The patterns of metatheatrical language across all surviving authors and genres of Greek and Roman comedy reveal ancient comedy’s subversive core. First, characters of the lowest status are most often responsible for metatheatrical language. (Metatheater is self-awareness or self-referentiality that draws attention to the play as a performance enacted for an audience—see Slater.) Second, the metatheatrical moments engineered by these low-status comic characters are indirectly subversive, as they reveal the artificiality of the stage world that generates the characters’ low status, thus calling into question the dominant structures of the society depicted within the play and, by extension, the dominant structures of the society within which the play is performed (see Scott and Janeway on the ways in which subordinate groups—including peasants, slaves, and women—indirectly rebel against the dominant elite). Third, metatheatrical commentary by the characters of the lowest socio-political power winds up aligning the spectators—regardless of their own position in society—with the subordinate figures on stage (see Moore). Such an alignment unites the audience in laughter even as it hints at their own inevitable subordination to someone else (see McCarthy).
This paper will first illustrate the patterns of metatheatrical language across the surviving work of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence by means of several charts. In order to simplify the material for presentation in a short time, the charts will focus on the most overt types of metatheater. (Metatheater does take many forms—see Hornby—and can exist at varying levels of intensity from the overt to the merely implicit—see Wilson and Taplin.) The most overt types of metatheater are those that involve direct address of the audience (marked by second-person-plural verbs or pronouns or the terms for spectator or audience), general awareness of the audience or of being an actor in a play (marked by the terms for spectator or audience, or by terms for parts of the performance venue or context), and reference to the theater in general (marked by terms for comedy, tragedy, drama, and actors; or by the names of stock roles or names of poets and plays).
Analysis of the spectrum of metatheatrical comments in the works of all four poets of ancient comedy whose work survives intact demonstrates that they tend to come from the characters of the lowest status. Because the performance contexts and the status of the poets and the actors differed so dramatically from Aristophanes’ to Terence’s time, the status of the characters most often responsible for metatheater remains the only constant and thus the best explanation for the pattern. I do not ascribe agency to these comic characters, but instead point out that the pattern must therefore arise from the conventions of comedy itself. For Menander, Plautus, and Terence, the low-status characters who produce the majority of all metatheatrical remarks are the stock roles of male and female slaves and parasites. The situation is similar for Aristophanes’ comedy, in which lower-status characters deliver a greater proportion of metatheatrical lines, especially when one takes into account Aristophanes’ propensity for abject or otherwise marginalized heroes. Since slaves and abject heroes are especially likely to use metatheatrical language more than once, the connection between low status and metatheater becomes even clearer.
Metatheater in ancient comedy should therefore be understood as subverting cultural norms rather than transgressing and thereby confirming them. Comic poets can even employ this subversion in the service of political, religious, and poetical statements. For example, the extensive metatheatrical language from the eponymous characters of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazousae suggests Aristophanes’ support for the policies proposed by Praxagora, while Plautus’ Amphitruo portrays Mercury as a clever slave and Jupiter as a lecherous old man in order to celebrate the poet and subvert the divine hierarchy simultaneously. Finally, Terence attacks his rivals by aligning them with the old men in the Andria and Heauton Timoroumenos who fail to use their own metatheatrical language successfully.