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A Funny Thing Happened

Dateline: 10/14/97

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everybody:
Comedy tonight!
Something that's gaudy,
Something that's bawdy--

Something for everybawdy!

Comedy tonight!

-From Comedy Tonight, by Stephen Sondheim.

Nathan Lane, recently Pseudolus in Steven Sondheim's Broadway musical, [www.aftab.com/forum.htm] A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, won the latest Tony Award for best actor in a musical. Before Lane and his successors, [www.sondheim.com/news/forum_changes.html] Whoopi Goldberg (who necessitated scripting changes more for her comedic style than her gender) and David Alan Grier, Zero Mostel (1963) and Phil Silvers (1972) won Tony awards for their renditions of the crafty slave. In 1966 they performed together in the roles of Pseudolus (Mostel) and the procurer (Silvers), in the movie version directed by Richard Lester.

Given even this scant information, it should be no surprise the play is not PC. [www.ram.org/ramblings/plays/forum.html] Ram Samudrala says, in his review of the play, every character "is bound to offend some segment of the population." As University of Minnesota's Robert P. Sonkowsky quipped, Funny Thing's script writers ([www.webcom.com/~broadway/tonys/63tonys.html] Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) must have looked at George E. Duckworth's Roman Comedy and selected one role for each of Duckworth's character types. Male household members (by [www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc21.html] Plautus [254 - 184 B.C.] and the 1963 Tony Award winning writers) are divided into adulescens [youth], senex [father], and servus [slave]. Feminine roles include the Virgo [maiden] or meretrix [courtesan] of whom the young man is enamored, and the matrona [wife and mother]. A third major Plautine category is what Duckworth calls "roles rich in comic value." Among these are the miles [soldier] and the leno [slavedealer] who, in A Funny Thing, plays a panderer as well.

Bawdiness and double-entendre are part of the Greco-Roman tradtion; so are mistaken identity and trickery. Siblings, separated at birth but reunited and revealed in time to prevent consummation, are part of the stock of Plautine and [www.antfarm.org/~falstaff/Papers/Plautus.html" >Shakespearean comedy. A Funny Thing takes plot bits and [www.acs-classics.rhodes.edu/ACS/users/prior/MenaechmiFU.html#anchor1149489] stock characters from several Plautine comedies, and combines them in a way that amused the audiences of the early sixties as much as those of the late nineties--which is hardly surprising since the original slapstick comedies were based on old plots when [www.acs-classics.rhodes.edu/ACS/users/prior/MenaechmiFU.html#anchor1150984] Plautus wrote them as [didaskalia.open.ac.uk/stagecraft/roman.html] carnival-like attractions for rowdy audiences in the second century B.C.

Plot Summary

Pseudolus, a trickster slave, wants to be free. His opportunity comes through the master's son's infatuation with one of the women for sale next door. If Pseudolus can procure the woman, the son, Hero, will free him.

While the master and his shrewish wife are away visiting the mother-in-law, Pseudolus sees his opportunity. He tells the slavedealer/pimp that the woman of his youthful master's fancy -- a virgin recently purchased for a soldier who hasn't yet seen her -- has the plague. When Pseudolus offers to care for her until the soldier comes to claim his prize, the cowardly procurer agrees.

Brought back to the master's house, the honest virgin waits for her master-to-be, the soldier. When the master of the house returns unexpectedly, the maid, assuming he is the soldier who bought her, offers him her body, but not her heart.

In the nick of time, Pseudolus pries the master from the maid. Meanwhile, the soldier arrives. Pseudolus dresses a fellow slave as a female corpse and tells the soldier his bride/concubine has died of the plague. When it becomes clear to the shrouded slave the soldier will immolate him, he jumps up. General confusion and denouement follow.

Since the soldier and the maid were, of course, free born siblings stolen by pirates at birth, the maid is free to marry Hero. In return, Hero frees Pseudolus and the singing resumes:

I get the thing I want to be:
Free! Free! Free! Free! Free!
Nothing for kings, nothing for crowns.
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!
What is the moral?
Must be a moral.
Here is the moral, wrong or right:
Morals tomorrow!
Comedy, comedy, comedy, comedy,
Comedy, comedy, comedy, comedy tonight!

-From Finale, by Stephen Sondheim.

Other online resources:

Lindsey Davis's Last Act in Palmyra, a mystery involving a first century acting troupe, shows the climate in which Plautus may have worked. The play changed nightly -- when the troupe was lucky enough to get two consecutive nights in one city -- so it was the playwright's job to devise new elements (often from old plays) to keep things fresh. It was the actors' job to decide whether or not to use the new lines. Clowns, musicians, and scantily clad dancing women helped keep the audiences in line (or not).

Roman Laughter, by Erich Segal.

The Comedies:

Plautus : The Comedies (Complete Roman Drama in Translation) Vol 1, Palmer Bovie (Editor).

Plautus : The Comedies (Complete Roman Drama in Translation) Vol 2, Palmer Bovie (Editor).

Plautus : The Comedies (Complete Roman Drama in Translation) Vol 3, Palmer Bovie (Editor).

Plautus : The Comedies (Complete Roman Drama in Translation) Vol 4, Palmer Bovie (Editor).

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