BMCR 2000.11.05

Das griechische Satyrspiel

, , , Das griechische Satyrspiel. Texte zur Forschung, Bd. 72. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1999. 676 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3534145933. DM 148.

For almost three centuries, satyr drama was produced at the City Dionysia to accompany the tragic performances, but only one such play — Euripides’ Cyclops — survives complete. We have about half of another — Sophocles’ Ichneutai — and otherwise only scanty fragments attributed to Aeschylus, the reputed champion of the genre,1 and some fifteen other authors, from Pratinas at the end of the sixth century to Sositheos and Lycophron in the third century BCE. The loss is not a matter of mere chance. We have the three tragedies of Aeschylus’ Oresteia complete, but only six (or possibly seven) fragments of its satyr play, Proteus — the longest being two badly mangled lines in length, four others consisting of one word each. The schoolmasters of later antiquity, who chose the set books that were by and large the survivors, presumably did not approve of showing the heroes of myth at play, or the antics of Silenus and his shaggy, drunken, randy satyr chorus. It is rather the survival of Cyclops (among the part of a complete aphabetically-ordered edition of Euripides that somehow made it into medieval copies) and Ichneutai (a lucky papyrus find) that shows the hand of chance at work.

Among the losses that wasted the corpus of ancient Greek literature, the disappearance of nearly the entire corpus of satyr plays is a cause of particular sorrow. In the absence of most of the evidence, we can only speculate about the functions of this peculiar form of drama, neither grave nor entirely light-hearted, which began as a kind of tailpiece to the tragic trilogy and in the mid-fourth century became merely a curtain-raiser for the festival. Tony Harrison puts it well in the introduction to his version of Ichneutai, The Trackers of Oxyrhinchus :2 “With the loss of these plays we are lacking important clues to the wholeness of the Greek imagination, and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic. In the satyr play, that spirit of celebration, held in the dark solution of tragedy, is precipitated into release, and a release into the worship of the Dionysus who presided over the whole dramatic festival.” Yet however grave the loss, the volume under review reminds us most helpfully that the cup, though far from full, is by no means empty.

Das griechische Satyrspiel offers in a single volume essentially all the primary material for the study of satyr drama: the entire corpus (except for Cyclops) in authoritative texts supported by careful German translations and an ample commentary, enriched with illustrations of the most relevant vase paintings. We learn from its foreward that the book began life in a seminar that brought together students of classical philology and classical archaeology, and that the thirteen contributors continued to work as a group as the project grew in scope and scale. Originally planned as a vehicle for making the fragments more readily available, the work grew to incorporate full treatment of the visual evidence and ample documentation of recent research. Such a book can only suggest answers to the larger questions surrounding the genre and its importance for Athenian theater and culture as a whole — I shall return briefly to this theme at the end of the review — but it can do us a great service by making the material we need for thinking about these questions easily accessible. It is here more completely and compactly than in any other single source, and everyone who has Greek and German and is interested in the ancient theater will be grateful for this book.

The multidisciplinary nature of the undertaking is emphasized by the book’s two introductions. Bernd Seidensticker’s “Philological-Literary Introduction” (an expanded version of the excellent article he first published in 19793), provides sensible and balanced coverage of the major characteristics of the genre and the central scholarly issues that surround it. The second, an “Archeological Introduction” by Ralf Krumeich, offers a careful assessment of vase paintings as evidence for satryr drama. The bulk of the book presents the fragments of each identifiable work in a well-ordered context of (1) didascalic and other information concerning claims to satyric status as well as production date and circumstances, where known; (2) discussion of the possible mythological subject and precedents, including quotation and translation from related nondramatic texts; (3) examination of any visual material that may be related to the play; (4) and possible reconstruction in terms of such elements as place, dramatis personae, plot, scene development, and typical motifs.

Roughly four-fifths of the volume, then, is taken up by the presentation of the texts, translation, and commentaries. The texts are those already published in the Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta along with, for Euripides, a “prepublication” of Kannicht’s forthcoming TrGF text. Thus this volume provides the most up-to-date collection of the fragments of satyr play available anywhere. In the few places where the translation diverges from the printed text, the divergence is noted and explained. The translations themselves are plain, accurate, and readable. They are printed directly below each fragment, which makes using them in conjunction with the text almost as easy as if they were printed en face, except in the case of the 400+ line fragment of Ichneutai and a few other long fragments, where one must turn back and forth between text and translation. Another great strength of the volume is its bibliographical coverage. The eighteen double-columned pages of bibliography aim for completeness, and indeed they seem to have everything directly related to satyr drama published, from Casaubon’s De satyrica Graecorum poesi of 1605 to Pechstein’s dissertation, published in 1998. And a wealth of additional references to relevant work on related subjects is to be found in the notes.4 There are indices to titles, dramatis personae, and motifs of the plays, and to the locations of the vases.

No one will agree with all the judgments and emphases in a book of this scope. Occasionally, the speculation built on what are after all rather meager textual foundations seems a little extravagant. In the case of Euripides’ Eurystheus, for example, an elaborate chain of suppositions, possibilities, and conjectures leads to the suggestion, as unprovable as it is unfalsifiable, that this satyr play was presented as part of a tetralogy that included the Heracles. And the treatment of Cyclops is something of a disappointment, not because this section alone lacks text and translation — the obvious considerations of space and the ready availablilty of this play in excellent modern editions are more than sufficient to justify this decision — but because the commentary is so perfunctory. Hewing roughly to the rubrics set out for the presentation of the fragments here produces little more than an elaborate plot summary, capped by the dismissive comment that “in recent times, the Cyclops has found only a few admirers” (441). Even if this volume is not the place for an extended literary critical appraisal, one might have hoped that some use would be made of contributions made over the last three decades that have embedded this play in interesting ways in broader cultural and social contexts.5 Nevertheless, such quibbles pale alongside the editors’ and contributors’ impressive accomplishments.

The visual evidence is handled with considerable tact. The “Archaeological Introduction” sets out sensible guidelines for distinguishing vase paintings that do, might, or do not represent, or at least allude to, satyr plays, and warns against the temptation to use the vases as evidence for reconstructing the plays (see esp. 47-51). Krumeich points out that the vase painting tell us something about the popularity of the genre and give us considerable information about masks and costumes. (In addition to the famous Pronomos vase of c. 400, numerous pots from the first half of the fifth century show the loincloth with appended phallus and tail that distinguishes the stage satyr from “real” ones, and we occasionally see Silenus figures dressed in white-tufted body stockings.) Some of the scenes depicted appear to reflect facets of the thematics of satyr drama known to us from the fragments. But when all is said and done, one is left to wonder what it all amounts to. Krumeich doesn’t reject the French school’s broader question, “Why Satyrs are good to represent,”6 but he clearly wants to bring the subject back to the representation of satyr drama. Still, if we can’t learn anything much from vase painting about plots, characters, or specific scenes of satyr plays, we may ask how useful it is to isolate vases that “illustrate” plays. On the showing of this book, it is hard to feel that treating the vase paintings as representations of dramatic performances greatly advances our understanding of satyr drama itself.

Reading through this volume, with its hundreds of fragments by turns alluring and puzzling, one is continually haunted by fundamental and still largely unanswered questions about the function and significance of satyr drama. Demetrius of Phalerum’s definition of the genre as τραγωιδία παίζουσα (tragedy at play) is perhaps simplest and most trenchant, yet the notion that the primary function of satyr drama was to supply comic relief after the terrors of tragedy, supported in one form or another by a line of criticism that begins for us with Horace’s Ars Poetica 220ff. and continues to this day, is surely too limited. As Seaford has suggested, comic relief cannot explain either the institution or the specific character of the genre, since comedy could fill this function equally well.7 And, as Seidensticker reminds us in this volume (32-3), satyr drama is not simply another form of Greek comedy. It is a genre whose place is somewhere between comedy and tragedy, and at the same time in many ways a sub-genre of tragedy. The connection with tragedy runs deep, for these plays are written by the tragic poets, using subjects drawn from myth, and they share in whole or in part the structural elements, language and meter, actors and stage conventions of tragedy.

One possibility, to which both Seaford and Seidensticker are drawn, is that the satyr play represents a deliberate return to a drama that is explicitly Dionysiac, something akin to the proto-tragedy that Aristotle describes when he says that tragedy was late to gain seriousness since it developed from “something like satyr play” ( ἐκ τοῦ σατυρικοῦ), characterized by “small plots” and “ridiculous diction” ( Poetics 1449a19-21). This would fit Chamaileon’s explanation of the proverb οὐδὲν πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον, preserved by Zenobius. To quote Seaford’s summary: “when σατυρικά about Dionysus began to be replaced by tragedies on other subjects, people shouted ‘nothing to do with Dionysos’. Zenobius … adds that this led to the institution of satyric drama.”8 While it requires something like a leap of faith to write the history of drama based on what may be no more than speculation centuries after the fact, the hypothesis is certainly attractive. If there is truth in it, satyr drama apparently began as a response to the conservatism of spectators at a time of rapid change, when Attic theater was becoming more and more entwined with the polis and its emerging democratic civic ideology. Satyrs are not creatures of the polis; they represent the survival of a prepolitical world in which culture itself is still coming into being, they precede (and thus transcend) the division of tragic and comic, and they bridge the gap between gods and mortals. Their perspective restores a sense of that wholeness and offers a comforting closeness to Dionysus in his most benevolent and joyful aspects. This may also help explain why satyr drama survived as long as it did, outliving its separation from the tragic trilogy — and thus also its supposed function as comic relief.


1. Thus Diogenes Laertius 2.133 and Pausanias 2. 13.6, both quoted on p. 88 of the volume under review.

2. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (new edition, London 1991) xi.

3. “Das Satyrspiel,” in G. A. Seeck, ed., Das griecische Drama (Darmstadt 1979) 204-57.

4. In going through the book, I missed only one mention, and that of a piece only marginally concerned with satyr drama: F. Zeitlin, “The Artful Eye: Vision, Ecphrasis and Spectacle in Euripidean Theatre,” in S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds., Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge 1994) 138-96. Zeitlin begins her essay with a brief but brilliant treatment of representation and theatricality in Aeschylus’ Theoroi or Isthmiastai.

5. E.g., L. E. Rossi, “Il Ciclope di Euripide come κῶμος mancato,” Maia 23 (1971) 10-38; D. Konstan, “An Anthropology of Euripides’ Cyclops,” Ramus 10 (1981) 87-103.

6. This is the title of an influential article by F. Lissarrague in J. Winkler, and F. I. Zeitlin, eds., Nothing to Do with Dionysos? (Princeton 1990) 228-36.

7. R. Seaford, Euripides, Cyclops (Oxford 1984) 26-7.

8. Seaford, op. cit. 12.