Satyr play  

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Greco-Roman satire

Satyr plays were an ancient Greek form of tragicomedy, similar to the modern-day burlesque style. They always featured a chorus of satyrs and were based in Greek mythology and contained themes of, among other things, drinking, overt sexuality (often including large phallic props), pranks and general merriment.

Aeschylus is known to have written a satyr play, Dictyulci, in which the baby Perseus is allowed to masturbate a satyr's penis, as that fragment survives. Another play discusses the need to gang rape Helen. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides's Cyclops. We also have large fragments of a Sophocles comedy called Ichneutae (Tracking Satyrs), and still smaller pieces of other satyr plays exist. The Romans did not imitate this kind of drama in their literature, although, like the Greeks, they used to have merry after-pieces following their serious plays.

At the Athenian Dionysia, playwrights usually submitted four plays to the competition: three tragedies and one satyr play. The satyr plays were performed at the end of the festival as spirited entertainment to lighten the atmosphere after many hours of Tragedy, or between the 2nd and 3rd Tragedy of a trilogy as comic relief. They were also generally much shorter, around half the length of an average Tragedy.

Satyric drama was one of the three varieties of Athenian drama (the other two being tragedy and comedy). Its origin can be traced back to Pratinas of Phlius (about 500 BC). It is probable that, after settling in Athens, he adapted the old dithyramb with its chorus of satyrs, which was customary in his native place, to the form of tragedy which had been recently invented in Athens. This new kind of drama met with so much approval, and was so much developed by Pratinas himself, as well as by his son Aristeas, by Choerilus, by Aeschylus, and the dramatists who succeeded him, that it became the custom to act a satyric drama after a set of three tragedies. The seriousness of the preceding plays was thus relieved, while the chorus of satyrs and Sileni, the companions of Dionysos, served to indicate the original connexion between that divinity and the drama.

The material for a satyric drama, like that for a tragedy, was taken from an epic or mythology, and the action, which took place under an open sky, in a lonely wood, the haunt of the satyrs, had generally an element of tragedy; but the characteristic solemnity and stateliness of tragedy was somewhat diminished, without in any way impairing the splendour of the tragic costume and the dignity of the heroes introduced. The amusing effect of the play did not depend so much on the action itself, as was the case in comedy, but rather on the relation of the chorus to that action. That relation was in keeping with the wanton, saucy, and insolent, and at the same time cowardly, nature of the satyrs. The number of persons in the chorus is not known, although there were probably either twelve or fifteen, as in tragedy. In accordance with the popular notions about the satyrs, their costume consisted of the skin of a goat, deer, or panther, thrown over the naked body, and besides this a hideous mask and bristling hair. The dance of the chorus in the satyric drama was called sicinnis, and consisted of a fantastic kind of skipping and jumping.


  • Easterling, P. E. (Editor), Bernard M. W. Knox (Editor); The Cambridge History of Classical Literature; Volume I Part 2: Greek Drama Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (1993). ISBN 0521359821.

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