ca. 342-ca. 291 B.C.
Menander was one of the leading Greek comic playwrights of his time. His work was a model for Roman playwrights, who imitated his comedies. These Roman comedies, in turn, influenced later European writers, including William Shakespeare. Menander’s comic tradition is alive today. Many of the situations and characters in modern television and movie comedies can be traced back to situations and characters in Menander’s plays.
Little is known about Menander’s life. He was born into a distinguished family in Athens and studied philosophy*. He began writing at an early age. Like other playwrights of his time, he wrote plays for the dramatic competitions that were part of regular festivals in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. Menander produced his first play when he was about 20 years old, and it won first prize. Over the next 30 years he wrote another 107 plays. According to tradition, Menander drowned while swimming at Piraeus, the port of Athens.
Sadly, Menander’s huge literary output did not survive into modern times. The texts of his plays were lost, and only two sources of information about his work remained. One source was the imitations of Menander’s plays by the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence. The other source consists of the 900 references to Menander in ancient Greek and Roman texts. Some of these references include quotations from Menander’s plays, but no quotation is longer than 16 lines.
It was thought that Menander’s work would remain forever unknown to the modern world. Beginning in the early A.D. 1900s, however, archaeologists* found scraps of Menander’s plays on pieces of papyrus*. Scholars have now recovered large portions of six plays and smaller parts of a dozen more. Their most valuable find is a complete play called Dyskolos, which means “The Grouch” or “The Bad-Tempered Man.” It is the story of a city boy who falls in love with a country girl, the daughter of a cranky old man who distrusts everybody and talks to no one. After misunderstandings and mishaps involving family members and servants, the young man saves the life of the old grouch, who then gives the boy permission to marry his daughter. The play ends with a double wedding, and the clever servants even force the old man to join the wedding feast.
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* papyrus writing material made by pressing together thin strips of the inner stem of the papyrus plant
Dyskolos provides an example of the themes that Menander used in many of his plays: conflict between city and country ways of life, mistrust between rich and poor people, the importance of chance and good luck, and the triumph of love and family ties over difficult circumstances. Focusing on these themes, Menander helped create a style of Greek drama that is called New Comedy. Earlier Greek comedies, such as the plays of Aristophanes, were filled with social or political satire. These plays, called Old Comedy, often had fantastic settings and plots. New Comedy, on the other hand, was concerned with private family life and was set in the everyday world. Characters did not travel to the heavens or the underworld*, as in Old Comedy, but remained firmly planted on earth, generally in their own neighborhoods. New Comedy was meant to entertain its audience, but the plays of Menander and other New Comedy writers also had a moral message. In these plays, selfishness and deceit were punished, while generosity, tolerance, and good humor were rewarded.
Another feature of New Comedy was the stock character. This was a character who would be instantly recognized by the audience because he or she had certain predictable traits. Among the stock characters that Menander used were the boastful soldier, the servant who outsmarts the master, the miser, and the innocent young lovers. Although he used familiar stock characters, Menander gave them original twists. For example, instead of boasting about his military adventures, a soldier brags about his girlfriend’s wardrobe. Menander gave full and distinctive personalities to his characters—even to servants and women, whom other playwrights generally ignored. Menander’s insight into human nature won him high praise in the ancient world, and his plays remained popular long after his death. In the A.D. 100s, the Greek biographer Plutarch wrote, “For what other reason, truly, would an educated man go to the theater, except to see a play by Menander?” (See also Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman.)
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades