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What Chorus? Using Performance to Appreciate the Chorus of Menander’s Dyskolos

Emmanuel Aprilakis

Rutgers University

The history of the dramatic chorus is one of decline in both capacity and centrality, and the altered position of the chorus has been labeled a most noticeable differences between Old and New Comedy (Maidment 1935; Csapo/Slater 1995). That we have no choral odes of Menander, whether because they were considered unworthy of publication or simply never existed, is an indubitable testament to the decline of the chorus apparent late in the fourth century. An unfortunate result, virtually a century of scholarship on Menander maintains that his chorus simply sings interludes unrelated to the plot that serve as act breaks, and that the group exists outside the plausible sequence of events (Maidment; Handley 1965; Gomme/Sandbach 1973; Goldberg 1980; Webster 1981; Pöhlmann 1988; Rothwell 1995; Csapo/Slater; Gutzwiller 2000; Lape 2006). Regarding the Dyskolos, scholars assume that the seemingly random group of Πανιστάς (or παιανιστάς—either works for this paper) persists as a detached chorus throughout the play. However, based on perceived choral references throughout the play and especially around the act breaks, I offer a conjecture for the identity of the chorus that makes much more sense and can even add a layer to our understanding and appreciation of the Dyskolos: the chorus is directly related to the plot, made up of Sostratos’s retinue of fellow sacrificers enjoying a revel for the god Pan.

That no choral odes exist in Menander, the only substantially extant poet from the period of New Comedy, points to this dilemma being part of a ‘problem genre’ more than just a ‘problem play.’ However, close analysis of the almost fully extant Dyskolos can shed light on the previously conjectured disengagement of the Menandrian chorus. We can resolve this issue if we allow performance to guide our interpretation. On stage we can envision the chorus as a group celebrating Pan who double as the guests of Sostratos’s mother, said to be arranging a sacrifice to Pan at the very same shrine.

Such a discussion necessitates mention of two age-old questions: First, did the chorus sing or only dance? This question is of surprisingly little importance to my argument because, either way, the idea is that in performance they would have clearly been seen to take part in the festivities alongside Sostratos’s family. Nevertheless, I shall clear up the scholarship regarding the ΧΟΡΟΥ that exists in our manuscripts in order to show that the chorus does not necessarily have to sing, which has been long assumed (Maidment; Handley; Konstan 1983; Rothwell). Second, did the chorus stay on stage throughout or come and go between acts? Again, my argument does not preclude either option, but it helps to highlight the opinion of Gomme and Sandbach, who find it probable that the chorus stays throughout because they have found nothing after the end of Act I that introduces any subsequent choral entries.

In this paper I offer an array of metatheatrical references to the chorus that I have observed throughout the play, most concentrated around the act breaks. The only recognized mention of the chorus appears at the close to Act I, when Daos remarks that he sees a drunken group approaching. This comic trope occurs elsewhere in the fragments of Menander, in the Middle Comic fragments of Alexis and Antiphanes, and in Aristophanes himself. These authors use ὄχλος here and elsewhere to refer to the chorus, and understanding such a reference clarifies later scenes in the Dyskolos. Further, unattributed second-person plural addresses can be observed throughout the play, which we can explain if we imagine actors directly gesturing to the chorus. Finally, the closing scene mentions a celebration in which revelers at the shrine drink and dance in a circle. Using performance to underline these metatheatrical references in context leads to the conclusion that the chorus of the Dyskolos is indeed related to the plot, as the feasters of Sostratos’s retinue. 

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Performing Problem Plays

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