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Adapting The Brothers Menaechmus

by

Marc Ducusin

(University of Winnipeg)

In condensing The Brothers Menaechmus for our video, I wanted to retain a sense of the play's identity confusions — the source of much of its humour — while paring the dramatic action down to a short skit manageable by a cast of four. While our rendition of the comedy often gives visual action precedence over dialogue, the lines preserved hopefully represent Plautus' major thematic concerns, including his metaphors of love as warfare, but particularly the prevalent underlying sense of duality. To help cut down the dialogue while staying true to its spirit, I have endeavoured to translate motifs from the play's language into the visual vocabulary of our production.

Dramatic and visual choices, such as the setting, frequently correspond with details from the text. Our decision to relocate the comedy to a 1920s Jazz Age milieu, for instance, reflects Plautus' conflict between business and pleasure, seriousness and revelry — dichotomies readily apparent in an era of Prohibition and bootlegging. The character of the courtesan Erotium, as well, fits easily in this new setting; it seemed natural to re-conceive her as a flapper and burlesque performer. The giddiness and hedonism associated with the roaring twenties seemed particularly harmonious with the tone of the play and its comic implausibilities.

The abridged plot likewise coheres with the thematic duality of the text. Exploiting the visual medium, I have replaced Plautus' spoken prologue with a parody of silent film, using printed title cards with narrative abridged from the text. The epilogue, too, becomes a mini-silent film (with brief voice-over narration by Messenio), thus framing the main action between two corresponding sequences, reinforcing the mirrored or cyclic structure of the original play. One of the greatest liberties I took with the script, namely the added scene with Peniculus winning the Wife at the auction, similarly mirrors the arranged marriage in the prologue: both events are stressed as financial transactions, and both humorously depict the Wife striking back (literally) at the man to whom she is bound. Accordingly, I have retained and manipulated major scenes to emphasise this two-fold structure, with incidents early on in the play echoed, inverted or resolved within the second half:



1) Silent movie prologue   15) Silent movie epilogue
2) Peniculus' introduction   14) Messenio heads the auction
3) Men. I leaves house after arguing with Wife   13) Men. I kicked out after arguing with Erotium
4) Peniculus greets Men. I   12) Messenio greets Men. II
5) Men. I gives dress to Erotium   11) Men. II, carrying the dress, meets the Wife
6) Identity confusion: Erotium seduces Men. II 10) Results of identity confusion: Wife confronts Men I; Erotium accuses him of trickery
7) Peniculus goes to Wife   9) Peniculus & Wife conspire
 

8) Debauchery scene

 
  

The mirroring effect depends largely on the doubling of roles: Peniculus and Messenio are played by the same actor, as are Erotium and the Wife, and, obviously, the twins. The doubling of the cast works with the action to reinforce links between the characters. The argument between the first Menaechmus and his wife, for example, is replayed by the off-screen row between him and his mistress Erotium (the same actress), which ends in him being pushed out of the courtesan's house. Wife and mistress are thus dramatically linked.

We have tried to create additional dualities by juxtaposing Plautus' dialogue with visual flourishes of our own. Peniculus, for instance, delivers his remark about "wip[ing] all platters clean" after washing his hands at a bathroom sink (l. 78). (The washroom mirror reflects his image, in an obvious visualisation of duality.) In the early scene where Menaechmus I argues with his spouse, he flings a shoe at her before claiming that his "word barrage has put the wife in full retreat" (l. 127). Dramatic irony undercuts the bravado of his speech: the audience sees that his "word barrage" actually has little to do with the Wife's retreat. Visual action undermines the spoken text, creating two levels of meaning.

Images also provide a succinct way of rendering ideas explored verbally in Plautus' text. The following statement from the prologue, for instance, inspired an image in the opening credits :

 

This town is Epidamnus, while the play is on.
But when we play another play, its name will change
Just like the actors living here, whose roles can range
From pimp to papa, or to lover pale and wan,
To pauper, parasite, to king or prophet, on and on. (l. 72-76)

 

The opening titles show a poster for Medea torn down to reveal a poster for The Brothers Menaechmus, just as the soundtrack suddenly switches from melodrama to jaunty ragtime — image and music fusing to communicate Plautus' notion of theatrical mutability. The visual medium also grants us freer rein to expand on the Plautine humour. The campy tango between Peniculus and Menaechmus I, for instance, derives partly from Peniculus' suggestion that the cross-dressed Menaechmus "pirouette a bit"(l. 196), a line of Plautus' original dialogue not included in our adapted script. In a larger sense, the dance serves the purpose of conveying the homoerotic humour of the original text in a non-homophobic way. Gone from our script, for example, is a scene in which Menaechmus II calls Peniculus a "fag," as Segal translates it (l. 513). Likewise, we have tried to counter some of the misogyny directed at the Wife by having her fight back physically. My intent was not to censor the text, which would have been artistically dishonest, but rather to re-inflect textual details that now seem offensive.

Other prominent additions to the play are also variants on Plautus' own themes. The lengthy montage sequence, depicting Menaechmus II getting debauched at the courtesan's house, revels in duality, employing a series of doubles, with nearly every action matched by its pair. At the dinner table, Erotium eats a strawberry, while Menaechmus bites a carrot; afterwards, they play strip poker, which Menaechmus loses, and then shoot craps with Erotium rolling snake eyes (the pair of ones neatly visualising the motif of doubles). Each takes a turn dancing for the other, and, together, they play a slapstick game of hide-and-seek, frantically disappearing and reappearing, swapping clothes in a comedic display of interchangeability. Even the editing stresses this sense of change: at one point, Erotium tosses her boa at the camera, which cuts to a shot of Menaechmus catching her shoe. The interspersed clips from old movies, meanwhile, comment on the action to suggest a link between reality and cinematic fantasy. The montage thus operates on a principle of doubles and inversions.

Our production hopefully provides, in seventeen minutes, a faithful while inventive vision of Plautus' comedy, with much of its thematic duality intact or even expanded. My goal in adapting the play has been to capture an essence of its comic action, themes, metaphors and character dynamics, rendering everything in a fast-paced, visually entertaining way.

  

  

WORKS CITED

Plautus, "The Brothers Menaechmus." Four Comedies. Trans. Erich Segal. New York: Oxford UP. 1996. 75-130.

 

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