Menander's Epitrepontes ("Arbitration") dramatizes the conflict and resolution between two neighboring households in Athens. The Greek title refers to men engaging in arbitration to resolve one part of the conflict, alluding specifically to the extended scene in Act 2 of the play, where characters pursue a comic version of legal arbitration to determine who rightfully owns property found alongside a baby recovered on one of the estates. At this point in the play, no character knows the identity of the baby, but the gradual discovery of the identities of the baby's parents will lead to the resolution of multiple strands of conflict along the way. The startling yet bumbling path to these discoveries constitutes one of the most illustrious examples of a distinct and incalculably influential type of drama, Greek "New Comedy" by its unrivaled progenitor, Menander.
Evidence suggests the full script of Menander’s Epitrepontes ranked among the longest of his plays. This bulk and the extant portions further suggest that the full version contained some of the most elaborate plotting of Menander’s career. It is not unusual for a New Comedy to have a central plot and one or more subplots involving minor characters, so it is reasonable to expect that a play as long as Epitrepontes would have had one or more subplots. As it happens, though, the extant fragments almost all pertain to a central plot in the play, but there are some hints about what could have become substantial additional plots. The following overview, then, sketches the main plot and then looks briefly at what could well have happened in other parts of the script that have yet to be recovered.
At the center of the plot stands a troubled marriage. The play is set in Athens and the home of the young couple is central. They have been married less than a year. Pamphile, the young wife, gave birth to a child five months into the marriage, which led her husband, Charisios, to assume that Pamphile was carrying a child by another man when they got married. By the time the play begins, the distraught Charisios has moved in with his friend Chairestratos (even though the names are similar, do not confuse Charisios and Chairestratos), whose house is also on stage. Pamphile’s father, Smikrines, is angry about this situation, which is not surprising, as Smikrines seems to be angry in every situation (grouchy old men are common in Menander’s plays). Smikrines complains specifically about how Charisios is wasting the money that he received as a dowry as part of the marriage. Smikrines is always complaining about money, but he specifically charges Charisios with wasting the money by getting drunk and living with a paid, professional female companion (in Greek, a hetaera), named Habrotonon. There is definitely some truth to Smikrines’ charges, but even in the parts of the script that we have, the situation is more complex than Smikrines realizes. Something else that Smikrines does not realize is that Pamphile’s baby is alive. The extant part of the script does not include details, but in Greek drama, the exposure of unwanted infants is a common motif, however distressing the concept is to many today. (Such exposure did take place in real life, too, though the extent of the practice is disputed.) Unknown to any of the characters in the play when it begins, the baby was recovered. Indeed the baby appears in Act 2, where the action becomes ironic with the information that Smikrines is the child’s grandfather, although no one in the scene knows it. By the end of the play, the survival and identity of the baby will be revealed to everyone, as will the identity of the child’s father, but readers of the script will learn all that.
While Charisios, Pamphile, and Smikrines are the three central characters of the main plot, other characters hint at other plots. In particular, in Act 1 the hetaera Habrotonon seems to be flirting with the neighbor Chairestratos, but since most of the later parts of the play are missing, there is no way to know if these two become involved or even married. Habrotonon also later mentions how much she would like to have her freedom, and it is common enough in New Comedy for a woman of dubious social rank to turn out to be a freeborn citizen and thus free to marry a citizen male like Chairestratos, but we cannot know now whether such a thing happened.
Beyond the plot, though, every character bristles with intrigue and individualized personality quirks. Pamphile is more than either an abused or unfaithful wife, as becomes evident in her cautious scene with Habrotonon and her defiant one with her own father. Charisios appears on stage only once in the extant fragments, but the scene is a tour de force of drunkenness, imagination and moral complexity. Smikrines is on stage almost all of the time, raging away, but even he displays moments of heartfelt desperation. The neighbor Chairestratos may have suffered the most from the losses of the rest of the script, as he speaks only briefly in one scene, but we can expect that his role was richer than that (and at least he gets his revenge in the performance included with this reader).
Finally, still other characters may not play central roles in the plot(s), but display rich and entertaining personalities. Least attested in the script is the cook Sikon. Cooks were a fixture of Greek New Comedy, and they were always humorously arrogant and difficult. The brief references to Sikon in this play are consistent with this tradition, but not enough to know how Menander might have developed it. Fully on display, however, is Daos, the shepherd who, in the fine tradition of shepherds in myth and drama, found the exposed baby. Rambling and confused but in some ways seemingly heartfelt, he confronts a character who works for Chairestratos, the charcoal burner Syros. Syros’ occupation and his grimy appearance because of it prepares no one for the courtroom juggernaut that he turns out to be. In his last lines, he contemplates suing the entire world to get what he wants, and maybe he could. Syros also tangles, but gently, with the household slave of Charisios, Onesimos. In New Comedy, slaves of Onesimos’ age and position range from devious idiots to deviously heroic sleuths, and Onesimos covers the range. He struggles with the risks of his situation, fearing punishment, including capital punishment, from his mercurial owner. He struggles and fails to find just the right words, grateful when others find ways to solve an increasingly tense situation. By the last scene in the fragments, however, he has figured out all the answers and delivers both the solution and the play’s philosophically moralizing presentation. Last but not least is the character who dazzles Onesimos (as well as scholars and audiences), Habrotonon. Although Smikrines introduces her to the audience as a harlot, she rapidly proves to be so much more: a bold woman asserting innocence, independence, kindness, and the intelligence to direct other characters until the play’s dramatic crux is resolved.
All this and more awaits in Menander’s Epitrepontes, just in the half or so of the script that survives. Summaries from other sources can give still more information, and yes, you can seek out spoilers if you so desire, but the above information is more than enough for you start reading and find out the rest from the play as you read, hear and watch. As the modern-day Chairestratos says in the performance, “It’s gonna be volcanic!” Enjoy!