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Prof. Neumann and Colleagues at Institute Rework Ancient Roman Comedies for Modern Audiences

by Davidson College
Neumann and her students working outside
Neumann and her students sometimes convene class on the patio of Alvarez College Union.

What would an ancient Roman comedy look like as modern hip-hop performance? That was one of the questions Davidson Professor of Classics Jeanne Neumann helped answer this past summer, through a National Endowment for the Humanities' summer institute titled "Roman Comedy in Performance." The institute, held at the University of North Carolina, assembled 25 scholars from different disciplines to interpret scenes from the Roman comic poets Plautus and Terence into inventive modern performances, which were filmed and made accessible on YouTube.

"Some scenes in Roman comedy present real problems for a modern audience," said Neumann. "The point of the project was to examine some difficult scenes and put them on stage in different ways, both for the general public and especially for educators.

One group performed a scene in the original Latin with masks and ancient costume, then in the 1850s style of Oscar Wilde, and finally as a modern sitcom.

Neumann participated in depicting a scene from Pseudolus by Plautus, which she and an all-female cast performed as Drag Kings. Neumann reimagined the role of the young, clueless lover Calidorus as a college preppie dressed in Nantuket red shorts and a blue button-down shirt. "I basically raided my son's closet," she joked.

You can watch Neumann and the Pseudolus group perform by clicking here.

The Institute accomplished the NEH goal of disseminating understanding of the classics to the public by placing the videos of their performances on YouTube. Neumann noted the particular value of making the institute's work available to teachers. She said, "This project brought people with different talents into the same room, and together we created something on the web that can be used by teachers at every level, from middle school to graduate school."

All the videos of the Institute's performances can be viewed by clicking here.

The Institute also provided valuable learning experiences for its participants, "The cross pollination of ideas from different groups was fascinating," Neumann said. "I didn't know much about the theory and practice of theater before the Institute, but I do now."

Neumann plans to share lessons gained at the Institute with her students at Davidson. "I'm telling my students to read the lines in different attitudes, and it's really engaging them, making them think more deeply about what's going on and the different ways you might interpret a text," she said.

Neumann also learned much more about the musicality of Roman theatre. "I now not only understand the complexity of Roman theatrical meter, but I can teach it to my students."