Domestic comedy viewed on screens today can be traced back to the hijinks of the ancient Greek comic poet Menander.
Mitchell Brown, assistant professor of classical studies at William & Mary, is researching that connection, and specifically Menander’s use of off-stage action.
Brown is spending this academic research year completing his monograph with the working title “Menander Offstage.” It’s been partially funded by the Loeb Classical Library Foundation Fellowship at Harvard, which is one of the most prestigious and competitive grants available to researchers in the field of classical studies, according to W&M Chancellor Professor and Chair of Classical Studies Vassiliki Panoussi.
Finding the humor in the drama of human relationships, it seems, goes back at least as far as fourth century B.C. when Menander was entertaining audiences with his plays.
“My research focuses on one of the major origins of the modern sitcom,” Brown said. “In studying Menander, we can see a type of drama that still exists today. It’s mostly in movies and TV now.
“Menander and his contemporaries create dramas focused on characters’ personal lives and relationships. The plots revolve around the members of individual households and their problems. These are the first domestic comedies in the Greek world.”
Menander’s development of plots based on off-stage action added depth and complexity to his on-stage narratives and to his explorations of issues of gender, family and domestic life. This underappreciated aspect of Menander’s dramaturgy is one of the things that makes him such an influential figure in the history of drama in Europe, according to Brown.
Of the many poets who wrote comedies in the Greek world, only Menander and Aristophanes have plays that have survived to the present day. Aristophanes wrote approximately one hundred years earlier and focused on politics.
Rather than writing plays making fun of major politicians or talking about war and peace, Menander wrote about households, love stories and relationships between romantic partners and family members.
“In doing so, he and probably his contemporaries — he’s the only one who survived — he helps determine the tone for what comedy becomes in modern Europe,” Brown said. “Because his successors in the Roman period — Terence and Plautus — their plays will survive in the Renaissance and will be picked up and adapted by playwrights like Shakespeare and Machiavelli who, in part, set the course for what comedy is in modern European and by extension American drama.”
All of Menander’s plays were set outdoors on a neighborhood street with a backdrop of three doors leading into houses of the main characters who entered and exited but the interiors were never seen.
Brown honed in on Menander’s attention to detail with temporal consistency between what’s happening inside the houses and what’s happening on stage and the techniques by which he does that.
Citing archaeological research, Brown includes background that upper-class houses in Athens at the time were becoming more intricate and elaborate than they were previously, creating a larger focus on citizens’ private domestic lives and separate spaces.
The use of off-stage plotlines to fuel the on-stage drama often involved characters coming outside talking about what just happened indoors or to privately mull over a situation.
“They’ll say, ‘You won’t believe what I just heard in there,’ and then they report it all,” Brown said. “And he’s very sophisticated in the way he presents what’s just happened inside.”
Menander’s subject matter often reflected mores of the time that were very different from those of the modern day but provide a window into the daily lives of ancient Greeks. Plays often featured a long-lost child and sexual assault, and included themes of questionable patrimony and tangled relationships.
An example is “Perikeiromene” which translates into English roughly as “The Woman with Cut Hair.” Off-stage female character Myrrhine dominates the house she is in during the entire play, which she spends trying to keep her son from courting their next-door neighbor who is actually his sister.
The comedic part is that the man, who is unaware of the familial connection, is outside of his own house for much of play confounded as to why his mother isn’t helping him with his efforts.
“My approach in the book is to investigate how Menander tells domestic stories without actual domestic settings,” Brown said. “And my answer to that is that he goes a long way to integrate the off-stage and the interior action into the outside scene portion of the play.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist