When the Greek playwrights of the classical age—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and others we know less about—competed in the annual drama contests in Athens, they were required to write a cycle of three tragedies, plus a shorter piece called a satyr play.
Most of us got a somewhat dreary dose of Greek tragedy in high school, but little was ever said about satyr plays. What a pity. As it happens, this form was a playful invention dating back to the sixth century B.C. and brought to Athens by a writer named Pratinas. In his homeland of Phlius, they were very big on the dithyramb, a wild poetic hymn to the wine god Dionysus that included a chorus filled with satyrs. Pratinas felt that the cheeky jokes, obscene gestures, and slapstick provided by the irrepressible satyrs would provide a lighthearted balance to the tragic drama that had been developed by Thespis in Athens.
Athenian audiences had a lot of stamina. They needed it. At their annual dramatic competitions during the Dionysia and Lenaia festivals, playgoers sat on the stone seats for hours. And hours. And hours, thrilling (and perhaps dozing off) to the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The plays took place during the day, not at night. The broiling hot sunny days of Athens.
What probably helped keep Greek audiences awake and in their seats for the long haul was the clever introduction of satyr plays. These pieces, half the length of a tragedy and a mix of sight gags, slapstick, drunken protagonists, and coarse merriment, were also dramas of a sort. The main setting and the theme of the play came from an epic or a myth, and the actors wore serious costumes and spoke dignified lines.
Greek drama got a lighthearted break in the sixth century B.C., when an interval called the satyr play was introduced. The satyrs did song and dance numbers wearing hairy shorts and perky leather phalluses.
The uproarious counterpoint was provided by the chorus, made up of twelve to fifteen men dressed as satyrs, wearing scary, hairy masks and animal skins over their naked bodies. Fore and aft, they wore perky, oversize leather phalluses and horsetails attached to a hairy pair of shorts. Throughout the play, they sang and danced, a saucy, bouncy, show-stealing hip-hop number called the sicinnis.
In Sparta and other Doric city-states, satyrs were half men, half goats, wearing goat horns. Later satyrs followed the Ionian mythical tradition, being horse deities. Both types were traditional companions of the god Dionysus.
Once Athenian playwrights got accustomed to the addition of the satyr play, they plunged into the spirit of the thing. A full satyr play by Euripides, called Cyclops, survives, and pieces of others do too, including Sophocles’ Tracing Satyrs. The material could get quite blue at times, although maybe the earthy Greek audiences, male and female, didn’t see it that way. Aeschylus, who helped develop and “refine” the satyr play, wrote one in which the action includes a curious or confused baby Perseus who masturbates the male organ of a satyr.
With their prominent phallic component and their musicality, the satyr plays underlined the fact that they were celebrations of the god of wine and excess, Dionysus. As companions to the tragedies, the satyr plays furnished comic relief, a jolt of surprise and mirth to the gloomy, fateful dramas—and some terrific, toe-tapping, carthartic laughs besides.