Greek Satyr and Old Greek Comedy


In the fifth century, the Greek tragic playwrights had acquired a significant following in Greek society. As a result, festival officials required that they present what became known as the 'satyr' play.

The Satyr Play

The satryr play was a short comedy that burlesqued a Greek myth. They were charcterised by:

  • A chorus of satyrs whose predominant function was to satirise the seriousness of the tragic plays by parodying gods, heroes, tragic dances, actions, conventions of acting, costumes and scenery.
  • Satyrs wore goatskin loincloths with a phallus in the front and a horsetail at the rear. They also wore tight flesh coloured garments that in some way ridiculed tragic costumes.
  • Some wore masks with fixed features and in the early satyr plays, the masks were not large. In later times, these masks would cover the entire head and were adorned with hair, beards and other ornaments.
  • The chorus wore identical masks that represented animals whilst the actors wore masks that characterised human expressions.
  • Characters that did not wear masks, had a snub nose, dark unkempt hair, a beard and pointed ears or they were completely bald and worn horns on the top of their heads.
  • Action in this plays concentrated on lewd pantomime and buffoonery.
  • One complete Greek satyr remains today, 'Cyclops' by Euripides. It is in essence a parody of the more serious story found in the 'Odyssey'.


Greek Comedy

  • Officially supported by the State at the beginning of 486 B.C with the first professional comedians taking to the stage around 455B.C.
  • There was a chorus of 24 members whose function was to perform music and dance.
  • Old Greek Comedy is best known by the works of Aristophanes and differed to tragedy principally by its subject matter and approach.
  • Stories revolved around politics, art, corrupt public and private practices. Politicians, philosophers and playwrights were satirised or held up to ridicule for their beliefs.
  • The playwrights had complete control over the plot and unlimited license was given.
  • Caricature was the prominent feature in characterisation although attention to real life was encouraged (fantasy was occasionally intermingled, e.g. 'The Frogs', 'The Wasps', 'The Clouds', 'The Birds')

The Comedy of Aristophanes

  • The comedic works of Aristophanes (fifth century) are the only ones that remain from Greek old comedy. Most historical accounts describe him as the greatest comic of his time.
  • Wrote his comedies in a time with Athenians were disheartened and demoralised by the conflicts of the Peloponnesian War and the loss of their greatest hero Pericles.
  • The result of this is that the work of Aristophanes is often coloured with tones of apprehension and grief.

In 'The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilisation', Aristophanes was described as follows:

He has been accused of seeking to degrade what he ought to have recognised as good; and it has been shown by competent critics that he is not to be taken as an impartial or accurate authority on Athenian history. But, partian as he was, he often stimulated the most effective political satire…his love for Athens was that of the most free-spoken of sons. Flexible, even in his religious notions, he was in this, as in other respects, ready to be educated by his times; and, like a true comic poet, he could be witty at the expense even of his friends, and, it might be said, of himself. In wealth of fancy and in beauty of lyric melody he ranks high among the great poets of all times.

(Bates, A. ed. 1906, London: Historical Publishing Company, pp 7-16)


Voice in Old Greek Comedy

  • More lifelike than that in tragedy. The characters were often from lower class status and so speech was from the 'everyday' mode (excepting the gods and statesmen).
  • Vocal variety, clarity and effective projection were necessary attributes to perform old Greek comedy.
  • Singing was required occasionally and lyricism and rhythm were important in line delivery.

Movement in Old Greek Comedy

  • Movement was mimetic, large and bold expressive of character types. Originated from highly exaggerated wild-animal movement and adapted from religious dances and victory celebrations.
  • It is believed that there would have been emphasis on kicking the buttocks, slapping the chest and thighs, leaping, jumping, high kicking, running and spinning. There was extensive physical contact with each other.
  • The actors would have needed to be energetic and athletic, highly disciplined in physical action, pantomime and acrobatics.
  • Costumes allowed free movement but were not prescriptive. Vase paintings portrayed actors wearing short, tight fitting tunics over flesh coloured tights to give the illusion of nakedness.

Character and Emotion in Old Greek Comedy

  • Greek playwrights such as Aristophanes focused on a single obsessive dimension of human character and turned it into stereotype or caricature.
  • Aristophanes sometimes used animals, birds and objects as character types to represent the human being. In particular, he mixed reality with fantasy both with a satirical overtone.
  • Some examples of his particular character types notable in old Greek comedy include the pompous Statesman or philosopher ( Socrates in The Clouds), the frustrated lover (Kinesias in Lysistrata), the vulnerable and effeminate god (Xanthius in The Frogs).
  • In old Greek comedy, character and emotion are far less complicated than that in tragedy and the focus is on mechanical techniques, physicalisation, voice and movement.
  • Often characters were known to make abrupt changes from lyricism to farce (Lysistrata)

(Reference: Crawford, Jerry. Acting in Person and in Style. Wm.C.Brown: Dubuque,IA. 1991)






© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006