Friday, January 2, 2015

Comic Playwright Menander, 50, Drowned Near His Luxury Villa at Piraeus

It must be a terrible feeling to know that you had written more than a hundred smash-hit plays and some idiot lost all but one of them.  That was the unlucky legacy of Menander, the Greek dramatist who specialized in “New Comedy”—emphasizing situation and behavior, as opposed to the political satire and broad sexual and scatological humor of “Old Comedy.”

Although he was a prolific author who might be regarded as the Neil Simon of Athenian theatre, during the Middle Ages the manuscripts of almost all his plays were lost, destroyed, or hidden away so well that no one has ever found them.  What remains of Menander’s work is one full-length play called The Old Grouch, a little more than half of five others, and mere fragments of the rest of his output.

The son of wealthy parents, Menander was born in a suburb of Athens around 341 B.C.  After his schooling in Athens with one of Aristotle’s pupils, he began to write plays, which were produced throughout Greece. An admirer of Euripides, he emulated him by featuring the lives of everyday people in his plays, turning daily incidents like marital jealousy and unrequited love into comic, rather than tragic, situations. Menander probably also shared Euripides’ humanist views and regarded death as the inevitable and natural end of individual existence.

Menander is responsible for coining many popular phrases, such as “Only the good die young,” “The die is cast,” and “Evil company corrupts good character”—a maxim that is quoted by St. Paul in Corinthians I.

Menander’s pre-eminence in Athenian theatre was regularly challenged by rival playwright Philemon, who often bested Menander in competitions—allegedly through bribery and political favoritism rather than the quality of his plays. Despite this competition, Menander enjoyed great success and wealth, and lived luxuriously in a villa in Athens’ seaport, Piraeus.

 It was his proximity to the sea that cost Menander his life. One day in 291 B.C., he was swimming in the harbor near his home and drowned. Whether he suffered a sudden seizure such as a heart attack or stroke, or was merely overcome by the water’s currents, will never be known.

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