"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

26 August 2014

The Cyclops, by Euripides

Chorus: “There ain’t no Bacchus, ain’t no dancing,
            There ain’t not Manaeads a-thrysus-shaking
            Or tambourines like splashing water.
            There ain’t no golden-greeny fountains
            Gushing wine, and not a sign
            Of the nymphs of Nysa shouting ‘Bacchus!
            Bacchus!’ as I chase the girls of
            Aphrodite, flying after
            Their milky feet. . .O lovely, O lonely
            Bacchus tossing your mane of curls,
            Where are you off to, forfeiting me
            Your servant to the one-eyed Cyclops
            As his lackey, where in my filthy
            Garb of goatskin I potter about
Shorn of your friendship.”

Silenus: “I’d go crazy for just one cup of that wine.
I’d sell the entire flocks of all the Cyclopes.
I’d leap into the briny sea from the Leucadian rock,
            for just one little tipple to smooth my frown.
A man who isn’t merry in his cups
            is a solemn fool.
Besides, [Pointing between his legs]
            it makes you stand up straight
            when you get your two hands around
            some lovely little soft boobs—and elsewhere.
That’s when you can really dance
            and put paid to all your worries.
So why shouldn’t I blow a kiss to a drink like that
            and tell that mindless Cyclops
            to go and cry his one big eye out?”

Cyclops: “Anyway, I don’t give a damn.
And why don’t I give a damn?
            Because when he showers anything down from above,
            I’m all snug in my rocky shack,
            and after a good dinner of roast lamb or game,
            washed down with a tank of milk,
            I’m flat on my back.
So when Zeus claps out his thunder,
            I from my blankets blast out a fart.”

EuripidesThe Cyclops is the only satyr play that comes down to us in its full form—there are fragments of others, but this is the only complete play of the genre. The satyr play is a very different form from both comedy and tragedy, though it shares commonalities with both of them. Like comedy, the satyr play is funny and is meant to make the audience laugh. However, unlike high comedy, the satyr play is grotesque, relying on a repertoire of gags, gimmicks, allusions, and innuendo with which fans of King Ubu would be quite familiar. Rather than wit and clever words play, the satyr play utilizes the (ostensibly) low humor tropes of scatology and sexual humor. One major way in which satyr plays genuinely diverge from comedy though is in their subject matter. Whereas classical comedy is almost always contemporary and focused on common or regular protagonists, satyr plays utilize the same content that tragedies use—myths of heroes, kings, and nobles taking place in legendary Greek antiquity. So, for instance, The Cyclops restages an event from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus has to blind a Cyclops bent on eating him and his entire crew. The difference, obviously, between tragedy and the satyr play is the burlesque tone of the latter in contrast to the dignity and weight of the former.

I find it fascinating that satyr plays were a standard part of Athenian theatrical life, and yet the genre is (almost) entirely absent from how we generally think about Hellenistic drama. I mean, each playwright who competed in the City Dionysia would enter three tragedies—sometimes a cycle and sometimes three individual plays linked thematically or otherwise—and one satyr play. So there would have been fully ¼ the number of satyr plays as there were tragedies, which is a pretty significant proportion. And yet the cultural image that gets handed down to us and reproduced over and over in our reverence for the Greeks is the image of the dignified tragedy.

The Cyclops is a carnivalesque masterpiece, in all the senses Bakhtin used that word. Particularly given the practice of performing satyr plays alongside tragedies, these plays clearly functioned both dialogically with the tragedies and heteroglossically (possibly not a real word) by providing alternatives to the officially sanctioned gravity of the myths. Additionally the earthy, vivacity of the satyr play probably acted as something of a release mechanism from the heaviness of tragedy. But the carnivalesque elements are clearly evident in this play—the focus on bodily functions like eating, drinking (especially wine), drunkenness, flatulence, sexuality (including erections and a disconcertingly playful male-on-male rape scene). This emphasis on the body and its physicality is a crucial element of the carnivalesque because it roots the experience in the senses and the sensual. And the physicality also puts the play in position to capitalize on cycles of life and death, which is another crucial component of the carnivalesque, which Bakhtin links to fertility rituals. In The Cyclops the satyrs move from being prisoners kept from Dionysus—a kind of living death for them—and through the (symbolic) death of the Cyclops they move to the new life of freedom from enslavement. The Cyclops’ movement is just the opposite—a movement from the freedom from work made possible by having the satyrs as slaves, to the death of blindness and solitude.

This last point—the bottom-rail-on-top-ness of the Cyclops’ fall and the satyrs’ gaining their freedom—might also represent/derive from a commentary on the fall of the old chthonic gods and their replacement by the Olympians. The Cyclops clearly sets himself up in opposition to Zeus, who is, of course, king of the Olympians and supplanter of the Titans—a race of ancient chthonic deities. And while the Cyclops was a son of Poseidon—himself an Olympian—dwelling in a cave links the Cyclops with the earth and subterranean imagery. The satyrs, on the other hand, were servants of Dionysus, one of the Olympians, and their chief desire in this play is to return to his service and worship, which for them constitutes freedom.

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