BMCR 2011.07.37

New Perspectives on Postclassical Comedy. Pierides, 2

, , New Perspectives on Postclassical Comedy. Pierides, 2. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. xii, 216. ISBN 9781443824118. £39.99.

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The title is a bit misleading since this collection of six essays deals almost wholly with Menander, concluding with a study of Roman comedy and its interdependence on Greek New Comedy–effectively that of Menander. The year 2007 marked the centenary of Gustave Lefebvre’s publication of the Cairo Codex, providing the modern world with the first large fragments of the playwright’s texts. It was also the year when the editors first began discussing the need to take account of the many recently published viewpoints and discoveries regarding Menander and New Comedy. The introduction says this collection is written for scholars and students of ancient cultural history, but it should receive attention from historians of theater and theorists of comedy as well.

New discoveries eventually require revised perspectives, and Horst-Dieter Blume’s first chapter succinctly tracks the emergence of Menander as a known dramatist during the past century. In 1958 a 3rd or 4th century AD papyrus of an entire play, the Dyskolos, came to light through a collector in Geneva, and to this day it remains Menander’s one complete extant comedy. A decade later the rest of the papyrus source of this text yielded much of two other comedies, Samia and Aspis. Together with Epitrepontes, the longest fragment in the Cairo Codex, they add much to our knowledge of Menander’s art beyond what the one complete play permits. The fruits of this twentieth-century project are mostly available in W. Geoffrey Arnott’s three-volume Loeb edition, published from 1979 to 2000. Of course, as Blume says, recovering Menander’s text is a never-ending task: as recently as 2003 a Vatican palimpsest yielded parts of about 400 lines from two plays.

David Konstan’s chapter, “Menander and Cultural Studies,” and Susan Lape’s next one, “Gender in Menander’s Comedy,” are complementary pieces. Professor Konstan has been drawn to cultural studies because it “brings to light the forms of oppression that tacitly underlie works of literature” (49). Five introductory pages of theory lead into “case studies” of Dyskolos, Aspis, and Samia, the last being the most developed. In Konstans’s account, beneath the Menandrian romantic plot of Dyskolos lie two stories: that of the titular misanthrope and that of class tensions. A resolution comes with the union of the two families, rich and poor, affirming “the solidarity of the citizen body over disparities of wealth” (38). At times Konstan presents himself as engaged in demonstrating the art of cultural studies. In addition to the theoretical opening, the reader encounters phrases like “A Cultural Studies approach to the play will note…,” and “A cultural critic may observe here…,” and “A Cultural Studies approach, however, may invite…” (38, 43, 46; capitalization is his). Hapless graduate students without a theory could do worse than study this essay for guidelines.

By contrast Susan Lape’s essay on gender wears her approach lightly, as she takes on the unusual task of merging gender with genre. Like comedy, gender “involves scripts–narratives about how human beings should behave given their biological sex…” (51). Lape proposes “to elaborate the implications of the particular ways in which comedy portrays gender” (52). Her chapter first reviews the gender system of Athens and Menander’s comedy, which variously supports and challenges official ideology. She then turns to the topic of interclass marriage in the plays. Comedy challenges, she thinks, the Athenian stereotyping of female sex workers as greedy, deceitful, etc., but Menander’s courtesans are in fact the opposite. (It might be noted here that Erasmus, in De Copia, notes that, while courtesans are generally thought of as greedy and deceitful, in Terence they are usually good, though Plautus’s courtesans are “very different.” Terence’s art is of course considered Menandrian.) Also, while Athenian men usually married wives half their age, in comedy the couples are close in age. But does Dyskolos really, as Lape says, “argue for” a redistribution of wealth (59)? Some would contend that, given comedy’s saturnalian nature, sharing the wealth is part of the genre, and not necessarily of the dramatist’s ideological agenda.

Antonis Petrides’s chapter, “New Performance,” weighs in as the longest and most absorbing of the book. It will hold particular interest for theater historians, tracing as it does the features that come to characterize New Comedy performance as it developed out of Old Comedy and tragedy. Petrides finds that “tragedy seems to operate within New Comedy in ways comparable to the workings of epic myth in tragedy itself…. Just like tragedy and myth, New Comedy and tragedy lie in constant interchange, on the levels of text performance and reception of performance” (101). He views Menander as writing for a culture that had learned to read spectacle and to appreciate plot in drama, which Old Comedy arguably lacked. Audiences throughout the Hellenistic centers of civilization had come to realize that drama is more a performative art than a poetic one. (The point, one might object, is far from settled.) The actor acquired new prestige. There were new arrangements of space (e.g., the proscenium stage) and the mask (subject of the author’s 2005 Cambridge dissertation) had undergone a complex evolution. Masks became more expressive and more diverse, with some 44 different masks for the various character types (old men, slaves, etc.). Physiognomics influences the New Comedy mask features: “an oxen-like nose shows despondence; an eagle-like nose, magnanimity; a snub nose, lust; a hooked nose, shamelessness” (117). The mask has long been a subject of debate, and Petrides admits the hazards of trying to prove that a character wore a certain mask in the original performance of a comedy.

This chapter demonstrates that, while New Comedy tones down the excessive spectacularity of Old Comedy, “it does not make use of the apparently sensational visual effects of contemporary tragedy.” Instead, it “creates a spectacle where the visual is clearly semiotised, brimful of allusive potential” (123-24). This impressive, well-documented essay is worth alone the price of the book for a wide variety of scholarly readers or their university libraries.

Rosanna Omitowoju’s fifth chapter continues the discussion of Menander and Greek tragedy. The author inquires specifically into how the family and its relationships differ in the two bodies of drama. She concedes the possibility that Menander’s work can be more about the non-heroic present “because it rejects the resolutions operating in the heroic past” (126). Following the lead of scholars like Alain Blanchard and especially A. G. Katsouris’s Tragic Patterns in Menander, she first explores the relationship between Samia and Euripides’s Hippolytus. The fundamental point of comparison “exists in the problematic relationship between father, son, and father’s consort,” and in both, despite suspicion of a sexual encounter between son and consort, there has been none (130). Both plays contain “a great scene of confrontation between father and son,” “a parallel focus on the moral qualities of the two young men,” and a rather positive treatment of the consort (132). One conclusion offered is that the father-son relationship in Samia “confirms the durability of the oikos,” as “the family unit is here seen to weather the stresses and strains it endures” (141). It is noteworthy that, while ordinarily one might expect that characters in tragedy are rounded, while those in comedy are flat, Omitowoju finds the reverse true in these plays. Euripides’s father and son are static figures involved in almost symbolic action.

Lovers of Latin “postclassical comedy” must wait for Sophia Papaioannou’s final chapter, which looks into the old question of the originality of Roman comedy with the fresh perspective found in all of these essays. The aim here is “to portray the inventiveness that underlies the Roman comedians’ process of ‘model’ appropriation by attaching it to a closer, more accurate appreciation of the creative genius that distinguishes the enhanced position [in recent scholarship] of postclassical Greek [i.e., Menandrian] comedy” (149). Now that we know more about Menander we can speak more confidently about the Romanness of the palliatae.

Greek and Roman New Comedy, it is argued, probably shared a penchant for alluding to myths that had been featured in tragedy. In Terence’s Eunuchus the lover Chaerea gains access to his beloved Pamphila’s home by pretending to be an old eunuch. His rape of the girl is the only such act in the palliatae that is committed in the present moment and is recounted by the rapist himself. This moment may deliberately echo the myth of Danae’s rape by Jupiter, which is mentioned in Menander’s Samia and perhaps showed up in many later comedies. This passage may in turn hark back to the mythological comedies, often involving misdeeds of Zeus, of the decades on either side of the year 400 BC. Papaioannou develops a second line of inquiry around the soldier type, who appears in four of the significant Menander fragments, though in each case he plays a positive role, and is not a miles gloriosus. Despite the inviting name, Thrasonides, in Menander’s Misoumenos, is not a braggart type, but as a dejected lover he bears some resemblance to the non-bragging soldier Stratophanes in Plautus’s Truculentus. It is not entirely clear that the author has proven that Stratophanes “originates in Menander’s comedy” (174), but the analysis of character types, like that of mythological allusion, offers insight into some ways in which Greek New Comedy may survive in Roman Comedy.

Collectively these authors make the case for “the ever growing urgency for new perspectives on the comedy of postclassical times” (5). This informative book is made even more useful by a thirty-page bibliography (full of materials of interest to the general student of ancient comedy), index, and index locorum.

Table of Contents

Antonis K. Petrides and Sophia Papaioannou, New Comedy under New Light, 1-13
Horst-Dieter Blume, Menander: The Text and Its Restoration, 14-30
David Konstan, Menander and Cultural Studies, 31-50
Susan Lape, Gender in Menander’s Comedy, 51-78
Antonis K. Petrides, New Performance, 79-124
Rosanna Omitowoju. Performing Traditions: Relations and Relationships in Menander and Tragedy, 125-145
Sophia Papaioannou, Postclassical Comedy and the Composition of Roman Comedy, 146-175
Bibliography, 176-205
Index Locorum, 206-211
Index, 213-216