BMCR 2007.12.34

Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play

, , Satyr drama : tragedy at play. Swansea: Classical Press fo Wales, 2005. xvii, 295 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1905125038 $69.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

During the fifth century and most of the fourth, satyr drama held an important position at the City Dionysia. Each tragedian, after staging his three tragedies, concluded his production with a satyr play. Yet, with only one complete, extant example (Euripides’ Cyclops), study of satyr drama has traditionally been left to a small pool of experts. Over the last decade, however, scholars have begun to understand satyr play as more than a mere afterthought to the tragic performance, incorporating it into the broader discourse of Athenian drama and culture. P. E. Easterling can certainly be credited for much of this new interest, having reconceptualized the genre’s relationship to tragedy: “the meaning of tragic performance — its place in the festival, in democratic ideology, in the teaching of the citizens — needs … to be approached with satyr play in mind.”1 Since Easterling’s provocative suggestion, a range of scholars have brought their various perspectives to bear on the genre, and satyric studies have advanced considerably. Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play is an excellent demonstration and culmination of these developments within the discipline, collecting twelve diverse essays that will be important not only for students of satyr drama but of Athenian drama in general.

The volume developed out of G. W. M. Harrison’s involvement with a production of the Cyclops at Xavier University in 2003. In addition to translating and staging the play, Harrison helped organize a two-day conference “to explore current trends in scholarship and future directions for research on satyr drama.” The contributors have succeeded in the overall goal of the conference, and Harrison himself obviously played an important role in the collection’s success. Not only did he organize, edit and contribute a chapter to the book, but he also provides a valuable introduction with lucid synopses of each paper’s arguments and a thoughtful discussion of their various interconnections.

Harrison divides the book into four sections (Patterns from Fragments, Use and Abuse of Language, Intellectual Currents and Other Genres), and despite its considerable scope, the volume remains markedly unified. Interesting threads connect many of the essays even outside of their respective sections, and contributors clearly shared their work between the conference and the book’s publication. The articles are also linked by their sources and methodologies. Although the authors mostly offer original and innovative enquiries, they frequently draw on the same ancient literary and artistic evidence, as well as similar modern scholarship and theoretical approaches. Not surprisingly, given the fragmentary nature of the genre (and the recent publication of satyric fragments in Das griechische Satyrspiel),2 close philological readings play a central role in many papers.

Podlecki’s essay serves as an excellent first contribution, both in representing the volume’s overall philological approach and for its content. He begins with an informative and remarkably concise discussion of the genre’s early history, quoting and translating relevant testimonia and citing current scholarship. The bulk of his article offers a synoptic examination of the remains of Aeschylus’ satyr plays, which were deemed by ancient scholars to be among the best. Although less readable than the previous section, his thorough survey is an extremely valuable reference tool, providing an organized set of data for the poet’s nineteen satyric (or putatively satyric) plays.

Slenders too provides a strongly philological study, but focuses his attention on sexual language in Euripides’ Cyclops. Since Seaford’s commentary on the play, interest in satyr drama’s “comic-satyric” diction has steadily increased.3 Slenders’ essay engages with this scholarship, offering analyses of seven “sexualized” passages from the Cyclops. He proposes a sensible system of classification, dividing erotic diction into three types: explicitly sexual language, double entendres and a third, more elusive kind that “contains a barely perceptible sexual color and depends on subjective reception.” Such a method of categorization is sensitive to the inherent difficulties of judging sexual jokes, and it will provide a useful framework for future inquiries into satyr drama’s language.

Many of the contributors use close philological readings to extract broader conclusions about the Cyclops’ relationship to contemporary Athens. Two of the essays, for example, address the play’s connections with social and intellectual developments of the period. For over a century, scholars have repeatedly noted “sophistic” elements in Euripides’ satyr play, especially in its depiction of Polyphemus. O’Sullivan and Marshall, however, challenge these theories, shedding significant light on the play’s links to sophists and sophism. After systematically analyzing and discounting previous scholarship, they each conclude that Polyphemus does not represent a parody of the sophistic movement. O’Sullivan argues, instead, that the Cyclops embodies traits that Greek (and particularly Athenian) authors traditionally attribute to tyrants. He persuasively reveals Polyphemus’ tyrannical qualities and draws a very pointed connection to the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris. One wonders, though, how many of these characteristics (e.g. greed, violence, enslavement of others and contempt for traditional nomoi) are found in the other “ogres” of satyr drama. The despotic figure is a standard motif in many satyric plots, and, if these tyrannical attributes are commonly exhibited by other ogre-ish antagonists, it would either weaken O’Sullivan’s argument or change our perception of the genre as a whole. Marshall considers the Cyclops’ relationship to intellectual currents more generally, determining that “direct correspondences with society beyond theater … are simply not to be found.” Rather, he foregrounds the play’s literary pedigree, arguing that it entertained the audience’s intellect through references to other dramatic performances, above all Sophocles’ Philoctetes.

Marshall’s conclusions about “direct correspondences” lead to fundamental questions about the genre as a whole. Whether or not satyr drama dealt with the contemporary Athenian world, how did it engage with the contemporary Athenian audience? Did it supply comic relief after the tragic performance? Was it a lens through which the preceding tragedies were interpreted? Did it reintegrate Dionysiac elements into the City Dionysia? Or was there an even broader social function? Several contributors consider these questions, especially in regard to Edith Hall’s influential article, “Ithyphallic Males Behaving Badly, or, Satyr Drama as Gendered Tragic Ending.”4

Hall, in response to Zeitlin’s work on “playing the other,”5 suggests that the inherent hyper-masculinity of satyr drama re-established a male collective identity for the Athenian audience after the feminine experience of tragedy. Working from his own previous scholarship on satyrs as “Slaves of Dionysos,” Griffith expands Hall’s thesis and provides a thoughtful assessment of the genre’s significance.6 Spectators of satyr drama, Griffith demonstrates, did not merely identify with the satyrs but were divided between identifying with the satyrs and the heroic characters. This dual identification fulfilled two separate Athenian male fantasies, the “high and low, adult and infantile.” Although I have never been completely convinced that satyr drama’s enduring popularity was “due in large part” to any social function other than its entertainment value, Griffith clearly articulates how the genre did, in fact, fulfill an important social role at the City Dionysia. Particularly illuminating is his comparison of Greek satyr drama to American blackface minstrelsy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This remarkably apt analogue illustrates how Athenians, like white Americans of that period, were culturally united by juxtaposing themselves with abject figures, who functioned both as objects of ridicule and as a “site of nostalgia and infantile desire.” Aeschylus’ Diktyoulkoi serves as an effective case-study for this theory, and Griffith’s readings of the play skillfully reveal the underlying “pre-Oedipal” and “post-Oedipal” desires it presented to the audience.

Fletcher complements Griffith’s argument in her original and stimulating study of oaths, curses, prayers and blasphemy in the Cyclops. She examines the language of the three main characters (Odysseus, Polyphemus and Silenus), comparing and contrasting it with that of the others, as well as with that of various tragic characters. Especially enlightening is the distinction she draws between the “ill-considered speech” of the semi-human characters and the moral speech of the human Odysseus. She finds that, in the end, Polyphemus and Silenus (both non-human figures) show signs of “linguistic impotence” that relate to their feminization throughout the play. Fletcher’s numerous philological and theoretical readings convincingly support her conclusion that “the triumph of Odysseus over the monster reassures the audience that the mortal hero does after all possess the most machismo,” possibly even more than Hall’s ithyphallic satyrs.

Another issue that naturally emerges in various contributions is “pro-satyric” drama. In 438 B.C.E., Euripides staged a trilogy consisting of Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis and Telephus, but instead of completing his production with a satyr play, he staged the satyr-less Alcestis. Scholars have often inquired into the play’s satyric and non-satyric elements, noting repeatedly its diptych structure, tragic in the first half and comic or satyric in the second. Slater works within this tradition, but takes a novel approach, considering the play’s performance from the perspective of the Athenian audience. Drawing on Hall’s article, he paints a vivid picture of how unsettling the “feminized” Alcestis must have been for spectators. Euripides reduces the typical hyper-masculinity of satyr plays by reversing the gender roles of Admetus and Alcestis; and the impotent chorus of old Pheraean men would have been a surprising, and emasculating, shift from the anticipated troupe of young, boisterous, ithyphallic satyrs. When Euripides incorporates satyric elements into the second half of the play, however, he reasserts traditional gender roles and provides an entire “tetralogic” experience within a single play. Slater’s analysis clearly and persuasively recreates both the Alcestis’ performance and its immediate reception.

Ambrose and Roisman also deal with Euripides’ Alcestis, but—mistakenly, I think— do not distinguish it generically from satyr play. Ambrose finds a recurring theme in satyr drama that he would like to add to previous lists compiled by Sutton and Seaford.7 In addition to Euripides’ Cyclops and Alcestis, he surveys fifteen fragmentary plays, showing that family loyalty and betrayal is a theme “so obvious to have been overlooked.” It is undoubtedly a universal topic in satyr drama (and tragedy, if not myth in general), and Ambrose’s catalogue will function as a useful reference tool. Roisman finds a common thread running through the genre as well, arguing that satyr drama was a “comedy of character and values.” Following Sutton, she looks for the “ludicrous juxtaposition of the heroic and the comic,” since she believes that these incongruities have a moral function. Though she provides interesting and detailed analyses of various passages, her readings are often unorthodox and not always convincing. She maintains, for example, that Euripides intended his Cyclops as “a very uncomfortable self-confrontation” for the audience and that the Alcestis’ ending, which is typically interpreted as “happy,” was actually moralizing ridicule.

The relationship between comedy and satyr play implicit in Roisman’s discussion is found to varying degrees in many of the papers (esp. Griffith, Marshall and Harrison); so Storey’s contribution is welcome for its explicit addressing of the issue. After cataloguing the seven (or eight) plays of Old Comedy that are known to have featured a chorus of satyrs, he notes a number of other possible generic links throughout the fifth and fourth centuries, but he dedicates the majority of his essay to a thorough discussion of Kratinos’ Dionysalexandros. His expert breakdown of the play’s hypothesis (POxy 663) details much previous scholarship and draws fundamental distinctions between the satyric chorus and the comic-satyric chorus. Storey also suggests two plausible dates for the play’s performance (437 and 424 BCE, both of which are linked to satyrs and satyr drama. His theories are attractive and will undoubtedly influence future scholarship on both satyr play and comedy. Carpenter provides an excellent complement to the volume’s more literary contributions, examining “Images of Satyr Plays in South Italy.” He enters an important debate about the large quantity of fourth-century Italic vases that depict scenes from Attic theater. Satyr drama, like tragedy and comedy, inspired visual artists, and Carpenter’s detailed readings of several of these vases will benefit specialists and non-specialists alike. He offers a good deal of fundamental information, explaining methodological approaches and addressing central questions, but he also improves on previous scholarship. His most notable observation is that, although these Italian vases illustrate Greek drama, they are not primarily found in Greco-Italic cities, but in non-Greek, Italic cities. The repercussions of these observations will no doubt generate many new theories on the reception of Athenian drama in fourth-century Italy.

The final paper is a fitting conclusion to a volume that had its inception in a performance. Harrison provides a comprehensive running commentary on the Cyclops, and, as a translator of the play, he offers many original and insightful interpretations of the performance’s theatricality. He extracts from the text compelling new philological arguments that improve our understanding of the play’s dramatic technique, including its speech patterns, gesturing and stage action in general. These close readings naturally lead Harrison into a larger discussion of the genre, especially its “playful” nature and its reception in Greece and Rome. He directly responds to and ties together many of the collection’s papers, and his essay should be required reading for all students of the Cyclops and satyr drama, whether they are performers or scholars.

Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play is a welcome addition to satyric studies, both for its breadth and its depth. Contributors address established scholarly issues and point to valuable, new directions for the field. A quick perusal of Harrison’s lengthy index reveals the astonishing scope of the volume, and the essays themselves offer a wide range of interesting perspectives and approaches. Individually, the contributions will have considerable impact on studies of Greek drama and culture; collectively, they signify and strengthen satyr drama’s importance in modern classical scholarship.

Table of Contents

Introduction: George W. M. Harrison

Part I: Patterns from Fragments

1. Aischylos Satyrikos: A. J. Podlecki

2. Family Loyalty and Betrayal in Euripides’ Cyclops and Alcestis : a Recurrent Theme in Satyr Play: Z. Philip Ambrose

3. Λέξις ἐρωτική in Euripides’ Cyclops : Willeon Slenders

Part II: Use and Abuse of Language

4. Perjury and the Perversion of Language in Euripides’ Cyclops : Judith Fletcher

5. The Cyclops and the Alcestis : Tragic and the Absurd: Hanna M. Roisman

6. Nothing to do with Satyrs? Alcestis and the Concept of Prosatyric Drama: Niall W. Slater

Part III: Intellectual Currents

7. The Sophisticated Cyclops : C. W. Marshall

8. Of Sophists, Tyrants, and Polyphemos: the Nature of the Beast in Euripides’ Cyclops : Patrick O’Sullivan

9. Satyrs, Citizens, and Self-presentation: Mark Griffith

Part IV: Other Genres

10. But Comedy has Satyrs too: Ian C. Storey

11. Images of Satyr Plays in South Italy: T. H. Carpenter

12. Positioning of Satyr Drama and Characterization in the Cyclops : George W. M. Harrison.


1. Easterling, P. E. 1997 “A Show for Dionysus,” in Easterling (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Tragedy. Cambridge: 36-53

2. Krumeich, P. Pechstein, N and Seidensticker, B. 1999 Das griechische Satyrspiel. Darmstadt.

3. Seaford, R. 1984 Euripides Cyclops (Edited with Introduction and Commentary). Oxford.

4. Hall, E. 1998 “Ithyphallic Males Behaving Badly, or, Satyr Drama as Gendered Tragic Ending,” in M. Wyke (ed.) Parchments of Gender: Deciphering the bodies of antiquity. Oxford: 13-37

5. Zeitlin, F. 1990 “Playing the Other: Theater, theatricality, and the feminine in Greek drama,” in M. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (eds.) Nothing to do with Dionysos? Princeton: 63-96.

6. Griffith, M. 2002 “Slaves of Dionysos: satyrs, audience, and the ends of the Oresteia,” Classical Antiquity 21: 195-258.

7. Seaford (n. 3) and Sutton, D. F. The Greek Satyr Play. Meisenheim am Glan.