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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Jane Cody
School of Fine Arts
University of Southern California

Cnemon in the Well: Stage Properties and the Performance of Menander's Dyskolos

One aspect of the recent spate of studies on the performance of Greek and Roman new comedy has been an intense interest in the actual appearance and use of stage properties, both movable (props) and immovable (stage scenery, both real scenery and scenery imagined as lying behind or to the sides of the scenery itself). Robert Ketterer's three studies of Plautine props in Semiotica (1986a-c) are one outstanding contribution in this area. In the first and last of these papers Ketterer defines the two main functions of Plautine props as:
  1. mechanical, in that they appear to function either as part of the visual presence of the play or as a means to, as well as and indicator of, the forward movement of the plot

  2. signifying, as devices that serve to characterize the person/s with whom they are associated.
By necessity props, in Ketterer's analysis, serve in both of these capacities.

In this paper I will apply the methods of Ketterer's analysis to several movable properties in Menander's Dyskolos, and will attempt to extend their application to two non-movable properties that appear in this play. I have chosen each of these because its very notable prominence has, to this point in time, remained unexplained. As an essential part of this analysis, I will summarize briefly the structure of the new comic plot as it appears in the Dyskolos and show that each of the props and features of the scenery that I will discuss has a well-established double meaning in Greek literature.

The plots of Greek new comedy typically revolve around a conflict between the older and younger generations (Konstan 1995). The conflict arises because of a youth's desire to have adult status, i.e., marriage or a mistress, and the older man's desire to prevent it. The play customarily ends with a reintegration of society in which the son does get the girl — and, thus, adult status — and the older generation is more or less reconciled to the new situation. In the Dyskolos the adult blocking figure is the misanthrope Cnemon, after whom the play is named. He is the father of a daughter and blocks the youth Sostratos' attempts to marry her.

One very important element of the "scenery" of this play is a well that is described as lying behind the doors of Cnemon's house (strictly speaking not part of the scenery, but rather an imaginary extension of it). The climatic scene of the play is a narrative of Cnemon's fall into this well and his rescue from it. He is saved, albeit crippled, by two youths, Sostratos and his step-son, Gorgias, who lives with his mother next door. As a result of pulling the grumpy old man, maimed as he is, from the well the younger generation gains — albeit begrudgingly — the old man's acceptance of Sostratos' marriage proposal to his daughter. In dreams, Greek myth and Greek literature, such dark enclosed and watery places as this well often act as images of the womb (Dubois et al. 1988). They are closely related to the symbol of the labyrinth whose twisting passages lead back to the encounter with the sexually blocking father figure at its center, and they figure prominently throughout Greek literature as such. There could be no more fitting location for the confrontation of the younger and older generations of the Dyskolos and for the final victory of those acknowledged by Cnemon as his "two sons."

This interpretation of the well is reinforced by an extensive complex of similar meaning that leads up to this moment in the play. A second aspect of the scenery, the doors of Cnemon's house, are an important part of this complex. From the start they receive extraordinary emphasis in the play, much more than any other single aspect of the stage set. Cnemon is portrayed as preoccupied with the protection of these doors as access to his own person, although the other characters view him as lax in protecting them as a means of preventing improper access to his daughter's virginity. As Henderson has shown (1975), doors are one of the most common metaphors for the "gates of love" (compare the doors and name of Hypsipyle in Apollonius' Argonautica).

Various vessels, props that are used to carry well water, also have very important functions early in the play. In a remarkable out-of-doors encounter of Sostratos and the maiden with whom he is smitten, the girl offers him her water pitcher to fill at the shrine next door. This encounter with the pitcher causes much horror in the girl's protectors, a horror which is fully explicable only when the meaning of those doors, the well and the pitcher as a common Greek metaphor for the womb — and, thus, the girl's chastity (Henderson and Dubois) — are understood.

A final part of this complex is the farmer's hoe, which Sostratos borrows from Gorgias' farm hand in order both to facilitate a meeting with Cnemon on ground favorable to his plans for marriage and as a trial to see whether he is worthy of the girl. plowing and working the land with a tool such as the hoe are, of course, among the most common Greek metaphors for a sexual encounter (Henderson and Dubois). Tying the agricultural metaphor for intercourse to that of the well, Sostratos proclaims that he has become stiff from hoeing, just like the beam that dips up and down (into the well).

As explained above, the stage properties discussed in this paper have important mechanical functions, since each appears either as an important visual aspect of the play and/or plays an important part in the forward movement of the plot. In addition, each has an important signifying function based on a double entendre that underlines the part of a character or characters in progress of that plot. The pitcher carried by the maiden signifies her sexual aspect; when handed over to Sostratos, it signifies her willingness to "marry" him. The fork and its use characterize Sostratos as a virile and able youth, ready, too, for marriage. The closed doors of Cnemon's house characterize their owner as a blocking figure. Once inside those doors, the well serves as the ultimate ground of resolution in the battle of the younger generation to achieve its sexual rights.

If and when the full range of meaning of these stage properties is incorporated into a performance of the Dyskolos, a whole new element of hilarity will emerge. There remains no evidence for the way these elements of the play were staged in Menander's time, but that should not stop us from the realization of any number of possible renditions in our own.

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