The following entry presents criticism of Menander's Dyskolos (316 b.c.) For more information on Menander's life and career, see CMLC, Volume 9.
Discovered in a private collection in Geneva in 1957 and published for the first time two years later, the Dyskolos (sometimes translated as The Grouch or The Dour Man) is the only nearly complete play by Menander now extant. It is also the only surviving almost complete New Comedy, and the earliest known play involving the motif of love at first sight. It is invaluable for what it reveals about the evolution of Greek theater, which, based on the Dyskolos and other fragments, changed from a vibrant forum for a wide range of political expression into drama that ignored politics, concentrating instead on family relationships in everyday domestic situations. Menander's comedies and their adaptations by the Roman writers Plautus and Terence also greatly influenced European Renaissance comedies.
Menander was born in the village of Kephisia around 342-41 b.c. to Diopeithes and Hegestrate. His first known production was the Orge [Anger], which won a first place prize in the Lencean festival in 321 b.c. The first production of the Dyskolos took place in 316 b.c. and it also took top honors. Menander is known to have studied under Theophrastus, the successor of Aristotle as leader of the Peripatetic School, adapting what he learned about tragedy for his comedies. He wrote over one hundred plays and obtained first prize eight times. Menander died c. 292 b.c.
Plot and Major Characters
The Dyskolos takes place in the Attic countryside of the village of Phyle, at the shrine of the god Pan and the Nymphs. It begins with Pan telling the tale of how the misanthropic Knemon has forced his wife, Myrrhine, and stepson, Gorgias, to leave him and live in poverty. Knemon kept his daughter and his housekeeper. Feeling sorry for the girl, Pan decides to make a rich, young Athenian named Sostratus fall in love with Knemon's daughter. He causes them to meet, they fall in love instantly, but the girl tells Sostratus that her father will not consent to her marrying anyone who is not like her father. Sostratus thus begins hard labor in the fields, hoping to make a good impression on Knemon; unfortunately Knemon does not come to see him. In a series of comic episodes, Knemon's housekeeper accidentally drops a bucket and then a digging implement down a deep well, and Knemon falls in while attempting to retrieve them. He is rescued by Gorgias and Sostratus. Knemon is touched by their action and admits that he has been wrong to be so hateful. He adopts Gorgias and gives him legal power over his daughter. Gorgias grants permission for his stepsister's marriage to Sostratus and Gorgias marries Knemon's sister. Everyone is happy and celebrates in the festivals.
The Dyskolos treats a standard literary theme, the disapproval by a parent of a child's choice in marriage. Critics have pointed out that Menander's overriding theme, however, is the daily events and interactions in the life of average Greek citizens. He realistically portrays in Dyskolos the world of middle-class Athenian people and their problems, focusing on family crises, relationships with servants, and conflicts between those who have wealth and power and those who do not. In addition, he manipulates these everyday characters and situations to comment on the manners and foibles of his time. The Dyskolos finally affirms and celebrates the benefits of harmonious interpersonal family relations, as Knemon learns that satisfaction does not come through the exercise of control over those who are bound to obey him, but through enabling their happiness.
Menander has long been considered the finest poet of New Comedy; he was immensely famous and influential, and highly spoken of by Plutarch and Quintilian, among many others. But modern critics could only imagine what his work must have been like because only fragments of his works were extant. Before 1959 Menander was known almost exclusively through revisions of his plays by Plautus and Terence, and through quotations recorded by St. Paul. But with the 1959 publication of a third-century manuscript of the Dyskolos, scholars suddenly had something substantial to examine. Other recent discoveries have brought forth most of Samia [c. 321-08; The Samian Woman] and large portions of the Epitrepontes [c. 304; The Arbitrants] and the Perikeiromene [c. 314-10; The Shorn Girl.] Menander's magnificent reputation has been somewhat diminished by the discovery of the Dyskolos, at least in the views of some critics; the comedy has received negative assessments by Robert Graves, who doesn't find it funny, and others who find its characterization wanting. Much of the focus of the critical examination of the play concerns its representation of New Comedy. T. B. L. Webster discusses how Menander used audience expectations to his advantage and E. W. Handley also discusses Menander's use of tradition and what it reveals about Middle Comedy. J. Michael Walton and Peter D. Arnott note that Menander never comments on the contemporary political situation and believe this fact “shows that the Greeks had arrived at a new concept of what political theatre was for.” Gilbert Murray examines Menander's New Comedy in the context of the tremendous change that had been inflicted upon Athens in losing the Peloponnesian War: “One cannot understand the thought of this period … except as a response of the human soul to an almost blinding catastrophe of defeat and disenchantment. All that a fifth-century Athenian had believed in had failed and been found wanting.”