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What is the Function of Satyr Play?

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

Especially in recent years, scholars have tended to regard the satyr play as a genre which, despite its humorous features, seriously aimed at carrying out a socio-political function, or – at the very last – at conveying ethical or cultural messages to its Athenian audience. According to these views, the satyrs’ rusticity would have served the purpose of satisfying the tastes of the countryside citizens, less attracted to tragedy, thus facilitating – after Cleisthenes’ reforms – a process of demographic osmosis among different population groups. By staging the satyrs’ antiethos the poet would have operated kat’antiphrasin to affirm and strengthen the social norms and values; the childish ingenuity of marginal and wild creatures such as the satyrs would have helped the Athenians rediscover the origins of their own culture; the exhibition of ithyphallic satyrs would have contributed to reestablish, in the male spectators, that sense of virility that tragedy, exciting typically feminine emotions, had temporarily eclipsed. These interpretations focus on themes and elements which are, indeed, important to the plot of the satyr play. However, their paideutic meaning or pragmatic effectiveness is weakened – if not utterly neutralized – by their being placed in the context of a playful metafiction, where actions, situations, and relationships between the characters have no value in themselves, but appear to be subject to a single dominant aim: to raise a smile from the audience. To fulfill this purpose, the playwright exploits all the estrangement effects conveyed by the interaction and the interlocution between satyrs and heroes. Ancient critics had already grasped the true nature of the genre aptly defined as a playful tragedy (tragoidia paizousa), and were essentially correct (though not exhaustive) in giving it a function of diachysis or delectatio/relaxatio. The satyr-chorus will only take on a real political function in the last decades of the 4th century BC, in parallel with the progressive reduction of the onomasti komoidein in comedy. This will lead to a partial contamination between the two genres, and to the loss of the original features of the classical satyr play.

Affiliations: 1: ‘Sapienza’ Università di Roma RomaItaly


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