Since I read Menander's Dyskolos about a month ago I've been slowly reading the remaining fragments of Menander's plays. I've read fragments of Greek plays before, Sophocles' Ichneutai and Other Fragments, and I still remember it primarily as quite a moving experience straining to hear the echoes of one of my most favourite authors. With Menander there was that element of almost frustration in never being able to grasp the full picture, comedies once enjoyed and loved but now lost, though with tantalising hints of what was once loud and clear. However Menander is not a favourite author, and in fact though I enjoyed Dyskolos I can't say I was particularly fond of what was left.
Of the many plays Menander wrote, there are only six that have more or less survived (though still with great gaps; up to half missing): Dyskolos, Samia, Epitrepontes, Perikeiromene, Aspis, and Sikyonioi. Samia, or The Girl from Samos (Σαμία) is the longest fragment of Menander with 116 lines missing (when you get into Trophonius, for example, only nine lines remain). This play is dated somewhere around 315 and 309 B.C. and, like Dyklos, the play was discovered in the Bodmer Papyri from 1952 and the Cairo Codex found in 1907. The plot was already familiar to me: in 166 B.C. the Roman playwright Terrance adapted the play for his The Girl from Andros (Andria), but as his play was set in Andria in southern Italy, Menander's is set in the Greek island of Samos. It tells the story of Demeas, a bachelor, whose mistress Chrysis has a baby which sadly dies. At the same time the mistress of adopted son of Demeas, Moschion, also has a baby: his mistress is Plangon, the daughter of Nikeratos, who is Demeas' business partner. Chrysis was ordered to get rid of her child, and when it dies she nurses Plangon's; when Demeas returns from a business trip however, he mistakes Plangon's child for Chrysis' and believes she has defied him. What follows is the great confusion of trying to convince Demeas that he is wrong in his assumption with the other characters often being in possession of only half of the facts. My problem with it was that I didn't care so much about any of them, so the confusion was not so much comic but frustrating. Nevertheless it was interesting if only to see what inspired Terence's The Girl from Andros.
Next, Epitrepontes, or The Arbitration: again, the birth of a child is the centre of the confusion - Charisios' new wife Pamphile has a baby whilst Charisios is away on business which, to save her marriage and reputation, she abandons however gets found out; the ensuing drama revolves around their marriage reveals much about their characters and those around them as well as the limitations in Greek society and, indeed, in human nature. In Perikeiromene, or The Rape of the Locks we see Polemon violently cut his wife Glykera's hair believing her to have been unfaithful with Moschion. When she escapes it is revealed that Moschion is in fact her brother. Aspis, or The Shield tells the story of Daos, a soldier, who has returned from war with the shield of Kleostratos, who he believes to be dead. The miserly Smikrines plots to steal the shield by marrying Kleostratos' sister. Finally, Sikyonioi or The Man from Sicyon, follows the very recognisable (dare I say well-worn) plot of a child once lost and later found.
The rest of the book contains much smaller fragments of the following plays:
- The Man She Hated
- The Double Deceiver and The Two Bacchises by Plautus
- The Farmer
- The Toady
- The Harpist
- The Hero
- The Phanton
- The Girl Possessed
- The Girl from Perinthos
- Title Unknown
- Longer Fragments
- Fragments Doubtfully Attributed to Menander
I would never say that reading a classic isn't worthwhile in some regard, and reading Menander was to read an important figure in the 4th Century B.C. who went on to influence Terence and Plautus, who in turn had a great impact on Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers. The thing was I just couldn't get into anything past Dyskolos. There was a strong formula to the plays: the long lost children I mentioned, mistaken identities, feuding neighbours, and some caricatures of miserly old men. I found it all a little disappointing: as readers of old know I'm making my way through ancient Greek and Roman works and am now focusing on the 4th Century B.C. Menander was my hope for this section given that section is dominated by Aristotle and Plato (both of whom are a little out of my league!). I feel nothing will be as great as the 5th Century B.C. and I miss reading those works! But, there it is: the next title on my radar is actually from 2nd Century A.D. - The Golden Ass by Apuleius, which I started last night and am very much enjoying so far!