Plays and Fragments – Menander

Last week on the reading list was Aristophanes, writer of Greek ‘Old Comedy’ in the 5th century. Up this week is Menander, a writer of Greek ‘New Comedy’. The goal of going through Aristophanes and Menander is to see how what comedy treats the unexpected. Given that certain unexpected outcomes provoke laughter, the hypothesis is that the unexpected trumps expectation in comedy.

The Edition of Menander

Always a delight to be reading another fine Penguin edition of Menander: Plays and Fragments. Clear text (and larger too in the newer printing), expert introductions balanced between the needs of a layperson and a student, and dependable translations. Translated by Norma Miller. Here’s the back blurb:

Menander (c. 341-291 B.C.) was the foremost innovator of Greek New Comedy, a dramatic style that moved away from the fantastical to focus upon the problems of ordinary Athenians. This collection contains the full text of Old Cantankerous (Dyskolos), the only surviving complete example of New Comedy, as well as fragments from works including The Girl from Samos and The Rape of the Locks, all of which are concerned with domestic catastrophes, the hazards of love and the trials of family life. Written in a poetic style regarded by the ancients as second only to Homer, these polished works – profoundly influential upon both Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terene, and the wider Western tradition – may be regarded as the first true comedies of manners.

Menander Cover Art

Menander Cover Art

When the blurb mentions that New Comedy moves away from fantastical elements, it is referring to to Aristophanes’ crazy themes: cities built by the birds in the clouds or sex strikes by the women to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War. What had changed in a 100 years? Well, Aristophanes had written for an Athenocentric audience. While Menander hailed from Athens as well, he wrote for a more cosmopolitan audience. Between Aristophanes and Menander’s day, travelling theatre troupes had sprung up and comedy was being performed all over the Hellenistic world thanks to the Hellenizing efforts of Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The age of fiercely independent local city-states was gone. The age of empire had arrived. As a result, culture would also be international, and a playwright would have to be writing for an international audience. As such, the material would have to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: family issues and stock characters (the crafty slave, the young lovers, the grumpy old man, etc.,). It’s sort of like sitcom in the TV era: what were formerly local dialects gives way to a version of spoken English that is at once intelligible in the deep South to Boston burbs.

Menander and the Unexpected

The first three plays in the edition are: Old Cantankerous, The Girl from Samos, and The Arbitration. The first play is complete, the second is almost complete, and the third, to put it kindly, is a glass half full. As the edition progresses, plays become more and more fragmentary until only the fragment remains.

If a pattern can be drawn from the first three plays, it is that they revolve around familial life. In Old Cantankerous, a young man is trying to woo the grumpy old guy’s daughter. In The Girl from Samos, a young suitor gets his girlfriend pregnant. And in The Arbitration, a domestic quarrel results when the wife gives birth five months after the marriage.

Here’s how the plot makes use of the unexpected in these plays. In Old Cantankerous, the grumpy curmudgeon falls down a well. Who should save him but the young suitor? In The Girl from Samos, the father overhears that the father of his baby is actually his stepson whom he had left home alone with his stepmother. It’s sort of a Potiphar’s wife theme. But what had happened is that it wasn’t his child at all: his stepson had gotten the next door neighbour’s daughter pregnant, and when the baby was born they ‘lent’ it to his wife so that his stepson could have a proper marriage with the girl next door. In The Arbitration, the husband rejects his wife when she gives birth five months after marriage. But the recognition token carried by the baby indicates that the husband IS the father of the baby: he had raped the mother during a drunken festival before the marriage.

Beside the very different outcomes, the unexpected occupies a central position in the comic and tragic view of the world: things are unpredictable. When tragedy engages the Potiphar’s wife’s theme, the outcome is completely different. In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, the father (Theseus) leaves his stepson (Hippolytus) with his stepmother (Phaedra). The unexpected takes place. But, unlike The Girl from Samos, there is no happy outcome. So while comedy and tragedy both rely on the unexpected as a plot driving device, somewhere they take a different turn.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work and having a good laugh at the same time.

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