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Plautinopolis in the Forum: Site-Specificity and Immersive Theater in Plautus’ Curculio

Rachel Mazzara

University of Toronto

At Curculio 462-86, the play’s action pauses while the choragus takes Plautus’ spectators on a tour of the forum, listing the types of people who might be found at each location. Because this monologue’s content is overtly Roman, referencing identifiable places such as the Comitium (Cur. 470) and the Temple of Castor and Pollux (Cur. 481), it has informed scholarship on Plautine adaptation (Zwierlein 1990), the topography of the mid-Republican forum (Sommella 2005), and Plautus’ incorporation of topical humor and satire (Deschamps 1981, Moore 1991). Such scholarship assumes that the stops along the choragus’ tour “play themselves,” representing real-world Roman locations.

I propose an alternative reading according to which the choragus’ speech uses the Roman locations instead as props that represent “Plautinopolis,” Plautus’ conventional, transnarrative setting (Gratwick 1982). I begin by demonstrating that many of the tour’s stops correspond not only to Roman places, but also to locations that Plautus’ characters mention as parts of his play-world: like the people whom the choragus describes occupying the Roman forum, Plautine characters shop for groceries at the fishmonger’s (Aul. 373-75, Cas. 490-92, Ps. 169), do business in a forum (As. 428, Epid. 422, Mos. 844), and even hang out at a basilica (Capt. 815). I argue that by likening the Roman forum to Plautinopolis, the choragus encourages spectators to reimagine the real world as Curculio’s setting.

Consequently, I propose, the choragus’ speech constitutes “site-specific performance,” a style of play in which the entire performance venue becomes a part of the set (Pearson and Shanks 2001). Since Roman comedy is widely agreed to have been performed in or around the forum (Goldberg 1998, Groton 2020), the real-world locations mentioned in the tour would have been visible to Curculio’s viewers. When the choragus references them from the stage, I argue, he incorporates them into the play, endowing them with the same representational capacity as actors (who represent characters) and the stage (which represents the setting). Like props, which help spectators to imagine the objects that they represent within a play, the ambient scenery of the Roman forum serves as an aid to viewers’ imaginations of Plautinopolis.

Furthermore, since site-specific performance also builds into the play-world the areas occupied by the audience, spectators “get ‘cast’ into the action,” taking on a double identity just like the actors/characters and venue/setting (Zaiontz 2012, 168). As the choragus draws Curculio’s venue into its performance, he invites viewers to become not only Roman spectators, but also “extras” playing the inhabitants of Plautinopolis.

Reading the choragus’ speech as site-specific performance adds a new dimension to the dominant interpretation of the tour described above. In addition to reflecting the social and historical context of Plautine performance, the monologue demonstrates the potential of Plautus’ plays to become immersive theater. Curculio 462-86 is not only a topical joke designed to make spectators laugh, but also a sophisticated dramatic strategy desgined to promote their imaginative participation in its production.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Comedy

Session/Paper Number

10.3

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