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The Mirror of Taste, and Dramatic Censor, Vol. I, No. 5, May 1810   By: (-1820?)

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Vol. I. MAY, 1810. No. 5.



Conclusion of the Greek Drama.


Menander, as has been said in the last chapter, once more rescued the stage of Greece from barbarism. In the death of Aristophanes was involved the death of "the middle comedy," which rapidly declined in the hands of his insufficient successors. The poets and wits that came after him, wanted either the talents, the malignity, or the courage to follow his example, to imitate him in his daring personalities, or to adopt his merciless satyrical style. They followed his steps, only in his feeble, pitiful paths, and contented themselves with writing contemptible buffoon caricature parodies of the writings of the greatest men. The new comedy never could have raised its head, had the middle comedy continued to be supported by a succession of such wits as Aristophanes, with new supplies of envenomed personal satire. Fortunately, however, the stage was pretty well cleared of that pernicious kind of writing when Menander , the amiable and the refined, came forth and claimed the bay.

This celebrated writer, who justly obtained the appellation of "prince of the new comedy," was a native of Athens, and was born three hundred and forty five years before the birth of Christ. He was educated under the illustrious Theophrastus, from whom he learned philosophy and composition. While a brilliant genius directed him to comic poetry, his natural delicacy, his refined taste, his moral rectitude, and true philosophy controlled his fancy, imparted to his comedies a charm unknown before, and obtained for them the suffrage of the most enlightened, witty, and judicious men of his age, though for the same reason they were, as Hamlet says, caviere to the multitude, and never did please the corrupted and malicious multitude of Athens. With a wit as brilliant and acute as that of Aristophanes, and perhaps as capable of vitious coarseness and ribaldry, he kept it in correction, and scorned to disgrace his compositions with illiberal personal aspersions, or indecent, obscene, or satirical reflections; but endeavoured to make his comedies pictures of real life, replete with refined useful instruction, and sagacious observation, conveyed through the medium of natural elegant dialogue. His writings, though they did not draw the regards of the million with such irresistible and congenial attraction as those of Aristophanes, had the power in some measure to rescue comedy from the unbridled licentiousness and profligacy which, for fifty years before, had rendered it a public nuisance. The multitude, however, he could not, during his lifetime reclaim; for a miserable cotemporary of his, named Philemon, a coarse writer of broad farce, who afterwards died of a fit of laughter at seeing a jackass eat figs, continued by intrigues and his natural influence with the mob, to carry away some prizes from him; though he was so mean and contemptible a poet that his very name would have been forgotten, and long since sunk in eternal oblivion, if it had not been buoyed up by the simple fact of his entering the lists against Menander.

The honours which his corrupted countrymen denied him were conferred upon Menander by strangers; for we are informed by Pliny that the king of Egypt, and the king of Macedon, as a proof of their respect, and admiration of his rare qualities, sent ambassadors to invite him to their courts; and, not contented with that compliment, sent fleets to convey him: such was the fame accompanied with which his unexampled endowments, spread his name over the remotest nations of the east. Whether it was from local attachment to his native land, or from sound philosophical wisdom and disregard of such temptations, he declined those honours, cannot now be known, though the fact is beyond doubt that he never would leave Attica. It is, however, an honourable testimony of the perfect indifference with which he bore the stupid and unjust preference given by the Athenians to his contemptible rival... Continue reading book >>

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