Among the stage conventions that Menander inherited is the five-act structure, which derived from the usual form of classical tragedy as described in Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) minus the choral portions: What was formerly prologue, three episodes, and the exodos became the five acts. All that remains of the chorus in New Comedy is unscripted song and dance, a kind of entr’ acte typically motivated by an actor’s exit line referring to the arrival of “a band of drunken revellers.” Menander seems also to have accepted Aristotle’s dictum that plot is the soul of a drama. Like many truisms about ancient men of letters, this comes in the form of an anecdote. Plutarch records that when asked about his current work in progress, Menander replied, “I’ve composed my comedy. The plot’s worked out—I have only to fit lines to it.” It may well be that after designing the action, Menander wrote comedy as rapidly as Shakespeare. He demonstrates a similar fluency of diction, instinct for economy, and rapid, logical movement from act to act. Character is molded to action so that developments in plot are well motivated, and Menander has a special talent for making a single speech or vivid detail serve multiple purposes, such as plot development, revelation of character, and scene painting. This observation has deservedly become a cliché of modern criticism. A deeply classical author in spite of his Hellenistic date, Menander observes the unities of time and place as well as the old three-actor rule, which required that no more than three speaking actors be on the stage at any time. This allowed productions to go ahead with a minimum of trained actors supported by a complement of walk-ons who had no lines to speak.
Menander’s plays are realistic in the portrayal of character and behavior, but the slice of fourth century b.c.e. Athenian life that New Comedy represents is paper-thin, exclusively domestic in scope, and hemmed in by convention. The Greek passion for recognition scenes, which can be traced as far back as Homer’s Odyssey (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), had come to dictate an excessive reliance on coincidence (for example, a citizen’s long-lost daughter turns out to be the unfortunate girl whom the boy next door has just saved from the grasp of a repulsive pimp), and Menander’s audiences demanded their fair share of unfair stereotypes. Rape plays a surprisingly prominent role in this gentle form of comedy: A young man rapes an unknown girl at a nocturnal festival, or he rapes the girl he loves in order to avoid having to submit to an arranged marriage. All these patterns of character and plot revolve around a single basic situation, repeated with variations ad infinitum in New Comedy. Every Menandrian plot that has come to light has to do with sex, love, and the family. A play may represent the process by which a boy wins a girl in marriage, or that by which married lovers who have been estranged are reunited.
This erotic preoccupation is always within the limits of decency, if one is willing to allow for the curious employment of rape (sometime in the past) as an expedient of plot. Furthermore, sexual love (eros) is brought to some kind of resolution with family love (philia). Menander in particular is reluctant to let a play end on a note of family disharmony. It is especially important that father be reconciled with son, given the patriarchal bias of Athenian audiences and their dependence on reliable family ties. Beneath the constant fuss over love, sex, and the family, it is not difficult to perceive a social concern that must have been close to Menander’s Hellenistic audiences. Throughout most of their history, the Greeks have preferred marriages arranged by heads of households to those love matches that depend entirely on the initiative and inclinations of the couple who marry. Yet, for a period of time beginning in the fourth century b.c.e., cosmopolitan Greeks who could afford the luxury entertained the notion that an ideal marriage was erotically charged; sexual, emotional passion was added to friendly cooperation as a component of such unions. Romantic love emerged as the mythos of such thinking, and New Comedy became its medium. Some of Menander’s plays are concerned with the conflict between the morality of arranged marriages and that of love matches. Fathers must be reconciled to their sons’ wayward inclinations; plots must be manipulated so that the girl whom the young man marries turns out to be socially acceptable. By whatever means, love must prevail. New Comedy does not herald any sweeping or permanent cultural change among the Greeks. What it does signify is a belief that the union of man and woman should be more than an expedient for pleasure or profit. This idea was to have further development in Western Europe in a later era.
Menander’s plays are chiefly about people. Although Menander is an acute observer, his analysis does not go deep: just far enough to suggest depth. As is perhaps appropriate to the medium in which he wrote, he presents credible, lifelike, and seemingly individual characters, sketched in by a series of suggestive details rather than exhaustively presented. The tradition that grew up around him might be called a theater of humanism because of its willingness to look behind the traditional comic masks and find in real people a more satisfying object of entertainment.
The Girl from Samos
None of this means that Menander put ethics before entertainment. Although his comedies reflect the concerns of a thoughtful audience in the midst of cultural change, they served primarily as light entertainment for playgoers who appreciated a well-made play. The stage was set to represent two houses, with sometimes a third house, an inn, or a shrine between them. With this conventional setting, writers often wove their plots around the goings-on in two households; typically a well-to-do young man falls in love with the girl next door. This is what happens in The Girl from Samos. The house on the left belongs to Demeas, a rich old Athenian, and his adopted son Moschion. Also in residence is the title character, Chrysis, who is the old man’s concubine; a clever slave; and a cook. The house on the right belongs to Niceratus, a poor old Athenian, and his daughter Plangon.
In the first act, young Moschion explains that his foster father, Demeas,...
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