Satyr plays were an ancient Greek form of tragicomedy, similar in spirit to the bawdy satire of burlesque. They featured choruses of satyrs, were based on Greek mythology, and were rife with mock drunkenness, brazen sexuality (including phallic props), pranks, sight gags, and general merriment.
Satyric drama is one of the three varieties of Athenian drama, the other two being tragedy and comedy. The Satyric style shares many attributes with comedy, both of which may have evolved from an earlier form, kômos.
The satyric drama may be traced back to Pratinas of Phlius, c. 500 BC. After settling in Athens, he probably adapted the dithyramb, customary in his native home, with its chorus of satyrs, to complement the form of tragedy which had been recently invented in Athens. It met with approval and was further developed by his son Aristeas, by Choerilus, by Aeschylus, and others.
In the Athenian Dionysia, each playwright customarily entered four plays into the competition: three tragedies and one satyr play to be performed either at the end of the festival or between the second and third tragedies of a trilogy, as a spirited entertainment, a comic relief to break the oppression of hours of gloomy and fatalistic tragedy. They were short, half the duration of a tragedy. The general theme of heaven, fate, and the gods affecting human affairs in the tragedies was carried through into the festivities of the chorus of satyrs and Sileni, companions of Dionysus.
The origins of performance culture and the emergence of the satyr play can be traced to ancient rural celebrations in honour of the god Dionysus. Rush Rehm argues that these inaugurated the "agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting" closely associated with Dionysus, who represented the embodiment of "a fundamental paradox inherent to the world, life-giving but potentially destructive." The role of the satyr play within the Festival of Dionysus is often not noted to be as important as the tragedies presented at the festival; however, it is crucial to the dramatic arts and history not to downplay their importance. The satyr plays were composed of fantastic plots and mythological burlesque moments & scenes. The dramatic festivities at the City Dionysia in Athens, similarly dedicated to Dionysus, required each playwright to submit three tragedies and a satyr play, which functioned as the last piece performed at the festival. The accurate emergence of the satyr play is debatable; however, Brockett argues that most evidence “credits Pratinas with having invented this form sometime before 501 BC”, which is supported by P. E. Easterling’s argument that by the 5th century the satyr play was considered an integral component of the tragike didaskalia. Brockett also suggests the possibility that the satyr play was the first form of drama from which both tragedy and comedy gradually emerged.
A. E. Haigh however maintained that the satyr play is a survival from “the primitive period of Bacchic worship”. Haigh lists several examples of recorded entries to the City Dionysia: thus, in 472 BC Aeschylus won the first prize with Phineaus, Persae, Glaucus and the satyr play Prometheus. Among Euripides’ entries, Haigh underlines Theristae (431 BC), Sisyphus (415 BC) and Alcestis which Euripides was allowed to present as a replacement of the traditional satyr play. Much of the evidence and information found regarding satyr plays and their history has been located through vase paintings.
The mythological origins of the satyrs are closely linked to the advent of Dionysus into Hellenic culture. The satyrs and their female counterpart, the maenads, were followers of Dionysus, a “late-comer to Olympus and probably of Asiatic origin”. According to Roger Lancelyn Green, the satyrs probably began as minor nature deities, while their designated leader Silenus originated as a water spirit, a maker of springs and fountains. Silenus was already an attendant to Dionysus when the satyrs joined the god’s following, and was subsequently proclaimed their father. The satyrs characterised themselves by amorality, excessive drinking and the breaking down of traditional values and barriers. Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller further argue that satyrs have a strong connection with music and dance and consider them to be “archetypal musicians and dancers”, thus linking them to Dionysiac processions and the origins of performance culture.
The Great Dionysia went through a phase of change around the middle of the fourth century. This change brought with it a switch in the ways plays were performed. Plays were no longer performed in a completion/competition type setting. Satyrs were now performed outside of the Festival of Dionysus and were no longer subjected to the judgement among other plays. Satyrs and comedies became more relevant within the theatre community in the 430s. The new found prevalence came after Morychides began to forbid fighting-related activities on the stage. Satyr plays did have some influence on other forms of performance as well; of the most noteworthy is Middle Comedy. This time period for comedy brought with it the humbling of gods and heroes; which was done through the domesticizing of these characters within the different performances. Middle Comedy took on many of the factors of satyr plays but adapted the performances to be what was desired by the public at that time. These plays have been said to be performed well into the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
Some consider the satyr play to be an extinct form of drama due to the lack of overall evidence from the past for these plays in comparison to comedy or tragedy. This creates a challenge of reconstructing the truth and history behind everything.
The material for a satyric drama, like that for a tragedy, was taken from an epic or mythology, and the action, which took place under an open sky, in a lonely wood, the haunt of the satyrs, had generally an element of tragedy; but the characteristic solemnity and stateliness of tragedy was somewhat diminished, without in any way impairing the splendour of the tragic costume and the dignity of the heroes introduced. The satyr plays generally took on topics that were popularized within society in the approach of a satyric farce. Satyr plays incorporated aspects of comedy. Some well known examples are Heracles, Agen, and Menedemus. The amusing effect of the play did not depend so much on the action itself, as was the case in comedy, but rather on the relation of the chorus to that action. That relation was in keeping with the wanton, saucy, and insolent, and at the same time cowardly, nature of the satyrs. The choruses in satyr plays usually involved the use of musically-inclined animals (such as monkeys). These animals were seen as a form of mockery for the ongoing issues in society.
The number of persons in the chorus is not known, although there were probably either twelve or fifteen, as in tragedy. In accordance with the popular notions about the satyrs, their costume consisted of the skin of a goat, deer, or panther, thrown over the naked body, and besides this a hideous mask and bristling hair. The dance of the chorus in the satyric drama was called sicinnis, and consisted of a fantastic kind of skipping and jumping.
The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides' Cyclops, based on Odysseus' encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemus, in Book 9 of the Odyssey. Aeschylus was noted for his satyr plays, the largest fragment of which to have survived being his Dictyulci ('The Net Fishers') in which the baby Perseus is washed up on the shore with his mother Danae and is found by Silenus and the satyrs. We also have large fragments of a satyr play of Sophocles called Ichneutae ('The Trackers'), in which the satyrs are employed by Apollo to track down his stolen cattle, and discover the baby Hermes. Smaller fragments of other satyr plays exist, and the genre continued to be written and performed as late as the 2nd century AD, though most have wholly vanished. Even a fragment of music survives from a satyr play. The Romans did not imitate this kind of drama in their literature, although, like the Greeks, they used to have merry after-pieces following their serious plays.
A.E. Haigh writes extensively on costumes for the satyric drama. The chorus members all wore masks in accordance with Bacchic tradition. The earliest reliable testimony is supplied by the Pandora Vase dating from the middle of the 5th century BC. On that vase, the satyrs are portrayed as half men and half goats, wearing goat’s horns on their heads, thus referring to the goat deities of the Doric type.
A later representation can be seen on the Pronomos Vase, found in Naples. The goatish element has disappeared and the satyrs resemble the old Ionic Sileni who were horse deities. The performers are wearing horse tails and short pants with attached phallus, a symbol of Dionysiac worship. Haigh claims that the Doric satyrs were the original performers in Attic tragedy and satiric drama, whereas the Ionic element was introduced at a later stage.
Men were typically portrayed in a heroic-type myth within the plot line. Heracles is a great example of a character that is representative of satyr plays. Heracles is usually around gods; however, his presence is one portrayed as very domestic and humanized in its appearance. Characters similar to Heracles and with similar roles as his are usually represented in relation to a musical performance. One of the elements that satyr plays contained was the consideration of "wild women". These were women that would dance with the satyrs and be called maenads. The movement of these characters within the plays was part of what began to create the basis from development of comedy. Additionally, these dances had variations that generally were parallel to the different forms of the dithyramb.
These plays were also filled with different types of singers. These singers at the Panathenaea were classified as traditionalists when looked at from an early Satyr play perspective.