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Roman Drama and Critical Theory

organized by Deepti Menon and T. H. M. Gellar-Goad

In recent decades, study of ancient Rome’s comedy and tragedy has witnessed a flourishing of fascinating and paradigm-reworking scholarship, in a correction of its longstanding and undeserved neglect by the field in comparison both to Greek drama and other genres of Roman poetry. Productive threads of inquiry include metatheater, translation theory, audience studies, music, and stagecraft, all now household names for teachers and scholars of Roman drama. Yet the subfield is still largely undertheorized, particularly with regard to critically-engaged theoretical approaches. Important work has been published on gender and feminist readings, materialist and social-historical accounts, cultural memory theory, intertextuality, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and phenomenological approaches. But the vast treasure-trove of literary and especially critical theory has not been applied to the theatrical craft of Plautus, Terence, Seneca, and their peers, in stark contrast to Roman elegy, epic, satire, and didactic.

This panel will present new work on critical theory and the Roman stage. Theory is manifold and omnipresent — whether or not we acknowledge our theoretical priors and methodological biases — and the crucible of theoretical analysis can forge surprising, compelling new insights. To specialists in Roman drama, the texts are as alive now as in their first performances. Theory-informed interpretations recast these plays as engaged with their times and our own. Roman drama in the 21st century stands to benefit in particular from scholarship on critical race theory and ethnic studies; media studies; Black feminism; queer theory and identity theory; spatial studies and object-centered theory; cognitive theory; and intersectional feminist responses to the challenges of post-Freudian psychoanalysis and deconstructionism.

We invite papers investigating Roman drama through any critical theoretical lens. Papers might address the following questions:

  • Can we, following Sara Ahmed’s intersectional feminist theory, re-interpret the uxor dotata, or the women of Senecan tragedy, as feminist killjoys? What Ahmedian “sweaty concepts” should we be working towards in criticism and staging of ancient drama?
  • How can queer theory and identity theory demolish or deconstruct gender binaries, sexual hierarchies, and identity regimes in Roman comedy and tragedy?
  • What new lines of inquiry can develop by bringing Christina Sharpe’s archetypes for Black being — the Wake, the Ship, the Hold, and the Weather — into conversation with enslaved, freed, free citizen, and free-noncitizen characters and experiences in Roman drama? What are the limitations of bringing those metaphors into the ancient Mediterranean?
  • What lies at the intersection of indigenous feminisms, Roman imperialisms, and non-Roman playwrights wri(gh)ting plays in Rome?
  • What does Roman drama tell us about the racial and identity formation of Romans and others, in line with Margo Hendricks’ formulation of Premodern Critical Race Studies as “resist[ing] the study of race as a single, somatic event (skin color, in most cases) and insist[ing] that race be seen in terms of a socioeconomic process (colonialism)”? Where do we locate the shifting geographic and geopolitical borders and boundaries of identity, race, and foreignness within Roman theater?
  • How does spatial studies reveal how Roman comedy is conceptualized within, without, and around the theatrical space? With Ahmed’s “orientations matter,” how do or don’t characters orient themselves towards their props, and how does audiences orient themselves towards characters (intrinsically objectifying them)?
  • How can critical theory better inform our understanding of the reception of Roman theater? What are moments of intersectionality between ancient text and new media? How can we engage theoretically and critically with past classical scholarship on Roman theater?
  • Where should we locate the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic (Lacan); the intertextual and abject (Kristeva); simulacra and hyperreality (Beaudrillard) in, on, around the Roman stage? How do questions of object-centered theory (e.g., Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus) apply when discussing props, costumes, etc., in Roman comedy?

Anonymized abstracts must be submitted by April 10, 2022, as an attachment to with “Roman Drama and Critical Theory” as the subject. The organizers will referee abstracts anonymously and inform submitters before the Individual Abstracts deadline.

The text of the abstract should not mention the name of the author. Abstracts should be no more than 500 words (not counting bibliography).