startled— perii!—by the parasite Peniculus’ greeting (135-6). This lends credence to age me aspice [Just look at me]:

MENAECHMUS 1: Just look at me! Aren’t I just like Adonis?

PENICULUS: What are you wearing? (145-6)

I decided that the covering garment could only be Menaechmus 1’s pallium or cloak, and that on the words age me aspice Menaechmus 1 unfurls his cloak to reveal the frock. Although it would have been obvious to the audience, it is nevertheless not clear from the text that Menaechmus 1 is actually wearing the frock until 190, when he greets his mistress, Erotium:

MENAECHMUS 1: Oh, my delight, when I look at you, I hate my wife so much!

EROTIUM: H’m, so much that you have to wear her clothes. What is this?

MENAECHMUS 1: I took it off my wife for you to put on, my flower. (189-91)

Now Menaechmus 2 arrives in search of his twin and the cross-purposes begin. Menaechmus 2 gets the dinner and the entertainment and is sent away with the frock, to have some alterations done. The frock is now set to change hands. Peniculus returns and lurks. When he sees Menaechmus 2 emerging, wearing a wreath, —cum corona exit foras (463)—he realises that lunch is over. Plautus makes it clear that Menaechmus 2 is carrying the frock (466-70). The audience thus knows which Menaechmus he is, but Peniculus does not:

MENAECHMUS 2 [to EROTIUM, inside]: Can’t you give it a rest? I’ll bring this back as soon as I can, all nicely done up. I’ll make sure you wouldn’t think it was the same one, it’ll be unrecognizable...

PENICULUS: He’s had lunch, he’s drunk the wine, now he’s taking her frock to the frockmaker’s, and his best mate has missed out! I’ll have no bloody self- respect left if I don’t pay him out for this! [to audience] You just wait; you’ll see what I’ll do. (466-72)

An unpleasant scene ensues, and Peniculus rushes off to inform the Wife. Meanwhile, Erotium’s maid brings out another prop: a heavy gold bangle, which is to be made heavier at the jeweller’s (523-5). Menaechmus 2 is delighted, and decides to escape while the going is good (554-8). Peniculus spills the beans to the Wife. Now there is the matter of the wreath:

PENICULUS: Oh, give it a rest. I’m going to help you catch him out now. Just follow me this way. He was taking the frock he nicked off you to the frockmaker, he was drunk and he had a wreath on—and here’s the wreath! Am I right or am I right? He must have gone this way; you can follow him if you want. No—look—we’re lucky—here he comes. But—he hasn’t got the frock. (561-9)

The presence of the wreath shows that Peniculus and the Wife think they are about to speak to Menaechmus 2. The absence of the frock warns the audience that Menaechmus 1 is about to enter. A most painful scene ensues, in which the audience is cogently reminded of the wreath:

PENICULUS: That’s the way! That’ll teach you to eat lunch without me, and then come out here drunk with a wreath on and take the piss out of me!

MENAECHMUS 1: I have had no bloody lunch, and I haven’t set foot in here today.

PENICULUS: Are you denying it?

MENAECHMUS 1: Yes, I am.

PENICULUS: Of all the cheek. Didn’t I just see you standing here in front of the house with that wreath? (628-33).

Plautus has gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that the audience notices the wreath. At this point it seems to have fulfilled its function, for it now disappears from the text. Now Menaechmus 1 needs to get the frock back:

EROTIUM: But I just gave it to you, to take to the frockmaker, just a little while ago, and that bangle, to take to the jeweller for a renovation.

MENAECHMUS 1: What! You gave me the frock and the bangle? You must be wrong. I just gave it to you and then I went off to the forum, now I’m back, and here you are. (681-5)

Bitter words ensue. Erotium slams the door, Menaechmus 1 leaves in despair. Who should now arrive but the Wife from her house and Menaechmus 2 from town, with the frock, naturally. The Wife is thrilled to have her frock back (804- 5). She is wrong. Her accusations are to no avail, and her poor old Daddy is no help. During this scene, the Wife recognises the frock and the bangle:

THE WIFE: But Daddy, he’s actually holding the frock and the bangle, the one he took to her; he’s bringing it back because I recognised it. (806-7)

Eventually Menaechmus 2 feigns madness, and the Wife flees in terror (834). Poor old Daddy goes to fetch a doctor; Menaechmus 2 recovers and escapes. When Daddy comes back with a doctor they happen upon Menaechmus 1, of course, who is still trying to come home. After another painful scene, Menaechmus 1 is left slumped on the doorstep waiting for dark. Messenio, slave of Menaechmus 2, arrives in time to see Menaechmus 1 about to be carried off; naturally, thinking he is his master, Messenio rushes to the rescue. Menaechmus 1 is so grateful that he grants Messenio his freedom, which of course he has no right to do. Messenio then leaves to bring his master his purse and his silver. Bewildered, Menaechmus 1 decides to go back and try once more for the restoration of the frock. Messenio returns with Menaechmus 2, who is still in possession of the bangle and the frock; we find that this is so in 1139. They are deep in argument; to Messenio’s dismay, his master refuses to believe his story and has no intention of granting his freedom. They are distracted by the spectacle of Menaechmus 1, beating on Erotium’s door and demanding the return of the frock and the bangle (1060-1).

Now we move to the dénouement. For the first time, both Menaechmi are on stage. It is clear that until this point one actor can, and should, play the part of both Menaechmi. For the final scene in my production the actors playing Menaechmus 2 and Messenio were placed DSR, backs turned to the audience, while the actor who had up till then played both Menaechmi commanded the stage from USL as Menaechmus 1. Plautus drags out the recognition scene to the last gasp, and the frock and bangle play their part:

MENAECHMUS 1: That’s right! I arranged to have lunch here today, to get away from my wife, because I’d just nicked her frock, then I gave it to this lady.

MENAECHMUS 2: Do you mean, dear brother, this frock that I am holding?

MENAECHMUS 1: That’s it! How did you get it?

MENAECHMUS 2: Your lady friend enticed me in here to have lunch, and insisted I’d given it to her. I had a great lunch, had a few drinks, hopped into bed with the tart, ran off with the frock and this gold. (1137-40)

It seems clear that Plautus did not necessarily include every manipulation of props in the dialogue. There are just enough indications there to give a notion of what is going on, and encouragement to the actors to “tease” the audience by moving items around. The bangle may seem merely to duplicate the function of the frock, but they are different in that the frock passes from one twin to the other and from one woman to the other, under the audience’s gaze. The frock is thus duplicitous in function, marking the confusion that will ensue.

The bangle, on the other hand, serves to mark Menaechmus 2’s own contribution to the situation. By receiving it from Erotium, he sets up his own relationship with her, something more substantial than the shadow of his brother’s relationship. Both items are also sexual markers; the frock passes from one woman to another, symbols of the sharing of sexual intimacy with Menaechmus 1. The bangle signifies the new sexual business between Menaechmus 2 and Erotium. They are thus integral to the theme of the play. Even in the case of these, however, we can assume that every detail of their handling is not necessarily to be found in the text. There are moments of action and counter-action that would require an actor to discard, perhaps momentarily, whatever he is holding, and passing an item from one character to another is a stock method of reinforcing moments of interaction, whether negative or positive. This is well illustrated in the case of the bangle, which is scarcely mentioned in the play, but is clearly shown to have been in Menaechmus 2’s possession throughout (aurum hoc 1140). It is inconceivable that there should not be some byplay with this item during the action. If indeed the business with the bangle is Plautus’ own contribution to his original, it is by no means otiose and well reflects his lively and subtle approach to plot and character. 16

In passing from Old to New Comedy there is a sense of descending to the banal. The successful outcome of a love story must depend on a trinket, a wax seal, or even a sum of money. The portable property becomes an essential but routine means of rescue. Presumably to maintain interest, plots become more complex, the twists in the tales more ingenious and improbable. In the plays mentioned, Plautus’ approach to the use of the portable property increases correspondingly in interest. The characters themselves are often shallow, to the extent that the object of a lover’s passion may never even appear on stage, but their predicaments are enhanced by the dramatic deployment of the objects with which they are preoccupied. Plautus’ contribution to dramatic art is his ability to exploit the possibilities of a situation.


The practical experience of directing ancient comedy can shed light on problems of text, dramaturgy and scenography. There seems to be little importance attached to the configuration or dimensions of the scene. In both Ekklesiazousai and Clouds, and indeed in ancient comedy generally, the question arises as to just how many doors formed part of the scenic structure, such as it may have been.17 The difficulty arises precisely because it is not an issue for the dramatist. The main issue is the distinction I have made already, that between public and private space, and even that seems of less consequence in comedy than in tragedy, and of no consequence in Clouds, where the sleeping space of Strepsiades and Pheidippides apparently merges with the street. The convention that the action takes place in the public space, with female characters given compelling reasons for emerging into that space, seems to have been very strong. Even Blepyros, when he emerges in women’s garb, must explain himself, and he is given the most compelling of reasons to venture out: he cannot possibly relieve his bowels indoors. The fact that the action takes place in public space seems to have predominated and given rise to considerable freedom, even looseness, in delineating even a place of action, much less specific details.

On the other hand, detail of costume and accessories seems to have been very important. There could be two explanations for this. One could lie in the fluid approach to the acting space, and the question of finance may have a bearing also. The modern director on a small budget rejoices in a simple, static set and portable properties. Scamozzi-like, I have made streetscapes from used refrigerator cartons, and all proponents of poor theatre will agree that such illusionism is part of the joy of theatre and need not cost very much. At first consideration, such constraints would not seem to have applied to the competitive theatre of Athens, financed by levy on the rich, or the public displays of Rome, lavishly presented by the politically ambitious.

In the case of Athens, we in fact know that this was a serious question. It was no light matter to fund a dramatic production, and it seems clear that the imposition could pose a heavy burden.18 Among the public obligations or leitourgia to be fulfilled by citizens of Athens there were two that were particularly onerous: the trierarchia or financing of a trireme and its crew, and the choregia or sponsorship of a dramatic production. There existed in Athens a procedure of law known as the antidosis, whereby a citizen could challenge another to carry out a leitourgia in his stead or else exchange property with him. Evidence shows that this process was subject to abuse. The training and equipping of actors and choruses was a matter of form and could not be skimped, but it may be that there was some flexibility in the matter of décor and scenography.19

The Roman Ludi encompassed a variety of highly spectacular entertainment, with which the theatrical performance, whether pantomime or fabula, had to compete. Roman comedy itself seems to have originated in a mixture of Greek phlyax plays and local theatre, with a possible infusion of Greek influence by way of Etruscan theatre.20 This would indicate a simpler style of production than the ritualised community theatre of fifth century Athens. The Mediterranean wars of the third century BC brought Rome into touch with Greek culture, and the effect is seen in Roman drama.

In Rome of the third century onwards the kind of entertainment that received extravagant funding was not necessarily the relatively civilised domestic comedy adapted from the New Comedy of the Greeks. It is known that public entertainment was funded by the Aediles who, being on their way up the political ladder, would not have been inclined to stint, but would have expected value for their money. Even so, the lack of a permanent theatre building until the time of Pompey the Great would indicate the level of support by comparison with the great Circuses, which were erected in the third and second centuries.

It is likely, then, that for very different reasons Greek and Roman comedy may have been subject to constraints of budget. We know that more comedies were produced than tragedies at the height of Athenian drama, and it seems clear that great prestige accrued to the winner in the tragic competition. It is not unlikely that tragedy was far more elaborate and expensive in production than comedy. Given also that the material of both Old and later comedy was more the stuff of ordinary life than that of tragedy, it is not surprising to find the humble prop freely deployed in Greek and Roman comedy. It then took the ingenuity of Plautus to develop the semantic possibilities of portable items.


  1. Aristotle, Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1st edition 1897), 1449a18.[back]
  2. Luigi Polacco finds, on the basis of Plutarch (Pericles 13.9-11), that the tent of Xerxes was the model for the Periclean Odeion and the use of the word skene. See his essay “La fronte di retroscena del teatro di Epidauro”, Numismata Antica Classica 7 (1978): 83-93. Scott Scullion cites Vitruvius (De Architectura. 5.9.1) to suggest that Pericles merely reroofed the Odeion. See his Three Studies in Athenian Dramaturgy (Stuttgart und Leipzig: Teubner, 1994), 10-11. [back]
  3. See Kenneth J. Dover, ed. with comm., Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), lxx-lxxvii; Peter Arnott, Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century B.C. (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1962): 8-12, 42-56. For a discussion of visual evidence, see John R. Green, Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), chs. 2-3. Dover’s discussion is still valuable, not least because it makes clear the speculative nature of all attempts to resolve problems of classical staging. [back]
  4. See David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) : 1-22. Scullion supports Wilhelm Dörpfeld in finding that a wooden skene was introduced at some time before the production of the Oresteia. Scullion, 42-66.[back]
  5. Wiles usefully examines the approaches of Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy (1986) and Oliver Taplin’s Greek Tragedy in Action (1978) to these problems. See David Wiley, ”Reading Greek Performance,” Greece and Rome 34 (1987): 136-51.[back]
  6. Jean-Marc Monet, however, warns against accepting vase paintings as evidence for staging. See his article ”L’Iliupersis dans la ceramique Italiote” Bibliotheca Helvetica Romana 14 (Rome, 1975). A recent survey of the physical evidence for Greek Theatre, is provided by Green (see above). Thomas B. Lonsdale Webster includes a detailed discussion of production problems in the extant plays in his essay Greek Theatre Production (London: Methuen, 1956; 2nd ed. Norwich: Fletcher & Son, 1970): 1-28.[back]
  7. It could reasonably be pointed out that masks are in themselves portable properties. However, the mask is the indispensable marker of character and as such not written into the text. An exception to this principle is found in, for example, Euripides’ Medea (271), where Kreon remarks on her angry face. This I suggest is necessary, as Medea’s mask would not be set in a permanent frown.[back]
  8. All productions mentioned took place in this delightful small theatre, designed by Peter Parkinson. The company consisted of colleagues and students from the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia. All translations in this article are my own.[back]
  9. This is not a direction of the interpolated variety. For discussion of such “directions”, see David Bain, Actors and Audience: a Study of Asides and Related Conventions in Greek Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), passim; Oliver Taplin, ”Did Greek Dramatists write Stage Instructions? “ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 203 (1977): 121-32; Amy M. Dale, ”Seen and Unseen in the Greek Stage,” in her, Collected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1969) 119-29; Denys L. Page, in his Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934) compiles and discusses the examples of this practice. There is also a very interesting discussion of “verbal scenography” in Maria Grazia Bonnanno, ”All the (Greek) World’s a Stage: Notes on (Not Just Dramatic) Greek Staging,” in Lowell Edmunds & Robert W. Wallace, eds., Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): 118-23.[back]
  10. Dover points out that one cannot see Mt Parnes from the Theatre of Dionysus. Presumably one can see it from the Thinkery. Dover, 323. [back]
  11. Thucydides describes the reduction of the Spartans, by starvation and fire, at Pylos in the History 4.26-41 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1st edition 1900).[back]
  12. Scullion points out that tragedy in general does not take this fluid approach, and in two detailed discussions shows that actual scene changes are required for Aias and Eumenides, and that the fluidity of the comic model does not apply to Persai, Choephoroi or Eumenides. Scullion, 67-88. [back]
  13. See Arnott, 107 for comments.[back]
  14. In this context see David P. George, “Euripides’ Heracles 140-325: Staging and the Stage Iconography of Heracles’ Bow,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 35.2 (1994): 145-57. I particularly note the comment that Herakles’ bow is ‘the visual manifestation of many of the play’s issues’. Ibid, 146.[back]
  15. In fact, it was a comment from one of the actors in my production of Casina that put me on the track of this principle. Richard C. Beacham gives a lively account of his own production of Casina, noting that the cloak and stick are ‘the symbols of [Lysidamus’] manly dignity’. Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 115-6.[back]
  16. For summary and discussion, see A. S. Gratwick, Plautus: Menaechmi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 23-30. [back]
  17. For some suggestions see Dover, lxxv-vi, and R. G. Ussher, ed., Aristophanes. Ecclesiazusae, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), xxx-xxxii. I have not necessarily followed these suggestions.[back]
  18. Demosthenes, Against Aphobos (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912) 2.18; Isocrates, Antidosis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912) 4-5. Green notes the financial burden of the Choregia. Green, 7.[back]
  19. For a full discussion of the ways in which the rich actively sought to avoid the often crippling obligation of the dramatic liturgies, see Geddes, A. G. “Rags and Riches: The Costume of Athenian Men in the Fifth Century,” The Cambridge Quarterly, 37 (1987): 307-31. [back]
  20. See the discussions in Beacham, 7-13; or Kenneth McLeish, Roman Comedy (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1976), 11-29.[back]


Judith Maitland is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia. A translator and director of ancient tragedy and comedy, she has published on Greek drama, the political use of myth, Homer and Ancient biography.