Satyr Play and Plato's Triadic Conception of Drama
During the fifth- and early fourth-centuries, satyr plays were composed by tragedians and performed after their trilogy of tragedies, a formal connection that has historically eclipsed the genre's more comedic elements. This was particularly true in the ancient world, where literary critics tended to divide drama neatly into two types: comedy and tragedy. In Plato's Republic (III.394e-395b), for example, Socrates explicitly suggests that the same man cannot compose both comedy and tragedy well, ignoring satyr drama entirely. I will show, however, that at the end of the Symposium (223b-d), where Socrates undermines the Republic's dyadic conception of genre, Plato specifically has satyr drama in mind. My analysis will provide a more nuanced definition of satyr play from antiquity, as well as uncover Plato's triadic notion of drama at the City Dionysia.
In an enigmatic and abbreviated episode at the end of the Symposium (223b-d), Socrates proclaims to the tragedian, Agathon, and to the comic poet, Aristophanes, that the same dramatist can (contrary to what he says in the Republic) skillfully write both comedy and tragedy. But before the poets agree or disagree, they fall asleep and the dialogue comes to a close. The narrator, Aristodemus, is not able to remember a single reason for Socrates' argument. Scholars have found this brief scene incongruous with the Symposium's erotic themes, but typically justify it—as does Diskin Clay (1975)—by examining theatrical elements in Plato's dialogue as a whole. In particular, Clay and others (e.g., F. C. Sheffield, 2001; M. D. Usher, 2002; and Elizabeth Belfiore, 1980) have argued that the Symposium is riddled with motifs from satyr drama.
The connection between the Symposium and satyr play primarily arises from a scene (215a-222d), in which Alcibiades eulogizes Socrates through a protracted simile, comparing the philosopher to a satyr in both appearance and action. This simile continues until almost the end of the dialogue, but just before the conclusion, Socrates calls Alcibiades' outburst a "satyr and silenic drama" (σατυρικὸν δρᾶμα καὶ σιληνικόν). Previous research has rightly stressed the satyric characteristics of the Symposium, but there are larger implications to this connection outside of the dialogue. I will argue that the proximity of Alcibiades' speech to the conclusion suggests a relationship between satyr drama and Socrates' notion that tragic and comic dramatists are able to compose in each other's genres. Plato associates these two thoughts because satyr drama was both tragic and comic, despite being composed by tragedians. Although an overly taxonomic approach to genre (as seen in the Republic) prevents Plato from explicitly addressing such generic ambiguity, he implicitly defines satyr drama as "tragicomic." The vague and open-ended conclusion of the Symposium, then, has a significance that extends beyond the dialogue itself. Not only does it reveal the complex theory of genre that Plato explores throughout the Symposium, but it also reveals a triadic conception of Greek drama at the City Dionysia. Plato distinguishes satyr drama from tragedy and comedy, representing this triad with the only three characters still awake at the conclusion: Agathon (tragedy), Aristophanes (comedy) and Socrates (satyr play).
Belfiore, E. 1980. “Elenchus, Epode, and Magic: Socrates as Silenus.” Phoenix 24: 128–37.
Clay, D. 1975. “The Tragic and Comic Poet of the Symposium.” Arion 2: 238–61.
Patterson, R. 1982. “The Platonic Art of Comedy and Tragedy.” Philosophy and Literature 6: 76–92.
Sheffield, F. C. C. 2001. "Alcibiades' Speech: a Satyric Drama." G&R 48: 193-209.
Tarrant, D. 1955. “Plato as Dramatist.” JHS 75: 82–89.
Usher, M. D. 2002. "Satyr Play in Plato's Symposium." AJP 123: 205-228.
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