Study Guide

The Roman Actor

by Philip Massinger

The Roman Actor Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

During the reign of Domitian, there was little public support for the theater. The people, accustomed to circuses and involved in their own licentious practices, found the drama tame by comparison; thus most actors made a bare livelihood. One troupe of actors, however, prospered, because of the special affection Domitian had for its leading member, Paris. But Paris also had his enemies in the inner circles around the emperor, the most notable being Aretinus, Domitian’s spy, who believed he and other leaders had been satirized in a production by the players. While Domitian was involved in a military campaign, Aretinus took the opportunity to have Paris and his fellow actors arrested.

At a session of the Senate they were charged with treason. Paris’ defense was in the form of a general vindication of the theater, in which he eloquently testified to the uplifting effect of drama through its revelation of evil and its attempt to inspire honorable action. As he finished his speech, news was brought of Domitian’s return from his conquest of the Chatti and the Daci; thus the release of the actors was assured.

The people’s praise of Domitian for his victory was exceeded only by his self-praise. In a characteristic gesture, he celebrated his return by having his captives tortured and slain. Although his despotism and his brutality were causing unrest among the people, few dared speak against him.

Among those who welcomed the emperor were several women who vied for his favor. All were greeted with contempt, except the beautiful Domitia. She had been the wife of a senator, Lamia, until one of Domitian’s men had forced her husband, under threat of death, to sign a bill of divorce. She, ambitious for position, had been agreeable to the change as long as she could be Domitian’s wife, not his strumpet. Now he bestowed on her the title of Augusta.

Aretinus had kept a watchful eye on signs of discontent during his ruler’s absence. Now he informed Domitian of opposition to his poisoning of Agricola his execution of Paetus Thrasea, his incest with his niece Julia, and his intended marriage to Domitia. Prominent among the malcontents were three senators—Rusticus, Sura, and Lamia. Domitian resolved to have revenge first on Lamia.

After Domitia had been established in the imperial palace as his wife, the emperor ordered Lamia brought to him. Domitian gave lavish thanks to the senator for the gift of his wife, declaimed the joys of living with Domitia, and at an appropriate moment had Domitia sing a song from the window above them. After Lamia had time to experience fully his mental anguish, Domitian ordered his execution.

In compliance with one of the emperor’s first orders on arriving in Rome, the actors presented a play. THE CURE OF AVARICE was chosen at the request of Parthenius, Domitian’s freedman, who hoped that the dramatization would help turn his father from his miserly habits. But the obdurate old...

(The entire section is 1219 words.)