Menander’s play epitomized what soon became known as “New Comedy.” This genre of theater had a number of standard features, which is especially helpful for understanding a play like Epitrepontes, whose script remains fragmentary. This overview, therefore, surveys the generic features of New Comedy and then narrows in on the action of the Epitrepontes in particular, to help contextualize the fragments of the Greek in this reader.
First, the characters in New Comedy are mortal humans, not the fantastical creations of so much earlier Greek comedy and not the famous characters from mythology, nor even the towering figures of history. There is occasional reference to someone like Alexander the Great, but he is never a character in New Comedy. The only exceptions are the occasional deities who make single appearances in some plays to provide information to the audience that none of the characters in the play can share. (Epitrepontes likely had a scene with such a deity, but it is not in the extant fragments.) It is indeed essential to the drama that no character has a full sense of what is happening at the start of the play. Gradual discovery of some truth is a consistent driver of the plots of these plays. Some problem, literally some drama, involving characters from two or at most three households, is ongoing when a play begins. One or two marriages, at least prospective ones, typically resolve the tensions at the end of a play. The characters themselves come from a recurring set, too often labeled “stock” characters, who come equipped with an identity based primarily on age, gender and social rank. As New Comedy operated in a society where slavery was an institutionalized fact of life and citizenship status and family authority put limitations on marriages, the plays dramatize characters who turn out to have a social rank different what characters initially expect or dramatize negotiations that allow for approved marriages. Within this context, the permutations and variations of the plots of New Comedy are surprisingly diverse. Like almost any successful series on television or comparable medium, the genre has its reliable framework and the key to popularity was engaging variation within it. Menander mastered this technique and it remained popular for centuries to follow. Indeed, given Menander’s importance for the Roman versions of this type of comedy, which then became exemplars for European stage comedy in the Renaissance and later, which in turn became the background for the development of stage comedy, film comedy, television comedy, etc., into the 21st century, New Comedy is arguably one of the most broadly popular entertainment formulas in world history.