Satyr play, Greek drama: Definition and examples

Satyr play:

The Greek tragic poet was expected to present four plays at once: three tragedies (whether a trilogy or not) and a satyr play, which came as a kind of after-piece. It was a form of burlesque in which a mythical hero (perhaps the hero of the foregoing tragedies) was presented as a ridiculous personage with a chorus of satyrs, perhaps led by Silenus. The satyrs were creatures that were half-man and half goat, or half man and half horse, and more prominent, erect phalluses. In Greek art and pottery, satyri were often depicted thus and the goat has for centuries been regarded as a symbol of lust. The satyr plays were ribald in speech and action as well as in costume, and their dramatic function was clearly a form of comic relief after matters of high seriousness. It was a reaffirmation of the senses and of the sensual pleasures of life. Their origin is obscure, though Aristotle contends that tragedy developed out of the satyric. It is possible that the satyr play first formed part of the tragic contest instituted by Pisistratus at the festival of Dionysus.

There were a great many satyr plays. Aeschylus is believed to have written 90 plays altogether, including about 20 satyr plays. Sophocles’s output is believed to have been 123 plays all told, including perhaps 30 satyr plays. And Euripides probably wrote 80 plays, 15 of which were satyr plays. We may conclude that we have lost over 60 satyr plays in all. As to what became of them there has been much speculation. Perhaps they were destroyed/repressed for socio-political reasons, or perhaps they were destroyed/repressed during the early centuries of Christian culture.

Pratinas and Aeschylus were regarded as the masters of the form. Only one play survives completely, namely the Cyclops of Euripides. In 1907 Grenfell and Hunt, the Oxford classical scholars and papyrologists, while excavating a rubbish mound at Oxyrhynchus (a former town about 100 miles south of modern Cairo) discovered fragments of Sophocles’s satyr play the Ichneutai. It comprises about 400 lines.

In 1987 Tony Harrison’s remarkable play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was presented at Delphi. This is based on Sophocles’s Ichneutai and is a free adaptation and development of its ideas and themes in such a way as to give them contemporary relevance. In 1990 it was performed at the National Theatre, London. There is no connection of any kind between satyric drama and satire; or, apparently, between it and Greek comedy.

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