Origins. Aristotle implies that Satyrs—men dressed up as the mythical hybrids who combined human with animal features—were associated with the origins of Tragedy. However all available evidence suggests that Tragedy actually predates the Satyr play as a formal dramatic type. The first Satyr plays are attributed to the obscure figure of Pratinas of Phleius, who seems to have been a contemporary of Aeschylus; certainly, Satyr plays were fully established by the time dramatic records begin in 472 b.c.e. Those records indicate that, during the period of extant Greek tragedy, tragedians at Athens’ major dramatic festival were required to present one Satyr play as well as three tragedies; in most cases these four plays were not related narratively to each other. Scholars know of only one exception to this requirement: in 438 b.c.e., Euripides produced for his fourth play the tragedy Alcestis, which admittedly handles a variety of themes which seem to have been common in Satyr plays. Only one complete Satyr play survives, Euripides’ Cyclops, but there are several hundred lines—perhaps about half—of Sophocles’ Trackers, and many fragments of other plays.
Mythological Setting. The defining quality of the Satyr play was a chorus of twelve Satyrs, led by their father, Silenus, who seems to have had a freedom on stage unknown to members of tragic choruses. Often these choruses were transported to mythical scenarios in quite original ways: the Cyclops is loosely based on Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), featuring Odysseus’ famous meeting with that monster, but in which there is no hint of the presence of the Satyrs who are central to Euripides’ play. This regular mythological setting distinguishes Satyr plays sharply from contemporary comedy, and brings it closer to tragedy, which invariably dealt with myth. In fact, the relationship with tragedy is another characteristic feature of the genre, and one ancient critic went so far as to describe Satyr drama as “Tragedy at play.” Essentially, Satyr plays set up a simple contrast between the subhuman chorus of satyrs and the actors, who seem to be drawn rather from the serious and (in some ways) noble world of tragedy.
Pronomos Vase. This contrast is evident in the first place in the quite different appearances of the two groups. The best illustration of fifth century b.c.e. drama, the Pronomos Vase (so called after the named central musician on it), is in fact an illustration of the cast of a Satyr play, and lets one see immediately the difference between the stage-naked Satyrs, equipped with animal tails and erect phalloi, and the ornately dressed actors. Again, the masks on the vase have a story to tell: the members of the Satyr chorus have characteristically ugly masks, with snub noses and pointy ears (in marked contrast to the real faces of the chorus members), while those of the actors are dignified and seem to be similar to those of contemporary tragedy. The contrast shows itself linguistically as well: in Cyclops the language of Odysseus is the language of tragedy, both in meter and vocabulary, while the other characters use colloquialisms and metrical freedoms found in comedy. Yet, perhaps the most important contrast is in his behavior, which is deliberately emphasized as being of a “noble and tragic” kind. Several times in the play Euripides goes out of his way to have Odysseus voice concepts of honor that clash ludicrously with the general baseness of the satyrs, who show enthusiasm mainly for sex and drink, and exhibit cowardice and treachery in the course of the play.
Hospitality and Morality. Cyclops seems to have been quite typical of Satyr plays in the sort of themes it handled. The presence of an ogre, the oppression and ultimate liberation of the satyrs, the importance of hospitality—all these crop up regularly in the fragments of other Satyr plays. The themes are simple ones, and the genre seems to have been a pretty simple one too, with an uncomplicated morality and a generally rollicking tone, well suited to one side of its most common hero, Herakles. Not only did these plays remind Athenians where Tragedy had originated, but they provided a pleasing contrast and relief after the solemnity and angst that characterize the far more complex world of tragedy.
David F. Sutton, The Greek Satyr Play (Meisenheim am Glan: Hain , 1980).