Today in Theatre History: ANCIENT ROMAN COMEDY FINALLY CLOSES ON BROADWAY AFTER 2150 YEARS–August 29, 1964

Plautus, wearing a lovely laurel wreath in anticipation of his first Broadway opening night after waiting more than 2100 years.

“Yes, but will it play in Peorium Magna?” Plautus, wearing his best laurel wreath in anticipation of his first Broadway opening night after waiting more than 2100 years.

On this day in 1964–August 29–an adaptation of a work by the ancient Roman playwright, Plautus, finally closed after a successful run on Broadway, some 2150 years after it first premiered in Rome.  Admittedly, there was a substantial break in the performance run of nearly 2148 years in which most, if not all, of the original cast and crew were changed owing to a number of significant logistical issues, including language differences (before Cats, New York City audiences were notoriously tough on musical comedies presented entirely in Latin), cultural issues (ancient Romans could be a bit demanding at times), Equity rules (New York Equity required at least 51% of the cast be non-ancient Romans), and, of course, death (in fact, it’s safe to say that all of the ancient Romans involved in the original production were dead by the early 1960s).  But nonetheless, it was on August 29, 1964, that the version of Plautus’ play that finally made it to Broadway closed after 964 performances.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which was actually an amalgamation of three Plautine works, Mostellaria, Miles Gloriosus, and Pseudolus–brilliantly combined by three geniuses of the modern stage, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Schevelove, and Larry Gelbart) opened May 8, 1962 at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway, eventually transferring to the Majestic, and becoming one of the greatest hits of the early 60s.  It would win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Actor in a Musical for the show’s lead, Zero Mostel.  Such accolades come as no surprise to theatre historians familiar with the works of Plautus.  Despite having no choice but to write his comedies in Latin, Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) was far and away Rome’s most celebrated playwright.  And his works remained exceptionally popular hundreds of generations after his death.   Shakespeare drew much of his comic inspiration from Plautus.  Even today, his works read as if they were written with a modern audience in mind–witty, bawdy, slapstick, full of puns, clever jokes and very smart storytelling.  Students of theatre need look no further than the plays of Plautus for quintessential examples of the art of comic writing–proven on this day in 1964 after nearly 1000 performances in the world’s second toughest theatre city (behind ancient Rome, of course, where a playwright could actually lose his life if the reviews were bad enough).

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