Saturday, July 24, 2010


The picture above shows Menander and the masks used in his comedies. The two volumes over there on the left are The Complete Greek Drama edited by Whitney Oates and Eugene O’Neill Jr. Back when I was a budding intellectual, which is to say when I was 15 or so, I would walk to one of the two libraries near our house. Either the Westover branch or the Central Library on Quincy Street, and I would periodically check out these two volumes. You can still find used copies today, and there’s an Amazon link over there on the right for some used ones, but the translations, Gilbert Murray for Euripides, an anonymous one for Aristophanes, are probably not too fashionable nowadays. I was particularly taken with Euripides. I found The Trojan Women particularly moving, and it may have helped move me towards anti-war politics in the later part of the 1960s. Aristophanes, another anti-war voice from the past, was also an influence. For some reason though,possibly because the plays given in the volume weren’t complete, I don’t think I ever read the plays by Menander.

Greek comedy is traditionally divided into three periods or styles, Old, Middle, and New. While there were many comic dramatists, few of their works survive outside of Aristophanes and Menander, and prior to 1907 Menander was known solely through quotations in other authors. Aristophanes is the sole author from the Old comedy tradition to have left complete plays. There are no surviving examples of Middle comedy, with the possible exception of some of the later plays of Aristophanes, such as Plutus. Prior to 1907 and the discovery of some fragments we had no knowledge of Menander’s plays as plays. Between 1907 and the late 1950s we had several extended fragments. In 1958 Dyskolos, or The Grouch, or The Bad-Tempered Man as it’s called in the Oxford edition to the right, was printed, and we were able to see one of Menander’s plays almost complete. There are gaps, or lacunae (lacuna singular) as classical terminology has it, but on the whole the play is complete, and is stageable.

The Old Comedy of Aristophanes did not have a distinct act structure, though it did have choral interludes that served as breaks in the action, as well as a choral portion called the parabasis that served as a comment on the action. In Menander the act structure is more developed, the parabasis is gone, and the choral interludes, while apparently marked, are absent from the texts.

The comedies of Menander feature several elements in common. First, and most notable is the scheming slave. His function is primarily to help his master, generally a young man, get the girl through some sort of trickery. Second, the young man is frequently portrayed as having raped the girl in question. So a word about these two topics.

Slavery, to the Greeks, while degrading, was not racial, nor was it, except in certain instances, such as work in the Athenian silver mines, brutal. An Athenian farmer, who generally had a small holding, would work alongside his slave in the field, and might well share a meal with him. It was not the brutal slavery that we associate with Rome or the American South.

Rape figures a good deal in Menander. We now think of rape as a crime of violence, but before feminism redefined it rape was thought of primarily as a sex crime, one motivated by lust, or possibly love, rather than aggression. Various theologians are supposed to have supported prostitution as a way for men to control their lustful appetites, and to prevent rape. Rape also means to take something by force, hence “The Rape of the Lock” refers not to a sexual act, but to the theft of a lock of hair, and “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” refers to their abduction as well as any sexual acts.

In any case several of the young men in Menander are supposed to have raped their girls, and then fallen in love with them. Whether we are to imagine this as a violent rape or a case of date rape is not totally clear to my mind. In at least one fragment the young man would be subject to the death penalty for his actions.

Prior to the discovery of the Dyskolos, the known plays were The Girl from Samos (Samia), The Girl With the Shaven Head (Perikeiromene); The Arbitration (Epitrepontes). and The Hero (Heros). The Dyskolos and Samia are the two most complete plays and the two best suited for putting on today.

The Dyskolos focuses on the love of a young man for the daughter of Knemon the grouch of the title. Various complications ensue, most of which are pretty forgettable, and eventually love triumphs. There are a number of variations on this theme in the surviving plays, but in comedy love always triumphs and is always concluded with some variant of a hierogamos, or sacred marriage.

The translator has in many cases supplied supplements where the manuscripts are defective. These enhance the readability of the text, which otherwise would be broken up and full of gaps in various places.

Next up will a play about St. Therese of Lisieux and Nietasche entitled Nietzsche is my Brother.