By purely aesthetic standards, Cyclops cannot be considered a valuable or important play, but it otherwise has a twofold interest as the only complete satyr play preserved from ancient Greece and as a dramatization of an episode from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). Euripides has kept the main line of Homer’s tale, but for the sake of enhanced humor has added the character of old Silenus and the Chorus of Satyrs. Furthermore, the exigencies of stage presentation made it necessary for him to change Homer’s ingenious escape device to slipping through the rocks past the blind Cyclops. The light tone of the play must have been a welcome relief to the Greek audience, for the play followed three tragedies presented in succession.
The satyr play was traditionally presented at a Greek dramatic festival after three tragedies had been staged. It made fun of tragic characters and themes, deflating tragedy’s conceits and devices. As such, it is usually thought to have been designed to provide some comic relief from the prevailing gloom and tension of the three preceding plays. An ancient critic called Demetrius of Phalerum called it “tragedy on holiday,” which indicates both its parodic character and its connections with the bawdy celebration of the Dionysian festival. The satyr play may on occasion have had a close connection with the tragedies that preceded it—the satyr play that followed the Oedipus trilogy, for instance, was called The Sphinx—but in other cases the link seems more tenuous.
Various opinions have been expressed on the purpose of the satyr play. The notion that it provided light relief after the tragedies is widely held. Others have suggested that it was designed to accompany heavy wine-drinking at the end of the day’s celebration of Dionysus. Alternatively, the plays may reflect the incorporation of older, animalistic, agricultural rites involving satyrs into the urban festival of Dionysus in which the dramas were performed. It is known that people dressed up as satyrs, mythical creatures that are humanlike but with elements of horses and goats. Satyrs are described in ancient sources as mischievous, playful, lusty, and hedonistic. They have pointed ears and snub noses and a horse’s tail. They represent the unleashed forces of physical desire that normally have to be kept under control. This is why they are closely connected with Dionysus, the god of wine, dancing, and release of...
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