Sunday, May 15, 2005

Woman from Samos: Two-thousand-year Letdown?

Menander, born 40 years after Aristophanes (342-291 BC), was considered by his peers and those after to be a true genius. Plutarch, for example, preferred Menander to Aristophanes, and a Byzantine scholar described him as a poet “second only to Homer” (Walton xxi). Until the 1950s, though, only a few tiny fragments of Menander’s work existed; we knew of him only by his mentions in the critics. A few finds at the turn of the twentieth century fueled curiosity, but in 1957 a scroll found in a tomb revealed a near-whole copy of A Woman from Samos, and later discoveries in the 1960s provided other large-scale findings. Yet contemporary critics, according to Drama Professor J. Michael Walton, were disappointed in plays that turned out to be “simple” and “obvious” (xvii). Even so, it has been suggested that perhaps Menander’s lack of originality and vigor had to do with the heavy censorship in place a the time (Corrigan 78). A Woman from Samos would have been performed some years later than Clouds.

In A Woman from Samos, rich Athenian Demeas goes off to war with his neighbor Nikeratos. Before he leaves, Demeas tells his pregnant mistress, Chrysis, that she’d better not have the baby. Meanwhile, Demeas’s son, Moschion falls in love with Nikeratos’s daughter, Plangon; she gets pregnant and elopes with Moschion. Before Demeas and Nikeratos return, both Chrysis and Plangon deliver babies, but Chrysis’s baby doesn’t live. So, Moschion asks Chrysis to keep Plangon’s baby and nurse it until he can explain the complexities to his father.

As usual, hijinx ensue. When Nikeratos and Demeas return from war, they’ve independently dreamed up the notion of marrying Moschion to Plangon, so the situation should never complicate itself the way it does. But then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? In this case (as it was with Aristophanes’ Clouds), a woman doesn’t botch the plan—it’s a slave. Demeas overhears the servants talking and misunderstands; he thinks the baby Chrysis is caring for (and about whom he’s already angry) belongs to his son—in other words that baby came from his son having an affair with his mistress. So Demeas throws Chrysis out of the house without allowing her to explain. Chrysis ends up at Nikeratos’s house with the baby. The situation never is resolved until Nikeratos himself catches Plangon nursing her own baby and explains it to Demeas.

It is a fairly predictable plot, one of the most basic plots of the classic comedy:
1) Boy meets girl;
2) Boy falls in love with girl;
3) There is an obstacle to the fulfilling of that love (the obstacle is usually parental);
4) The obstacle is overcome and the there is a reorganization of society. (Corrigan 69-70)

It’s in this play that we see the true definition of classical comedy—no real belly laughs; rather, it’s a romance nearly gone awry, salvaged at the last moment—a When Harry Met Sally of the Auditorium. In true Greek comedy form, the tone is informal and folksy. Corrigan says, “Greeks in the fifth century” saw “any play with an invented plot and subject matter drawn from contemporary life” as comedy (70).

Menander seems extremely readable, though, as I said about Aristophanes’ Clouds, the readability factor seems to be attributable as well to the translation. Most importantly, though, I don’t find Menander to be simple and derivative. We’ll leave that to Plautus. Okay. He’s not simple, but….he’s next.

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