Ghostwriting for a Dead Man

My first ghostwriting client was a dead man.

It was a pro-bono job.

I realize this is not the way most ghostwriters start their careers.

I was in graduate school at the time, working on a PhD in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. Before I could start working on my dissertation, I had to complete three preliminary exams or papers. For my Special Author in Latin, I chose Plautus. The specific project was reconstructing Cistellaria, a play dated to about 200 BCE and missing about a third of its text due to damaged manuscripts. (You can see the Latin text here and the 1912 translation on the Perseus Project website.)

I didn’t think of reconstructing Cistellaria as a problem in ghostwriting. It was a problem in script analysis, the process by which a director works backward through the action of a play to find out what in each scene could not have happened without the scene before. The missing parts of Cistellaria are scattered through the middle of the text, so examining the later scenes made it clear what had to have happened in the missing lines. (We know how many lines are missing because of the way manuscript pages are constructed.)

Without finding a lost papyrus containing the missing parts of the script, there’s no way to figure out what Plautus actually did say in the missing lines. But there’s more than enough left of Cistellaria to know how the different characters behave and speak, and to know Plautus’ style. (There are also several complete plays to go by.)

This close study of the client’s previous writing is very similar to the way I work with clients today, though I have an advantage now in that I can get their confirmation that I have succeeded in capturing their “voice.”

Melaenis and Alcesimarchus from the 1994 production of Easy Virtue
1994 production of Easy Virtue in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Photo by Peter Smith

In 1994, I had to convince an audience made up substantially of my classmates and instructors that Easy Virtue, as I called my reconstruction, not only worked as a comedy in performance, but sounded convincingly like Plautus. I had a slight advantage, because I wasn’t writing in Latin. Therefore I didn’t have to match Plautus’ style exactly. (And while Plautus’ Latin is difficult at first because it’s more archaic than, say, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the kind of comedy he writes is easy to adapt for a modern audience.)

The key scene in Cistellaria revolves around a box, or cistella, whose contents prove that the heroine is really the daughter of the Rich Couple Next Door. It’s a scene involving a lot of physical comedy (for which director Kate Mendeloff created some wonderful stage business), as the character who dropped the box searches frantically all over the stage, not knowing that the people she meant to give it to have already found it and picked it up.

After the production, one of my classmates asked whether that scene was the one I’d written, so I figured I must have done something right.

And though I didn’t know it at the time, that was the beginning of my ghostwriting career. While I’ve learned a lot since then, one thing hasn’t changed: my goal is still to create a final document where no one can tell which parts my client wrote and which parts I wrote.

You can read the script for Easy Virtue here.

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