April 10, 2014, by Helen Lovatt

Aeschylus at play

Oliver Thomas has just been representing Nottingham at a conference on Aeschylus’ satyr-plays at the University of California at Davis. Here he explains why satyr-plays are important for students of Greek tragedy.

Already in Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 BCE), Aeschylus’ plays are caricatured as a dramatically unsophisticated torrent of weighty verbiage. Yet every tragedy Aeschylus wrote was designed as part of a larger whole of four plays (a ‘tetralogy’) which ended with a satyr-play – in fact, Aeschylus was famous in antiquity for his satyr-plays. And one ancient critic characterised this genre as ‘tragedy at play’. Something is wrong with the image of weighty old Aeschylus if he was a master of this playful form.

Satyrs are hybrid creatures – part human and part donkey, at root – who chase after nymphs and accompany Dionysus’ revelry. Satyr-plays take a chorus of these figures and put them into a mythical setting. The only one which survives complete is Euripides’ Cyclops, which casts the satyrs as slaves of the Cyclops when Odysseus turns up. To paraphrase one scholar: take Odyssey 9, add satyrs, observe results.

Based on the Cyclops, satyr-plays are often supposed to have been a hilarious parody of myth, lightening the mood after three tragedies. But Cyclops itself involves the deaths of some of Odysseus’ companions, and one significant characteristic of Aeschylus’ oeuvre raises a further doubt about this ‘light-relief’ model. Aeschylus liked his tetralogies to tackle four related stories. Thus one production, after telling of Oedipus’ birth and self-blinding, and the conflict between his sons (the surviving Seven against Thebes), ended with the satyr-play Sphinx, which depicted Oedipus solving the Sphinx’s riddle and winning… marriage to his own mother. How ‘hilarious’ could this play have been, given its foreboding of what the audience had witnessed during the preceding tragedies? Similarly, the tetralogy containing Suppliant Women, which explores the girls’ fear of rape, ended with Amymone, where one of them is raped by Poseidon (and probably narrowly escaped a similar fate at the hands of the satyrs). So again, how did the satyr-play combine such serious material with the apparently riotous satyrs?

My contribution to the conference was a discussion of Festival Delegates (fr. 78a/c), in which the satyrs run away from Dionysus’ chorus-practice and take up athletics. Unlike Sphinx and Amymone, we have substantial fragments of a copy from 2nd-century CE Egypt. The passage begins with the satyrs dedicating images of themselves – probably masks – by nailing them to the scenery and reflecting on their realism. The plot contains the neat trick that the Athenian chorus performing for Dionysus are playing satyrs refusing to perform as a chorus for Dionysus. Then the focus on images (especially if they are masks) suggests a compare-and-contrast of their mode of representation with that of drama itself, particularly with regard to realism – where drama, with its walking talking ‘imitations’ of mythical people surely wins out. Overall, the passage is the best instance we have of Aeschylus reflecting on his own art, though through so much irony that – thankfully – no clear ‘message’ can be read off.

Take Aeschylus, add satyrs: what do we get? A rather disconcerting mix of escapist humour and complex reflection. So satyr plays give us important insights into Aeschylus’ style, his view of his own work, and the tonal and religious complexity of Greek culture. Satyr-plays deserve not only the scholarly attention of the last fifteen years, but also a wider audience among students of Greek tragedy.

Aeschylus’ works, including the fragments of his satyr-plays, can be found in the Loeb edition by Nottingham’s own Alan Sommerstein (ISBN 0674996274, 0674996281, 0674996298). Chris Collard and Patrick O’Sullivan have recently produced an edition and translation of Cyclops and the fragments of satyr-drama in the Aris & Phillips series: ISBN 1908343772.

Image: Satyrs doing acrobatic drinking-games; wine-cooler by Douris, c.485 BCE. British Museum Vase E768. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Posted in AeschylusconferencesGreek dramaGreek godsGreek mythGreek poetrySatyr drama