BMCR 2019.12.25

Behind the Mask: Character and Society in Menander. Classical literature and society

, Behind the Mask: Character and Society in Menander. Classical literature and society. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. xiv, 193. ISBN 9781472534927 £90.00.

The subtitle sums up quite accurately the aim of this work, which is a kind of “introduction to Menander”. Heap wishes to fill in the social and historical background to Menander’s oeuvre—an aspect one could call the “cultural context”. She is also interested in selected characters, particularly the female characters in Epitrepontes, aiming to show their subtlety “behind the mask”.

The book starts with two interesting chapters, “setting the scene”. First a chapter on Lipari and the masks of comedy, then a chapter (inappropriately titled “All the world’s a stage”) on the theatre in Menander’s day, with subsections on the audience (were women present?—question left open), staging, actors, costumes, and masks. These chapters are informative and reliable, without breaking any new ground. They provide a serviceable introduction to what will be the focus of the book, an analysis of Epitrepontes, with particular focus on Habrotonon (called the “heroine” of the book in the introduction, and again on p. 111) and other servants. Heap has a very readable style of academic English.

The fourth chapter, “Women in Epitrepontes” is probably the heart of the book. After an introduction in which Heap rushes through such topics as rape and seduction, marriage, divorce and exposure, it involves, roughly, a running commentary and discussion of Habrotonon and Pamphile in Epitrepontes. She quotes Miller’s translation (Norma Miller, Penguin Classics, not in the bibliography) as basis of her comments, without discussion of the Greek text. We are not even informed which Greek text underlies the discussion, whether Sandbach, Arnott or what. Furley’s edition (2009) seems to have reached her too late to be considered in detail. Where the new fragments of Pamphile’s speech to her father are considered, it would have been essential to say which text she was commenting on, as much is controversial, and simply to quote single English words may mislead the reader. A summary of the plot of Epitrepontes would have been useful in this introductory work, as there are many twists and turns and her discussion would be more intelligible generally if it was preceded by such a guide. That said, there are many judicious comments and interpretations in the chapter. She is chiefly interested in the question of audience sympathy: whether the audience’s sympathies would have lain with Habrotonon, or Pamphile or Charisios. Whilst I agree with much of what she says, this is clearly a slippery topic as one has no way of checking what the audience was thinking.

In what follows I note a few places where there some correction is needed. The name of one slave is definitely Syriskos, not Syros, as she continues to write. This is shown by, among other things, an interlinear nomen personae in P.Oxy.~4641. On p. 46 she intimates that in Samia Chrysis has “interesting relationships” with Demeas and Moschion, but Moschion is in love with the girl next door; he only plots with Chrysis to deceive his father Demeas. On p. 47 Glykera in Perikeiromene is said to be treated by Moschion “as she might expect”, without mentioning that he is her brother (as Glykera knows, but he does not). On p. 49 she augments the Greek text of lines 430-1 (“especially you”, “all of you”) without explaining why (it is a risky interpretation of singular σε followed by plural παρέχετ᾿). On p. 55 there is an impossible Greek quote topastikon ton gunaikon, rendered “a wizard/smart, that girl” (line 557), which should be τοπαστικὸν τὸ γύναιον, a diminutive of γυνή (she gets it right on p. 96!). On p. 59 the second paragraph (on Pap. Didot I) is superfluous as the new Epitrepontes fragments lay to rest once and for all the possibility that this papyrus has anything to do with Epitrepontes. On p. 60 she intimates that Charisios exposed the baby. No, Pamphile exposed the child during her husband’s absence abroad. On p. 61 she says that Krateia in Misoumenos is a hetaira until she is discovered to be free; no, she is a captive slave, a prisoner of war, whom Thrasonides treats like a wife. On p. 63 the cook in Samia is said to eavesdrop at lines 375ff. No, he simply intervenes.

The fifth, on Slaves in Epitrepontes, begins with a long prolegomenon on slaves in antiquity. I feel one could acquire this background information elsewhere and concentrate on the subject itself. A problem seems to me that Menander is definitely not writing social history, but comedy, and the two, like oil and water, do not mix. The chapter then proceeds, again, as a running commentary on the appearances and speeches of slaves throughout Epitrepontes. Her procedure is not to develop an argument but to pepper the text with single observations which, individually, are mainly unobjectionable but do not cohere into any kind of sustained interpretation. Certainly she is right that the slaves in this play act with a great deal of autonomy; their speech is not noticeably distinct from that of free characters, and they influence the plot through their actions. The analysis of the arbitration scene turns up the unremarkable conclusion that Daos is more selfish whilst Syr[isk]os acts and speaks more in the interest of the exposed child. She misses the main humour of this scene which lies precisely in two slaves going to arbitration, a thing they obviously could not do in real life as slaves had no property to arbitrate about. The fact that both use fine rhetorical points must also have contributed to the humour, a kind of puppet show where slaves act as orators. On p. 88 she says that metatheatricality means “a play within a play”, citing Habrotonon’s envisaging a scheme which she will enact. No, it means a play pointing to its own “play-ness”. Again, in this chapter I miss a basis in Menander’s own text. If we are going to have Greekless books about Greek literature, we should at least hear which Greek text the author is writing about (at one remove).

In the conclusion we learn what is meant by the title “Behind the Mask”. The masks are likely to be stereotypical (see Pollux Onomastikon IV.143-154) whilst the characters in Menander’s plays are anything but stereotypical. Habrotonon is much “nicer” and more complex than (what we assume to have been) the average hetaira. Onesimos is not really the scheming slave, as nothing works for him whilst Habrotonon has great success in her schemes. Pamphile, the wife, has been abandoned by her husband for (purportedly) giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Then she stands up to her father, defending her husband Charisios and vowing loyalty. This surely questions what may have been assumed to be the normal behaviour of a wife. The slaves in Menander have fully (well, surprisingly fully) developed characters and attributes. They have large, important roles in the play and act like the pawns in a chess game, moving autonomously and even taking other pieces, but small in comparison to the other pieces in the game. I also agree with Heap that Menander is writing a kind of “comitragedy”, that is, comedy which makes the audience think and runs in considerable measure counter to preconceived expectations. However, in the conclusion, I take objection to all the new material which is introduced (about Euripides, the Tauropolia, on p. 110, master-slave relations in other plays p. 112). The place for such information is in the main text, not the conclusion. Likewise there is too much summarizing of other scholars views in the conclusion (pp. 112-113). Nor should a conclusion be peppered with notes, as this is. A conclusion should helpfully summarize the argument(s) of the book.

Finally, a few words on the physical appearance of the book. The cover photo (the Princeton relief of seated Menander with masks) was also the cover photo of W. Furley’s edition of Epitrepontes (2009), so the duplication is somewhat irritating (to me, at least). Then to the images in the book. The frontispiece, a reproduction of P.Oxy. 3368, is totally illegible (dark and blurred), and is not even labelled properly. The other images in the book are of doubtful value as they are poorly reproduced and questionably chosen. How does a picture of James Stevenson (Fig. 1.2, the discoverer of some of the Lipari theatre miniatures) help our understanding of Menander? Where (good) illustrations would have aided understanding of the text (description of the theatre realia within which Menander stages his plays), they are lacking. Finally, the printed text is quite small. One wonders whether this economy on the part of the publisher (fewer pages) is advisable.

In conclusion: this book may be interesting to anyone wanting a general portrayal of the society forming the background to Menander’s plays. Perhaps it will encourage him/her to read the plays themselves: that would be the best thing. The book is aimed at Greekless readers as it contains only (a few) transliterated Greek words. It registers the importance of papyrology for the study of Menander (109), but contains no papyrology. It is to the credit of the author that she has responded to the striking character and behaviour of Habrotonon, the enslaved hetaira, as Wilamowitz ( Menander, das Schiedsgericht, Berlin 1925) did going on a hundred years ago, although he had considerably less text to look at.