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Satyr Play

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A Forgotten Trope of the Roman Empire—and despite the name, only tangentially to do with satire.

Theater in Athens worked differently than theater today. Plays were performed in a competition at the annual City Dionysia festival. Each playwright would write three tragedies, often linked by theme (sometimes an actual trilogy) and performed one after another. Understandably, six hours of bloodshed, torment, and woe had a way of depressing the audience.

So, after each tragic trilogy, the selected playwright would conclude things with a satyr play. A satyr play was a ridiculous, partially tragic, partially comic parody (or satire, though our word satire does not come from this root) of a popular legend. They were loaded with sex, drunkenness, and Black Comedy. The satyr chorus were notorious for their costumes, which featured comically large penises. The leader of the satyrs was their father, the elderly and put-upon Silenus, whose part was played by the Chorus Leader.

The Romans didn't borrow this tradition from the Greeks, and the satyr plays didn't fare too well as the years went on. Only one complete example of this genre, Cyclops by Euripides, survives. However, another play, The Tracking Satyrs by Sophocles, has a large number of surviving fragments. Further details of the genre can be pieced together from Athenian vase paintings showing the costumes and paraphernalia of the theater.

In 2011 John Zorn created a Concept Album around satyr plays, simply titled "The Satyr's Play/Cerberus".

This genre contained examples of:

  • Black Comedy: Pretty much the entire point of this genre, from what we can tell. The story of the cyclops is about a cannibalistic monster getting stabbed in the eye with a tree trunk. The Cyclops contrives to make it funny.
  • Eye Scream: Often, as part of the black Slapstick humor.
  • Gag Penis: The comically oversized penises were a staple of the satyr costumes.
  • Gonk: The satyr costumes.
  • Gross-Out Show: Downplayed; the more disgusting parts of the stories weren't shied away from, but they aren't the main focus.
  • Too Dumb to Live: In an extant fragment of Prometheus Fire-Kindler, a satyr tries to kiss the fire.
    Prometheus: Like the goat, you’ll mourn for your beard, you will.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • The surviving fragment of one of Aeschylus' satyr plays, Net-Draggers, has a scene where an infant Perseus masturbates a satyr. It may have been considered funny at the time, but now it comes across as pedophilia.
    • The Cyclops features several jokes about rape.