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Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts
Book VII Chapter 2: Scenic Representations first introduced.[364 BC]
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The pestilence lasted into the following year. The new consuls were Gaius Sulpicius Peticus and Gaius Licinius Stolo. Nothing worth mentioning took place, except that in order to secure the peace of the gods a lectisternium was instituted, the third since the foundation of the City (1). But the violence of the epidemic was not alleviated by any aid from either men or gods, and it is asserted that as men's minds were completely overcome by superstitious terrors they introduced, amongst other attempts to placate the wrath of heaven, scenic representations (2), a novelty to a nation of warriors who had hitherto only had the games of the Circus. They began, however, in a small way, as nearly everything does, and small as they were, they were borrowed from abroad. The players were sent for from Etruria; there were no words, no mimetic action; they danced to the measures of the flute and practised graceful movements in Tuscan fashion. Afterwards the young men began to imitate them, exercising their wit on each other in burlesque verses and suiting their action to their words. This became an established diversion, and was kept up by frequent practice. The Tuscan word for an actor is istrio, and so the native performers were called histriones. These did not, as in former times, throw out rough extempore effusions like the Fescennine verse but they chanted satyrical verses quite metrically arranged and adapted to the notes of the flute, and these they accompanied with appropriate movements. Several years later Livius for the first time abandoned the loose satyrical verses and ventured to compose a play with a coherent plot. Like all his contemporaries, he acted in his own plays, and it is said that when he had worn out his voice by repeated recalls he begged leave to place a second player in front of the flutist to sing the monologue while he did the acting, with all the more energy because his voice no longer embarrassed him. Then the practice commenced of the chanter following the movements of the actors, the dialogue alone being left to their voices. When, by adopting this method in the presentation of pieces, the old farce and loose jesting was given up and the play became a work of art, the young people left the regular acting to the professional players and began to improvise comic verses. These were subsequently known as exodia ( after-pieces), and were mostly worked up into the " Atellane Plays." These farces were of Oscan origin, and were kept by the young men in their own hands; they would not allow them to be polluted by the regular actors. Hence it is a standing rule that those who take part in the Atellanae are not deprived of their civic standing, and serve in the army as being in no way connected with the regular acting. Amongst the things which have arisen from small beginnings, the origin of the stage ought to be put foremost, seeing that what was at first healthy and innocent has grown into a mad extravagance that even wealthy kingdoms can hardly support. |
(1): The second is not mentioned.
(2): On the subject of Scenic Representations in earlier ages of the Republic consult Mommsen, I. pp. 224 and 452.
Lectisternium:It was essentially a banquet of the gods; richly covered couches were placed round tables which were loaded with offerings from the sacrifices which were going on in the temples and in private houses throughout the City. On these couches were laid either the emblems of the particular deity of draped wax effigies. Whether it was an importation from Greece or an old Italian rite seems doubtful.
Atellane plays:These were "the old national drama immediately connected with the festive worship of the people in which it took its rise and which therefore retained a respectability which could be conceded to the performances of foreign histriones. Being free from all contact with the professional actor, the young Roman could appear in the Atellan play without any forfeiture of his social position." -- Donaldson, Varronianus, p. 158.