Satyrs and Maenads, Oh My!

On Friday, Nov 19, 2010 we went to a special event at the Getty Villa.

The Making of a Satyr Play
Villa Education presents a workshop on Sophocles‘ play Trackers, the second most completely preserved script of a satyr play, featured in the exhibition. Michael Hackett, chair of the UCLA theater department, directs UCLA theater students and graduates in this presentation, accompanied by an introduction to satyr plays and a visit to the exhibition lead by curator Mary Louise Hart.

This was a very interesting event. Most of you probably don’t know that there was a third type of Greek Theatre besides comedy and tragedy: The Satyr play. At the theatre festival dedicated to Dionysus (as all theater inherently was — Dionysus being the god to which theater, masks, and acting was sacred) a day consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play all written by the same playwright/poet and performed by the same amateur troop. The satyr play is a kind of tragedy which is somewhat funny (but not a comedy), and which generally involves some mythological theme into which satyrs have been inserted. If you insert satyrs anywhere, things get inheriently funny.

Case in point to the left here. Satyrs are the sacred disciples of Dionysus, and befitting the god of madness, intoxication, and altered states are hybridizations of male nature with beasts, specifically horses. Some might even argue that this is in fact the natural state of men, and doesn’t require a mythical race. In any case, satyrs inherit the tail, ears, and oversized member from their equine parent.

Back to satyr plays. We know little about them, as there are only 1.5 in existence. That’s right, dozens, possibly hundreds were written and performed, but beside a few scraps we only have the text of “Cyclops” by Euripides and half of  Sophocles’ “Trackers,” which was performed at this event. Ancient texts pretty much needed to be copied to survive, and well, monks weren’t that fond of satyrs.

The Trackers is the story of how Hermes steals Apollo’s sacred cows and builds the first Lyre, which eventually he trades to Apollo. So it could be thought of as the origin story of Apollo’s Lyre, which is one of the sun god’s primary attributes. Amusingly, and highly appropriate to satyrs, the tracking of the cattle involves detailed inspection of cow patties. Satyrs love a good shit joke, and this play has a veritable butt-load of them. The translation was brilliant, rendering them in meter and rhyme. It can’t be easy to translate poetic scatological humor from Greek to English.

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m an ancient history “amateur“, and how I’m particularly partial to death and resurrection gods like Dionysus and Osiris. So this was a brilliant and rare opportunity to see/hear some of this stuff in real life. They did some demonstrations of actor chorus interchange in Greek which I found fascinating. Then they paired this with reconstructed dance and limited music. You just don’t get to see/hear this very often. I know intellectually that Greek theatre was all written in meter, but it’s very different to hear it, even for someone who doesn’t (unfortunately) speak Greek. It gave me goosebumps. The UCLA students and professor who did the performance did an amazing job reconstructing the movements of the actors as well. Most of our visual information on Greek society comes from vase painting, and theatre (like drinking) is a favorite subject. To the right you can see an actor dressed as Hercules (left) and as Papa Silenus (right — father of the satyrs). Notice how the Silenus costume is basically a “furry body suit,” very cool. The actor holds the craggy old satyr faced mask up. As I learned yesterday, mask and “in character” are the same word in Greek. I love that, as I love masks and their Dionysian associations. My personal corporation is after all Mascherato, which is just Italian for masquerade. Back to the production. They did a really interesting job translating the postures and poses of satyrs and actors playing satyrs. You can see one of those in the upper right hand corner, recognizable by the fact that he is holding the head, actually a mask, of a satyr, and wearing special hairy “satyr pants.” These pants are the differentiating factor between real satyrs, like the one on the left “playing” with his wine vessel (real) and the upper right one (actor in satyr costume). It’s hard to explain in writing how they managed to copy the depicted mannerisms of satyrs, but they did.

The pairing of this often complicated motion, not so disimilar in some ways from modern dance, with the rhythm of the play’s dialog and the beat of the drum was very intriguing, and entertaining. One can totally see how these were exciting performances, and I think you could make a truly awesome modern ballet version of a satyr play. Perhaps with the satyrs and maenads preparing for the arrival of Dionysus. If I had a time machine I’d produce it, getting Stravinsky to write the music. Awesome! I guess you could do a production of The Rite of Spring with satyrs — as more or less was its intent — but I had in mind music that was somewhat more ancient in composition and instrumentation. The cult of Dionysus is not some happy go lucky party thing, but is essentially bound up with madness, chaos, and ecstatic murder. In other words, it’s pretty badass.


It’s worth mentioning our own little homage to the spirit of Dionysus, representing as it does an essential aspect of human nature. Our 2006 “Empires of the Ancient World Ball.” This was one of a series of black tie costume balls we hosted. This one included not only guests dressed as ancient characters and gods, but ancient music, theatre, and my personal favorite touch: A menu constructed entirely by recipes we selected from Apicius, the greatest of ancient chefs. The amazing Celestino Drago was kind enough to humor us by recreating these selections from an Italian version of the Latin cookbook. I should maybe blog separately about Apicius, but the flavor profiles of Roman cooking were in a lot of ways similar to watching this bit of ancient theatre: an exotic taste of the past. Both remind us that despite the passage of twenty five centuries, humans remain human, and interests, be they arts, food, politics, power, love, wealth or family, all remain at their core, the same.

4 comments on “Satyrs and Maenads, Oh My!

  1. [...] they are hybridized horse people, not related to goats (although they are partial to the beasts). You can see my detailed post on Satyrs. And on a related note, Dionysus was lamely portrayed, missing out on any of the interesting [...]

  2. [...] If you’re curious about some real myth, check out Satyr plays! [...]

  3. [...] “Oh my God, if I don’t finish all these perfect wines Dionysian Maenads will flay the skin from my flesh” [...]

  4. [...] To check out another Getty event involving my favorite Dionysian disciples, the satyrs, click here. [...]

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