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 pent-up emotions.
Evidence from Cyclops and other fragmentary satyr plays suggests some common elements of the genre: the captivity and liberation of the Chorus of Satyrs, the presence of a miraculous invention or substance (wine, fire, the flute), the theme of rebirth or escape from the underworld, and a lively interest in sexual activity. In spite of the similarities with Greek comedy, the satyr play retained its close links with tragedy in meter and language, and in its use of mythological, as opposed to topical, subject matter.
Cyclops is the only complete satyr play that survives. Its moments of slapstick humor—such as the Cyclops’s entrance on stage to the strains of a wedding song, the scene of Silenus drinking behind the Cyclops’s back, and the final episode with the blinded creature stumbling around the stage—make it an effective burlesque of a well-known Homeric story. Euripides changed Homer’s Cyclops from a man-eating savage into a more human personage: He has an intellect, the ability to argue his position, and a sophisticated ideology. He owns cattle as well as sheep and keeps a retinue of slaves. He is even something of a gourmet cook. At the same time, the Cyclops retains his penchant for eating humans. It...
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is this combination of the old and the new, of the barbaric and the civilized, in the Cyclops that makes him such a bizarre character.
The play presents an Odysseus who is a clever and unscrupulous trickster, rather than the noble hero of traditional mythology. Odysseus is the little man fighting against the giant and gets the audience’s sympathy as a result. The bullying Cyclops gets the punishment he deserves. The audience nevertheless may feel some sympathy for the Cyclops, who suffers a terrible punishment. The Cyclops in the Odyssey is a complex figure, and Polyphemus in this satyr play is more than just a buffoon. The emphasis on the painful effects of the blinding of the Cyclops serves to engage the audience’s sympathy. The downfall of the Cyclops, in fact, acquires some tragic coloring.
Cyclops is also the dramatization of the initiation of an individual into the rites of the worship of Dionysus. Polyphemus, for all his knowledge and sophistication, is unfamiliar with wine. He is presented as akin to such figures as Lycurgus or Pentheus, who also have to be converted to Dionysian ways. The liberation of the imprisoned satyrs at the end of the play represents the triumph of the god Bacchus over all obstacles and enemies. Euripides has successfully brought Dionysus into an old Homeric story: Building on the detail of the Cyclops’s unfamiliarity with wine, a sign of his savagery and lack of humanity, the playwright has produced a representation of the power of Dionysus.
Cyclops thus offers a fitting end to the tragic trilogy that preceded it. In tragedy, the power of the gods is demonstrated, as well as the inevitability of human fate. The satyr play offers the same basic lesson: Polyphemus takes the place of the tragic hero who is brought low by the god or his agent (in this case, Odysseus is the agent of Dionysus). There may also have been a provocative contemporary reference: The Sicilian setting of the action might well have recalled to the Athenian audience their city’s disastrous naval expedition to Sicily a few years before. Such an allusion might point to the fact that the Athenians, like Odysseus and the satyrs, were lucky to get away with their lives; on the other hand, it might suggest that the Athenian populace had acted like a Polyphemus, drunk with ambition and blind to the dangers of arrogance and greed.