Thursday, 5 November 2015

Satyr Play

It seems that the satyr play was introduced into the Athenian dramatic festival programme at some time between 520 and 510 bc, invented by Pratinas.  The three tragedians competing at the Great Dionysia were required to compose four plays: three tragedies composed as a trilogy and another a satyr play which was performed after the trilogy of tragedies. Each of competing tragedians was given one of the final three days of the festival in which to perform his work. The satyr play was a light-hearted play, burlesque in nature which ended the day; its function was perhaps to offer relief and contrast to the seriousness of the tragedies. Satyr plays were hugely popular with the Athenian public.

In the case of Aeschylus his satyr plays seem to have shared the same topic as his trilogy of tragedies. Not so however, in the cases of Sophocles and Euripides who gave their satyr plays a different theme. Euripides even sometimes substituted a tragedy for the required satyr play.

Aristotle argues that tragedy evolved and outgrew from its satyric stage. It is claimed that satyr plays were perhaps formally instituted in the Athenian dramatic festivals to preserve that which was being lost from tragedy as its themes turned away from Dionysiac ones.

 The chorus of a satyr play typically consisted  of a group of  performers dressed up as satyrs led by their "father" the drunken Silenus, thereby connecting the play to Dionysos, patron god of the festival. Especially popular were those satyr plays which depicted themes taken from a well known myths and mythological heroes being teased or satirized by the chorus of satyrs, or those where the plot of  a well known myth and the characters in it were subjected to satire  and the dignity of the various heroes in it being reduced  by the earthy preoccupations of the chorus of satyrs.

Satyr plays were short, about half the length of a standard tragedy. They were generally composed in a trochaic meter best suiting the dancing perfomed by the chorus. In diction, meter and structure, the satyr play is far closer to Tragedy rather than to Comedy, even the speeches of the satyrs and and those by Silenus. Some of the typical themes found in satyric drama include an ostensibly happy ending, disaster averted by the intervention of a wandering hero and mildly humorous elements involving gluttony and drunkenness. In summary, the essence of a satyr drama might be said to be a tragedy at play.

A common humorous theme found in satyr drama is the straight-man, funny-man routine such as that made famous in films by Abbott and Costello. Satyr plays tend to keep to the realm of heroic myth and do not, as a rule, explicitly satirise public figures and contemporary events, as might be found in Comedy. They were not intended to be overtly political in nature.  There is a set of typical motifs running through satyr plays: captivity and eventual liberation of the satyrs, marvellous inventions such as, for example, of wine, the lyre, fire, and so forth, of riddles, emergence from the Underworld, and the care of divine or heroic infants, and athletics.

The satyr play, especially during in the Classical period, has to be considered crucial to the overall experience of theatre by the Athenian audiences at the City Dionysia, as invariably the last set of images and sounds seen or heard by them at the end of a day's watching of four dramas would always generally be the final moments of the satyr play.  More than likely the audience would go home with the plot of the satyr play topmost in their conscience rather than the narrative contained in the tragedies.

Only one complete satyr‐play survives from classical times, the 709 lines‐long  Euripides' Cyclops.  About half of Sophocles' Ichneutae (‘Trackers’) satyr play has been found preserved on a papyrus scroll. Beyond that only numerous fragments of the text have survived to the present day.

The popularity of the satyr play with the Athenian audiences can be gauged from the huge number of vases depicting them surviving from the classical era, which have been unearthed and are now found in the various archaeological museums around the world. Perhaps the most notable one has to be the Pronomos vase, to be found in the Naples Archaeological Museum [#3240 Museo Nazionale] which displays the entire cast of a victorious satyr play. This vase can be considered to be the single most important piece of visual evidence for satyr drama and satyric costumes surviving from the classical period.

Satyrs occupy an ambivalent status in the cultural imagination of the Ancient Greeks. In art, predominantly depicted in the vase painting of the sixth and fifth centuries BC and in numerous passages of satyric drama, they are shown indulging in hedonism. The lechery and drunkenness of these creatures is also readily evident. Satyrs have three main habits: laziness, sex and drinking, and an aversion to work remains one of their principal  characteristics. Silens are depicted in indulging in another canonical activity or desire of theirs, namely of having sex with nymphs

Over-endowed satyrs depicted on vases are thus better to be understood as being grotesquely comical rather than embodiments of enviable virility. Satyrs in sixth and fifth-century vase painting are also (in)famous for their attempts on female figures such as nymphs and maenads, the complete opposite to sophrosyne. There are moments in the satyr plays when the lecherous father of the satyrs, Silenus, indulges in absurd fantasies of about having rampant sex with nymphs.


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