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Travels through the Foreign Imaginary on the Plautine Stage

Creative Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

This dissertation explores the ways in which Plautus’s comedies, inherently translated works, negotiate foreign characters and foreignness within their hybrid theatrical and extra-theatrical spaces. This project is part of a larger discourse on the tension between Greek, Roman, and non-Greek foreign elements in Plautus’s comedies. The three plays I analyze above display foreignness through particular theatrical elements: Curculio's stage situations, Poenulus's characters, and Persa's use of props and spatial vocabulary. In all of these elements, two things are brought into prominence: the negotiations of identity and the use of what I call “foreign imaginary,” both of which show the ultimate breakdown of any dichotomy between the foreign and the familiar. I have coined the term “foreign imaginary” to refer to the foreign parts of the world which exist just out of sight of the audience, offstage. The foreign imaginary is almost always brought into a play when a character or object appears onstage. Moreover, it is usually an object which is considered distantly foreign (a coin with an elephant on it, as seen in the Curculio, or a tiara and a pair of fancy slippers, as in the Persa), and frequently resolves a major conflict within the play. However, we must not forget that at least some of the “ordinary” Greek characters appeared from the same entrances onstage. It is therefore possible that the lines between “foreign,” “imaginary and foreign” “familiar,” “domestic,” or any other demarcations, are (or should be) blurred. This constant renegotiation of categories and boundaries is what leads me to a Bhabhaian reading of Plautine comedy.

I show through the lens of theory that elements of Plautine comedy reflect a contemporaneous discourse between the familial and the foreign. While Plautine comedy predates European colonialism by at least two millennia, hybridity as defined by Homi Bhabha offers a useful lens for examining Roman comedy. Bhabha views hybridized culture as an ever-changing phenomenon comprised of moments of negotiation between cultures. We see in the chaotic period of Plautus’s career that Plautus is not writing from within a “Graeco-Roman” landscape fixed in time from which interested parties may pick out what is Greek and what is Roman. Instead, he deals with a ‘third space’ which is constantly in flux --- a moment within which cultures communicate and are negotiated. Theater in Rome is a Greek import featuring adaptations of Greek plays ostensibly set in Greek cities peopled by “Greeks” who speak Latin and are familiar with Roman laws. The panoply of stock characters and conventions that Roman comedy has inherited from Greek comedy already has a value system that is neither exclusively Greek nor exclusively Roman. The uncertainty that surrounds Plautus’s theater makes taking the Bhabhaian approach feel particularly appropriate – the play is both Roman and foreign, its stage both present and evanescent, its context political and private by turns. My study of Plautus analyzes these singular elements to offer a new postcolonial reading of the presence of the foreign character in Roman comedy.

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