Friday, November 18, 2022

Menander's Dyskolos - each man would hold a moderate share and be content

This week it’s Menander’s Dyskolos, or The Grouch, or The Misanthrope (316 BCE), which may or may not have inspired the title of Molière’s great play, and nothing more than the title since the play was, like all of Menander’s plays, long lost.  A fairly complete Dyskolos was the first of a series of extraordinary 20th century discoveries of Menander texts on Egyptian papyrus, some fragments even recovered from mummy casings.  None of the bits we are reading, I don’t think.

Menander’s texts were lost, but his existence was well known.  He was the favorite source of the Roman comic playwrights, who freely plundered the works of Menander and the other writers of New Comedy, adapting the century-old Greek play to the Roman audience and Latin language.  Some are pure adaptation, some are combinations – plots from two Menander plays combined, some merely borrow a comic premise.  Menander was everywhere in Latin comedy, or at least in Plautus and Terence, our surviving representatives.

Plautus and Terence lead fairly directly to Renaissance theater, commedia dell’arte, Elizabethan comedy, French farce, and the 20th century sitcom.  This is what I meant when, last week, I claimed that Menander was more important as a generator of texts than any of the greater Greek playwrights.  Plautus and Terence get us to Shakespeare, and Menander is their source.

If I have overindulged in literary history, it is because reading Dyskolos, which I mentioned I had not read before, felt like an exercise in theater history.  Quite interesting, but as comedies go not so much fun.  Even the miserable title character is not so much fun:

What a confounded wretch he is!

The sort of life he leads! A tried and true

example of an Attic farmer

in battle with the rocks that yield

only thyme and sage.  He brings in pain

and reaps no good from it. (45)

I do like the little botanical detail.  The great interest in Dyskolos is that so many of the changes in comedy and theater are so clear.  For example, the social register has changed completely.  Aristophanes had some choruses of farmers, but this play is really about farmers, and their slaves, with Athens kept at a distance.  The romantic lead even has to go work as a farmer to win the heroine (I have illustrated the post with a pair of farmers and their wonderful pigs on a vase owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum).

The romantic lead – there is another innovation.  We have just read an entire tradition of theater where there was not, in comedy or tragedy, a single romance, as we call it, a plot about a young man and woman in love and the obstacles – the grouchy father, for example – preventing their happiness.  How many thousands will follow.  I am currently reading the last act of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville (1775), much more sophisticated but at its core nothing more than the young couple in love, and the old man in the way, and the schemes of both parties.

The misanthrope is inevitably defeated in a humiliation scene (thousand more will follow), but it was interesting to hear his defend himself:

If all others were like me,

there wouldn’t be any law-courts,

and no one would send anyone to jail.

There’d be no war – each man would hold

a moderate share and be content.  (52)

Utopian misanthropy.

All quotations are from the Sheila d’Atri translation in the 1998 Menander, ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, University of Pennsylvania Press.

I remember the next Menander, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE), as being quite a bit better than Dyskolos, although perhaps the credit belongs to Eric G. Turner and his 1971 BBC Radio adaptation.  More coherent and more zippy.  We will see.  It’s the last play.  Forty more pages and we’re done.


  1. I have finished now, and just want to say how interesting and absorbing this long read has been. I am so glad I have done it, and intend to do it all over again, in a year or so. Thanks for the ride. I think I'm hooked on Greek history, literature and culture now.

  2. Me too, me too. Once I have finished Menander I will write a couple of follow-up posts, maybe a "what have I learned" piece or some kind of summary, and a "what will I do next piece." More Greek literature, for one thing.