An Ancient Play Made Modern

Seth Jeppesen’s ‘Topics in Classical Literature and Civilization’ class performed the comedy Curculio, newly translated and adapted for a BYU audience.

Photo credit: Jenae Jeppesen.
From left to right, Storm Stewart (Planesium), Meg Sorensen (Palinurus), Ryan Blank (Phaedromus)

PROVO, Utah (April 7, 2016)—Classical scholar T. P. Wiseman once said, “On one hand, the Romans are exactly like us. On the other hand, the Romans are nothing like us.” This paradoxical truth means that while the Romans set much of the foundation for modern society, there is still much about them we find alien. And according to assistant professor of comparative arts and letters Seth Jeppesen, this is most evident in their comedies.

To close out the winter semester, Jeppesen’s Topics in Classical Literature and Civilization class performed the comedy Curculio, written by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus and newly translated by Jeppesen. The play follows a young man’s attempts to free and marry a courtesan-in-training. In doing so he and his servants have to manipulate the girl’s owner and her would-be buyer. The shortest of Plautus’s plays, it has been translated only a handful of times.

Most students only experience plays like this one through silent reading. “But that’s not how they would have experienced them in the ancient world,” Jeppesen said. “They would have experienced them as performances. So our whole goal is to see ‘What are we going to learn by performing these plays?’” Students had the chance to not only perform the play, but adapt it for a BYU audience, drawing connections between the ancient world and their own.

Jeppesen explained, “These plays are funny. There’s lots of stuff in Roman plays that make up the foundation of modern comedy, all the way down to our modern sitcoms.” But despite the similarities with modern comedy – such as mistaken identities and wordplay – there is still a lot that modern audiences find distasteful – such as violence and human trafficking.

In that light, modern theatre-goers may ask, “Why perform these plays at all?” Jeppesen asked this question himself when preparing this performance with his students. “Plays that produce problems . . . help produce solutions and create action,” he explained. “The issues brought up here with human trafficking unfortunately aren’t things of the past.”

He added, “If you’re upset by this theme of the play . . . that’s good. It means you’re human.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Photo by Jenae Jeppesen