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Aelia

Backstage

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February 75CE

 

The drunken cheers of the crowd continues, with the steady drumming of applause, as the actors retreated from the stage. Theatre slaves were already rushing forwards, goaded on by sweating freedmen, with shouted orders flying round to have the stage cleared of backdrops and props. Others stood ready to wash the stage down. The crowd, a riotous Friday night one, had taken great pleasure at hurling bits of food and general rubbish at the villain. The immediate backstage area was packed with stacks of ropes, miscellaneous props and painted scene backdrops. Several baskets of gaudily painted masks were mounted precariously on bales of well-worn costumes. A slave hurried forward with a tray, bringing classes of wine to the thirsty performers, who fell on him like vultures.

 

The play itself was a new piece. One of the cheap pieces that two-sestercii hacks churned out in prodigious quantities to slake the thirst of the lower orders for bawdy farce. The playwrite was one of several the Proculus Players worked with. His membership of the Guild of Writers was probably tenuous and he was certainly unlikely to be winning laurels to have his work set alongside Terence, Plautus and Sophocles. Yet his work was the sort of rot-gut, mass appeal nonsense that the plebs lapped up as it had a little bit of everything. She had noticed that it wasn’t just the plebs who were coming to see it either. The equites and senators might think themselves to be grand and superior – and they probably were when they had to be all solemn and well behaved around their wives and families – but the menfolk were just as bad as their lower order neighbours: they wanted to see flesh on show, hear cheap jokes and enjoy a traditional sing-song.

 

The plot was utter bilge. It was highly unlikely that the writer had been in any way sober when he had written it. If he had been, then he should have been, because what he had created was enough to shame someone with even a modicum of talent. The piece rejoiced under the unnecessarily elaborate title of Ptolemy’s Ptroubles. Set in Aegypt, as the name suggests, and in the fantastical days before its conquest by Rome, it centred on the taboo and frankly ridiculous habits of the decadent dynasty and mysterious, ancient land. Good, honest, hardworking Romans liked to laugh at the ridiculous mannerisms of be-nighted foreigners. The Aegyptians of old posed a perfect basket of things to mock. There was much made in the play about worshipping cats and dogs, always guaranteed to get a laugh. What produced more bawdy titillation was the close-to-the-line-indecency of the Ptolemaic habit of incestuous intermarriage. Couple this with your standard identity swapping, mistake-laden farce standard tropes and you had a recipe for a bed-hopping round of tortured jokes. They became more amusing the more the audience drank. The theatre manager had ensured that there was enough wine on hand to ensure almost none of the audience were not at least partially tipsy.

 

Aelia had played Berenice, married to an uncle-who-was-also-a-grandfather-but-never-explained-how called Ptolemy (as were all the male characters for “humour’s” sake), played by Scylus. The actor had brought the house down with his brilliant portrayal of a miserly old dotard, avaricious of money, looking to cheat Roman merchants (boo hiss boo), jealous of his young wife whilst busily trying to seduce his sister-who-was-also-his-aunt-but-never-explained-how called Cleopatra, played by Maxima. Scylus’ make-up was spot on, with long grey wig and a tie-on beard. He played the part pretending to be almost stone deaf which the audience loved thanks to the mistakes that engendered. Grumio and Dromon played eunuch priests of Cat-God and Dog-Goddess, fleeces stuffed under their magical robes to make them look grossly overweight. Their asides focused on a series of over the top duels between the powers of their respective animal god to beat the other. Romans, who hated the concept of effeminate eunuchs, had a good cheer and pelted the stage with rubbish as the pair engaged in magical incantations designed to restore their manhood and seduce Berenice and Cleopatra respectively.

 

Then, enter stage left in Act Two, the swaggering figure of “The Legate”, played by Cleander. Playing the part of a visiting Roman legate, always attired in full military fancy dress (complete with oversized sword), he represented the very epitome of brash, Roman masculinity. Scylus’ Ptolemy and the clowns’ priests were busy telling the audience how they would cheat this boorish fool of his money whilst, unbeknownst to them, The Legate was busy giving Berenice and Cleopatra what for. The play ended in Act 5 (by which point most of the audience was stone drunk) with The Legate returning to Rome, taking off with him the temple treasure and leaving the Aepytian women about to bear Roman sons, who the cuckolded respective Aegyptian men would be forced to look after. After a big sing-song of a popular tavern tune about Anthony and Cleopatra the show was done. It was certainly not the Theatre of Pompey or Marcellus and a highbrow audience but the pay wasn’t bad.

 

The play’s fast paced jokes and over the top bawdy rumpus required a large degree of stamina and almost acrobatic flexibility. Tired, Aelia downed the first cup of wine quickly and reached for another. Her “dress” could barely be called that. Two thinnish strips hung over her shoulders and protected her modesty (barely), which gathered around her waist and fell into a short skirt in an all-in-one ensemble. Long laced sandals ran up her calve. Scylus wandered by, throwing his wig and beard aside. “Another night of fine art,” he scoffed. The clowns staggered past. Grumio walked and few paces further than Dromon. Then both ran at each other and, thanks to their bulky fat-suit padding, bounced off each other and landed in sprawled heaps on piles of curtains and drapes, laughing.

 

Oh, poor me,” Dromon chirped, putting on an impression of Scylus’ voice “I’m a real actor, don’t you know!”

 

Grumio picked up on it and carried on, in the same voice “I just didn’t like it because it was too close to home and, you know, I can’t get it up anymore.”

 

The bystanders laughed. Scylus looked daggers at them and wandered off, grumbling. Maxima flounced past, looking wistful. “There were some right propa’ people of quality in the stands though, did you see that?” she said with her Aventine, fish-wife drawl.

 

Suddenly the larger than life figure of Gaius Julius Proculus entered the bustle. Clad in a toga unnecessarily, he was this evening sporting a huge auburn curled wig that clashed in a ghastly fashion with his bushy grey eyebrows and the make-up he had plastered his face with like an old trollop. The rings on his fingers clinked as he gave elaborate and effusive greetings. “Darlings, sensational! They loved it! Such good work! All of you, angels, all of you!” His foppishness was natural. His exuberance was intrinsic. You had to listen to him and then dial whatever he said down by about ten times. If he was happy it was only because of the high turnout and, thanks to his contract, this meant a handsome sum for him for their work that evening.

 

He clapped his hands, chivvying them along. “Come, come; quick, quick, you know the drill,” he said as he flapped at them to move into the theatre’s atrium. At the end of opening night it was traditional for the cast to be invited to an after-party. They were often quite wild affairs. Other actors would be there as well as the better elements of the audience. Local worthies who didn’t mind being seen at such thing. Many high class men liked to come along for rough and tumble fun. The criminal classes always liked these too. In short, they were a fine melting pot of the high and the low all doing a good job of wanting to be bad.

 

Dutifully, they followed Proculus through towards the door between backstage and the atrium. Always one to make an entrance, Proculus thrust it open and, in a loud force, declaimed: “ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Cast!”. Sighing, Aelia decided that she might as well get drunk if only to make the time pass quicker.

Edited by Lauren

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