Play and Playwright References in Middle and New Comedy

References to other plays or playwrights within a given work call attention to the play as play; such references are usually considered illusion-breaking devices. The freedom of Aristophanes and Old Comedy in this area is well known. I propose here to consider the few such references we have from Middle and New Comedy. Though they never disappear completely, the Greek playwrights increasingly accommodate such references within the illusionistic framework -- which has interesting implications for the best-known Plautine example.
A brief but not exhaustive glance at Old Comedy practice is in order. Aristophanes comments freely on both tragic and comic playwrights and their work. Passing by such well-known parodies of Agathon, Euripides and Aeschylus as those in Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs, we may note the evidence of the fragments. Agathon's staging techniques come in for further ribbing in Aristophanes fr.599Kock (hereafter K.), his verbal style in fr.326K.. The obscure tragedian Sthenelos comes in for attention at both Wasps 1313 and fr.151K.. Aeschylus appears as a character in an unknown Aristophanic play where someone comments on his Phrygians: see fr.677K., 648K.. The comic poet Sannyrion and the tragedian Meletos seem to appear together in Aristophanes Gerytades (fr.149K., 150K.); one wonders if Aristophanes is deliberately yoking two well-known enemies, since Sannyrion fr.2K calls Meletos 'the corpse from the Lenaion', which, whether personal or professional comment, can hardly have been complimentary. Aristophanes' comments on other comic poets include references to Crates (fr.333K., Knights 537-9), Cratinus (Knights 400, 525-33), Eupolis, Phrynichus and Hermippus (all in Clouds 553-9), Lycis and Ameipsias (Frogs 12-15).
The fragments of Aristophanes' Old Comedy competitors show much the same situation. Tragedians remain a favourite target: there are attacks on Acestor (Cratinus fr. 85K., Callias fr.13K.) and Philocles (Cratinus fr.292K., Telecleides fr.14K.) as well as the ever-popular Euripides (Telecleides fr.39K., 40K.; Plato Comicus fr.30K.). Aeschylus appears as a character talking about his playwriting in Pherecrates fr.94K.. Comments on Sophocles are by and large admiring: Phrynichus fr.31K., cf. Aristophanes fr.581K.. Comments on comic poets generally centre around accusations of stealing material: Eupolis fr.98K. claims he helped Aristophanes write the Knights (a charge repeated by Cratinus in his Wineflask, as a scholium to Knights 531 relates), and Hermippus fr.64K. accuses Phrynichus of stealing from others. There are some comments of more critical substance, such as the well-known passage in Cratinus (fr.307K.) suggesting that Aristophanes imitates Euripides, and Eupolis fr.54K., which ridicules Aristophanes' use of the colossal statue of the goddess in his Peace.
One difference is immediately apparent as we move into the world of Middle and New Comedy: there is no identifiable reference in any of the fragments to any comic play or playwright, past or contemporary. The one possible exception is Ephippus fr.16K., which refers to the plays of Dionysios I, tyrant of Syracuse; he may have written comedies, but it is far more likely that his tragedies alone are meant here.
References to tragedy have undergone a subtler but equally important shift. 5th century tragedy is now Literature rather than contemporary theatrical experience (despite any 4th century revivals of plays), a model of good writing and a source of maxims for living rather than a target for criticism. Thus, when characters in Antiphanes fr.1K. and Philiscus fr.*215Austin quote Sophocles, we are meant to attach more weight to the sentiment expressed because it is authorized by the great tragedian. Any tension between the sentiment expressed and the comic context, as when Rhea in the Philiscus fragment complains about Kronos' behaviour, makes us laugh at the character quoting, not the tragedian quoted, and thus does not disrupt the illusion. While we can make little of the one Middle Comedy reference to Aeschylus (Anaxilas fr.19K.), it is clear that Euripides has become the object of study and admiration rather than ridicule. The opening line of his Sthenoboea was so admired that we find it quoted three times in comedy: Nicostratus fr.28K., Philippides fr.18K. and Menander Aspis 407. He inspired at least two plays entitled Fileuripdhw (Axionicus fr.3K., Philippides fr.22K), and Antiphanes fr.113K. speaks of someone writing prefaces (keflaia) to his plays.
Indeed, except for two references to the contemporary tragedian Chaeremon, one may look long and hard for any of the attacks on poets promised in the title of the lost per tn n t ms kvmd& kvmdoumnvn poihtn of Antiochos of Alexandria (Athenaeus 9.482c). In Ephippus fr.92K. there is a joke about Chaeremon's behaviour at parties. Eubulus fr.151K. is found in Athenaeus 2.43c, where we learn that Eubulus borrowed the expression potamo sma from Chaeremon. R. L. Hunter in his commentary on Eubulus (Cambridge 1983), ad fr.151K. suggests that in the unepitomized text an on-stage character would have identified Chaeremon as the poet being parodied. 103|104
Paradoxically, the phenomenon of Middle Comedy poets borrowing from each other implies no theatrical self-consciousness at all. Such borrowing generated the bitter complaints against each other of Aristophanes and his Old Comedy rivals,1 but provoked no comment by victim or perpetrator in Middle Comedy. Hunter, commenting on Eubulus fr.67.4K., offers a list of such borrowings, which I reproduce here: Eubulus fr.67.4K/Xenarchus 4.6K.; Philemon 123K./Straton 219Austin; Eubulus 125K./Alexis 282K.; Eubulus 110K./Ephippus 15K.; Antiphanes 89K./Epicrates 5K.. Hunter implies that, as much of our knowledge of the charges of plagiarism in Old Comedy comes from the scholia to Aristophanes, the lack of any such source for Middle Comedy may have obscured the situation. It is striking nonetheless that no Middle Comedy fragment contains, in any context, the name of any comic playwright or the title of any comic play.
There are two important pieces of Middle Comedy that do not fit neatly into the patterns we have seen so far. Timocles fr.6K., a speech of 19 lines from his Women at the Dionysia discusses how watching the myths of tragedy comforts the audience in their own griefs and pains. We know neither the speaker nor the addressee, but clearly the experience of tragedy in the theatre (line 5: gp now tn dvn is being discussed). Equally metacritical is the well-known discussion of the difficulties in writing comedy (the author must invent all the story details, while the tragedian has the myth handed to him) in Antiphanes fr.191K.. When characters on stage can discuss the process of creating drama and the effects drama produces in an audience, we are still much nearer the freedom of Old Comedy than the illusionism of the New.
Our New Comedy instances are even fewer and continue the trends of Middle Comedy. Philippides fr.18K. and 22K. have already been mentioned. Philippides fr.25K. contains an attack on a political figure names Stratocles (surprising for the New) and an assertion that it is not comedy which ruins the state but men such as he. Diphilus fr.60K. gives us a parasite quoting Euripides for comic purposes. Euphron fr.1K. is more interesting: in line 35, one cook describes the thieving schemes of another as a drma but as the fragment ends there we cannot tell if this metatheatrical conceit was developed further.
We can best judge the use of play and playwright references in New Comedy from Menander, where we at least have some notion of context. In Epitrepontes 1123-1126, the slave Onesimus quotes Euripides' Auge (which he explicitly identifies) in order to make old Smikrines understand the parentage of his grandchild. At Samia 325-326, Demeas is so outraged by a conversation with the slave Parmenon, which seems to confirm his belief that his adopted son has deceived him with his (Demeas') mistress, that he breaks into tragic apostrophe. A marginal note in the papyrus (see Gomme and Sandbach ad 325) indicates that this is a quotation from Euripides' Oedipus, but for Demeas it is merely a burst of emotion, and he quickly masters himself.
The premier example of tragic quotation in Menander is Aspis 407-432, where Daos (in an attempt to convince Smikrines that his master Chairestratos is dying) launches into a series of tragic outbursts. Within these 26 lines he quotes Aeschylus, Euripides, Chaeremon and Carcinus (and possibly one unidentified tragedian). Smikrines' response at line 414 (gnvmologew, trisylie;) shows us how to take these quotations: they are gnomic rather than theatrical references. The comedy lies not in a travesty of tragic sentiment or diction but in the gullibility of Smikrines.
Nowhere in Middle or New Comedy do we find parody of tragedy as the primary purpose of quotation -- fact less surprising when one notes that, aside from a handful of references to Chaeremon and one to Carcinus, all of the authors cited are the established classics of the fifth century, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. At most there may be a comic contrast between the situation of the character quoting and the language of tragedy. One also finds tragedy quoted seriously, as a source of wisdom or comfort in distress (e.g. Philippides fr.18K., cf. Timocles fr.6K.). Most importantly, the world of tragedy now seems so distant from 'real life' that such quotations imply no theatrical self-consciousness (as they did in Old Comedy). Tragedy has become Literature, its dramatic form less important than its mythic content and elevated style. When Dicaeopolis tries on the the role of Telephus in the Acharnians, the effect is metatheatrical: we are forcefully reminded that Acharnians is a play too, not merely a mirror of reality. Daos' string of quotations in the Aspis has no such effect.
In this light the silence of comedy on the subject of other comic plays and 104|105 playwrights in this period is not only natural but necessary. Comedy after Aristophanes moves swiftly toward a consistently maintained illusionism. Within this illusion of reality, tragedy can be compartmentalized as Literature and then safely included -- tag-lines and gnomai are part of Athenian everyday reality. To quote comedy, however, would be far more disruptive of the illusion than any conventions of aside or direct audience address; such references would remind the audience that they are watching a theatrical construct, not a realistic illusion.
We may add one footnote to this survey of Greek comic practice. Plautus in the Mostellaria 1149-1151 gives us this exchange between Theopropides and his slave Tranio:
TH. quid ego nunc faciam?

TR. si amicus Diphilo aut Philemoni es, dicto is quo pacto tuo' te servos ludificaverit: optumas frustrationes dederis in comoediis.
Leo (Hermes 18 [1883], 559-561) suggested we see Philemon's joking signature to his Phasma in this (which Ritschl, Parerga 159-160, had already suggested as the original of the Mostellaria). Ernout and the recent edition of Mostellaria by Jean Collart (Paris 1970), p. 15, have doubted this, but still consider it possible the reference comes from the Greek original. In the light of our survey above, it seems highly unlikely that such theatrically self-conscious jokes were possible within the illusionism of Greek comedy; the passage in the Mostellaria is doubtless a Plautine addition, of a piece with the highly self-conscious theatricality of his slave heroes.

Copyright 1985 Niall W. Slater

1[On this phenomenon, see now F. S. Halliwell, "Authorial Collaboration in the Athenian Comic Theatre," GRBS 30 (1989) 515-528.]