Author, Transmission, and Text

As much as any playwright in the history of staged drama, Menander represented a revolution in theater. Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Menander’s career spanned roughly thirty years and apparently more than a hundred plays. While he was neither the first nor the only playwright to script comedies less about heroes and divinities than about very human people, fueled by a range of foibles and virtues, his success and distinctive brand of comedy established the default norms and patterns for comic drama even down to the present day. Within a generation or two after his death, he could be known as the epitome of “New Comedy,” forever relegating all earlier comedy to some pre-modern past. He lived and wrote in Athens when theater surged into an unprecedent economic powerhouse, when the venerable Theater of Dionysus was remodeled and greatly expanded, when the three great playwrights of Greek Tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, became classics honored with statues in this new theater complex. Menander’s statue would posthumously join theirs, the only playwright of comedy to achieve such a distinction. His comedies and style loomed behind the stage comedies of the Romans in the next century. For the ensuing centuries, as Greek-style theaters and theatrical performances became a standard feature of urban life across the Mediterranean world, spread both by the koine version of the Greek language and the spread of Greek culture via imperial expansion, Menander became a fixture on the stage, in the sympotic culture of the elite, and in schools. References to his plays and quotations from them abound. He is a rare pagan author quoted in the New Testament. Dozens of images of him and scenes from his plays have been recovered in homes and other archaeological sites, ranging from medallions to stone reliefs to figurines to elaborate and sophisticated displays of scenes from his plays in dining halls. Where Euripides became the standard for tragedy, Menander WAS comedy, until Christian authorities gradually shuttered theaters and rooted out theatrical activity in the sixth century CE.

And today his name is barely known outside of specialist academic circles, his plays are read still less, and performed only rarely. Arguably, no other creative author was so widely known in Classical Antiquity and so diametrically obscure now. The centuries that we label as “medieval” were not kind to Menander. In the Latin-speaking West, he could be a figure referred to in some ancient readings, the shadowy figure looming behind Plautus and Terence, but as such not of abiding interest. In the Greek-speaking East, Aristophanes, the epitome of “Old” comedy, became “the comic” and replaced Menander in the school curriculum. By the time enthusiasts across Europe started scrambling to recover as many ancient Greek texts as they could, and make them available via the great technological innovation of the age, the printing press, scripts of Menander’s plays were nowhere to be found. Even in the late nineteenth century, no less an erudite and popular figure as Oscar Wilde would have to pursue his admiration of Menander by sitting for an exam on Greek comic fragments and extrapolating from the techniques of Terence’s plays.

The publication of the “Cairo Codex” in 1907 made it possible to read continuous passages from scripts of Menander’s plays for the first time in well over a millennium, fragments of varying length from an ancient collection that once contained five plays, including the Epitrepontes. The publication fifty years later of a virtually complete script, that of the Dyskolos, and the gradual assembly of fragments of Samia into a nearly complete script, and other recoveries have resulted in an imperfect, but substantial corpus for Menander today. Even though the script of Epitrepontes remains barely half complete, these remains have perennially stood out as an example of Menander at his best, prompting a full scholarly edition in 1925 by no less a giant of Classical scholarship than Wilamowitz. And no wonder: in the extant script every verse crackles. Every character has voice and drive. A common trope insists that Menander worked with “stock” characters on a grid for orienting character types verbally and visually, but, however true this is, it is reductive. Theatrical convention is itself but part of the world of these characters, just one way that Menander makes them seem like real world humans caught up in a set of mad relationships and absurd events. The coal worker Syros bamboozles the elderly Smikrines by invoking romantic stories of foundlings from tragic performance, much to the chagrin of the plain-speaking Daos. The inarticulate Onesimos likewise threatens to inflict a tragic speech on Smikrines. Onesimos is a marvel in himself, a sinewy and compulsive mass of insecurity and energy. His master Charisios, even though on stage only for a single speech in the surviving parts of the script, is a glob of contradictory voices and tempers, at times inhumane and literally inhuman at times.  By contrast the constant rage of Smikrines seems almost stable and reliable. Smikrines’ most perceptive moment in the play as we have it arrives during the tatters of his conversation with his daughter, Pamphile, whom Smikrines is trying to protect from her delinquent husband Charisios. Here are shards of a hint that his anger derives from affection, confusion and desperation. Pamphile herself, also too little available in the fragments that we have, would seem a stereotypical nice, devoted wife and daughter, except for her resolute stand against her father’s fury. None of these characters, however, compare to Habrotonon. She is a professional and elite sex worker who pouts about her client not utilizing her services, who claims to be new at the job and innocent to the ways of men and the world when Pamphile was raped earlier that year, who is flirtatious and captivating to the unattached young men in the play, who can improvise and direct her own play, whose motivations and true aspirations arouse worried inquires from other characters in the play, leading scholars to pass judgments on her as diverse as terrifying vixen and angelic benefactor, which is to say that she is as alluring as she is elusive, and not just because the play is incomplete. When the script is (hopefully) one day complete, the cavalcade of her character will not be explained, just broader and deeper.

This cavalcade comes to life only in performance, of course, so this DCC edition includes live performance clips along with the performance script embedded in it. Performance is the endgame, but the Greek of the extant script is the glorious journey towards it. While Menander has been well served by textual work, commentaries, translations and ever richer analytical scholarship, resources for relatively novice readers of Greek have been sparse, and for Epitrepontes, virtually non-existent. The text provides all of the recovered script that can now be read into some sort of coherent statement, along with attendant vocabulary and notes. Readers are encouraged to explore avenues of performance as they read, both the examples provided and beyond, to recapture one of the richest experiences of the Classical world, once lost, but now, however imperfectly, found.

Suggested Citation

Marie Plunkett, Menander: Epitrepontes (The Arbitration). Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022. ISBN: 978-1-947822-19-1