Menander and Dyskolos

Menander (“Menandros”) has been called the last of the great Greek comedians from antiquity, a sign of the declining and changing tastes among the people of Athens. He carried on the legacy of Aristophanean comedy (“Old Comedy”), even though Aristophanes focused 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 writings. 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 direct 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 farmland and Arcadia in antiquity. The “grouch” is a farmer named Knemon. He is a miserable person, and his wife (a widow) could take it no longer so she packed up and moved to Gorgias’s farm, her son who has a farm nearby. He lives with his noble daughter, who falls in love with a city-slicker, Sostratos, who passes through the farm country one day. He is chased away from Knemon’s farm because he is a grouch. Gorgias, Knemon’s nearby farmer, finds out and confronts Knemon. Gorgias 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. In the end, they torment Knemon until he finally participates in the wedding celebration.

If Dyskolos is an indication of what other New Comedy, and specifically Menander plays are like, they are immensely different from the overtly political plays of Aristophanes. Menander’s sole surviving play is innocent, dealing primarily in the character study of a grumpy old man (the comic foil) to the spontaneous love experienced Sostratos.

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