The Woman from Samos by Menander
Trans. J. Michael Walton
Casina by Plautus,
Trans. Richard Beacham
October 14-16, 20-23, and 27-30, 1994

J. Paul Getty Museum
Malibu, California

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego
La Jolla, California
U.S. A.

This performance takes place in the Getty's peristyle garden. The set imitates a Roman theatre with its entrances to two houses. During the intermission one was invited to see the exhibition, 'A Passion for Antiquities,' which included artifacts related to ancient drama. Wine and baklava were also served, so this was a Mediterranean cultural evening of many facets.

The comedy of Aristophanes, known as Greek Old Comedy, is characterized by criticism of particular politicians, satiric treatment of the great issues of war and peace, and even some philosophical commentary and literary criticism. It flourished at the height of Athenian power and democratic freedom, from about 450-400 B. C. During Athens' decline, in the first three quarters of the fourth century (400-323 B. C.), a new kind of comedy emerged, with stereotypical characters such as cooks and parasites, braggart soldiers and courtesans; this is the Middle Comedy and survives only in meager fragments.Menander (b. ca. 342 B.C.) and Plautus (b. ca. 250 B.C.), present New Comedy with its typical characters and domestic issues. These plays have complicated plots and entanglements which have inspired famous comedies by Shakespeare and farces by Feydeau. We find nasty old men and clever slaves, and often there is an old man who is a young man's rival. Some pretty girl is thought to be a slave, but by the end of the play she turns out to be well-born. There are complications, sometimes brutal ones, but in the end everything is resolved in an endorsement of life. As tragedy teaches us lessons about death, comedy celebrates life and fertility, and often ends in a marriage.

Northrop Frye has claimed that New Comedy is based essentially on a variant of the Oedipus myth: father and son compete for the possession of a young girl, who is closely associated with the mother. Reversals and recognitions allow the marriage of the two young lovers at the end, and the discomfiture of the older, blocking figure. Menander accomplishes a kind of comic catharsis; he exposes the conflicts and antagonisms which keep society tense and frustrated, and by raising these to consciousness, momentarily relieves that tension and frustration.

The Samia of Menander and the Casina of Plautus share many features. Plautus, who adapted Greek comedies for the Roman stage in the period of Roman expansion (215-186 B. C.), kept the Greek setting; Rome had conquered Greece militarily, but Greece then conquered Rome culturally. Both comedies show fathers, who had enormous power in the ancient world, in complex relationships with their sons. The play by Menander is a sensitive study, whereas Plautus' often degenerates into crude farce. Ancient customs sometimes clash with modern sensibilities. A brief summary of the plot will demonstrate the typical complications.

In Menander's Samia the comedy is based on misunderstandings and miscommunication, all finally resolved. The father, an Athenian, throws out his mistress (a foreigner whom he could not marry) because he suspects her of carrying his son's child, dismissing her with words to the effect of,'Now you'll find out what life's like in the streets: for your 'favors,' you'll be paid a couple of drachmas and invited to dinner, and that will be it'. In actual fact the child he finds her rearing is not hers but that of the neighbor's daughter, his son's true love. He takes her back at the end and she forgives him without a word of reproach. The son, dismayed at being accused by his father, makes a show of leaving when he has been forgiven , but stays and marries 'the girl next door,' gaining an instant family.

Women in Samia are reduced to pawns in the power plays between men. The son is forced to accept his father's authority and abuse, but at least he is allowed a small gesture of protest at the end. The woman is not even given that. One might see this plot as a parody of Sophocles' Oedipus. Misunderstandings lead to tragic situations, and loved ones are abused. But whereas Oedipus unraveled his riddle by himself, doggedly pursuing the truth, here, in Menander, chance seems to rule, and it is only through chance that the truth is revealed. Knowledge and errors expose the power structures, and powerful people strike out in ignorance. Oedipus would have killed Creon without Jocasta's intervention; here the mistress is left to fend for herself. There is no one to intervene on her behalf except the neighbor (who is about to be convinced of her guilt) until the son is forced to reveal the truth. In Samia the 'crime' is petty, and the mistakes are ones with which one can live, as is shown by the resolution. It was distrust itself that led to abuse of power.

Whereas Samia revolves around questions of knowledge, Casina revolves around deception and uses words not to determine the truth but simply to trick. We see knowledge used as a tool to gain egotistic ends, and when words fail, blows follow and are part of the comedy. Casina shows a lecherous father who lusts after a slave girl that his son loves. The mother discovers what is up, and contrives to thwart her husband. The father arranges for the slave girl to marry his overseer, so that he can get 'the first night' in return for setting the slave free. His wife arranges for another slave to disguise himself as the girl, and this transvestite bride then gives both the father and overseer a 'hard' and painful time when they try to 'enjoy her favors.' Everything works out in the end: the slave girl is discovered to be free-born and the son is allowed to marry her. The mother and slaves have foiled the powerful father. This play, probably based on a Greek original by Diphilus, is very much in the tradition of Euripides, and shows us men, the traditional figures of power, overcome by women, slaves and children.

Contrary to the ancient precedent, the players do not wear masks, except in the chorus. The costumes differ from play to play, but the same actors and actresses appear in both. The acting is more enthusiastic than compelling, in spite of the able direction of Michael Hackett. The music, created by Nathan Birnbaum with a talented group of drummers, is outstanding. Wind instruments play hauntingly against rhythmic patterns derived from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The chorus of the Casina wear phalloi, both dangling and erect, as part of their costume, and come out dancing in a line. At one point in this play the chorus emerge carrying enormous winged phalloi which they allow to soar across the stage. In this play where the men are overcome by the women, there is all the more call for assertion of 'male supremacy' by these symbols. It is ironic how the text subverts the symbolic display.

These comedies are not much different from the sitcoms with which we are familiar. In the ancient plays, however, we see the brutality of that world, in its treatment of woman and slaves, and newborn babies, but modern slavery shows many varieties. In the United States, one form is in the audience's slavery to the media. In modern sitcoms there are still controlling fathers and complicated love affairs. The ancient plays call on actors to create the comedy as much as the text does; modern TV sitcoms rely on 'star' appeal more than acting. In this type of comedy, we hardly find the grand issues or bigger than life heroes of epic and Greek tragedy, but we see ourselves on stage. These comedies celebrate humanity with its quirks and foibles, and above all, we see and share a passion for life. These performances at the Getty were lively, even if a bit too long, and show that ancient works still have a modern vitality.

Further Reading

Marianne McDonald
UC San Diego