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Plautus’ Painted Stage

Marden Nicols

Georgetown University

In a climactic scene in Plautus’ Mostellaria, Tranio draws Theopropides’ and Simo’s attention to a painting of a crow assaulting a pair of vultures (832-840). Like the proverbially cunning crow, the slave is getting the better of his vulturine superiors. The picture is both an element of Tranio’s trickery and an illustration of the subverted power dynamic that results. It also offers a metatheatrical comment on the problematics of viewing and visualization in theatrical space. Theopropides is utterly confounded by Tranio’s description: he sees no painting whatsoever. It is reasonable to assume that this artwork, along with the long portico and women’s quarters mentioned in the scene, was not a physical component of the stage set. Are the spectators of Mostellaria, so beguiled as to imagine pictures unpainted, the ones who have been duped? Drama elicits suspension of disbelief, the rejection of the real in favor of a fantasy advanced through onstage dialogue and transparently artificial scenery. Plautus’ comedies provide valuable insight into ancient ideas of spectatorship and performance by likening the viewer’s experience of drama to that of painting.

For Plautus, drama was painting in motion. Over half of his surviving works refer to the act of painting, painters, or paintings (including panel paintings by famous artists, wall paintings, and portraits). Dramatis personae frequently associate themselves or other characters with paintings, whether to compare their situations with those painterly subjects (Captivi 998-1000), to analogize viewing within the dramatic space to looking at art (Asinaria 399-402; Mercator 313-315), or to anticipate being immortalized in painting themselves (Epidicus 622-626). Such imagery is richly layered in descriptions of courtesans and lenae, whose cosmetic appearance is quite literally painted on (Asinaria 174-175; Mostellaria 261-262). My paper surveys these passages and contrasts Plautus’ approach with that of other playwrights of the palliata (particularly Terence’s Eunuchus 583-591) and with the Greek New Comedy they emulated (Petrides 2014).

I argue that Plautus uniquely and persistently returns to imagery of painting in order to explore the status of drama as representation. By evoking parallels between drama and painting, Plautus suggests that, across the two media, audiences and ways of spectating were in some sense shared. Ultimately, however, references to painting point up the multi-sensory experience of drama. Though the blend of deception and disguise that drives a plot may be dubbed a pictura (Miles Gloriosus 1189), when a character stands, drama’s essential kineticism is laid bare (Stichus 270-271). It only enhances the joke that this character is named Pinacium (“tablet”—or “picture”). In Plautus’ comedies, dialogue concerning painting reveals the superiority of drama as an art that can audibly comment on itself. My paper therefore contributes not only to wider discussions of Plautus’ metatheater (Moore 1998; Sharrock 2009), but also to the history of competition among the arts in antiquity.

Both Roman painting and Roman drama drew heavily on Greek models. Scholars of Greek drama have explored the topic of visuality and have traced interconnections between Greek drama and vase painting (Taplin 1993; Taplin 2007). Although there has been abundant scholarship on allusions to (and analogies with) painting in Roman epic, lyric, and other genres, such references in Roman drama remain underexplored (Dufallo 2013, 21-38). As a consequence of this lacuna, there is little appreciation for how ideas about representation, space, and artifice moved between Roman visual culture and drama, even though the preponderance of theatrical imagery in painting and mosaics has been a long-standing topic in Roman art history (Leach 2004). The conclusion of my paper suggests implications of Plautus’ “painted stage” for the study of theatrical imagery in Roman wall painting.

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Theatre, Performance, and Audiences: Ways of Spectating in Antiquity

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