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Actors' Repertory and 'New' Comedies under the Roman Empire

Sebastiana Nervegna

Unlike Aristophanes’ plays, Menander’s comedies enjoyed a long and successful re-performance tradition. Some thirty years after Menander’s death, his plays were already being re-staged as ‘old’ comedies (SEG XXVI 208) and continued being re-performed for Hellenistic audiences in and out of Athens. In the Greek East as in the Roman West, they also entered the repertory of imperial actors such as an anonymous performer celebrated in the Palatine Anthology (9.513); Straton (IG II212664) and probably Demetrius and Statocles (Quint. Inst. 11.3.17880). Plutarch (Mor. 854bc) refers to Menander’s plays as ubiquitous in the theatres of his day. Menander’s importance in comic production is also evident in his influence on contemporary comedies, the ‘new’ plays staged in Greek festivals around the Mediterranean until the third century AD. Of these ‘new’ comedies we know very little (their texts went lost, inscriptions often record their authors’ names and only exceptionally their titles), but ancient authors such as Manilius (5.4706) and Artemidoros (1.56) suggest that they replicated New Comedy plots and that Menander’s plays or Menander-like plays provided the model for comedy writing. For all their similarity to Menander’s drama, ‘new’ comedies did not enter the textual transmission or the re-performance tradition: our sources for comic re-performances under the Empire invariably point to Menander’s plays, suggesting that they made up the repertory of comic actors (a similar trend can be identified for tragedy and Euripides).

This paper tries to explain why the repertory of ancient actors was so limited. Menander quickly became the star of New Comedy and comedy in general: he earned the highest praise from Aristophanes of Byzantion and later scholars, his plays entered the school curriculum and dominate our New Comedy papyri. Scholarly activities were key in promoting authors and texts, but they can hardly be the driver behind actors’ activities and account for the re-performance tradition and its dynamics. Dramatic activities are to be explained with issues related to the history of Greek theatre. While we do know that ‘new’ comedies were staged, we cannot be sure that they were also re-staged, that is, that they became the stock-in-trade of contemporary and later performers. Indeed, the organization of dramatic festivals prevented ‘new’ comedies from becoming ‘old’ by including two different competitive categories. Contemporary playwrights kept writing their dramas to present them as ‘new’ plays competing against other ‘new’ plays, while actors kept re-staging ‘old’ plays in a separate category. The inclusion of an agon of ‘old’ plays into dramatic festivals dates back to early-Hellenistic Athens, where it is first attested in 255/4 (SEG XXVI 208), and is to be found in a number of festivals in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Its effects were twofold. On the one hand, it prolonged the stage-life of the works of Classical and early-Hellenistic theatre; on the other hand, it had a negative impact on contemporary drama by preventing its re-performance. The establishment of an agon of ‘old’ plays in the early-Hellenistic period also helps explain why only fourthand early third-century comedies entered the re-performance tradition. Actors’ repertory, however, did not remain unchanged but apparently narrowed down over time. Although Hellenistic audiences did watch comedies by authors such as Philemon, Diphilus and Posidippus, Menander filled the scene throughout antiquity. In this regard, the activities of both comic actors and scholars moved along the same lines

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Greek Comedy in the Roman Empire

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