Alan H. Sommerstein MENANDER: EPITREPONTES
Alan H. Sommerstein, Bloomsbury Ancient Comedy Companions, London 2021
p/b 9781350226685 £22.99
It is to me an unexpected gift to have the chance of writing a review of a new book by Professor Sommerstein. I very much enjoyed his Greek Drama and Dramatists published in 2002 and since then I have deeply appreciated his enormous hard work on Greek Comedy.
This is a book about Menander Epitrepontes, the Arbitration. It consists of nine chapters. The first one is about Menander´s life, linked to the rule of Demetrius of Phalerum, a pro-Macedonian ruler. Little by little the cultural and commercial activity moves from Athens to Egypt and Eastern countries. At the same time people coming from those Eastern territories will join with Athenian citizens: a new mingled society will influence the work of our dramatist. Sommerstein underlines the wide production of the dramatist, 105 or even 108 comedies, most of which were never presented in the theatre of Dionysus in Athens but in minor theatres all over Attica. He only won the price in eight contests but Philemon, his most famous rival only won three. According to Plutarch the dramatist improved with the age. To summarize; Menander was closely linked to Athens and beloved by its citizens even if Athens was no longer the brilliant, eminent city it used to be in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.
Then a chapter about Menander and New Comedy follows. Everything you could expect to be found there concerning plots, characters, formal structure, and performance. In fact if we examine the evolution from Aristophanes’ Frogs, 406 BC till Dyskolos by Menander 316 BC, we will realize that a serious and remarkable evolution has taken place in Greek Comedy. Plots are developed around heterosexual love; characters have become stock characters easily recognizable; the chorus has no text and has to a certain extent disappeared; dramatic action takes place outside the doors of two houses.
After these introductory chapters, a detailed examination of Epitrepontes starts. The first question has to do with what we know about this particular comedy and how (chapter 3). Unfortunately, a lot of plays by Menander are lost. Epitrepontes was found in the so-called Cairo Codex (5th century AD) published by Gustave Lefebvre in 1907. However, all you could find there were 750 lines from act II to V, with several lines belonging to act III being very scrappy and hence difficult to be understood properly. We had to wait until 1972 when Sandbach edited four more fragments into his edition in Oxford Classical Texts. A very interesting help came from iconographical evidence. I have enjoyed the mosaic related to Epitrepontes at Mytilene that I had, by the way, the chance of visiting in July 2022.The so-called Menander’s house is really impressive, a very interesting source well worth visiting.
The plot, the different characters one can find in Epitrepontes are explained in detail together with an outlook on the different subjects the reader is supposed to recognize in chapters 4, 5 and 6. I have very much enjoyed chapter 5 about rape, marriage, citizenship legitimacy and children. This is really crucial in order to understand properly not simply Epitrepontes but any other play by Menander.
But it is in chapter 6 that anybody loving theatre will enjoy a lot. Every character appearing in the Arbitration is perfectly described and labelled. So Onesimos and Carion at the opening, a couple of busybody slaves, then Chairestratos full of loyalty to his friend Chairisios. Immediately after one will find the old man Smikrines, no doubt the least sympathetic character in the comedy. The female character who stands out is no doubt Habrotonos a young hetaira who proves to be altruistic in contrast to Daos, who is extremely full of selfishness; thankfully he will appear only in the arbitration scene. The strong-minded beautiful Pamphile is depicted as defiant to her father. Finally, Syriskos is portrayed as a slave with intellectual pretensions. Sophron is a charming nurse, but a mute character. Sommerstein has achieved an excellent analysis of every character; any stage director should be thrilled; it is an unimaginable support and help in order to stage properly the Arbitration.
Chapter 7 about Structural Patterns could be more open to discussion. The author underlines four structural patterns: the baby’s journey; Smikrines, his dowry and his daughter; the two or even three houses and finally the absent protagonist, that means Charisios. I am not so sure if the two houses could be assimilated to the journey of the baby or to the absent protagonist. Of course, the main plot is made of smaller plots inside it, making a kind of net connecting in a certain way every character and every situation. I am not so sure that the structural patterns Sommerstein mentions are really what we mean by structural patterns; in my opinion they should be considered a serial of mixed elements making part of the general plot of the Arbitration. The houses of course do not seem to be a structural pattern but the proper location to develop a plot. Concerning the absent protagonist, Chairisios, the author offers no doubt a very accurate examination of him, but I should not consider it a structural pattern but a topic instead.
Still a couple of further chapters are coming. I have very much enjoyed chapter 8 about Literacy and Intellectual Background; first connecting some Euripidean Tragedies - Ion, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris - with Menander´s comedy. Later on, we have some very accurate comments on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pointing out a very nuanced difference among hamartema, atychía and adikía. The author explains in detail and also tries to connect the Nicomachean Ethics with Theophrastus’ Characters. In fact this is the intellectual and literary background surrounding the work of Menander.
In chapter 9 The next Twenty-three Centuries, Sommerstein presents a wide picture about the influence of the playwright along the centuries. He again brings up the difficult transmission of his comedies, reminding us of the items examined in chapter 3. In fact, Menander never had a fixed canon of his production, being instead quoted very often mostly in Byzantine period because of a series of maxims including a kind of ethical message. His comedies instead were very rarely performed. I have enjoyed the detailed mention of the production in Greece in 1986 by Tassos Roussos and Spyros Evangelatos. I had the opportunity of looking at several pictures in the gallery of the AMPHITHEATRO, Adrianou Street in Athens. Unfortunately this charming theatre directed by Spyros Evangelatos does not exist any more
The book closes with a list of Notes together with a short mention of recent editions and translations of Menander followed by a very useful Glossary related to Comedy. To be remarked also is a long list of bibliographic references most of them, as usual, in English.
To summarize: a fantastic, accurate, I even would say, perfect book, suitable for scholars, teachers, actors and stage directors interested in Menander and Greek Comedy. And if you want to become an expert in Epitrepontes, please, read it immediately!
José Luis Navarro