BMCR 2015.12.10

Menander, New Comedy and the Visual. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Menander, New Comedy and the Visual. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xii, 322. ISBN 9781107068438. $99.00.


There is much more to Menander’s bourgeois comedy, with its stock characters and predictable plots, than meets a reader’s eye. Petrides positions himself against entrenched views of Greek New Comedy as a tired genre, even though recent work on Menander by specialists has progressed well beyond such superficial impressions.1 This engaging study accounts for the persistence of the popular stereotype that Menander is dull as a failure to appreciate the performative dynamics of a Greek New Comedy whose heyday falls within a broad cultural movement toward the visual in general. Petrides’s focus is the complex semiotic power of the genre’s masks, to which end he offers a reappraisal of the role of contemporary Greek physiognomics in shaping New Comedy masks and their reception by audiences. The result is a nuanced and imaginative analysis of the potential of New Comedy masks to engage audiences actively in the construction of both character and meaning.

Petrides’s first chapter outlines his program and establishes important preliminaries. He begins by challenging the assertion (à la Aristophanes of Byzantium) that Menander straightforwardly mirrors contemporary Athenian life. Myopic focus on realistic representation has straitjacketed interpretation of Menander, with often platitudinous results or inapt comparisons drawn according to the yardstick of modern naturalism. New Comedy’s expansive intertextuality—its engagement not only with previous dramatic texts and performances, but also with civic culture and discourse—alone suggests that the critics’ pervasive realism requires qualification. Petrides instead offers “a fresh interpretive framework, which will investigate the narrative and theatrical strategies involved in Menander’s engagement with reality and representation in their own terms; that is, a framework that will situate Menander’s New Comedy between reality, textuality and Athenian civic ideology” (p. 14). Petrides’s Menander “projects the urban story to the level of tragic myth” (p. 83), a project necessarily steeped in intertextuality and metapoetics. Petrides’s main aim is to examine the role of the visual in this process, in ways that fully embrace theatrical performance and memory.

Chapter 2, “New performance: visuality and intervisuality in Menander,” makes the case more vigorously for the visual as a means of allusion, e.g., the various visual resonances, both tragic and cultural, bound up with Glykera’s shorn locks in Perikeiromene (pp. 84–91). Petrides locates Menander’s emphasis on the visual within an Athenian performance culture now privileging opsis, a movement that is marked in New Comedy by new developments in the art of acting, the use of enhanced machinery and theatrical space, and, most significantly for this study, in freshly semiotized masks bearing detailed clues that are “expressive of moral choice” (p. 148). Petrides builds on the pioneering study of Wiles,2 but rejects the latter’s “[insistence] on the mask as a unified system, which is supposed to be read syntagmatically and synchronically, by way of significant differentials” (pp. 131–2). Petrides identifies in Menander “a sophisticated poetics of fictionality and (inter)textuality [collaborating] to produce an end-product whose depth reaches far below the realistic surface” (p. 132). Precisely how physiognomics signify on New Comedy masks is critical to understanding this new visual poetics. Petrides demonstrates the pervasiveness of physiognomics in fourth century culture, and stresses that, in Aristotelian terms, facial features, grooming practices and the like constitute mere “signs,” not “proofs” of ēthos and so not the inevitability of certain moral choices, i.e., they remain largely open signifiers on the mask.

Specialists in Greek New Comedy may want to proceed directly to chapters 3–5, which form the core of Petrides’ study in their extensive treatment of the mask, with illustrative examples from Greek and Roman plays, as a primary aspect of New Comedy’s “intervisuality.” Chapter 3 investigates in detail how the mask is informed by Greek physiognomics and Aristotelian ethics. Much here is devoted to refuting modern critics3 who have rejected the utility of physiognomics altogether in the study of New Comedy masks, especially as these are represented by the descriptions in Pollux’s Onomasticon and the Lipari finds. Petrides rightly dismisses as anachronistic the demand for absolute consistency in the distribution of specific physiological features and character (“unity of character” and “total personality” are modern projections), and finds ground for richer constructions of character precisely in perceived contradictions: “In ‘real life’, as source upon source reveals, physiognomics is a freighted and anxious social enterprise” (p. 162). Critics similarly have shown an over-readiness to equate a character type with a particular mask, whereas the extant evidence supports multiple mask options for common types such as the adulescens amans. Mask assignments within genera of masks, as well as the construction of the mask itself, were probably subject to individual choices by relevant theater personnel. In keeping with the general semiotic fluidity of physiognomic masks, Petrides supports a strictly Aristotelian analysis of character, wherein ēthos, not “character” or “personality” in the modern sense, is only a predisposition to act in a certain way when faced with real alternatives. Comedy appropriately features immature young men, who owing to their akrasia frequently find themselves at ethical crossroads, and the physiognomic mask plays a central role in shaping an audience’s anticipation of the ultimate course they will choose. The chapter concludes with the example of Terence’s notorious Chaerea ( Eunuchus), whom Petrides conceives of as sporting Pollux’s second episeistos, a mask with features well-suited to someone with a panther-like “mixture of femininity and aggression” (p. 199); this mask thus neatly encapsulates an emotionally unstable ephebe who during the play dons a eunuch’s costume to carry out deceitfully one of New Comedy’s most disturbingly violent rapes. 4

Chapter 4, “Of mice and (young) men: the mask as inter-face” explores the dialectical nature of physiognomic masks, that is, how they signify only in relation to one another and not as (fixed) units in isolation, and how juxtapositions of masks can foreground some characteristics at the expense of others. Petrides here presents the case study of the soldier and his lackey. Petrides argues that the soldier most likely wore Pollux’s semiotically versatile first episeistos, a mask that could accommodate divergent Menandrian and Plautine soldiers, while the soldier’s assistant perhaps wore the kolax mask. The latter “masculinizing” mask was a fitting accoutrement of characters like Artotrogus in Miles Gloriosus, in that it might underscore the subaltern’s propensity to expose his boss as a blustery and impotent imposter. This analysis of Pyrgopolonices’s and Artotrogus’s “interfacing” leads to a stimulating appraisal of the Miles as a kind of epic deconstruction, a Batrachomyomachia (pp. 236–45), though the argumentation for this depends more on philological analysis than the characters’ masks.

Chapter 5 provides another case study, this time of Pollux’s panchrestos mask, said to be worn by “perfect” youths, and featuring raised eyebrows and a few wrinkles on the forehead. Petrides presents a compelling case for this mask’s semiotic potential for New Comedy’s older, relatively mature subset of young men, which includes Charisios in Menander’s Epitrepontes and the Pamphili of Terence’s Andria and Hecyra. Each of these twenty-somethings faces the responsibilities and burden of “perfection” as he finds himself precariously on the verge of becoming a head of household, and all three to varying degrees struggle in “defending values of Greco-Roman patriarchy, which indeed they have internalized fully” (p. 268). The panchrestos mask thus is a most effective liminal mask, especially suited for the problematic transitions to adulthood these characters negotiate.

Petrides has managed admirably to make an important contribution to a deeply fraught area of research, where problems associated with the visual evidence for New Comedy surface at virtually every turn (e.g., the artistic representations of masks, questions of whether or not Roman comedy adopted/adapted Greek masks, which characters wore which masks, etc.). He typically does not shy away from unsolvable issues or minimize the problems of interpretation. The case for the relevance of physiognomics in analyzing the masks is convincingly advanced, and what may first appear to be the recherché pseudo-science of ancient philosophers also bears the marks of crude, tribalizing stereotype and so was not beyond the grasp of general theatergoers. In light of all the evidentiary challenges, Petrides frequently acknowledges the limitations of a study of the visual in New Comedy and the impossibility of recreating original performances with “archaeological” certainty, but he is certainly correct to insist that we not ignore the expressive possibilities of masks, “arguably the single most important semiotic component of performance” (p. 153). He offers informed and imaginative hypotheses on the highly semiotized physiognomic mask in New Comedy that many readers will find compelling, even if they do not accept all the particulars.

Menander, New Comedy and the Visual is captivating and mostly free of jargon and theoreticizing inscrutability. While longer passages of Greek under discussion are presented with a translation, clarity is sometimes compromised by the excessive use of transliterated “Greeklish,” e.g.: “Among the six masks of ‘Old Men’ ( gerontes) one mask is explicitly said to have megas onkos (Tragic Mask No. 4: melas anēr). Two masks are said to have onkos shorter ( onkon hēttō) than the melas (Tragic Mask No. 5: ksanthos anēr, and No. 6: ksanthoteros), and another one (Tragic Mask No. 1: ksyrias anēr), has onkos that is not qualified (but is it distinctive enough?). Another prosōpon (Tragic Mask No. 2: leukos anēr) has short onkos ( brachys onkos; this is perhaps implied also for Tragic Mask No. 3: spartopolios)” (p. 139). The book is virtually typo-free, but could have benefitted from more aggressive editing in reducing repetition of some material and eliminating authorial ticks (e.g., the unnecessary use of “I submit” et sim.). These minor flaws notwithstanding, Petrides has convincingly demonstrated that much stands to be gained by renewed and sensitive attention to opsis in New Comedy.


1. E.g., S. Lape, 2004. Reproducing Athens: Menander’s Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City, Princeton, and A. Traill, 2008. Women and the Comic Plot in Menander, Cambridge.

2. D. Wiles, 1991. Masks of Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance, Cambridge.

3. Esp. J.P. Poe, 1996. “The Supposed Conventional Meanings of Dramatic Masks: a Re-examination of Pollux, 4.133– 154,” Philologus 140: 306–28.

4. Cf. D. Christenson, 2013. “Eunuchus,” in A. Augoustakis and A. Traill (ed.), Blackwell’s Companion to Terence, Malden, MA, and Oxford: 262–80.