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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Philemon (c. 368–c. 264 B.C.), Menander (c. 342–c. 292 B.C.), and the Lost Attic Comedy
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)
 
FRAGMENTARY and tantalizing as is the flotsam and jetsam drifted to us from the wreck of Greek civilization, we can yet say, of the literary masterpieces at least, that we have almost always a fair selection from the best in each kind. The bitterest loss is in lyric poetry. Probably most lovers of the old life would be tempted to give up even Pindar’s cold and resounding splendor to recover the love songs of Sappho.  1
  In the case of comedy, there can be no doubt that Aristophanes was the one exuberantly original genius, whose lonely height has been reached since then only twice at most: by Molière, and by the myriad-sided creator of Jack Falstaff, Caliban, and Bottom the weaver. If Attic comedy could have but one representative surviving in the modern world, there was no one to contest the right of Aristophanes. And yet: his very originality, his elemental creativeness, mocks the patient student who attempts to cite from him historical data, traits of manners, or even usages of the theatre! Nothing in his comic world walks our earth, or breathes our heavier air. We may as well appeal for mere facts to the adventurous Alice.  2
  In a memorable passage at the close of Plato’s ‘Symposium,’ after all the other banqueters are asleep, Socrates forces Aristophanes and the tragic poet Agathon—much against the will of both—to concede that their two arts are one, and that he who is a master artist in comedy can create tragedy no less. Though this seems to us like a marvelous foreshadowing of Shakespeare, it probably was in fact suggested to Plato by a process which he must have seen already far advanced; namely, the rapid approximation of the two dramatic forms to each other, until they were practically fused in the realistic melodrama, the comedy of manners. This creation is chiefly associated by the Athenians themselves with the long happy career of Philemon, though later ages preferred his younger and briefer-lived rival Menander.  3
  These authors of comedy were right, however, in regarding as their chief master Euripides, who brought the dramatist’s art down from its pedestal. He made his characters essentially human, realistic, even contemporary, in all save names and costumes. With his fussy nurses and quibbling slaves the comedy of manners begins. These later men, to be sure,—deprived of the dramatic chorus and expensive equipment generally, discarding the tragic cothurnus, set to face an audience utterly weary, or incredulous, of divine and heroic myths,—did hold the mirror up, far more frankly than Euripides dared, to the rather artificial and ignoble social conditions about them. Euripides, moreover, even in an age of religious doubt and political despair, retained a generous portion of Æschylus’s noble aspiration, united with a creative fancy almost Aristophanic. Little indeed of either could survive the final fall of Athenian freedom.  4
  Menander and Philemon catered to the diversion of a refined, quick-witted, degenerate folk, with very limited political power, and of petty social aims; perhaps best comparable, superficially, to London under the second Charles, but quite without the latent forces which lay dormant beneath England’s ignominy. Doubtless even the courtly life of London had always more virtue and strength than Congreve and Vanbrugh concede. Athens, even a century after Chæronea, can hardly have been so contemptible a microcosm as the comedies depict.  5
  These comedies are known to us chiefly through the rough and rollicking adaptations of Plautus—the more polished, and perhaps truer, versions of Terence. We agree heartily with Professor Lodge, that both these Latin playwrights set before us Greek, not Roman, life. The “gags” and local hits, in which comedy must always indulge, make no essential exception. They are almost inevitable, indeed, whether the mimic scene claims to represent Plato’s ideal republic or Pluto’s shadowy realm.  6
  I offer here a handful of original translations, from the copious fragments still surviving. They will at least give a glimpse of the infinitely greater wealth lying deep beneath “the tide whose waves are years.” The sources from which we must draw, however, are most unsatisfying. Athenæus in his ‘Banqueters’ assures us he had read eight hundred plays of the ‘Middle Comedy,’ or transition period alone (about 400–336 B.C.). He cites from them hundreds of times,—but almost solely to verify the existence of a rare tidbit or a dainty sauce! This indicates, of course,—as J. A. Symonds reminds us,—not that poets and people were livelong epicures, but that such a mass of realistic drama contained abundant material to illustrate any and every side of Athenian life. The sober Stobæus and his scrapbook, again, would give us the impression that brief moral sermons, with an occasional thrust at the professional philosophers, were the chief staple of the comic dialogue; but this is of course no less misleading. Yet these two are our chief authorities! We again advise the English reader to peruse first the ‘Trinummus’ and the ‘Andria,’ at least. There he can mark for himself both sorts of passages,—wise saws and curious sauces,—and can see also that both together are but part of the seasoning in the general dish that was set before the greedy Demos!  7
  It will be noticed that the earlier fragments represent (or rather, grievously misrepresent) contemporaries of Aristophanes, often placed above him by the judges and by the fickle Athenians generally. It is hard to believe their judgment well founded. Still, a single comedy of Eupolis, recovered from that unexhausted Egyptian storehouse, may come, any day, to prove that much of what we have thought was unique Aristophanic invention was but traditional commonplace on the high table-land of Attic imagination.  8
 
 
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