You are here

Noses in the Orchestra: Sense and Substance in Athenian Satyr Drama

Anna Uhlig

The satyr dramas of fifth-century Athens share many features with their better-known theatrical counterparts, tragedy and comedy. In the use of costume and stage properties, however, satyr drama exhibits a distinct approach that stems from the form’s most essential attribute: its chorus of half-human, half-equine satyrs. The evidence of vase painting demonstrates that the costume of dramatic satyrs was a highly formalized affair, consisting of a bearded mask with pointed equine ears and a pair of briefs, commonly referred to as the perizoma, with an equine tail in the rear and an erect phallus in the front. Because each satyr play included a chorus of satyrs so attired, and because (almost) every entrant in the tragic competition of the Great Dionysia concluded his dramatic slate with a satyr play, until the regulations were changed in the fourth century, the materials that served to construct the theatrical satyrs’ identity would have had a familiar and routine status unmatched by any other objects in the dramatic sphere. Yet the repeated appearance of the satyr chorus’ two critical pieces of costume, the satyr mask and ithyphallic perizoma, was anything but rote or monotonous. In fact, the very consistency of the material properties of satyr drama emerged as a uniquely fertile source for poetic artistry and self-conscious exploration.

            The paper begins with an examination of the special nature of the satyr costume. Evidence from vase painting is briefly reviewed, with particular attention to the unusual fact that the costumes of the satyr chorus represent their naked bodies. Unlike tragedy, where the physical body almost disappears beneath the costume, or comedy, where the insistent, vulgar corporeality of the actors is inextricably tied to their theatrical dress (Foley 2000), the basic costumes of the satyr chorus are designed to present the wild creatures in their bare form; they are dressed to be nude. The effect, produced through the combination of performers’ own bodies and the fabricated perizomata, results in a composite form that stands as an analog to the hybrid nature of the half-bestial satyrs themselves.

            The paper then offers a brief survey of the ways in which playwrights employed second-order attire and properties (e.g., nets, torches, hammers, armor, women’s clothing) to transform the standard satyr chorus to fit the particular circumstances in which the various plays cast them, much as Lissarrague has shown with respect to vase painting (2012). The double costumes create pointed reflections on dramatic mimesis, permitting important insight into a foundational phase of what Bill Brown has called the “the story of possessions and possession” (2003, 13).

            Finally, a reading of Sophocles’ Ichneutai 124-175 explores how the satyrs’ bodies are made especially prominent as they are metaphorically transformed into a pack of hunting dogs. The emphasis on physicality is demonstrated through comparison with the mimetic hunt of Pindar fr. 107 and the chorus’ description of Cassandra’s canine powers of detection at Aeschylus Agamemnon 1093-4. Special attention is paid to the significance of the chorus’ noses, stressed throughout the passage, in highlighting the second-order mimesis. It is argued that emphasis on the satyr-dogs’ sense of smell fills the gap created by the absence of additional stage properties or costumes in this complex double mimesis, resulting in a sophisticated meditation on the material construction of dramatic bodies, a theme that can be traced throughout the extant portions of the play.

Session/Panel Title

Objects and Affect: The Materialities of Greek Drama

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy