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The Unity of Time in Plautus’ Captivi

Robert Germany

Roman comedy follows the practice of its Greek models in conforming to the Unity of Time, i.e. the events represented in the play do not extend over more than one day of story time.  It has long been recognized that, apart from the striking exception of the Heautontimorumenos, all the plays of Plautus and Terence abide by this stricture (see, for example, Duckworth 1952, 130-31), but scholarship on these comedies has yet to take full account of their self-conscious play with this temporal limit.  The Unity of Time can, of course, be traced back before Greek New Comedy to 5th century tragedy, which as Aristotle noticed, “tries for the most part to remain within a single round of the sun” (1449b11-16).  The precise reasons for the emergence of the Unity of Time in 5th century drama remain unclear, though critics since d’Aubignac (1657) have speculated that tragedy’s continuously present chorus was responsible for this restriction of timescale.  In any case, New Comedy did not have this structural motivation for observing the one day limit, but rather than throwing off temporal constraints, only embraced a more self-consciously playful approach to the Unity of Time (Germany 2014).  This pattern continued in export to Rome, where even the vestigial New Comic chorus had been shed but the traditional temporal horizon remained just as vivid and, if anything, more available than ever for activation in metatheatrical play.

The Captivi presents an especially interesting example, one of the most congested “days” in Roman comedy, not in terms of dramatic incident, of which there is comparatively little, but in terms of unrealistic compression of offstage events.  Between the end of Act II and the beginning of Act IV, Philocrates must travel from Aetolia to Elis and back again and transact complicated business that would in the real world require several days at least.  This difficulty has sometimes brought down a charge of sloppiness on Plautus (Watling 1965, Lefèvre 1998).  But rather than simply being vague about time so that the audience’s attention would skip over the problem, Plautus seems to have gone out of his way, through the character of Ergasilus, to indicate the passage of exactly one day during the course of the play.  More sympathetic readers since Lessing have defended the Captivi’s compression of offstage events against such “pedantic” criticism of details, but the striking care Plautus takes over reminding the audience of the Unity of Time suggests that the slippage of timescale in this play may not be an insignificant detail.

This paper will show that the function of Ergasilus’ character is to anchor this unusually mirthless Plautine comedy to its generic conventions, especially the tightly coded conventions of temporal fictionality.  The ultimate point of this reassertion of comic time is the contrast between Ergasilus and the agelast Hegio, who, unlike Ergasilus, does not understand the temporal constraints of his world (870-71).  Hegio does not know what time it is, a failure that becomes especially pointed in his interaction with Tyndarus, who though he is Hegio’s long-lost son is also a servus callidus with a firm grasp on his own generically conditioned ephemerality (729-43).

Most accounts of Plautine metatheatricality are concerned with momentary ruptures in theatrical illusionism, usually in the form of jokes or asides to the audience about the play as a play.  But this paper aims to elucidate a subtler mode of metatheatricality in the Captivi’s deployment of the Unity of Time as a sustained motif connecting an unusual play to its genre and indicating important differences between the principal characters.

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Representation of Time in the Hellenistic and Roman World

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