- Menander, New Comedy and the Visual by Antonis K. Petrides
This book offers a sophisticated understanding of how New Comic masks could be read by ancient audiences for information about dramatic character. Menander’s comedies, Petrides argues, were as richly engaged with fourth-century visual culture as with anterior texts: the “intervisual,” as he terms it, is as important as the intertextual. Building on earlier work, notably D. Wiles, The Masks of Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance (Cambridge, 1991), Petrides reads masks as a semiotic system that functions according to Greek physiognomic principles; that is, physical elements serve as signs of ethical proclivities. Petrides brings a fresh and illuminating perspective in recognizing that the notorious ambiguities of physiognomics—some features must be ignored, others carry multiple meanings—could be an asset in a theatrical context. Masks were never white or black hats but part of a complex dialectical system, typically read in pairs (for example, braggart soldier and flatterer) and seen as reflecting an understanding of character (ethos) that tolerates inconsistencies. Reading a mask, consequently, meant deciding whether a raised eyebrow signified arrogance or bravery from moment to moment. This is what Greeks were doing in fourth-century public life, Petrides argues; why would they not do it in the theater?
The book’s five chapters move from theory to application, beginning with the “realism” attributed to Menander since antiquity. Petrides offers a useful scheme of strata in the plays. At the level of law, psychology, language, and topography, the plays reflect the lived reality of their audiences, but there is also a stratum for allusion to other texts and one for the “magical” solution that often resolves the plot, with all its ideological baggage. A chapter on intertextuality recognizes the hybridity of Menandrian comedy, deriving from both Old Comedy and Tragedy, in its performative aspects. Petrides’ treatment of the Dyskolos illustrates both the strengths and limits of his approach. There is a rich discussion of tragic elements in the play’s spatial organization, with its polarities—from the wild Knemon (stage left) to the civilized Kallippides (offstage right)—and its nondomestic central door (Pan’s cave). In the water-carrying scene, Sostratos faces a choice of tragic intertexts: Euripides’ Ion, with its rape in another cave of Pan, and his Electra, where the kindly farmer’s offer of help is benign. Petrides sheds important light on nonverbal relationships between individual dramas, helping to recapture some of an original audience’s depth of engagement. His readings sometimes push extant texts a bit hard. The Ion cave was empty, but the one in Phyle in the Dyskolos is full of revelers, including Sostratos’ own mother, which makes one wonder how active an Ion rape reference could have been for an audience who knew far more tragedy than we do.
The application of fourth-century physiognomics produces a similar mix of results. Petrides demonstrates cogently how the ἄγροικος mask, which many assign to Gorgias (Dyskolos), ironically contrasts with his responsible behavior since its physiognomy suggests “lust, sluggishness and stupidity” (151). Petrides shows brilliantly how the Eleusinian audience described at Sikyonios 176–271 read the play’s two rivals physiognomically. As the soldier’s words gain favor, the youth’s white, beardless skin, although initially ambivalent (he is handsome, after all), comes to signify μοιχεία, while the soldier now appears ἀνδρικός—despite being equally beardless. This is a good example of masks working dialectically and of physical features carrying multiple potential meanings. A similar analysis [End Page 267] of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, however, raises the question of the application of Greek physiognomics, which Petrides justifies by emphasizing a fourth-century “culture of viewing” (5) that puts a “novel kind of theatrical mask at Menander’s disposal” (281), to a non-Menandrian play from late-third-century Rome.
This is a scholarly study for specialists in ancient drama and related fields. The book’s carefully considered and strongly articulated theoretical positions will make dense reading for a general audience. In particular...