Menander and Dyskolos

Menander (“Menandros”) has been called the last of the great Greek comedians from antiquity, a sign of the declining tastes of the Athenian people. He carries the torch of Aristophanean comedy (“Old Comedy”), even though Aristophanes focuses primarily on satirizing heroes and political leaders, while so-called “New Comedy” satirized the ordinary and everyday issues of Greek citizens. Menander fell into this latter category.

For a great deal of time, nothing but scraps and fragments survived of Menander’s plays. Then in the 20th century, scraps of papyrii were unearthed in Egypt, allowing for a mostly full translation of Dyscolus (“The Grouch” or “The Misanthrope”). It is the only play to have emerged from the ashes of antiquity representing all “New Comedy.”

Menander was one of the most immensely popular comedy writers in antiquity, winning first prize at the Lenaia no less than eight times (we do not possess an account of his victories at the more prestigious Dionysia). Ptolemy I was his patron, a general of Alexander the Great who later became the famous ruler of Egypt. Legend has it that Menander died while swimming in the water off the coast of the Piraeus in Athens.

He was an admirer of Euripides, and though his comedy was influenced by Aristophanes, the so-called “New Comedy” was far more tame, and less daring than Aristophanes’s abject political satires.

Dyskolos (“The Grouch” or “Misanthrope” or “Difficult Man”) was first performed in 317 BC. It is a play told in five acts. I recently read the George Theodoridis translation. It takes place in Phyle, in the deme of Attica, the capital of which is Athens -the rural deme with a road between the farms and the city of Athens. The play is introduced by Pan, the wild rustic god of the farmlands and Arcadia in antiquity. The “grouch” is a farmer named Knemon. He is a miserable person, and his wife (a widow) can bear it no longer so she packs up and moves to Gorgias’s nearby farm. The crux of the story concerns a romance between Knemon’s daughter and a foreigner from the city: Knemon lives with his noble daughter, who falls in love with a city-slicker, Sostratos, who passes through the farm country one day. Knemon chases Sostratos away from his farm because he is a grouch. Gorgias, Knemon’s nearby farmer, finds out about the ordeal and he confronts Knemon. Gorgias then reveals to Sostratos that Knemon will only favor someone who looks and acts exactly like him, so Sostratos dons a farmers sheepskin and starts working on Gorgias’s farm. He eventually arranges a wedding between himself and Knemon’s daughter, along with his own sister and his new friend Gorgias -a double wedding, In the end, the group torments Knemon until he finally participates in the wedding celebration.

I took note of the immensely different character of Dyskolos from the overtly political plays of Aristophanes. Menander’s sole surviving play is innocent, dealing primarily with the character study of a grumpy, rural, old farmer named Dyskolos (the comic foil) and his reluctance to honor his daughter’s marriage to the spontaneous, urban, lover named Sostratos. It is a harmless comedy that acknowledges certain truths in marriage and age, as well as natural tensions between urban and rural denizens.

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