by Eliza Anna Falk
Menander and the 21 century
Are the makers of contemporary soap operas aware of their ancient heritage dating back to 4th century Greece? Dylan Haskins predictably suspects that “only few may” at the end of his essay ‘What is the socio-historical relevance of Menander’s Dyskolos? (Haskins 13). More would find the connection between Menander’s works and Shakespeare’s comedies believable, but 21 century ‘scripted reality drama’? – Not likely. If only contemporary world’s familiarity with Menander was like that with Shakespeare, we would undoubtedly be wiser. It would also not surprise us that a famous war-proclaiming phrase “the die has been cast” uttered by Julius Caesar when crossing Rubicon, comes from no other but Menander (Lendering 1).
Before 1959 the entire knowledge about the author came from revisions of his play by the Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus, and through his 900 quotations, some recorded by St. Paul. If only his works did not disappear or were destroyed…if only Dyskolos was discovered earlier than 1957….
A well-known and highly regarded playwright of ancient Greece, Menander produced 108 plays, approximately 3 a year, given that he wrote his first at twenty and died aged 52. Despite the fact that only eight of his plays received prestigious prizes it was Menander, not his more frequently awarded rivals, who was most popular and who had emerged as the greatest dramatist of the Greek New Comedy. Like Shakespeare’s, his ‘comedies of manners’ focusing on ordinary people and providing valuable lessons about life and relationships, are universal and timeless. Love and marriage related themes, such as lovers separated by obstacles and reunited; young men wanting to marry their paid escorts; or husbands complaining of their wives excessive spending (Webster 42), so prevalent in Menander’s social comedies, could easily be found in today’s popular magazines, books, in soap operas and films.
Menander and his times
Menander was born in c.341/2, into a distinguished and prosperous family. His uncle Alexis, a poet of the Middle Comedy period, profoundly influenced young Menander’s future as a writer, as did Theophrastus, a philosopher, scientist and a follower of Aristotle. It is told that his peer Epicurus, a founder of Epicurean philosophy, had also greatly inspired his writing style and worldview.
The playwright was not only talented but also wealthy, very good-looking, partial to luxury and extremely fond of women (Whitney and O’Neill 47). He liked nothing better than spending time in his villa in Piraeus with Glycera, his ‘hetaira’ (a high priced escort) at his side. Whilst pleasures of life and love served his needs and desires well, they also brought about his death at the age of 52, when he drowned while bathing in Piraeus (Chisholm 1). Notwithstanding the misfortune of early passing, Menander’s lifestyle had provided him with an excellent inspiration and resource for his many plays, majority of which dealt with matters of love, family and interpersonal relationships, and portrayed customs and lives of different social classes.
At the time of Menander’s birth Athens was still the cultural center of the world, however the situation changed after the Macedonian conquest. Powerful cities, such as Athens and Sparta, lost their supremacy giving way to the multicultural city of Alexandria founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. As the earlier Greek Old Comedy tradition was firmly focused on the social and political life of a ‘polis’ such as Athens, its entertainment value rested on the satirical attacks on politics, public figures and a public life. Under the weight of new Macedonian rule prohibiting criticism or ridicule, a new trend of Greek Comedy developed, avoiding politics and focusing on everyday matters of ordinary people (Corrigan 161). Consequently, the number of characters in plays increased, as did the importance of a plot. Actors’ masks were retained, but became more elaborate and varied to enable several actors play a multitude of different roles.
Menander was the first playwright of the New Comedy to introduce a group of characters such as slaves, maids, and cooks, and to utilize them as agents of important plot developments. Other significant and far-reaching changes made by him included removing the chorus line from the main act and placing it between acts as a musical interlude, and introduction of a five act structure (Gruber-Miller 1 and Cartwright 1).
Menander and his theater
Menander’s Dyskolos (originally performed in 316 BCE and also known as The Grouch, The Misanthrope and The Curmudgeon)) is his most complete surviving play next to significant portions of six other works, such as The Arbitration, The Girl from Samos, The Shorn Girl, and The Hero which also survive.
It was discovered in Egypt in 1957 and remains the only Greek New Comedy which is almost entirely whole (Corrigan 161). Knemon, the main protagonist of Dyskolos, is a mean, depressed loner and miser, who despises other people and avoids human contact except with his daughter and a woman slave who live with him. His wife and step-son Georgias had left him and it is only when Georgias saves his life, he self-reflects and starts to change, making it possible for Sostratos, a wealthy young man, to marry Knemon’s pious daughter, who in the past had been strictly forbidden to wed outside of her father’s class.
Dyskolos’s plot is typical for both the genre and Menander, whose plays ending in marriage are his most numerous (Webster 16). The repetition of the subject matter required Menander to be extraordinarily inventive in his choice of lovers‘ obstacles, secondary characters and sub-plots. A girl’s twin sister seen kissing another boy and taken to be unfaithful; girl rejecting a boy mistakenly thinking that he had killed her brother; a husband accusing his wife of adultery once she had given birth after five months of marriage, forgetting that she was the girl he had raped nine months earlier; a wife who smuggles in a baby boy as she is unable to produce a heir and is threatened with divorce (Webster 20) were some of his suspense building strategies.
Such audience-pleasing ideas paired with the obstacles faced by the main characters i.e. objection of a girl’s father or parents; a rival wanting the same girl; low social standing of the girl or no legal right to marry, produced highly entertaining stories, reminiscent of soap operas and reality TV.
Menander and today’s audiences
One of the editors of the ‘Complete Greek Drama’, Eugene O’Neill, Jr. asks in the introduction “why the Athenians theatre-goers did not grow weary of “astonished repetition of stereotyped motifs”, such as, “young men in love with putative slave-girls who turn out to be the foundlings of citizen extraction, and hence may marry the young man after all, in spite of the opposition of parents and the intrigues of slaves”. He rests his answer on the dramatic genius of Menander (Whitley and O’Neill Jr. 48), forgetting to mention the obvious – fascination of audiences with good stories about love and sex, misfortune and luck, and with interesting characters coming from all walks of life. If it was not for these popular themes, would Days of our Lives be still on air after 48 years? Would The Young and the Restless have recently exceeded 10,279 episodes? Would modern audiences have not grown tired of similar characters, predictable situations and events?
There is more value to Menander’s plays than timeless plots, well rounded characters and their relationships, which makes them appealing to a contemporary spectator. Apart from being a brilliant and innovative writer, the author was also a realistic and sensitive observer of ordinary people keen to promote tolerance and justice in social relations, despite his acceptance of the existing inequalities. Social messages, taken for granted today, are plentiful in his works. He tells us that true love wins as it is superior to an arranged marriage and social status conventions; that the poor have a right to threaten or take legal action; and that our behavior has nothing to do with status and financial position. In Dyskolos, Sostratos says to his wealthy father “and everything you have is not yours but luck’s”, indicating that wealth does not define a person and his actions (Webster 42).
Ambassador Theater’s production of Dyskolos
Stephen Shetler, the director, of Ambassador Theater's January 2014 production of Dyskolos, has commented as follows: “This production is an experiment, in a way, to see what ancient comedy and modern society have in common. Certainly social values have changed and audiences will view the "morals" of the play through a modern lens, but perhaps the personal interactions, individuals’ desires, and comedic situation will still speak to us. We are not trying to overlay a post-modern commentary on the values espoused in the play, but a certain amount of distance from the setting and culture is inevitable. It is in the characters and their relationships that a modern audience will find a timeless connection”.
The forthcoming production of Dyskolos may indeed be an experiment (it was staged only once in US by the University of Michigan in 1966), but one to definitely look forward too. Not only in order to be entertained and to watch four actors playing 13 characters with the help of hand-made masks, but to reflect on life, as “life is a play of masks, of repeating character types, in generation after generation” (Johnson 1).
Do we need to be reminded how to live our lives and how to behave in order to feel better and attract genuine friends? Even if we think we don’t, it won't hurt if we are reminded of it. Dyskolos’s social messages and life-coaching advice although dating from the 4th century BC, like fairy tales embedded in our collective consciousness, still resonate strongly. Knemon’s daughter, like Cinderella, is an innocent and good hearted girl rewarded with a rich yet humble husband who truly loves her. Knemon’s transformation resulting from a selfless act of unconditional kindness, reminds us of Dickens’s Scrooge. Sostratos advice to his father: “A visible friend (is) preferable by far to secret wealth you’ve buried in the ground” (Corrigan 220) is timeless in its wisdom. Do not Knemon’s words (translation by W.G. Arnott): “If we were all kind to one another, there’d be no need for law courts, there’d be no arresting people and putting them into prison, and there would be no more war” resemble the message of John Lennon’s Imagine. Don’t they ring so true today, in our 21st century harsh reality?
Thank You to Ambassador Theater for aiming a spotlight on Menander, who remains almost completely unfamiliar to theatre audiences.
Haskins, Dylan. “What is the socio-historical relevance of Menander’s Dyskolos? www.scribd.com/…/What-is-the-socio-historical-relevance-of-Menander’s-Dyskolos
Lendering, Jona. ”Menander”. 2005. www.livius.org>index>ancient Greece
Webster,T.B.L. “An Introduction to Menander”. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. www.books.google.com.au/books?isbn=0719005906
Oates, Whitney J., O’Neill, Jr., eds. “The Complete Greek Drama”. Vol1. Random House. New York, 1938.
Chisholm, Hugh, Ed. “Entry for Menander (Dramatist)”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1911. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/374651/Menander.
Corrigan, Robert W., Ed, “Classical Comedy Greek and Roman”. Applause Theatre Book Publishers. New York, 1987.
Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Comedy. Definition”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 25 March 2013. www.ancient.eu.com/Greek_Comedy/
Gruber-Miller, John. “Comedy: Greece and Rome to Hollywood”. www.classprojects.cornellcollege.edu
Johnston, Brian. “Greek Drama”. Courses in Drama. www.coursesindrama.com/index.php/greek-drama/