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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

('The Peevish Fellow')

(tr. W. Geoffrey Arnott)

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Dyskolos

Title: Dyskolos
Author: Menander
Genre: Play
Written: 316 BCE (Eng. 1979)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: in: Menander I - US
in: Menander I - UK
in: Menander I - Canada
Le Dyscolos - France
Dyskolos/Der Menschenfeind - Deutschland
Dyscolos. Il misantropo - Italia
in: Comedias - España
  • Greek title: Δύσκολος
  • The Peevish Fellow
  • Translated and with an Introduction by W. Geoffrey Arnott
  • Included in the Loeb Classical Library volume Menander I (132)
  • There are many other translations of Δύσκολος, including as Old Cantankerous by Norma Miller, in Plays and Fragments (Penguin Classics, 1987); The Grouch by Sheila D'Atri, in Menander (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); and The Bad-Tempered Man by Maurice Balme, in The Plays and Fragments (Oxford World's Classics, 2001)
  • W. Geoffrey Arnott also previously translated Δύσκολος, as Dyskolos: or, The Man who Didn't Like People (1960)

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if fairly basic comedy

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Menander has long been recognized as the leading representative of classical Greek 'New Comedy', even as almost all of his work remains fragmentary; as translator and editor W. Geoffrey Arnott notes parenthetically in his Introduction to the Loeb edition: "we still possess less than eight per cent of Menander's work, and only one play complete out of more than a hundred". That (near) complete play is this one, Dyskolos, which was only (re)discovered in 1952, as part of the fabulous Bodmer papyri haul; it has since been translated numerous times.
       In his Introduction to the play, Arnott notes that:

      Of the Dyskolos' original 969 lines, only nine (650-53, 703-7) are totally lost, and another twenty or so are damaged beyond even ramshackle repair.
       While there remain issues with the surviving text -- numerous footnotes along the lines of: "Lines 89 to 99 inclusive are irritatingly damaged in the papyrus" give vent to some of Arnott's frustrations -- the play is sufficiently intact to read -- with the occasional slight hiccough -- smoothly and clearly. Arnott's notations -- e.g. "You people, though -- [be (?)] hanged !" for ὑμεῖς δ᾿ ἐκκρεμανν[ύοισθε δή· -- point out the (numerous) places where there are textual questions, but this is indeed, for all intents and purposes, a satisfyingly complete work -- in contrast to what remains of Menander's other plays. (That said, this English translation is not meant for staging, at least not as is; this Loeb edition presents the Greek and English texts as faithfully as possible, complete with the unclear parts (which Arnott does try to clarify ...); as such it is not a performance-ready text -- though certainly a helpful foundation for such.)
       (Also noteworthy: Dyskolos was a very early work by Menander; he was only in his mid-twenties when it was first performed; it also won first prize at the Lenaea festival -- with Arnott wondering at the close of his brief Introduction: "Did he deserve this early -- and apparently not often repeated -- success ?".)
       As the variety of English alternate-(sub-)titles for the original suggests -- from Arnott's 'The Peevish Man' here to his earlier 'The Man who Didn't Like People', to other translators' variations such as: 'The Grouch' and 'Old Cantankerous' --, it isn't entirely easy to capture δύσκολος; still, from these different choices ... well, you get the idea. (But ... 'peevish' ? No longer an exactly widely used word .....) The 'peevish man' of the title is Knemon, and he's about as misanthropic as it gets. (Indeed, as is noted in a didascalic notice introducing the play: ἀντεπιγράφετ(αι) Μισάνθρωπος ('It has an alternative title ‘The Misanthrope’').) As Gorgias -- Knemon's neighbor and stepson -- goes so far as to put it, he's: "Unique / There's never been a man like him, / In earlier times or nowadays".
       Much earlier, Knemon had married Gorgias' widowed mother, but the two did not get along, constantly fighting; the birth of a daughter only made things worse. The woman left Knemon, going to live with her son, while Knemon raised the now-of-marriageable-age daughter, living alone with her and an old servant woman, working his extensive land holdings. Above all, however:
     He detests
The whole world, from his wife and neighbors here
Right to Cholargos down there, every single man.
       The plot of the play is simple: young Sostratos glimpses Knemon's daughter -- beautiful, and still: "innocent like her / Upbringing, pure in thought" -- and falls in love with her. He wants to ask Knemon for her hand -- but Knemon is almost literally unapproachable. Sostratos tries to enlist Gorgias to help press his suit; the girl's half-brother is, at first, suspicious of the man's motives, but eventually is won over. Still, Knemon is a hard nut to crack; as he himself admits, "No one will ever satisfy me", as far as prospective grooms for his daughter go .....
       The twist that allows for the situation to resolve itself is that Knemon falls into a well. Among the comedy here is that not everyone thinks they should bother trying to get him out, but Gorgias, with Sostratos' help, does rescue him, and the old man is so grateful that he appoints Gorgias' his daughter's guardian -- and charges him with finding her a husband, recognizing that if it's left up to him no one would ever be good enough.
       Even then, it's not entirely smooth sailing -- even as that marriage is settled, Sostratos' father, Kallippides balks at allowing Sostratos' sister to marry Gorgias (in a kind of quid pro quo) -- but eventually everything gets sorted.
       Among the striking things for modern readers is that Knemon's daughter -- who does appear in the play, and has some dialogue -- is not even given a name; she is merely: 'Girl'. While she does briefly interact with Sostratos, there's practically no agency here; everything is decided for her by the men in charge of her life -- first Knemon, then Gorgias, and, in the future, Sostratos. Dyskolos is, in part, a love-story, but definitely of the very old school .....
       Knemon doesn't exactly become a changed man, but being rescued at least leads him to reflect that maybe his suspicion and dislike of practically everyone had gone too far. He realizes that if his attitude were universal, they probably would have just left him down in that well. Still, even in showing himself grateful to Gorgias, he makes the case for his approach to life (and to others):
          If everyone behaved
[Like me, we should have] no law courts, shouldn't send each other to
Prison, [and] there'd be [no] wars. Each man would have enough to live
On, and he'd be satisfied.
       And he only takes minimal interest in the man Gorgias proposes should marry his daughter; "[Such details] are no / Longer my concern". Still, his continued cantankerousness also allows for the amusing closing scene, where Sikon and Getas -- a cook and a slave -- rile Knemon up as the wedding celebrations are going on.
       There are some decent comic scenes along the way as well, mostly involving the secondary characters, and the extreme figure of Knemon does make for an entertaining source of much of the tension in the play. All in all, however, it's a quite simple and quick piece, without all too much actual drama or complexity; as far as Greek comedy goes, it's a very accessible work. (Coming from so early in Menander's career, one wonders how it compares to his more mature works.)
       Arnott's translation and presentation -- notably including the detailed stage-descriptions and instructions -- do make for a very clear picture of the action unfolding, and seem to (re)present Menander's wordplay and comic turns well. It's a fine, if pretty basic, read -- certainly of some appeal and historic interest, but not particularly remarkable.

       Dyskolos is published in the first of the now three volumes of Menander plays and fragments in the Loeb Claassical Library, and comes with a good (if by now somewhat dated) general introduction to Menander and his work by Arnott -- fascinating also for its description of the ups and downs of the playwrights popularity over the ages. Given his influence on Latin drama alone, there's certainly still something to be said for some familiarity with (what's available of ...) his work -- and Dyskolos, as the most accessible (not least in being practically whole ...) of the plays, probably a good starting point.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 January 2021

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Dyskolos: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Greek playwright Menander (Μένανδρος) lived ca. 342-292 BCE.

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© 2021 the complete review

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