(As part of my blogging about Nero/Pseudo here at Balkans via Bohemia, I have also asked Alan Katz -- the dramaturg of the show -- to share some of his wisdom and wit about the ancient world as guest posts on the blog. This is his first look inside the world of the play.)
In taberna quando sumus,
non curamus quid sit humus,
sed ad ludum properamus,
cui semper insudamus.
quid agatur in taberna
ubi nummus est pincerna,
hoc est opus ut quaeratur;
si quid loquar, audiatur.
-- Carmina Burana
“When we’re in the tavern,
We don’t give a fuck for grit
But we rush to gamble
We always sweat over it.
What goes on in the tavern
Where money brings the cup,
If you want to find out
You better listen up”
(Loose translation by Alan Katz)
One of my my main jobs as Nero/Pseudo dramaturg is to help flesh out the context of the production. In this particular case, that context includes the world of first century Greece, the seedy and sexy world of glam rock, the violent and occasionally hilarious antics of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, and how this new production fits into (or disrupts) the current DC theater scene. But before I can start digging into the kaleidoscope of influences harmonized in this play, I need to start with the most essential and practical element of the context of Nero/Pseudo: where the hell is the play set?
The first half of Nero/Pseudo takes place in a taverna. As you may know (or hope), the holy tradition of getting shit-housed on beverages made of fermented grains and fruits has been around for thousands of years. Accompanying peoples’ desire to drink has been the desire to do said drinking far away from the domestic abode, which is associated with the distasteful responsibilities of things like spouses, children, and laundry. On the face of it, a taverna is exactly that place of escape: just a shop, usually selling wine, food, and a place to fall asleep, perhaps in one’s own vomit.
But, much like Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, the taverna of first century Greece was much more than a place to spend your whole paycheck on some old wreck. Imagine walking down an ancient Roman street. There’s a square cut out of a building on street-level, and from that aperture music, raucous swearing, and the smell of roasted meat float down the street. When you walk in, the floor is covered with chairs and tables, except for a stand in the center that the drunks are trying to knock down by flicking the dregs of their wine (Roman and Greek wine was unfiltered at the time, so the bottom was full of half-crushed grapes and sticks). The walls are covered with graffiti of a classic tenor with verses like “Here Stratocles puked in my wine jug. He owes me 5 sestertii.” or “Chrysis makes the boys moan like girls.” The ceiling is hung with produce and meat of a far higher quality than ever would be served by the proprietor.
The people are the most interesting thing, though. The taverna is one of the few places where slaves and freemen could intermingle freely, and you might see a slave making a deal to tutor a rich man’s son to earn enough to buy his freedom. Musicians would probably be playing, either amateurs taking a crack at the public or pros brought in by the owner. There will probably be people tossing dice (actual knucklebones around this time), and you could find some of the shadiest and lowest class characters of first century Greece there: actors, hucksters, trickster slaves, low-ranking soldiers, and musicians. It would actually be surprising not to see women, especially ones selling services that only they can sell.
The fact that one of the characters in Nero/Pseudo, Chrysis, is a woman who runs a taverna is a neat touch for this play. We don’t have much information regarding who actually ran taverns, but it is a solid bet that a woman who ran a taverna would have to be a serious badass. Richard takes advantage of this interesting persona by making her essential to the main con of the play, but never letting go of the threat that she is under as a marginalized member of society. Chrysis just wants to preserve the meager place for which she worked her ass off, but the circumstances of the play take her a place she never expected.
Nero/Pseudo previews open at The Shop at Fort Fringe on Friday May 2. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale.
(Image of dice players from Pompeii from Wikipedia Commons.)