Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.37

Christophe Cusset, Alessandra Lukinovich, Redécouvrir 'L’Apparition' de Ménandre. Études grecques.   Paris:  L’Harmattan Editions Distribution, 2019.  Pp. 270.  ISBN 9782343172460.  €29,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by William Furley, U. of Heidelberg; U. of London, School of Advanced Study (


There is not much surviving of Menander’s Phasma, the ‘Apparition’ of the title, and what there is can be assembled and reassembled in different order so little certainty can be achieved anywhere. Despite this, I think it is fair to say that this edition presents everything known about the play in antiquity and the modern period and that in a clear and intelligent manner. One might say that the fragments, testimonia and pictorial evidence have been squeezed so long and tightly that not a drop remains. Alessandra Lukinovich is responsible for the metrical analyses at the end.

The book begins with a concise but informative history of the discovery of the text, which goes back to the nineteenth century but which only came to fruition in the twentieth. Then Cusset concerns himself with the basic outline of the plot, which depends on a summary by Donatus, a scholion on the Eunuchus of Terence, a handful of other testimonia, and the parchment and papyrus fragments of text themselves. With admirable clarity Cusset sketches two possible schemes showing the individuals living and interacting in the two neighboring houses, a must for New Comedy. Then he introduces a thing called the ‘schéma actantiel’, explained in a very brief footnote as a concept developed by the structural linguist A. J. Greimas. Although the graphic printed on page 17 is clear in outline, this reader would have needed more help with the terms ‘destinateur’ and ‘destinataire’. Nor do I really see why the characters listed as ‘opposants’ are really opposing the ‘objet’ of Pheidias, which is to marry the pretty girl of the Apparition.

Phasma’s basic story line of love pursued through a hole in the wall recurs, mutatis mutandis, in Ovid’s recounting of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in Metamorphoses (4.55–166) and must have echoed through the centuries before resurfacing in Shakespeare’s burlesque in Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is perhaps the one area to which Cusset might have devoted more attention: the reception of the play with its memorable central theme. He does, however, draw attention (p. 142) to an interesting historical case involving the orators Lykurgos and Hyperides in which a man was charged with conducting an adulterous affair with the lady next door through a hole (which he had dug) in the wall. Menander was in his childhood when the case was heard and — who knows? — may have had this affair in mind when he set this theatrical ball rolling.

Next comes a depiction of the (known) characters appearing in the play. Already on p. 18, in discussing the character of the young man in love, Pheidias, we encounter a decision on Cusset’s part which is fundamental to his understanding of the play. Following a 1969 article by Eric Turner (GRBS 10, 1969, 307–324), Cusset believes the young man has already seen the Apparition, discovered her humanity and been stricken by the beauty of the girl, before fragment 1, in which Syros and Pheidias are discussing the price of wheat. Others, e.g. Sandbach, put fragment 2 (apparently from a prologue) before fragment 1 (the discussion of the price of wheat). In that case there is no room at the beginning of the play for Pheidias to meet the girl and fall in love; that must come later. Most believe the first encounter with the Apparition is in Act Two.

The decision is key to understanding the Petersburg parchment fragments, which are, after all, the main surviving chunks of text. Turner’s argument was that a likely reconstruction of the column length of the Petersburg parchment shows that there were probably more lines between both parts (recto and verso) than people had thought. If that is the case the transition between frr. 1 (dialogue between Syros and Pheidias) and 2 (after a few lines, prologue) may not have been impossibly abrupt. The first scene of the play may have contained a sighting of the Apparition by the young man and/or a description of the sighting by Pheidias to the pedagogue Syros. This leads to the further consequence that in the dialogue between Syros and Pheidias (fr. 1 C) the two are talking at cross-purposes, as Pheidias has already had his paranormal experience, whilst Syros thinks he is merely suffering from ennui.

Why do I dissent? First, what survives of Fr.1 can only be made to suggest psychic disorder in Pheidias at a stretch. Cusset rests his case on Pheidias’ mention of insomnia in line 9 and Syros’ mention of a ‘sickness’ (20 τἀρρώστημα). The evidence seems to me tenuous. The mention of insomnia may be quite innocuous (in fact it’s part of a long-spun-out joke by Syros, see below). And the ‘sickness’ mentioned by Syros turns out to be the ‘embarrassment of riches’ theme which Syros imputes to Pheidias. Second, we have the Mytilene mosaic which shows the central scene of the play as occurring in act two (Me[ros] B). We know that the Mytilene mosaics show the eponymous scene of each play illustrated (e.g., Epitrepontes shows the arbitration scene in the second act), so the girl glimpsed in the neighboring house in the Phasma mosaic must be ghost (or apparition pace Turner), not girl. Cusset’s way round the second difficulty is to assume that the mosaic shows perhaps the second sighting of the girl, this time by the father of Pheidias (p.48) -- but this looks like special pleading. Combined, these two factors, in my opinion, tell against the Turner-Cusset hypothesis that Pheidias has fallen in love with the ghost-girl already before the prologue.

The hypothesis has repercussions. It leads to a strained interpretation of lines 9–13 of fr.1, the dialogue between Syros and Pheidias. Syros says, ‘you complain of insomnia?’ (ἀγρυπνεῖν 9). Cusset prints the following expression with a supplement by Arnott, τί σο[ι τὸ δυσχερές;], which he translates as ‘qu’est ce qui fait ton malheur?’. Really this means, as we shall see ‘what’s bad about that?’ or ‘what’s the problem?’. There follows a description of Pheidias’ easy life: he wanders in the agora, comes home when his legs are tired; he takes a bath, goes out again to the agora and wanders around to his heart’s content. Now comes the key expression. Syros says: ὕπνος αὐτὸς βίος ἐστί σοι; (13). Cusset translates this as ‘ta vie elle-même est un songe (‘dream’, note, not ‘sleep’)’ (p.65), and paraphrases on p.18 ‘il passe son temps à se prélasser et à dormir dans la journée‘ (my italics). Cusset interprets the sense of Syros’ words here as follows: ‘il (Pheidias) ne parvient plus à distinguer l’état de veille et le sommeil depuis qu’il a vu cette apparition’: ‘he can no longer distinguish between the states of waking and sleep since seeing the ghost’.

But this is wrong, in my opinion. Syros is saying to Pheidias who, it seems, has complained of sleeping badly: ‘what’s the problem? You lead a life of leisure. Your very (waking) life is sleep!’. In other words, Pheidias should not worry about not sleeping during the night, as his waking life amounts to sleep (in comparison to hard workers like Syros, that is). True, the witty point is drawn over several lines, but, when properly understood, we see there is no need to see psychic disturbance in Pheidias’ behaviour.

After the portrayal of other characters visible in the fragments (Syros and a cook, lavishly illustrated by other cooks in Menander), Cusset passes to a listing, and translation of, testimonia to the play. These are all well chosen and presented. Among them Cusset illustrates and discusses the mosaics thought to illustrate Phasma. First, a mosaic discovered in 1883 in Grand in Les Vosges, following J.-P. Darmon, is argued to portray the crucial scene in which someone sights the apparition/girl as she emerges from her doorway. There are many elements of uncertainty here, involving both the ‘girl’ who is much bigger than the other figure, unlike in the Mytilene mosaic, where she is smaller, and the architectural detail of the scene. There follows a detailed and sensitive discussion of the Mytilene mosaic, excellent bar the caveat above.

When we come to the commentary, which makes up the lion’s share of the book (about a hundred-and-fifty pages for a hundred odd fragmentary lines of verse), we find a detailed philological commentary which proceeds in a fairly conventional, but exemplary, way. Cusset discusses some variant readings from the apparatus (printed en bloc after the text).

There are occasional sallies into the papyrological sources but I think it is fair to say that Cusset prefers to discuss others’ readings rather than work at the coalface himself. There is ample reference to the plots and situations of other plays of Menander, hardly any to the palliata. On p. 139 one comes upon a debatable point: Cusset suggests that Menander in his prologues makes reference to the title of the play. E.g. φαντάζεται in line 49 alludes to the title Phasma. In fact it is likely to have been the other way round: the Alexandrian scholars (Aristophanes of Byzantium?) editing Menander cast around for a suitable title and took it from a key word in the prologue.

Some of the longer notes are excellent ‘Wortuntersuchungen’ in their own right. Examples are 6 πένητος, 15 φορτικώτερον, 78 ὑπομελαγχολάω. One longer note on line 17, Syros’ obscene expression, finds that Menander’s comedy retains a few obscenities though far fewer than Aristophanes. Cusset posits a generic unity connecting the two but a change in Menander’s audience might explain the change in taste here. He does not go into details. Incidentally this ‘change in audience taste’ might neatly be explained if women were now present in theatre audiences unlike (as I believe) in Aristophanes’ day. The commentary is a mine of philological information, judicious analysis and finely-balanced interpretation.

Turning now to the few points at which Cusset himself makes suggestions for readings, we find generally a quite conservative, but judicious, approach to the text. In line 6 αἰσθοῦ (edd. αἴσθου) is correct. In line 41 Cusset suggests ἐν τᾠκίᾳ δ᾿ ἀχ]θεῖσα (a conglomerate (with one minor alteration) of readings suggested by Arnott and Austin), ‘qui a été installée dans la demeure de la fiancée’ (p. 67). But the verb of motion ἀχθεῖσα does not sit easily with the locative expression (pace Barbieri). In 104 γ᾿ οὗτος is harmless enough (but then πρᾶγμά before the enclitic). In 105 πά[ντ᾿ ἐρή]σομαι (‘I’ll ask everything’) seems to me inferior to Turner’s πά[ντ᾿ ἀκού]σομαι. 106 ἐκτρ[οπήν, ‘escape’, Cusset (ἐκτροπάς Barbieri (comm.)). This appears a possibility but in the context of eating and hunger I wonder whether e.g. εἰς τροφήν (Handley) might not be better.

In the bibliography I cannot see Barbieri’s edition (2001), although Cusset frequently cites it.

In sum, this book deserves to be the definitive edition of the fragments of Phasma for a long time to come. I personally regret that Cusset has followed Turner’s theory concerning the first appearance of the Apparition, which seems to me to fly in the face of common sense. In this article Turner makes great play of caution in supplementing Menander’s text, then proceeds to try to supplement the whole play on the basis of gossamer-thin evidence.

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