The Brothers Menaechmus was and will always be considered one of Plautus’ greatest works. Even William Shakespeare fell in love with Plautus’ play and used it for the basis of his play, A Comedy of Errors. There’s no doubt that Plautus’ plays made a
great impact on many people and are still widely popular all over the world. The main reason for Plautus’ popularity and praise over his play was the impact of his central themes. Plautus experimented with several themes in his plays, ranging from mistaken identities to love and romance. Plautus used many themes in The Brothers Menaechmus. Some of the most prevalent and important themes include, love intrigues, reversal of traditions, younger patrons outwitting their masters and guardians, and perhaps the most obvious of mistaken identity.
The theme of ‘love interests’ proves to be a favorite of not only Plautus, but of many playwrights to this day. It seems as if we can’t go through a single play without a love interest coming in between some set of lovers, or distracting a character from what is really important. For Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus, the latter of the two situations is prevalent. While out searching for his long lost twin, Menaechmus Sosicles is thrown off of his plan by his sudden new love interest Erotium. By the time Menaechmus Sosicles finds his way back on track to seeking his brother, the wife of Menaechmus of Epidamnus has already discovered the twins’ identities (Kates).
It seems as though the identity of the twins and Menaechmus Sosicles’ quest could have been quickly executed and more successful had not for his manly instincts done the thinking for him. In another, less obvious theme, MacEwen tells of the theme of “the celebration of everything which is not Roman: the reversal of tradition, which is shown by the ascendancy of leisure over business and by the ascendancy of slaves, sons, and wives over their master and father.” MacEwen explains herself further by discussing the characters’ treatment of money. She goes on to state that unlike the typical Roman ‘penny-pincher’, Plautus’ characters are opposite and don’t ever seem to be concerned with their own money and the young hero constantly throws it around. I seem to disagree slightly with this statement; I don’t think Menaechmus Sosicles is necessarily throwing his money around while searching for his brother. Rather, I think that his love and desire to find his brother drives him like never before to the point that he ‘throws his money around’ as a means of necessity. In further observations, MacEwen states that Plautus’ plays seem to take place on holidays. “This behavior emphasizes the idea that business is less important than leisure.” She continues by discussing that even if Plautus’ plays don’t happen on a holiday, their plots still seem to be driven by an occurrence on a holiday. In the case of The Brothers Menaechmus, “the first twin was stolen during a holiday in Tarentum, and Menaechmus of Epidamnus laments that he was forced to do business instead of dining with his mistress. Unlike the average Roman, the norm of these characters is for them to be concerned wholly with pleasure, and not at all with duty” (MacEwen). I believe I have to disagree with these statements yet again. While it does seem to be a reoccurring theme of ‘holidays’ with Plautus, the statement about the characters being ‘concerned wholly with pleasure’ needs to be dismissed.
Going back to my previous research about love interests, I believe that family situations do have a tendency of overcoming the norms of society. While it may be true that Roman citizens of the time were solely concerned with pleasure and penny-pinching; I believe that family was also important for the Romans, and in my opinion, family wins out over all. In response to her own observations, MacEwen states, “Perhaps Plautus, living in such a hierarchical society, wished to upset the hierarchy and those traditional values by having the most influential members of that society be those who are the lowest, valued on their wit and power to drive events, not their place in society.” In looking at the most recognized and well developed theme of The Brothers Menaechmus, mistaken identity, it is easy to see that this is also one of the most popular themes to write about. From The Brothers Menaechmus and A Comedy of Errors, to more well-known plays such as The Prince and the Pauper and Twelfth Night, the theme of ‘mistaken identity’ is widely popular and easily understood and accepted in a comic setting. Rebecca Scollen, manager of the USQ Performance Centre at the University of Southern Queensland, writes about the ‘mistaken identity’ theme. She says that the theme plays on farce and “relies on the visual, as well as, on the technique of the actors and on dramatic irony, which relies on the audience knowing more about what is going on than the characters themselves.” I agree with Scollen and also agree with her later stated fact that the audience loves the hilarity of this theme. In The Brothers Menaechmus, the mistaken identity comes into the picture when Erotium and Menaechmus of Epidamnus’ wife think they have been ridiculed and taken a fool. With the action of the bracelet, mantle, and feast being turned upside down and falling apart, the audience is able to enjoy the story and laugh to the extent of unbelievable hilarity occurring on stage. At the end of the confusion, comedy, and discovery of the two Menaechmus brothers, the brothers still can’t figure out that they’re related until the servant Messenio points out the obvious. This added bit of humor allows the audience to experience further frustration and humor, as they are once again facing an obvious fact that the actors are unaware of. These obvious facts are the reasons that Plautus was such a great playwright, he appealed to the masses and gave them what they wanted to see.
In directing my own rendition of The Brothers Menaechmus, it would be important to bring the different elements from my researched shows into consideration. The first thing that I would set out to accomplish is to up-play the comedy aspect of the show. Having the absolute comedy aspect would set the audience in a much happier mood and make the rather lengthy tale not seem so long. I would set my story in the renaissance period in order to incorporate ‘love interests’ into the overall picture without being too obvious and desperate.
The renaissance is also a period in which I am very familiar with and feel as though I could do my best work through that. To further the theme of love interests, I would stage the scene between Menaechmus Sosicles and Erotium with an airy feel. When Menaechmus Sosicles first lays eyes on Erotium, I would set the stage with his passion. By sending in smoke, wind, and a white light setting, I could easily up-play the romantic comedy situation. It would also be a nice change to have a quirk to Erotium. I would definitely make her an attractive character, but with perhaps an error about her that would bring her into a more humanistic light. In setting the scene of mistaken identity, I would bring the comedy aspect in full force. Let’s bring the mania and confusion to extending the scene when Erotium and Menaechmus of Epidamnus’ wife think their talking to the same brother. Instead of having the brothers enter a couple of times, I would have them enter and exit almost non-stop for a good length of time with constant dialogue and confusion, while never running into one another; or if they do run into one another, they bump each other and never look straight in the eye. I believe my show would be a success and the comedic aspects would be just the touch needed to revive the show for today’s society and culture. In terms of lighting, I would begin the show in hues of yellows, pinks, and whites in order to bring the sense of normality to the stage. All throughout Menaechmus Sosicles’ journey, I would set the stage in a dull orange and perhaps some shades of blues and purples. This would bring the downhearted feelings and determination of Menaechmus Sosicles to life. When the brothers are reunited again, for the first time, the lights will change to a lighter set of blues and purples, changing gradually to the starting colors in the last scene. My set will be a rotating set with three sides. I have seen this done and it was quite effective. The three sides will be made up of the inside of a house, a wood scene, and a village. The three will work as one in transforming the show into a reality. The house can double from the beginning to the end with simple set piece and prop changes that can happen when the set is turned’ the same goes for the other two sides.
No matter how the show is put together, either by myself or other directors, it is important to always keep in mind Plautus’ original ideas and concepts. Plautus was a great playwright who is still copied and looked to for ideas today. His works and writings will forever be remembered for years to come, while his memory will never be forgotten. If I was to direct The Brothers Menaechmus, or any of Plautus’ shows, I would feel honored and be faithful to his writing in order that others might come to appreciate his work just as I have.