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Dropping the Dramatic Illusion: A Narratological Model of Plautine Metatheater

Rachel Mazzara

University of Toronto

Since Plautus in Performance (Slater 1985), scholarship on Roman Comedy has acknowledged the non-illusory style of Plautus’ plays, which maintain no firm boundary between their content and their performance context. Consequently, metatheatrical characteristics such as asides, plays-within-the-play, and overt references to performance do not “break the fourth wall” or otherwise breach the dramatic illusion, since such an illusion is absent. Still, even excellent scholarship on Plautine self-referentiality (e.g., Sharrock 1996, Hardy 2005) occasionally adopts the vocabulary of illusory theater.

Continued use of such vocabulary suggests a lack of alternative models to describe the perspectives that characters may adopt toward their plays. To supplement this gap, I propose an adaptation of Gérard Genette’s model of narrative levels (1980), which describes the relationship between story and the act of narrating in novels. Genette argues that a story and its readers exist on separate ontological levels that are mediated through narration. Characters and events occupy the intradiegetic level, while readers and narrators occupy the extradiegetic level. The terms “intradiegetic” and “extradiegetic” denote relationships to diegesis. While Genette defines diegesis as the “spatiotemporal universe” in which a story is set (1969, 211), I adopt Remigius Bunia’s refined definition: diegesis is an interface between narrative levels consisting of what is explicitly communicated during narration (2010). In the latter sense, diegesis is not a fully-defined story-world, but it may imply one. Bunia concludes that Genette’s intradiegetic and extradiegetic levels are thus not ontological, but rather epistemological, categories that describe the perspectives of narrators, readers, and characters upon the story-world: the intradiegetic perspective views the story-world as real, while the extradiegetic perspective takes the real world as real.

My own argument first demonstrates that due to actors’ dual role as characters and storytellers, Genette’s model can describe the relationship between a play’s content and its performance context, even though it was designed for novels. Following Bunia’s refinement of diegesis, I propose that Plautine metatheater results from characters’ ability to adopt different perspectives on their plays depending upon where, if at all, they locate the act of narration. The deception scheme in Persa (470-672) provides an illustration: during the play-within-the-play in which Toxilus, Sagaristio, Saturio, and the uirgo trick Dordalus, the four protagonists recognize that their actions constitute the narration of their deceptive story and so show an extradiegetic perspective upon the inset play. At the same time, Dordalus, who does not know that the others are acting, adopts an intradiegetic perspective. In planning this trick, the protagonists refer to aspects of theatrical performance, including costuming (154-60, 335), rehearsal (379-382), and the aediles who organize the event (160). In alluding to the performance context of Persa itself, Toxilus and his allies reveal that they can, at times, adopt an extradiegetic perspective not only on the play-within-the-play, but even upon the play in which they are characters, switching between viewing themselves as inhabitants of the play-world and inhabitants of the audience’s world. Persa shows that Genette’s model of narrative levels can describe both plays-within-the-play and the broader performance.

Because these perspectives are concerned with epistemology (how the characters understand their relationship to the play-world) rather than ontology (whether the characters belong to the play-world or the real world), I argue that in contrast to the vocabulary of illusory theater, this model does not inaccurately imply a boundary between the play’s content and context. The examples from Persa demonstrate the potential of a customized narratological model both to define the epistemic mechanics of Plautus’ metatheater and to give a precise vocabulary to scholarship on dramatic self-referentiality. I conclude with the suggestion that such a model realigns Plautus’ metatheatrical moments with Lionel Abel’s original concept of metatheater: when Plautine characters reference performance extradiegetically, they are not breaking the fourth wall of an illusory theater but living a “life seen as already theatricalized” (1963, 60).

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Greek and Latin Comedy

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