Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Menander (342 BCE-291 BCE)

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Deus ex machina [A god from the machine] - from The Woman Possessed with a Divinity


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Greek dramatist, the chief representative of the New comedy, was born at Athens. He was the son of well-to-do parents; his father Diopeithes is identified by some with the Athenian general and governor of the Thracian Chersonese known from the speech of Demosthenes Dc Chersoneso. He doubtless derived his taste for the comic drama from his uncle Alexis. He was the friend and associate, if not the pupil, of Theophrastus, and was on intimate terms with Demetrius of Phalerum. He also enjoyed the patronage of Ptolemy Soter, the son of Lagus, who invited him to his court. But Menander, preferring independence and the company of his mistress Glycera in his villa in the Peiraeus, refused. According to the note of a scholiast on the Ibis of Ovid, he was drowned while bathing; his countrymen built him a tomb on the road leading to Athens, where it was seen by Pausanias. A well-known statue in the Vatican, formerly thought to represent Marius, is now generally supposed to be Menander (although some distinguished archaeologists dispute this), and has been identified with his statue in the theatre at Athens, also mentioned by Pausanias.

Menander was the author of more than a hundred comedies, but only gained the prize eight times. His rival in dramatic art and also in the affections of Glycera was Philemon, who appears to have been more popular. Menander, however, believed himself to be the better dramatist, and, according to Aulus Gellius, used to ask Philemon: "Don't you feel ashamed whenever you gain a victory over me?" According to Caecilius of Plutarch (Comparison of Menander and Aristophanes and Quintilian, who accepted the tradition that he was the author of the speeches published under the name of the Attic orator Charisius. A great admirer and imitator of Euripides, he resembles him in his keen observation of practical life, his analysis of the emotions, and his fondness for moral maxims, many of which have become proverbial:

The property of friends is common, Whom the gods love die young, Evil communications corrupt good mantlets (from the Thais, quoted in I Cor. xv. 33). These maxims (chiefly monostichs) were afterwards collected, and, with additions from other sources, were edited as a kind of moral textbook for the use of schools.

Menander found many Roman imitators. The Eunuchus, Andria, and Adelpili of Terence (called by Caesar "dimidiatus Menander ") were avowedly taken from Menander, but some of them appear to be adaptations and combinations of more than one play; thus, in the Andria were combined from several of Menander's plays, while the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus. The original of Terence's Hecyra (as of the Phormio) is generally supposed to be not Menander, but Apollodorus of Carystus. The Bacchides and Stichus of Plautus were probably based upon Menander's plays. Caecilius Statius, Luscius Lavinius, Turpilius and Atilius also imitated Menander. He was further credited with the authorship of some epigrams of doubtful authenticity; the letters addressed to Ptolemy Soter and the discourses in prose on various subjects mentioned by Suidas are probably spurious.

Till the end of the 19th century, all that was known of Menander were the fragments collected by A. Meineke (1855) and T. Kock. They consist of some 1650 verses or parts of verses, in addition to a considerable number of words quoted expressly as from Menander by the old lexicographers. From 1897 to 1907 papyri were discovered in different parts of Egypt, containing fragments of considerable length, amounting to some 1400 lines.

It is doubtful whether these fragments, which are of sufficient length to afford a basis for the consideration of the merits of Menander as a writer of comedies, justify the great reputation enjoyed by him in ancient times. With few exceptions of scenes, they contain little that is witty or humorous; there is little variety in the characters, the situations are conventional, and the plots, not of a highly edifying character, are lacking in originality. Menander's chief excellences seem to be facility of language, accurate portrayal of manners, and naturalness of the sentiments which he puts into the mouth of his dramatis personae. It is remarkable that the maxims, which form the chief part of the earlier collections of fragments, are few in the later. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]

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