Satyr Play: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the satyr, a tragi-comedy play that the ancient Greeks invented along with the comedy and tragedy in honor of Dionysius' companions the satyrs.

Unexpected Origins

Papposilenus playing the crotales in a satyr
A satyr actor

The first plays in ancient Greece were written and produced in honor of their god Dionysius in place of the simple rituals the Athenians had been doing for generations, because they thought that they might be more meaningful. They started with comedies and tragedies based on their native myths, but around the year 500 B.C.E., Pratinas from the Peloponnesus region of Greece came to Athens and invented the satyr play.

The name is satyr, not satire. Pratinas wasn't interested in political or social commentary. He just had the idea that he could tell a sad story using satyrs, Dionysius' companions. The satyrs were perfect; they belonged in any celebration of Dionysius, and they had a mythical reputation for being drunk and irreverent toward anyone and anything.

What Was in a Satyr?

We aren't too sure what was in a satyr because we only have Euripides' Cyclops and fragments of other plays. Based on that, a satyr was a tragicomedy. There was usually a theme of tragedy, but it was offset by a chorus of people acting like satyrs. They were dressed like them too, complete with an animal skin (goat or deer) over a naked body and an ugly mask.

Scene from a satyr play
Satyr Play

The chorus told crude and sexual jokes and used physical humor. They acted drunk. The story itself might be tragic, but the satyr chorus, with its irreverent outlook on life, made the play more interesting and less somber than the tragedies. Satyrs were also short, roughly half the length of a tragedy.

Interesting Application

The tragedies and comedies of Greece were given prizes. The satyr, though, was never any more than a diversion. When the tragedies were originally performed, it was in trilogies. Satyrs were performed after the second or third play to break up the dismal mood of the audience. When trilogies went out of fashion, the satyrs were performed at the end of the festival.

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