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Queen's University

Synopses of the Surviving Melodramas (16 plays)

Melodrama is not an ancient category; I have gathered here works that are formally either satyr-plays, tragedies or comedies, but that occupy an emotional middle-ground between sorrow and joy. Synopses of Euripides are adapted from L. D. Barnett, The Greek Drama (London 1900), the synopsis of Menander's The Bad Tempered Man is from the edition by S. Ireland (Warminster 1995), synopses of Plautus and Terence from H. J. Rose, Handbook of Latin Literature 3rd ed. (London 1954).

  1. Soph (497-406 B.C.)
    • The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus: The Delphi Text 1988 (London 1990; T. Harrison trans.)
      This is Tony Harrison's imaginative reconstruction and adaptation of a satyr-play by Sophocles, the first half of which was discovered on papyrus in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus in the late 1800s. The play describes Hermes stealing Apollo's cattle when he was only four days old, and the god's attempt to get them back using satyrs as sniffer-dogs.
      • Dramatis personae: Bernard Pyne Grenfell, Apollo, Arthur Surridge Hunt, Silenus, Kyllene, Hermes.
      • Chorus: Fellaheen/satyrs/football hooligans.


  2. Eur. (circa 485-407 B.C.)
    • Cyclops of unknown date
      A troop of Dionysiac satyrs, headed by old Father Silenus, have by chance come to Sicily, when they become the slaves of the one-eyed monster Cyclops. On the arrival of Odysseus, Silenus sells to him for wine some of his master's sheep and cheeses, but on the appearance of the monster swears they were taken without his consent. The Cyclops now takes possession of Odysseus and his crew, with the intention of eating them. The rest of the plot is as told in Odyssey 9. After some of his comrades have been eaten, Odysseus makes drunk and blinds the monster, and finally sails away with the satyrs.
      • Dramatis personae: Silenus, Odysseus, the Cyclops Polyphemus
      • Chorus: satyrs
      • Edited with a commentary by R. Seaford (Oxford 1988)


    • Alcestis of 438
      used to link to didask2.htm - File no longer exists The Fates have permitted Admetus, king of Pherae to escape an impending death if he can find another to die on his behalf. His wife Alcestis consents to take his doom upon herself; she rapidly sinks, and to all appearance dies. Before the body has been taken to the crypt, the jovial demigod Heracles, a guest-friend of Admetus, appears and claims of him his wonted hospitality. Admetus from fear of marring his guest's pleasure tells him nothing of his misfortune. But learning it by chance in the midst of his cups Heracles, shocked at having filled a house of mourning with sounds of merriment, determines to restore Alcestis. He rushes to the vault, and after a struggle with Death robs him of his prey and brings her back to he world of life and her Husband.
      • Dramatis personae: Apollo, Death, Alcestis, Admetus, Eumelus (son of Alcestis and Admetus), Heracles, Pheres, servant of Alcestis, servant of Admetus
      • Chorus: citizens of Pherae
      • Edited with a commentary by A. M. Dale (Oxford 1954)


    • Helen of 412
      Helen is in Egypt, where she was spirited away by Hera; not she, but a phantom look-alike went with Paris to Troy. But none know this, and all execrate her name. Now Menelaus comes; he has been shipwrecked on the coast, and has left concealed in a cave his comrades and the phantom he has brought back as his wife from Troy. He meets the true Helen, who reveals herself; the reconciliation is completed by the announcement of a messenger that the phantom has flown away, after revealing to his shipmates the truth. But now they are faced by a difficulty: the Egyptian king is pursuing Helen with an unwelcome love. Supported by his sister, the priestess Theonoe, they form a plan to outwit him, by which they obtain a ship and sail away. Then appear the Dioscuri ex machina to calm the king's fury, and close the play with a few prophecies of archaeological interest.
      • Dramatis personae: Helen, Teucer, Menelaus, Portress, Theonoe, Theoclymenus, Castor, servant of Menelaus, servant of Theoclymene, servant of Theonoe
      • Chorus: captive Greek women
      • Edited with commentary by A. M. Dale (Oxford 1967)


    • Iphigeneia in Tauris of 411
      used to link to didask4.htm - file no longer exists Iphigeneia, daughter of Agamemnon, spirited away in Aulis by Artemis from her father's hands when he would have purchased a fair passage to Troy by her sacrifice, has been transported by theat goddess to the Tauric peninsula, or Crimea. Here she now serves as priestess in the temple of Artemis, whom the savage native worship with human victims. She is charged to sacrifice two Greek strangers who have just arrived. They are her own brother Orestes, wandering about after his matricide and charged by Apollo to steal the Tauric image of Artemis, and his faithful Pylades. An ingeniously contrived recognition follows. Thy decide on a plan by which all three, with the statue of the goddess, may reach the Greek ship awaiting them. But their ship is driven back upon the coast and recapture seems imminent, when suddenly Athena, appearing ex machina, stops the pursuit and announces that the ship has got free again, adding as epilogue instruction to the now far-off Greeks which were the traditional origins of several local Attic cults.
      • Dramatis personae: Iphigeneia, Pylades, Orestes, herdsman, Thoas, Athena
      • Chorus: temple maidens
      • Edited with commentary by M. Platnauer (Oxford 1938)


    • Ion of 410
      Ion is the secretly born son of Apollo and Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus king of Athens. He was exposed at his birth, and carried by Hermes to his father's temple at Delphi, where he has grown up in ignorance of his origin as custodian and attendant of the temple. At the outset of the play Creusa, since wedded to the foreigner Xuthus, visits the temple with her husband to seek healing of their childlessness. Xuthus is told by the god that the first person he meets after leaving the seat of the oracle will prove to be his son. He meets Ion, and without hesitation claims him as his child, confirmed by the fact that the finding of Ion as a babe in the temple tallies with a youthful indiscretion which he himself once committed in Bacchic revelry at Delphi. This story coming to the ears of Creusa fills her with jealous rage; she confesses her secret to the old tutor of the family, whom she charges to poison Ion with one of two drops of Gorgon's blood that she carries in a bracelet. The plot is discovered through a dove drinking of Ion's cup and dying at once. Condemned to death, Creusa seeks refuge at the altar. To avert bloodshed in the holy place, the priestess comes forth to Creusa and Ion (for Xuthus is not present). She displays to Ion an old cradle with wrappings, embroidered coverings, a golden necklet, and an olive crown, which she says were found with him, and bids him seek his mother. Creusa at once recognises the things as her own, in which she exposed her babe, and embraces Ion as her son by Apollo. Then Athena appears ex machina, confirms her conclusions, and bids them return, without correcting the delusion of Xuthus, to Athens, where Ion is to rule as king and become father of the four Ionic tribes, while of Creusa and Xuthus shall be born the tribe-heroes of the other Greek races, Dorus and Achaeus.
      • Dramatis personae: Hermes, Ion, Creusa, Xuthus, Pythia, Athena, old man, servant of Xuthus
      • Chorus: Creusa's attendants


    • Orestes of 408
      Yet another version of Orestes' troubles after the murder of his mother. Temporarily relieved from the pursuit of the Eumenides, he lies in Argos awaiting his fate. The arrival of his uncle Menelaus gives him some hope; he vigorously defends his act against the accusations of Clytaemnestra's father Tyndareus. But Menelaus palters and shuffles out of responsibility. Orestes goes to face the Argive tribunal, which condemns him and Electra to death. Orestes and Pylades decide to avenge themselves on Menelaus by storming his palace, slaying Helen and holding their daughter Hermione as a hostage; Helen is however miraculously hidden from them. Orestes calls on Menelaus to reverse his condemnation if he would have his daughter live. Then Apollo appears ex machina, shows that Helen has not been slain but raised to heaven, and prescribes his future course to Orestes-a year to be spent in Arcadia, followed by a judgment and acquittal in Athens-after which he is to rule as king in Argos, wedded to Hermione, while Pylades is to marry Electra.
      • Dramatis personae: Electra, Helen, Hermione, Orestes, Menelaus, Tyndareus, Pylades, Apollo, Phrygian slave, messenger
      • Chorus: women of Argos
      • Edited with commentary by C. W. Willink (Oxford 1986)


  3. Menander = Men. (342-291 B.C.)
    • The Bad-Tempered Man (Dyscolus) of 316
      In order to reward a young girl for her piety towards Pan and the Nymphs, next to whose rural shrine she lives, the god has made a rich young townsman fall in love with her while on a hunting trip in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately her father, Cnemon, the bad-tempered man of the title, proves singularly unapproachable and resistant to any of the attempts by the young man in question, Sostratus, to make contact. Cnemon's behaviour has already caused the failure of his marriage to a widow, the girl's mother, who has gone back to the son she had by her previous husband. An accidental meeting (the first in fact) between Sostratus and the girl is seen by a slave belonging to her step-brother Gorgias, who tries to warn Sostratus off, but after being convinced of his honourable intentions he reluctantly agrees to lend his support to the young lover's efforts. These, however, seem constantly doomed to failure. First there is the problem of Cnemon's character and his resolve to marry his daughter only to someone like himself. Then there is the arrival of Sostratus' mother, intent on making a sacrifice to Pan at the shrine. This prevents Cnemon from returning to the fields as he planned and thus ruins Sostratus' hopes of making a good impression on him by pretending to be a hard-working, if impoverished, farmer. Further irritation for Cnemon ensues when members of the mother's entourage attempt to borrow cooking equipment from him-first the slave Getas, then the cook Sicon. A series of mishaps involving items dropped down Cnemon's well by his only servant, the old woman Simiche, results in Cnemon himself falling in when he attempts to extricate them. His rescue by Gorgias, however, (with a little-rather ineffectual-assistance from Sostratus) leads the old man to re-evaluate his lifestyle and to realise not only that he can no longer aim for a totally self-sufficient existence, but also that his belief in the utter selfishness of society has at least one exception, Gorgias. In return for rescuing him Cnemon rewards Gorgias by adopting him as his son and handing over to him both his farm and responsibility for finding his daughter a husband. Gorgias wastes little time in betrothing the girl to Sostratus and is in turn rewarded for his help by being offered Sostratus' sister as his wife. Everyone adjourns to the shrine to celebrate the double wedding, everyone that is except Cnemon, whose "reformed" outlook extended only to his step-son, and who wants nothing more than to withdraw even further into isolation. This, however, forms the cue for the slave Getas and the cook Sicon to tun the tables on him for their earlier rough handling and to induce him, albeit reluctantly, to join the festivities.
      • Dramatis personae: Pan, the god; Chaereas, the parasite; Sostratus, the lover; Pyrrhias, the slave; Cnemon, the father; the girl, daughter of Cnemon; Daus, a slave; Gorgias, the girl's step-brother; Sicon, a cook; Getas, the slave; Simiche, an old woman; Callippides, the father of Sostratus.


  4. Plaut. (died 184 B.C.)
    • Amphitryon
      The play deals with the birth of Heracles and in the first scene Zeus, under the form of Amphityon, is with Alcmene while Hermes, disguised as the slave Sosia, keeps away intruders. When the real Sosia arrives with news of his master's return, and afterwards Amphityon in person comes home from his wars, confusion of the most complicated sort ensues, and Amphityon is nearly beside himself with bewilderment and jealousy; his wife, who retains her dignity throughout, is not only a sympathetic but a majestic figure in the midst of this comedy of errors. Finally, after the birth of her twins, Zeus in his true form appears and makes all plain.
      • Dramatis personae: Mercury; Sosia, slave of Amphitryon; Jupiter; Alcmena, wife of Amphitryon; Amphitryon, commander-in-chief of the Theban army; Blepharo, a pilot; Bromia, maid to Alcmena.
      • Edited with commentary by D. M. Christenson (Cambridge 2000)


  5. Terence = Ter. (circa 190-159 B.C.)
    • The Girl from Andros (Andria)
      A courtesan from Andros, since dead, has been kind to a friendless girl, by name Glycerium, who becomes the mistress of Pamphilus, son of Simo, an Athenian citizen; the scene is laid in Athens, as usual. Simo had arranged a marriage between his son and the daughter of a friend, Chremes; but Chremes, hearing of the young man's irregular union, has broken off the engagement. Hoping to put his son in the wrong, Simo tells him that the marriage is to take place immediately, but Davus, Pamphilus' slave, informs his master of this, and Simo is met by a dutiful agreement to his supposed arrangements. But Simo is resourceful; he brings Chremes to retract his refusal of his daughter's hand, and the sham arrangements for a marriage are in a fair way to become real. Davus has still a card to play, however; Glycerium has born a child, and he contrives to lay the baby down in front of Simo's house, where Chremes cannot but see it. He once more refuses his consent, and the strained relations between all parties are brought to an end only by the arrival of one Crito, who reveals that Glycerium is Chremes' own daughter, lost some years before. There is an underplot; Charinus, a friend of Pamphilus, is in love with Chremes' other daughter, and he and his well-meaning but stupid slave Burria play their part in a general comedy of cross-purposes. Charinus is now made happy by betrothal to the lady of his affections, while Glycerium, really Pasibula, becomes the wife of her lover.
      • Dramatis personae: Simo, an old gentleman of Athens; Chremes, an old gentleman of Athens; Pamphilus, son to Simo; Charinus; Drito, an old gentleman of Andros; Sosia, freedman and steward to Simo; Davus, servant to Simo and Pamphilus; Byrria, servant to Charinus; Dromo, servant to Simo; Glygerium, the girl of Andros, daughter to Chrems; Mysis, servant to Glycerium; Lesbia, a midwife.
      • Edited with commentary by G. P. Shipp (Oxford 1960)


    • The Self-Tormentor (Heautontimorumenos)
      Chremes, an old Athenian, has a son Clitipho who appears to him a model of respectability. Really, the young man is in love with Bacchis, a woman of expensive habits and extremely easy virtue. A neighbour, Menedemus, has driven his son, Clinia, from home by keeping too tight a reign on him, and is since smitten with remorse and living a hard and laborious live by war of penance. Clinia now returns, not being able to keep away from his own love, Antiphila. He and Clitipho concoct a scheme. Menedemus can refuse nothing to the returned exile, and admits Bacchis, whom he supposes to be his own son's mistress, to his house, along with her maids, one of whom is Antiphila. But it very soon transpires that Bacchis' favours are going to Clitipho. On top of the recriminations and misunderstandings which this discovery produces comes a further revelation: Antiphila is Chremes' daughter, exposed years before. Clinia can therefore appear in the new character of an honourable suitor; he is betrothed to Antiphila, and Clitipho likewise provided with a wife to keep him out of further mischief. A rascally slave, Syrus, is in the thick of the intrigues and, as usual, forgiven in the last scene.
      • Dramatis personae: Chremes and Menedemus, old gentlemen of Attica; Clitipho, son to Chremes; Clinia, son to Menedemus; Syrus and Dromo, servants to Chremes; Sostrata, wife to Chremes; Bacchis, mistress to Clitipho; Antiphila, a young lady, beloved by Clinia; a nurse in the household of Chremes; Phrygia, maid to Bacchis.


    • The Eunuch (Eunouchus)
      The plot turns on a double set of intrigues, closely connected. Thraso, a less farcical form of Plautus' braggart warrior, attended by a really humorous parasite, Gnatho, is in love with the courtesan Thais, who has another and poorer admirer, Phaedria. Phaedria has a brother, Chaerea, who is desperately in love with Pamphila, a girl supposed to be Thais' sister, really one of her slave-women, given her by Thraso. Chaerea changes clothes with a eunuch whom his brother is giving to Thais, gets into the women's quarters and makes the most of his opportunities. Meanwhile Thais is giving Phaedria as much of her attention as she can, despite a promise to Thraso to admit him only to her society for the next two days. These manoeuvres, largely contrived by a slave called Parmeno who acts as adviser to the two young men, lead to a series of most lively scenes. Thais and her household are loud in denunciation of the sham eunuch; Phaedria nearly frightens the real one out of his wits with a string of questions and threats; Thraso attempts to take Pamphila back by force, because Thais has played him false. By this time, however, Thais has discovered that Pamphila is the sister of a certain Chremes, and Athenian citizen, and therefore free-born. She and Chremes drive off Thraso, Pamphila is betrothed to Chaerea, and Thais becomes a client of Phaedria's father, and therefore readily accessible to Phaedria himself. Thus all except Thraso are satisfied.
      • Dramatis personae: an old gentleman of Athens (Demea or Laches by name); Phaedria and Chaerea, his sons; Antipho and Chremes, young Athenian gentlemen; Thraso, a captain; Gnatho, his dependant and flatterer; Dorus, a eunuch; Parmeno, a slave, valet to Phaedria; Sanga and others, servants to Thraso; Thais, a courtesan; Sophrona, a nurse, Pythias and Dorias, maidservants to Thais.
      • Edited with commentary by J. Barsby (Cambridge 1999)


    • Phormio
      A young Athenian, Antipho, during his father's absence, falls in love with a girl, of unknown parentage and very poor, but claiming to be Athenian also. Aided and abetted by his slave Geta he puts into operation a scheme for getting himself forced to marry her. A parasite, Phormio, is hired to claim acquaintance with her and, in accordance with the forms of Attic law, to allege before the courts that Antipho is her next of kin and therefore should marry her. Antipho of course refutes none of Phormio's assertions, and therefore is found liable to carry out his supposed duty. Now his rather returns and tries to get Phormio to withdraw his claim and take the girl off Antipho's hands. Phormio adopts an attitude of strong moral indignation and will not hear of playing fast and loose with a respectable young woman in this way. Geta meanwhile is besought by a cousin of Antipho, Phaedria, to raise thirty minae for him to by a flute-girl with whom he is much in love. This Geta does by telling Antipho's father that Phormio will assent to his proposals for just this sum: he will not pay more than twenty, but his brother Chremes, Phaedria's father, subscribes the whole, because he wishes Antipho to marry his own daughter, the child of a woman he had married in Lemnos and then deserted years before, without the relationship getting to the ears of his Athenian wife, Nausistrata. It turns out, of course, that Antipho's wife is Chremes' daughter, of whom he had lost sight and whose mother is dead; Antipho is thus made happy, and also Phaedria, for Nausistrata, being told of her husband's double life by Phormio, thinks the information cheap at the price of the thirty minae which her son has already laid out, and is ready to forgive everybody, except the unhappy Chremes.
      • Dramatis personae: Demipho, an old gentleman of Athens; Chremes, his brother; Hegio, Cratinus and Crito, friends to Demipho; Antipho, son to Dempho; Phaedria, son to Chremes; Phormio, an adventureer; Dorio, a slave-dealer; Geta, servant to Demipho; Davus, a servant; Nausistrata, wife to Chremes; Sophrona, nurse to Chremes' daughter.


    • The Brothers (Adelphoe)
      Two brothers, Demea and Micio, are of strongly contrasted character, the former being frugal and strict, the latter easy-going. Demea has two sons, whereof one, Aeschinus, has been adopted by his uncle and indulgently reared; the other, Ctesipho, has remained with his father and been brought up to hard work in the country. Demea believes him a paragon of frugal virtue, and continually reproaches Micio with spoiling Aeschinus. The climax of his virtuous indignation has been reached when the play begins; Aeschinus has entered by violence the house of a white-slaver and kidnapped one of its inmates, but Micio still refuses to be seriously annoyed, though he feels privately that the young man gone rather too far. As the play progresses, which it does in a lively manner enough, with amusing scenes in which the indignation white-slaver appears, it turns out that Aeschinus was acting on Ctesipho's behalf, and has carried off a harp-girl with whom that young scion of virtue is violently in love. On his own behalf, he has been carrying on an intrigue with a free-born girl, under promise of marriage. Now her relations begin to protest loudly against his supposed double-dealing, the more so as the girl is fallen in labour. Micio, when he hears of the matter, promptly says that Aeschinus must marry her. Meanwhile Demea finds out what Ctesipho has been doing, and is beside himself with anger. Micio, however, succeeds in calming him. A good dinner and a little reflection lead him to see that he has been too strict, and in a most amusing scene, reminiscent of Scrooge's Christmas morning, he is shown practising affability to the slaves whom he meets, including his own son's personal attendant Syrus. In the end he has the better of it; for, preaching to Micio from the latter's own favourite maxims, he induces him to marry Aeschinus' newly made mother-in-law. So the play ends with the triumph of good-natured indulgence; Aeschinus has his wife and Ctesipho keeps his harp-girl.
      • Dramatis personae: Micio, an old gentleman of Athens; Demea, brother to Micio, resident in the country; Aeschinus, son to Demea, adopted by Micio; Ctesipho, son to Demea; Hegio, an old gentleman of Athens; Sannio, a slave-dealer; Syrus, a servant to Micio and Aeschinus; Dromo, servant to Micio; Geta, servant to Sostrata; Sostrata, a lady of Athens; Canthara, an old crone, servant to Sostrata.
      • Edited with commentary by R. H. Martin (Cambridge 1976)


    • Her Husband's Mother (Hecyra), 2nd version
      Pamphilus, a young Athenian, has been forced by his father to desert a mistress, Bacchis, and take to wife a very amiable girl called Philumena. During his absence from Athens, Philumena returns to her father's house. On his return, Pamphilus, who has come to love Philumena, discovers that in his absence she has born a son, who cannot be his, for it is much too soon after the marriage. His father meanwhile supposes that Sostrata, his own wife and the "mother-in-law" of the title, has driven Philumena out of the house by her enmity towards her. The poor old lady makes pathetic attempts to reconcile her son and his wife, but Pamphilus, while keeping Philumena's secret, refuses flatly to live with her again. The situation is saved by Bacchis, who is in possession of part of the facts, while the usual lucky recognition of a ring makes the rest clear; Pamphilus is after all the father of the child, for he had violated Philumena at a nocturnal festival some time before the marriage. The play ends with general reconciliation.
      • Dramatis personae: Laches and Phidippus, old gentlemen of Athens; Pamphilus, son to Laches; Parmeno, servant to Laches and Pamphilus; Sostrata, wife to Laches; Myrrina, wife to Phidippus; Bacchis and Philotis, courtesans; Syra, an old crone.


  6. Ezekiel (circa 150 B.C.)
    • Exagoge
      A fragmentarily preserved dramatic version of the exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt, that involves the wedding of Moses, and the ten plagues of Egypt, and ends with a scout's description of the appearance of the mythical phoenix-bird.
      • Dramatis personae: Moses; Sepphora, his wife; Chum, a rival suitor for Sepphora; Raguel, king of Midian and Moses' father-in-law; God; Egyptian; messenger; scout
      • Edited with commentary by H. Jacobson (Cambridge 1983)

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