The plays of Menander have been largely absent from the recent critical attention given the metatheatrical aspects of ancient comedy because they avoid direct reference to performance and maintain dramatic illusion. But as readings of tragic self-reflexivity have shown, even consistently illusionistic drama can make reference to itself as drama so that the audience is encouraged to view the play in double focus, as both a pretense of reality and as an evident dramatic artifice. Metatheatricality in Menander has its basis in the recurring view of the characters that life is like a tragedy. A number of characters state that the events at hand resemble a tragic situation, comment on events by quoting from a tragedy, or ask other characters to view the current situation through the lens of a particular tragic drama. In other instances, reference is made to aspects of dramatic staging or to the constitutive parts of plays. Such comments are realistic, or probable, because it is likely that Greeks of the fourth century regularly interpreted their own lives through the paradigm of myth, best known in dramatized form, and used theatrical metaphors to refer to everyday events. At the same time, however, audience members may experience a character's comparison of the dramatic situation to tragedy as humorously ironic because they know that the plot is destined to fulfill itself in a comic mode. Tragedy is in fact a mask worn by Menander's comedy, and the audience has a metadramatic experience whenever it focuses on the fact of masking. Analysis of passages from the Dyscolos, Epitrepontes, Perikeiromene, and Samia, as well as fuller discussion of the Aspis, demonstrates that Menader's plays invite metadramatic readings in which the plot develops through the struggles of characters to impose on themselves and others tragic readings of their comic situation.
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Kathryn Gutzwiller; The Tragic Mask of Comedy: Metatheatricality in Menander. Classical Antiquity 1 April 2000; 19 (1): 102–137. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/25011113
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