BMCR 2016.03.33

Greek Satyr Play: Five Studies. California Classical Studies. No. 3

, Greek Satyr Play: Five Studies. California Classical Studies. No. 3. Berkeley: University of California, 2015. xiii, 188. ISBN 9781939926043. $29.95.


This volume, to be printed on demand, but also available on line as a free download at eScholarship, brings together five separate papers by Mark Griffith, published between 2002 and 2008, all concerning aspects of satyr-drama. Since four of the five essays originally appeared in collections rather than in journals accessible through JSTOR or other archives, it is welcome to have them all under one cover. Griffith has not revised the papers extensively but does provide some afterthoughts, cross-references, and citations of subsequent studies. There is inevitably some overlap in places, but not hugely so: his basic contention that satyr-drama belongs firmly with tragedy both in the festival context and in matters of style, that the spectators felt both disgust for and attraction to the satyrs (ch. 1–2), and the useful analysis of the context of tragoidia paizousa (“tragedy having fun”) in Demetrios On Style (134–5 ~ 162-3).

Griffith’s first study is the longest and most theoretical, “Slaves of Dionysus: Satyrs, Audience, and the Ends of the Oresteia ” (2002). He begins by enumerating various current theories for the popularity and social function of satyr-drama in the fifth century: comic relief, romantic relief, a negative lesson in civics, fertility ritual, rustic values, and Dionysian initiation ritual. For Griffith these do not explain “the curious combination of ‘high’ and ‘low’ elements, and the audience’s engagement with, and response to, the interactions between satyric choruses and heroic characters” (22). Satyr-drama mixes the high heroic figures of tragedy with a Silenos and a chorus of crude creatures driven by their appetites, but these are not opposed to one another but collaborate in achieving the ‘happy ending’. Griffith argues that the spectators in fifth-century drama are usually ‘onside’ with any dramatic chorus, that the satyrs in drama are more “human” in costume than the satyrs seen on vases, and that their dances, while more vigorous and undignified than those of tragedy, were “much less gross and lascivious than those of comedy”. He concludes that the audience was divided in its reaction to the satyrs, repelled by their childish and irresponsible behaviour and at the same time attracted by their “unproblematic servile existence” (49). This seems to me to be a more satisfactory explanation than the deliberate lesson in civic behaviour suggested by others. Griffith puts it well: “if they are meant to be a negative example, it is striking that they are presented as being so successful” (19). Presumably any negative feelings of the spectators were reserved for the monsters in the stories.

A lengthy coda challenges the common assumption that the subject of Aeschylus’ Proteus, the satyr-drama that followed the Oresteia (458), was not the story told in Odyssey 4, the encounter between Menelaos and the shape-shifting Proteus. Griffith proposes that Aeschylus dramatised the story known to us from Stesichoros and Herodotos about Helen’s sojourn in Egypt for the duration of the Trojan War, while a divine phantom went with Paris to Troy. He points to Agamemnon 414–26, where Helen appears “with a mysterious aura of evanescence and elusiveness”, and 736–48 where Helen becomes a Fury. A satyr-drama showing that only a phantom came to Troy would pointedly reinforce the hostile references to Helen at Agamemnon 62, 681–781 and the messenger’s account of the horrors of the war at Troy (551–82). It could also explain why Euripides in his Helen makes the Egyptian monarch Proteus’ son: Aeschylus would have already employed the encounter between Menelaos and Proteus.

The second study, “Satyrs, Citizens, and Self-Presentation” (2005), proceeds on two lines of argument, the first examining the “considerable overlap between tragedy and satyr play, and noting their sharp formal and stylistic separation from Comedy” (78), and the second investigating how satyr-drama fits into the collective citizen identity of the mostly male audience. Griffith examines aspects of language, metre (very comprehensibly), costumes, and choreography, as far as the meagre evidence allows, and concludes that while there are some ‘low’ elements in satyr-drama, for the most part satyr-drama belongs firmly with tragedy rather than with comedy. For Griffith the audience both identifies with and reacts against the carefree life of the satyrs, a perpetual childhood, for which he compares Neverland and the black minstrel show as useful parallels. He ends with a brief analysis of F 46a–47a of Aeschylus’ Netfishers to reinforce his conclusion that for the ancient audience “the feelings of desire, derision, and disgust were inextricably mixed” (107). Satyr-drama is often seen as a ‘dessert’ after the more serious tragic performances, but I do wonder whether some spectators would leave after the tragedies or whether others might come only for the satyrs—and for comedy if we are right in assuming that in wartime comedies were reduced from five to three and moved to follow the satyr-drama on each of the three days of tragedy.

The next essay is a text-based analysis of “Sophocles’ Satyr Plays and the Language of Romance” (2006). Satyr-drama is often seen as a “middle level” between tragedy and comedy, but Griffith’s analysis of certain stylistic aspects of Sophocles’ satyr-dramas concludes that it is still much closer to tragedy than to comedy. He compares the use of compound adjectives and sentence length in the tragedies and probable satyr-dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and also in the comedies of Aristophanes, and argues that Sophocles’ practice is “almost identical to that of tragedy” (114) and that “satyr play appears for the most part to inhabit the same world as tragedy” (116). Griffith’s analysis of the theme of romance and high living in certain longer passages in Sophocles’ satyr-dramas (notably F 149, 474, 941) leads him to conclude that while tragedy provided “little room for sexual desire of a positive and successful kind…it appears to have been primarily the satyr plays that provided the most engaging and fertile field of romance for Athenian theater-goers” (125). He does allow that Euripides’ Andromeda will have been an exception, but this play was late in the fifth century and the romantic nature of satyr-drama may well have been established by then. It would be worth exploring the possible influence of satyr-drama upon Andromeda (for 415 on page 125 read 412).

The paper “Satyr Play and Tragedy, Face to Face (and East to West)” (2010), originally appeared in the collection of studies of the Pronomos Vase, edited by Taplin and Wyles. Griffith leans firmly toward the view of the vase as “an idealized synthesis of typical Dionysiac moments and elements of tragic-satyric performance” (130). I would still consider the vase as representing a celebration after a specific performance, given that the names of the chorus-members seem to be real Attic names, so too those of Pronomos (a real and documented Theban aulos -player), Charinos (the choregos ?), and Demetrios.1 Why does finding the vase in an Italian tomb necessarily indicate that it was “a funerary monument destined from the outset”? This is followed by an analysis of the two scenes on the vase, both presided over by Dionysos and Ariadne, satyrs and maenads sporting in the wild and the tableau of performers of the satyr-drama. Does this possibly reflect the taming of Dionysos with the sixth- century establishment of a City Dionysia, on the surface a contradiction in terms? The vase would then be showing the wild abandon of satyrs on one side and their controlled performance on the other. During Griffith’s analysis of the various figures on the vase, the reader must keep his or her finger firmly inserted at illustration 5c, where the figures of the vase are numbered from 1 through 31. The illustrations are placed inconveniently far from the article, and illustration 5b, a sketch of the figures on the same double page as 5c, is set facing away it, making simultaneous use of the two views difficult.

The vase’s female figure numbered 8 holds a mask and is usually regarded as the love interest of the play, identified sometimes with Hesione daughter of Laomedon (who would then be no. 4). Griffith argues that to identify no. 8 as a character would give us four characters portrayed: Herakles (no. 9), Silenos (no. 10), the older male (no. 4), and the ‘heroine’ (no. 8)—but the playwright had only three actors at his disposal. His preference is to identify no. 8 as Aphrodite, attending to the divine couple. But unless Aphrodite was an actual character in the drama, why is this figure holding a mask? We do not need to assume that all four characters appeared in a single scene, or alternatively could the female love-interest have been a silent figure, but one that the artist felt necessary to portray for the story? In Griffith’s view the automatic association for the little winged Himeros (no. 7) is Aphrodite. However, vases depicting the story of Paris and Helen, such as Makron’s Helen skyphos, do show Eros or Himeros hovering beside the figure(s) in love.

The final essay, “Greek Middlebrow Drama (Something to Do with Aphrodite?)” (2008), challenges the rigid dichotomy established by Aristotle in his Poetics between ‘high’ and ‘low’ poetry, especially for tragedy ( spoudaios or “serious”, evoking pity and fear) and comedy ( geloios or “ridiculous”, evoking laughter and mockery). I would note than even earlier than Aristotle Aristophanes at Acharnians 500 (425) is thinking in terms of this dichotomy—“comedy too knows what is just”—so too Plato by the late 380s in the closing scene of Symposium. Griffith rightly points out that fifth-century tragedy does not have to end in disaster and mourning, and that what we would call “the happy ending” occurs in more than a few surviving and fragmentary plays. He takes the reader on an illuminating and enjoyable Cook’s tour of Greek literature including Euripides’ Archelaos, Theodektes’ Mausolos, the Gyges Play, and Exekiel’s Exagoge. A brief recapitulation of satyr-drama (“separate and in-between”) contains a concise and well-phrased summary of the history of that genre (161–2). At the end he seeks to establish a link between drama and the romantic Greek novel by pointing out that when Chariton (ch. 1) specifically relates his story to drama, he cannot be referring to classical tragedy or to Old Comedy, but to “an adventure romance, full of (what Demetrius would call) ‘charm’ and permeated with a spirit of Aphrodite/Eros” (165–6).

Griffith notes that “the importance of the satyric component of the annual tragedy-competition has been downplayed” (14), but recent years have been much kinder to the satyr-drama. We may cite the comprehensive study by Krumeich and others, the collection of essays edited by Harrison, the Aris and Phillips volume by O’Sullivan and Collard, Shaw’s study of the links between satyr-drama and comedy, and the volume devoted to the iconic Pronomos Vase.2 Griffith’s collection certainly deserves to share that shelf.


1. A possible ‘speaking name’ is that of the chorister labelled “Euagon” or “good contest” (figure no. 3). The name is attested once in PAA 425655, but not until the first century BC. If the character’s name was “Euaion”, we could cite the politician active in the 390s ( PAA 425850 — Assembly-Women 408). But the vase does seem to show a very distinct gamma. The only known Athenian dramatist named Demetrios is a comic poet of the early fourth century ( PAA 307970). Griffith stretches things when he suggests (145) that “Demetrios” might be chosen for the ritual association between Demeter and Dionysos.

2. R. Krumeich, N. Pechstein, and B. Seidensticker (eds.), Das griechische Satyrspiel, Darmstadt 1999; G.M.W. Harrison (ed.), Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play, Swansea 2005; O. Taplin and R. Wyles (eds.), The Pronomos Vase and its Context, Oxford 2010; P. O’Sullivan and C. Collard (eds.), Euripides Cyclops and Major Fragments of Satyric Drama, Oxford 2013; C. Shaw, Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyric Drama, Oxford 2014.