BMCR 2015.08.11

Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama

, Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xviii, 191. ISBN 9780199950942. $74.00.


The relationship between satyr drama and comedy is a topic of increasing interest in scholarship on ancient theatre. In 2003 Voelke addressed various overlaps between the genres; in 2005 Storey discussed the use of satyr choruses in comedy, and Bakola made a strong case for generic interplay in Cratinus’ Dionysalexandros. In a similar vein, Revermann (2006) shed light on the appropriation of satyric elements in comedy. The relationship of the two genres, however, is anything but clear-cut: Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusai 157–8 is the only extant passage in the ancient Greek comic corpus that explicitly mentions satyr play (οἱ σάτυροι). This reticence on the part of the otherwise often over-explicit genre of comedy has led Dobrov (2007) to claim that there was a “firewall” between the two genres and that comedy systematically ignored satyr play. In an attempt to integrate comedy’s silence on satyr play as well as the two genres’ convergences and mutual borrowings, I briefly outlined a model of generic rivalry in 2013. These discussions are confined to articles or book chapters.1 Surely, the time has been ripe for a book-length study on the topic, and the monograph by Carl Shaw proposes to fill this gap as it focusses on “the evolution and interplay of Greek comedy and satyr drama” (7).

Shaw’s study is driven by the idea that satyr play and comedy are fundamentally related, and that it is only in accounting for their continuous relationship that we may understand the evolution of the two genres. Shaw acknowledges in his introduction that this is necessarily a speculative enterprise. However, Shaw’s reconstruction is too speculative to carry conviction as his handling of the evidence seems often partial and occasionally distorting.

Shaw’s account is seriously imbalanced when it comes to the relation of satyr drama and tragedy. From the outset, Shaw declares the revisionist nature of his study, which is directed against the traditional emphasis on tragedy and seeks to vindicate satyr drama “as a separate genre” (3). Throughout the book, however, the notion of the genre’s independence remains illusory. Mostly it is achieved by rhetorically separating satyr play from tragedy and the tragedians, as Shaw downplays the respective evidence or relegates their relation to the realm of pure formalism. Thus fifth-century satyr drama, which invariably formed part of the tragic didascalia at the Great Dionysia – the time from which the bulk of the extant satyric corpus stems and which is generally acknowledged as the formative stage in the genre’s evolution – is explained away as a temporary aberration: “Because of the festival format, where there were no satyric poets (only tragedians who completed their trilogy of tragedies with a satyr play), the genre’s primary development was toward tragedy” (82). This suggests that there were in fact “satyric poets” sui generis, a suggestion for which we have hardly any evidence. Shaw assumes their existence on the basis of an essentialising reading of the genre’s beginnings and its continuation in Hellenistic and Roman times. His enthusiasm for ancient satyr drama, which shines out of his book and makes for some engaging reading, has unfortunately led him to overstate his case.

Chapter 1 covers much familiar ground as it seeks to uncover reflections on satyr drama in Plato and Aristotle. Shaw’s reconstruction of the Symposium culminates in the familiar allegorical reading of the final scene with the three symposiasts still awake representing the three dramatic genres, while his reading of the Poetics rests largely on the elusive notion of τὸ σατυρικόν (1449a19–20): Shaw explains it as referring to the satyric genre on which Aristotle only touched in his discussion of the origins of tragedy, wishing to save himself the embarassment of breaking up his dyadic reconstruction of drama – which indeed leaves no room for the “middlebrow” genre of satyr play.2 However convincing these readings may or may not be, they hardly substantiate Shaw’s conclusion that Aristotle and Plato “represent satyric performance as a complex, independent generic mode with a considerable relationship to comedy” (25).

Chapter 2 discusses the origins of comedy and satyr play as well as their earliest – “predramatic and protodramatic” – stages in Athens and beyond. Adducing rich iconographic material and Pratinas’ hyporchema (Athen. 14.617c–f), Shaw argues for a significant overlap of satyric, “pre-comic” and dithyrambic performance in the sixth century. The hyporchema is read as a satyr chorus’s parody of and protest against a dithyrambic performance: “Even though satyrs were part of the kômos -culture and could perform kômoi, and even though satyr play itself likely grew out of the processional dithyrambic kômos, Pratinas draws a distinction between theatrical performance and processional performance“ (55).

Chapter 3 claims satyr play as the missing link in the reception history of Sicilian, especially Epicharmean, comedy in Athens: Shaw thinks that Sicilian comedy had its greatest impact on fifth-century satyr drama. In his reconstruction, Epicharmean influence came to bear on comedy only when the poets of Middle Comedy adopted features of fifth-century satyr play. It is hard to understand why Shaw does not exploit Euripides’ insistence on identifying the locale in the Cyclops to support his theory (only one of fourteen (!) references is noted: 65 n. 32). Furthermore, the various mentions of ‘the beetle from Aitna’ (Αἰτναῖος κάνθαρος), a running joke in Athenian satyr play and comedy that originated in Epicharmus, would have been an interesting case in point.

Chapter 4 centres on Old Comedy and ‘classical’ satyr play. For Shaw, the most important parallel is their use of obscenity and sexual humour (85ff.). Inter alia, Shaw discusses the φαλακρός/φαλλός (ἀκρός)-pun (89f., cf. already 73f.), which repeatedly occurs in satyric scenes where a child is amused by a phallus. Regrettably, he does not discuss Clouds 538–40, where Aristophanes dismisses this as too vulgar for his own poetry (but typical of his comic rivals). The bulk of the chapter deals with Euripides’ Alcestis from 438, the only known fourth play in a tragic tetralogy without satyrs, and the ‘cluster’ of Satyroi -comedies in the subsequent years. Here Shaw builds on Marshall’s theory that these plays formed part of a discourse on humorous drama brought about by the Decree of Morychides against (ὀνομαστὶ ?) κωμῳδεῖν from 440/439.3 Strangely, however, Shaw fails to mention the theatre competitions at the Lenaia institutionalised around 440: like the Great Dionysia, the Lenaia had both a comic and a tragic agon but, significantly, the latter did not feature satyric drama. It is hard to believe that the new Lenaian contests would not have formed part of the same discourse that brought about the satyrless Alcestis and satyr choruses on the comic stage. This being said, I suspect that Plato’s use of the satyr play in the Symposium, too, responds to the absence of satyr plays at the Lenaia (it depicts the celebration of Agathon’s victory at this festival in 416).

In Chapter 5 Shaw argues that fifth-century satyr drama had a significant influence on the further development of comedy, taking his cue from Nesselrath’s observation that “post-Aristophanic comedy […] to a considerable extent imitated the satyr play”4 (quoted on p. 107). Shaw illustrates comedy’s shift towards a more satyric style by pointing to the dominance of mythological parody and the frequent use of motifs such as the birth and childhood of a god or a hero.

The final Chapter 6 centres on post-classical satyr drama. Shaw observes that while (Middle) Comedy had evolved towards the satyric, satyr drama of the late fourth and early third centuries BCE in turn adopted features characteristic of Old Comedy, above all the phenomenon of ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν. Here Shaw puts a lot of weight on the set of didascaliae for the Great Dionysia in 342/1–340/39 (IG II 2 2320), which suggest that, at some point before 341, only one satyr play was staged at the opening of the tragic agon. Shaw claims this as the point in time where the genre became “entirely independent” from tragedy and ready to reclaim its true nature, as it were (141). However, Shaw fails to mention that the same inscription also records the re-performance of a παλαιὰ τραγῳδία at the opening of the tragic competition, a fact that may again point to a continuing awareness of the ties between the satyric and the tragic. In the remaining part of the chapter, Shaw follows the traces of satyric productions throughout the Greco-Roman world in the centuries to follow. Shaw is right to stress that there is inscriptional evidence from a surprisingly wide range of places and times for satyric productions – but again, he pushes the evidence to support his case for the satyr play’s independence much too far.5

Shaw’s monograph is nicely produced and rich in illustrations. Apart from inevitable slips, however, it often lacks the accuracy one would expect from a study on this textually difficult corpus.6 Nevertheless, it provides a fresh and stimulating take on satyr drama and is written in an engaging style. Given its occasionally partial argumentation, however, it is not entirely suited as introductory reading but will be best appreciated when read against a more balanced account of satyr drama’s history such as the introductions in the recent commentary of O’Sullivan and Collard or the indispensable KPS.7


1. Voelke, P. (2003): Drame satyrique et comédie: à propos de quelques fragments sophocléens, in: A. Sommerstein (ed.), Shards from Kolonos, Bari, 329–51; Bakola, E. (2005): Old Comedy Disguised as Satyr Play: A New Reading of Cratinus’ Dionysalexandros (P.Oxy. 663), ZPE 154: 46–58; ead. (2010): Cratinus and the Art of Comedy, Oxford, 81–117; Storey, I. (2005): But Comedy has Satyrs Too, in: G.W.M. Harrison (ed.): Satyr Drama, Swansea, 201–18; Revermann, M. (2006): Comic Business. Oxford, 103f., 153f., 218s., 299, 302; Lämmle, R. (2013): Poetik des Satyrspiels, Heidelberg, 35–50; Dobrov, G. (2007): Comedy and the Satyr Chorus, CW 100: 251–65.

2. Griffith, M. (2008): Greek Middlebrow Drama (Something to do with Aphrodite?), in: M. Revermann, P. Wilson (eds.), Performance, Iconography, Reception, Oxford, 59–87.

3. Marshall, C.W. (2000): Alcestis and the Problem of Prosatyric Drama, CJ 95: 229–38.

4. Nesselrath, H.-G. (1995): Myth, Parody, and Comic Plots: The Birth of Gods and Middle Comedy, in: G. Dobrov (ed.), Beyond Aristophanes, Atlanta, 1–27 (p. 2).

5. For a survey of the evidence see Lämmle, R. (2014): Das Satyrspiel, in: B. Zimmermann, A. Rengakos (eds.), Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike, Bd. 2, München, 926–67.

6. Some examples: p. 13 the quotation from Demetrius Eloc. 169 follows Innes’ Loeb edition (unacknowledged) which includes Weil’s conjecture τε χρεία for ms. τέχναι, a conjecture ignored in most editions ( NJPhP 73 (1856) 704–6); p. 55 n. 74 Soph. Ichneutai 367 (not 358) the satyr’s beard is qualified as κνηκός (‘yellowish’, not red); p. 74 while it is in itself implausible that the βρῶσις fed to baby Dionysus (Soph. F 171) is “meat” rather than ‘food’, it is hardly “a euphemism for the phallus”; ibid. Shaw muses that the “exaggerated nose on the satyrs’ comic masks was certainly phallic” and thus lent itself to obscene jokes. However, satyrs and their masks were snub-nosed (Σιμός/Σῖμος are both well attested satyr-/silen-names on vases, see e.g. Shaw’s fig. 7.1; cf. Xen. Symp. 5.6 on Socrates’ resemblance with the sileni (5.7), Tzetz. Chil.. 8.450 on Silenus in Eur. Autolykos); p. 88 διαδροτεῖν (διακροτεῖν); p. 88s. Ichneutai 150–1 is not “Look, you just serve your… bodies” but rather ‘[you are] slaves, mere bodies to look at’; p. 89 Maas’s lectio φαλλία in Aesch. F 78a has been contested by Henry and Nünlist ( ZPE 129: 15); ibid. π̣οσθοσφιλής ( bis : π̣οσθοφιλής); p. 99 Eur. Alc. 803–4 is not “We are not now doing things like revelry and laughter” but rather “ we are now experiencing things of the kind that do not merit revelry and laughter”; p. 115 κάλλιον is adverbial; p. 133, 184, 186: Astydamas II F 4 is from Herakles, not Hermes; p. 139 in AP 7.707 Sositheos’ name appears in the first and the last line, but not, as suggested by the translation, in l. 3, and Pratinas’ name does not feature in the Greek at all; pp. 139f. παρὰ Μουσῶν in AP 7.37.1 remains untranslated; p. 165 ΚΥΚΛΟΨ (ΚΥΚΛΩΨ).

7. O’Sullivan, P., Collard, Ch. (2013): Euripides Cyclops and the Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama. Oxford; Krumeich, R., Pechstein, N., Seidensticker, B. (eds.): Das griechische Satyrspiel, Darmstadt, 1999.