The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the Inverted Plautine Comedy

By Cassandra A. Clarke
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/1

The first line of Plautus’ epitaph reads: “Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, comoedia luget, scaena est deserta,” or roughly translated, “since Plautus is dead, comedy mourns, deserted is the stage” (Garrod, 531).  While his body no longer remains, lively traces of his plays' essential elements, such as his use of “stock characters” and “mischievous agents” to create situations that “rival social norms,” can be found in almost any situational comedy today.

Even though this plot-line is common to Plautus work, he did not find fame as its originator, but as the inventive stage-adaptor who was able to “transform [it, or] New Greek Comedy” into “accessible forms of entertainment, for, and to please his audience” (Beacham, 32). In today’s time, the best example of a modern adaptation of Plautine comedy is the outlandish live performance of  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, since it not only parodies the same comical structure, but through its ad-libbing and shadowing of actors on-screen, also maintains the same Plautine fundamentals of “literary ignorance,” for the sake of audience’s entertainment” (34). The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodies the classic Plautine comedic structure, by inverting it, and hence adapting the adaptor’s structure into a self-conscious tale of fatalist love, revolting slaves, and alienation to a modern crowd no less “saturnalian” than that of Old Latin Rome.

Through the “argumentum” and “witty worded” introduction within The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one can observe the reversed structure of the Plautine prologue (Ozakturk, 2). Plautus’ prologues were performed not just to “hold the attention of the audience,” but also for the sake of the “argumentum-the outline of the plot of the play to avoid confusion for the audience” (3). Plautus’ prologues, such as the one in Casina, often start with an inviting approach:

"We’ve duly taken note of what the people say:
You’re longing to applaud a play by Plautus here today.
A titillating tale, to charm, amuse and move;
The sort of stuff the older crowd approve." (Beacham, qtd. 89)

Using Casina as an example, Plautus’ prologues often follow this form, shifting between the initial focus of entertainment to the argumentum, or describing the plot and the background of the play in brief:

"The old man’s wife has stumbled on the plot!
To thwart her husband, she would throw her lot
In with the son, but then the secrets out!
Dad learns of son’s infatuation, and- the lout-
Sends him abroad to party to the plan"(qtd. 90)

Within The Rocky Horror Picture Show however, the structure is reversed as the description of the plot is presented first, and then the invitation to join in to the performance is laid out for the audience:

"Dr X will build a creature
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Oh-at the late night, double-feature, picture show.
Oh when the worlds collide, I’m going to give you some terrible trills
Like a-science fiction-double feature Picture show
In the back row! I want to go." (Sharman, 13-14)

Although both structures acknowledge the audience, and their participation in the performance, Plautus’ elongates the attention given to the self-conscious actor and the audience. However, since both prologues do use the introduction within the same means of examining the play “from the outside looking in,” with a promise of “immediate action to take place,” they both can be said to grant the same purpose in their performances-anticipation and self-conscious observation (Beacham, 91).

Although Plautus’ plays often prove that “characters who rise to the delivery of moralistic sententiae, do not maintain their dignified attitude for long,” their immorality or rebellion never jeopardizes society’s class structures or the characters’ relationships (36). While there are instances of “breaking social norms,” by having slaves lie to masters, or lovers plot to run away despite society’s disapproval, the rebellion present never rises above society’s rules. Despite the efforts that takes the lovers, or the slaves to get what it is that they really desire, in the end they are still confined to the prescript of their own class structures. The young lovers for example, even if faced with seemingly impossible circumstances, are united at the end not just by the help of the clever slave, but also by some discovery that the bond is accepted by society’s rules, (often the foreigner involved is really a native and thereby legitimizes the relationship as acceptable). For the clever slave, even if he outwits his master, he is still indebted to self-imposed servitude. As the case in Pseudolos shows, even when Pseudolos has won the bet against his master Simo, and could buy his freedom, he instead decides to invite Simo out for drinks with his money in order to assuage his master’s disgrace in losing. As long as young lovers are Roman citizens, they end up together. As long as clever slaves do not get too clever with their masters, they are permitted to create whatever plots they desire. Even though one may state that there is an “enjoyment of guilty psychological pleasures in breaking social norms” in Plautus’ plays, the plays never dare to break out of the expected stake of stock-relationships for the Roman audience.

Through the mocking interpretation of Plautus’ young lovers within The Rocky Horror Picture Show, their roles are reversed for the sake of the modern audience’s amusement in the breaking up of their constraining stereotypical relationship. As opposed to the typical structure of Plautus’ young lovers starting out the play under the premise of finding a way to be together, within The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the lovers-Brad and Janet are already happily together. Therefore the “crude deception” that is forced upon the two is not for the sake of keeping them together, as it is used to keep the lovers apart from their antiquated, virginal lifestyles. Although in Plautus’ plays, such as Pseudolos, the slave’s main role is to help the young lovers find emotional bliss through means of deception and disguises, these means are utilized within The Rocky Horror Picture Show by the character Frank to create emotional turmoil between the lovers. Frank, the (arguably) slave/master of the mansion introduces Brad and Janet “to his favorite obsession…the one that relives tension,” (or sex), through disguising himself and seducing the two virgins (Sharman, 42). After Brad and Janet are both seduced gleefully by Frank, the two no longer seek to act as “clean-cut well to do Americans,” as the script introduced them as, but to be dressed up as “sweet transvestites of Transylvania” just like the lustful Frank (140).

While it is true that Brad and Janet do not maintain their virginal morality for long within the play which can be deemed Plautine, the fact that their relationship is the obstacle in the way of their emotional bliss reverses the common expectation of a Plautine comedy. In order to appease the crowd, the convention of the lover’s happiness becomes passé when compared to the act of dramatizing the characters’ moral flaws in a festive attire of cross-dressing, musical arrangements, and sexual euphemisms. Through this desire to please the audience, Sharman proves once again how the intention of his script holds true to modern expectancies, but due to this favor, is still Plautine in theory.

While there is still the Plautine idea of a slave and master relationship in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the clarity of this line is questioned. Although Plautus may allow his slaves to be clever, and even dupe their masters, the slave is always set in his place of servitude in his plays. However, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it cannot be clear whether it is the slave, or slaves, that overcome the master, or if the master who thought he had control was really just a slave all along. While the characters Riff Raff and Magenta are introduced and seen by Brad and Janet as the “servants” when they first arrive to the mansion, the two lovers do not see their “outbursts” of songs (with lines such as: “Fantasy free me!”) as behavior suitable for typical “domestics” (Sharman, 41).

Magenta and Riff Raff then pull the two lovers in and out of a seductively charged time warp dance, as it reminds them of a place and time unknown to the audience, or lovers, but well known to the two servants. However, their secret allusions do not stop there as they are prone to “eavesdropping” and making “secret gestures” behind Frank, the “master of the mansion [‘s]” back throughout the performance. Riff Raff and Magenta do not just appear as clever, but as if there’s something they are hiding from the audience. In the end, the audience, and Frank find that the two servants’ “noble mission” has been a plot to travel back to “their androgynous planet” and out of disgust for Frank’s “failed mission,” deem themselves his “new commander” and kill him before escaping (Sharman, 102).

While this may not sound Plautine at all, it is through the two’s deceptive actions and “fondness for festive slapstick,” and “mischievous plots” that the two servants can still be said to be Plautine-based (Beacham, 36). As Neil Slater has said, “eavesdropping is vital in Plautus’ plays, as it colors and shapes our perception of scenes in characters,” and the two servants are often used within these means, as they are addressed as the “eyes of the mansion,” spending their nights watching installed video cameras to see and mock the behavior of others, including Frank (Sherman, 89). Further, based on their idea that Frank needs to be punished for his abuse of Brad and Janet, they also portray a Plautine element; as it is common in Plautus’ conclusions, that the “the abusers of social norms are punished as authors of their correction enjoy a general amnesty announced at the play’s conclusion” (38).

As opposed to ending the performance in a “plaudite” of celebratory festivities, The Rocky Horror Picture Show ends the play with Brad and Janet singing a “chorale of hopelessness” to its audience (Sharman, 167). While it is common for Plautus’ works to end in an inviting sense of celebration, Sharman adapts the ending of his performance to fit a modern crowd.

"And crawling on the planet’s face
Some insects called the human race
Lost in time, and lost in space
And meaning." (169)

Instead of promoting a message of incorporated togetherness, this modern take celebrates alienation as the fitting ending for the two lovers to find; no longer are they seen as comic stereotypes but frightened and separate individuals. While this adaptation counters the Roman and Greek idea of a collective approach in society, its ending upholds the expectancies of a modern audience who views life in terms of the individual.

What makes The Rocky Horror Show an adequate representation of a modern take on Plautine comedy however is the amount of “saturnalian” spirit, or participation from the crowd during each showing. Niall Slater defined saturnalian as being “when the whole population gives themselves up to extravagant mirth and jollity and when the darker passions find a vent which would never be allowed in the more sober case of life” (qtd. Beacham, 34). This idea of a saturnalian spirit is common to Plautus’ comedies since his comedies function as a type of voyeuristic pleasure for his audience. During a live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show this spirit is also present, as involvement is not just anticipated from the audience, but expected as it is one of the three aspects of the performance, (also the backdrop of the film on screen, and the shadow actors acting in front of the film mimicking or mocking the movie).

When attending a performance it is common to hear ‘call backs,’ or ad-lib responses from the audience that react to known lines in the scripts in the form of puns, sexual innuendoes, and to introduce foreshadowed moments in the plot. Audience members even go as far as getting up to dance at the time of the Time Warp dance, cross-dressing, and throwing props at the stage, such as rice during the opening wedding scene. The audience, who is often sitting in the seat of a theatre, forgets all social rules of conduct, dress, and political correctness in order to engage fully with the performance. Thereby The Rocky Horror Picture Show not only displays a modern take on Plautine comedy, but serves as the closest representation society has to the full involvement and jollity of the “rambunctious Old Latin [theatre going] crowds” that would attend Plautus’ plays (31).

Even though the motivations and intent is reversed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it draws upon the same structural basis of a Plautine comedy in order to deliver its parody. If it was not for Plautus, the caricatures of the stock typed lovers, and mischievous slaves within the movie/performance would have no comedic basis. One would not be able to see the hilarity in breaking the expectations of character types, because there would be no character types to break. While an audience member may not be able to recognize the bending of a Plautine structure in Sharman’s scipt, the elements that they appreciate-the deceit, festive slapstick, euphemisms, puns, disguises, and mischievous plots are all derived from the comedic inventiveness and tendency of Plautus’ work to please his audience.

Beacham, Richard. The Roman Theatre and Its Audience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Garrod, Heathcote William, ed. The Oxford Book of Latin Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912; New York:, 2002: 11 December 2009.

Ozakturk, Mehmet. “Prologue to Plautus’s Amphitruo and Its Sense of Humor.” 12 December 2009.

Sherman, Jim. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. LA, California. 1975. 11 December 2009.

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