You are here

Spectator Courts: Metatheater and Program in Terence’s Prologues

Patrick Dombrowski

Terence’s prologues have been studied as sources not only for Roman theater (Dér; Garton) but also for early rhetoric (Barsby 2007; Goldberg 1983; Victor).  Most studies take at face value the narrative of a young playwright harried by critics.  Recent scholarship argues that each prologue is linked to its respective plot (Caston; Germany; Gowers), but these subtle readings are possible only when the play can be studied as text: such correspondence is unlikely to be perceived in performance.  As yet there has been no comprehensive attempt to read the prologues as having broader programmatic implications for Terence’s work in their original performative context (cf. Sharrock; Smith; Taliercio).  This paper moves beyond identifying Plautine metatheater in Terence (Frangoulidis; Knorr) and argues that Terence’s rhetorical monologues, in the style of judicial oratory, constitute his unique form of metatheater, which is a vehicle for his ideas about his craft and the audience’s role in it.

The extent to which Terence’s prologues resemble judicial orations and their debt to contemporary rhetorical education are well-documented.  Technical terminology (Focardi; Fantham), rhetorical structure (Gelhaus; Goldberg 1983; Leeman), and ethical argumentation (Kennedy) transform the comic stage into a Roman tribunal.  The prologue-speaker Turpio becomes an advocate (orator, Hec. 9; actor, Hau. 11–12) in the case (causa, Hec. 55, Hau. 41; res, An. 24) who offers a defense (respondere, An. 7, Eu. 6, Ph. 16, 19) against the charges (accusare, An. 18–19) of his theatrical rivals.  The audience is likewise constructed as a jury (iudicium, Hau. 11; iudices, Ad. 4, Eu. 4) and charged with a jury’s authority.  Ethical argumentation aligns Turpio and Terence with the people’s interests (An. 1–3, Eu. 1–3) and co-opts the audience to help the playwright and to ensure that his plays are successful (Hec. 47–48, Ph. 33–34).  An unusually consistent use of deictic pronouns (Focardi 1972; Keller), combined with the physical similarity between the space of comic performance and judicial proceedings (Garton; Goldberg 1998; Manuwald), suggests that the prologues may even have been performed as trials, with a silent Terence-actor on stage (Gilula).

By removing the conventional prologue and exposition, Terence drastically changes the way viewers experience his plays (Barsby 2002) and forces them to be more attentive (Cicu).  I maintain that the introduction of a courtroom-like atmosphere creates a previously unnoticed form of metatheater that encourages the audience’s more active engagement with the business of producing plays.  Insistence on understanding (rem cognoscite, An. 24) as well as judgment (arbitrium, existumatio, Hau. 25) stresses the viewers’ role as a jury of critics.  The focus on extradramatic information—historical antecedents, generic tropes, artistic debates—further distances the viewers from immersion in the play’s plot and allows them to view it as an artistic construct.  In effect, Terence makes his entire theater a metatheater by encouraging the audience’s critical detachment and self-conscious awareness of the play’s theatricality.

This new understanding of metatheater in Terence offers fresh insight into his theatrical program—his beliefs about the nature of the Roman stage.  He presents these theoretical debates as personal (maledicere, An. 7, Ph. 3; uituperare, An. 15), even physical (laedere, Eu. 18, Ph. 11; lacessere, Eu. 16), attacks by unnamed opponents who threaten his livelihood (Ph. 1–2, 18).  Couched in such terms, the debate becomes not only more tangible for the audience but also more immediate—a young man’s life is at stake!  By portraying the consequences of their actions so gravely, Terence urges the viewers-as-jury to acknowledge their own stake in the theater and to take the matter seriously (Hec. 21–27).  Such an engaged, knowledgeable, and (crucially) invested audience is needed, I argue, to ensure that comic theater remains accessible to as many as possible and to protect it from either devolving into mere spectacle (Hec. 33–45) or becoming the exclusive practice of an overly critical elite (Hec. 46–47).

Session/Panel Title

Comedy and Comic Receptions

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy