Goat-Singers and Scholars:
A Slight Case of Suppression
A piece about Greek Satyr
Plays, their Connection
to Tragedy, and the Campaign by Scholars
To Overlook this Connection.
Published by the New American Review, 1969.
This essay was written at a time when what was then the orthodox view of Greek tragedy as a relentlessly serious form of theatre went altogether unquestioned. Jan Kott (with whom I corresponded when we were both working on longer works about Greek theatre) had just begun to present his own views of this genre, and the only dissenting notes that could be found were hidden in obscure pages of little-known and highly specialized studies. My views were welcome within the milieu of the Royal Shakespeare, however, which was continually questing for new perspectives on the classics, and by the critic Eric Bentley, who personally brought my work to the attention of Ted Solotaroff, editor of the New American Review, a paperback literary review sponsored by a major publishing house.
IN A WORLD where political, cultural, and ethical values have grown ever harder to maintain or even to define, the ancient Greeks still serve as a safe resting place, providing a standard by which other standards have been judged. In no area has this been more true than that of the theater, most of whose basic concepts and much of whose everyday vocabulary can be traced back to Aristotle and the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. Ever since the Alexandrian scholars began writing their tragedies after an Athenian model, the reputation of the Greeks has sailed serenely on, representing both a stimulus and an onus to succeeding ages. And what is `perhaps the most remarkable thing of all,' as H. D. F. Kitto, a leading authority, has put it, is that `the popular entertainment, that which corresponds to our cinema, was the loftiest and the most uncompromising drama which has ever existed.'
Behind this simple statement of belief rests an enormous body of scholarly paperwork, critical opinion, and sacred tradition. For centuries, Greek tragedy has been the final court of appeal among those seriously interested in the theater, and modern playwrights continue to be influenced by what they believe to be the 'tragic idea.' Such terms as catharsis, hybris, and hamartia still flow more or less fluently from the pens of our leading critics. Clearly the supremacy and loftiness of Greek tragedy may not be questioned without the greatest of justification; yet it would now appear that such justification is by no means lacking.
Precisely how secure are the foundations of the tragic idea or, for that matter, of anything having to do with Greek drama? Even for the reader who has some Greek, the answer to this question is incredibly complicated (or has always seemed to be so), while Greekless readers will soon find themselves utterly beyond their depth, caught in a morass of scholarly cross-references and footnotes. As for the tragedies, they were supposedly very solemn affairs presented in groups of three and followed by something called a satyr play, a mythological burlesque whose departure from good taste most scholars have felt was regrettable but perhaps comprehensible after the awesome weight of the three preceding tragedies. A chorus of raucous satyrs, wearing long leather phalluses, formed the chorus of the satyr plays, and certain liberties were taken which would never, scholars maintain, have been allowed in tragedy. Very little has been written about these satyr plays, and that little has not been particularly enlightening. Nor has it been conclusively demonstrated that the first three of these plays were entirely tragic or even necessarily tragedies, or that the fourth was invariably a satyr play. Even the number is not in all cases certain. The very words 'trilogy' and 'tetralogy,' as applied to the theater, do not spring from the Fifth Century B.C. but are later usages.
The fact is that the evidence which has actually come down to us concerning the nature and origins of Greek tragedy is slight, enigmatic, and sometimes even contradictory. Like the Acropolis itself, the body of Greek theater left to us today is remarkably fragmentary, as well as replete with late accretions and later guesswork. A simple and relatively consistent theory accounting for the relations between satyr play and tragedy might hold that these two genres did indeed exist but that the border between them was never all that pedantically distinct. But few simple theories about Greek theater are to be found in learned works on the subjectvarious scholars have traced divergent paths through the morass, but none has ever succeeded in convincing his colleagues to follow him. Even the surviving tragediesseven each by Aeschylus and Sophocles and seventeen by Euripidesdo not provide the firm footholds one might believe. Their texts have been mulled and glossed over by two millennia of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance, and, finally, Victorian scholars, all with their own emendations and may be beyond reconstruction, while the plays which have managed to survive did so not because they were all the best examples (or even necessarily typical ones) but because they chanced to suit the didactic purposes of Byzantine schoolmasters.
THE SITUATION may perhaps best be described by a very broad analogy to music. Let us suppose for a moment that we are several centuries in the future, and all that survives of the six hundred years of classical music most familiar to us are thirty or so pieces from symphonies. They are all of them second movements, preserved because an eminent critic of our time once observed in passing that only second movements have 'true solemnity and profundity.' As luck would have it, all of these pieces are by Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn. And even these movements exist only on paper, for all phonograph records have been destroyed. Yet a luxuriant criticism flourishes, based entirely on these thirty works, plus a few descriptions from the past of how the music once sounded. Into the midst of this fragmentary knowledge is now suddenly thrown a new discovery, oddly enough a Presto, the final movement of a Mozart symphony. This Presto, unless I am mistaken, will excite a brief flurry of interest and then quickly be forgottenalthough it may arouse a certain amount of dispute among the specialists, for it obeys none of the rules which 'The Symphony' was supposed to observe.
My case in point is a satyr play by Sophocles which was found among certain Hellenistic papyri unearthed in Egypt at the beginning of this century. Since then it has existed in an almost clandestine way, mostly buried in the footnotes of obscure publications, though it finally made its way into a Penguin Classic, with its most interesting part missing.
Our story begins during the winter of 190607 when Professor Arthur Surridge Hunt of Queen's College, Oxford, and two other English scholars dug up the major portion of a satyr play by Sophoclesthe Ichneutai or The Bloodhoundsfrom the sands of Egypt. The circumstances of the discovery are still not entirely clear, although it is known that one of the scholars suffered a nervous breakdown on the site from which he was never fully to recover.1 When Professor Hunt and his party returned to Oxford in the spring following the unfortunate occurrence, they did not find it necessary to publish any news of their remarkable discovery in their archaeological report for that year, although it was the first satyr play to come to light in two thousand years, and they had indulged in considerable boasting over lesser findings the year before. Five years were to elapse before this work was published, and no mention of its existence seems to have appeared in the appropriate scholarly journals during this period.
In the course of preparing the Greek text of the Ichneutai for the press, Hunt submitted a handmade copy of the papyrusneither the original nor a photographto the distinguished German classicist Ulrich Von Wilamowitz. After a careful study of this copy, Wilamowitz notified Hunt that he felt it was just possible that a column or two of the papyrus (each column containing about twenty-six lines of text) might be missing at a rather crucial point in the action of the play. Although it would appear that this had not previously occurred to Hunt, he now reconsidered the matter and concluded that Wilamowitz was possibly correct and a column might indeed be missing.2 The papyrus was in an unspeakably poor state of preservation, and almost anything was possible.
Many years later Wilamowitz was to complain in his autobiography that he was never allowed to see either the original papyrus or a photographic reproduction but was forced to work from Hunt's copy.3 It is probable that
Proceedings of the British Academy, pp. 45. The entire pamphlet is of interest.
2 A. S. Hunt: Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 9 (London, 1912), p.85. (Egypt Exploration Fund)
3 Ulrich Von Wilamowitz~Mollendorff: My Recollections (London, 1930), p. 310.
neither scholar ever mentioned to the other what was actually bothering him: for close to the position of the controversial 'missing column,' in the most embarrassing circumstances imaginable, were two unmistakable words: bull shit.4 They were in the dative case, suggesting active agency; and another fragment, its position no longer assignable but clearly part of the text, bore another unmistakable word: shit.5 These words are clearly in keeping with the spirit of Sophocles' play. Apollo enters in a particularly bad mood. Cattle have been stolen from his sacred herd, and he has been hunting all over Greece for them until he has come to Mount Cyllene. He offers a reward of gold to anyone who will help find them, and as soon as the reward is mentioned, Silenus enters with his band of satyrs and agrees to look for the cattle. Apollo retires, and the satyrs begin their searchnow rampantly wanton, now cowering and squealing, they encounter the various hazards of the quest. Much of the time they scramble along on all fours, sniffing the ground like bloodhounds, as they follow the tracks of the missing cattle. A sudden sound is heard which frightens them, and they tumble to the ground in a rout. Silenus goads them back to their feetthis speech is one of the best-pre-served parts of the play and also gives an excellent idea of the overall atmosphere:
SILENUS: Whatare you afraid and trembling from a sound? Are you puppet people moulded out of wax? You turds of creation! In every shadow you see a bogey and make demons out of everything. You sprawled-out, muscleless, honorless lackeys! Look at yourselves nothing but bodies, tongues, and pricks. How can you let this happenyou obey the words and you run away from the doing. Think of your father hereyou degrade the lowest beasts. When I was young I adorned the hollows of the nymphs and left many memorials to my manhood lying at their bottom. I never ran away, I never
4 A. S. Hunt: Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 9, 1174, pp. 6263, column XVI, lines 1415.
5 Or in this case, perhaps, dung. Ibid., Fragment 22 and note on p. 86.
even wavered, nor did I cower in dread before the fearful bellowing of mountain beasts. I met them squarely with a spear. But now all of this is tarnished by you, because of a new song piped by a shepherd. How can you be such childrenyou fear before you see. Would you lose the shimmering gold the sun-god offered us? And what of the freedom he promised youand myself as well? Would you go to sleep and give this all away? Back to the trail and take up the scent, find the cattle and the cattle-keeper, or I'll make you cry out for your cowardice.6
A mountain nymph named Cyllene discovers the satyrs and in a sonorous (and, it would seem, mock-tragic) speech asks them what they want and how they dare to profane the mountains with their raucousness. Silenus tells her that they have followed the cattle tracks to her cave. In another sonorous outburst she disclaims all knowledge of the cattle, and it is at this juncture that the satyrs discover the famous bull shit about which so much has not been written. The German scholar Carl Robert reconstructs the scene as follows:
1. Hey, satyrs, what can this be?
2. So big and brown?
3. It's stinking terribly!
You can smell it all around!
1. Here, just take it in your hand!
2. Do you see what we've got!
3. Oh, we've really had it,
It's cattle turds, that's what!
Apollo reappears at this point, and it is not known whether he is also made a target of the manure, or whether that honor is reserved to Cyllene or perhaps only to the satyrs
6 I have on the whole used the text of A. C. Pearson: The Fragments of Sophocles, vol. I (London, 1917), pp. 22470. Needless to say, scholars will disagree on certain points of translation.
among themselves. The situation would be much clearer if only the papyrus were not broken off here.
In order to grasp the difficulty that Hunt and Wilamowitz had with these words, one needs to know the spirit in which Sophocles was regarded by Hunt's generation. The preface to the Loeb Library edition of Sophocles, first published in 1912 and still in print, reads in part:
'His life was gentle.' Gentle is the word by which critics ancient and modem have agreed to characterize him Since his death the fame of Sophocles has grown and never suffered eclipse. To Aristotle no less than to Aristophanes he is the greatest of dramatists . . . In all antiquity there is not a purer-minded poet, and we may discredit and ignore the unsavory gossip of Athenaeus and the scandal-mongers of a later age.
This is Sophocles as he was typically seen at the time the Ichneutai was finally published. The 'scandal-monger' Athenaeus, as we shall see, was a considerable scholar in his own right. One of the stories about Sophocles to be found in his pages involves the poet performing a dance while naked, in the best fifth-century tradition; others have to do with the fact that Sophocles was human and had love affairs. Concerning satyr plays, the Victorian era knew little and said less. Aside from a few fragments, only Euripides' Cyclops was extant, and although it was rather raucous, critics felt themselves justified in supposing that it was genuinely 'poetic' under-neath. And in any case, satyr plays had absolutely nothing to do with real tragedy or the tragic ideathat was utterly unthinkable.
There was, however, one troublesome detailAristotle had said that tragedy had, after a long time, evolved from 'the satyric.' This is one of the most disputed sentences in all the classics. It is subject to two quite divergent translationsothers are possibleand the more fashionable of these reads as follows:
Being a development of the Satyr play, it was quite late before tragedy rose from short plots and comic diction to its full dignity. (Fyfe's translation, Loeb edition)
At the same time it may also be read as follows:
Starting from short tales and humorous speech, after a long time in its transformation from the satyric it began to put on airs.
While it was impossible to disbelieve Aristotle, it was nonetheless utterly inconceivable that so lofty and noble a creation as tragedy could be in any way connected with anything so vile, frivolous, and degrading as a band of satyrs. It is no exaggeration to say that an enormous part of scholarly energy during this century has gone into refuting, minimizing, or studiously ignoring this simple statement of Aristotle concerning the origins of tragedy.
The Greek drama, it has been felt, must be lofty or nothing at all, though it requires no fanatical devotion to Aristotle to suggest that in this case he may have known what he was talking about. The drama has in all ages been accused of showing the coarse and vulgar side of human nature by those who wished to pretend that such a side did not exist. In some ages it is fair to confess that the drama actually has been coarse and vulgar, and there is no reason to suppose that the ancient Greek drama did not go through such a period. But this was the last thing Victorian critics and their successors have been willing to suppose. The simple and consistent argument, mentioned earlier, which would make a reasonable connection between the bits of evidence that have come down to us (some of them seldom mentioned), has been avoided not because it is illogicallogic has rarely been a strong point of theories about the Greeksbut because it is embarrassing.
There was yet another problem to vex the scholarsthe word 'tragedy' itself, or tragôidia, was not very elevated in its origins. It had none of the dire connotations of the modern word 'tragic'when an Athenian suffered a real-life tragedy he called it pathos. In fact, tragôidia seemed to mean something like goat-singing. The goat is no longer a fashionable animal, possibly be-cause of its reputation for horniness (here also, as in many parts of our lives, Victorian prejudices may still be at work), but among the Athenians the goat was life itselfit was their milk, their cheese, their clothing, and supplied what little meat they ate at "sacrifices." And among a people who regarded fertility as an absolute good, the sexual accomplishments of the goat may have seemed more worthy of emulation than of blame. In any case, it is clear that scholars have never been very happy about the "goat" in the word "tragedy." This is possibly because satyrs, the same creatures who compose the chorus of satyr plays, have often been described as part goat in nature or depicted wearing goatlike costumes.
AT THIS POINT we would do well to return to our bull shit (or, to be more precise, pieces of bovine ordure) and the two scholars intent on deciphering its innermost meaning. It will be pointed out that manure was no rarity in Greek dramathe comedies of Aristophanes are full of feces, be it bovine, ovine, or other, and it would not normally be surprising to encounter it in a satyr play by Sophocles as well. Another piece of offal more or less would surely have made little difference, but this was no ordinary offalwhat was at stake in this ease was not merely the purity of Sophocles' mind or even the nature of the satyr play (though these were clearly affected) but the crucial relationship between this last and the nature of tragedy as it has been understood through the ages.
It is not certain to what extent Professor A. S. Hunt may have realized this, and one hesitates to disparage the man whom many regard as the father of papyrology. All accounts agree in crediting him with that boundless energy and heightened concentration we have come to associate with the Victorians. These qualities were occasionally marred by a certain autocratic dullness, which, on balance, one would wish to discount were Hunt's character not relevant to these matters, particularly when we contrast it with that of his German counterpart, Ulrich Von Wilamowitz. This product of the Polish-Prussian nobility was a remarkable man by any standardstwenty years Hunt's senior, he had abundant energy of his own and equally great powers of concentration, but beyond these he also possessed something more important, an adventurous imagination. Wilamowitz was an intimate of Nietzsche, for a time his rival, and later one of his most ardent defenders. He was open to every idea and nuance of thought that characterized the first fervent years of the new Germany in which he matured, and he allowed no concept to be foreign to him.
It would be interesting to know precisely what thoughts ran through their heads as these two men, each in his separate nation with his separate manner of thought, encountered the problems raised by the bull shit. The task of the scholar is most often a matter of the driest routine, the laborious sifting of small, slender facts into cautious generalizations, but it sometimes happens that he is confronted with a challenge so immense that it may, if accepted, afford a means of almost direct access into the lives and minds of people of another era. It was just such a challenge that lay before Hunt and Wilamowitz; Hunt chose to ignore and minimize its existence, while Wilamowitz chose just as surely, within the limits of the cultural taboos and the available knowledge of his time, to accept it and to attempt a solution.
Hunt's most widely circulated treatment appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for October, 1912, m the form of an English verse translation of the play, stopping short of the crucial passage. A brief article prefacing the translation assured the reader there was nothing that could possibly offend, although it was hinted that this was not always true of Sophocles:
The mimicry by the Satyrs of dogs upon the scent would no doubt lend itself to fun of a boisterous and perhaps broad kind, though there is throughout much less coarseness of expression than in the play of Euripides [The Cyclops]; it is, however, known from other sources that Sophocles was not always blameless in this respect.
In this way, with a brief wink and a vast silence, was the problem dealt with, and Hunt's treatment has stood as definitive ever since among the vast majority of scholars. His two Greek editions of the satyr play, containing what is believed to be the complete text, do the problem the barest justice, burying it in equivocal footnotes accessible and comprehensible to only the most persistent of scholars.
Wilamowitz, on the other hand, was less embarrassed by the problem than intrigued by it. In his very first article on the play, he mentions the bull shit in passing, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.7 For the purposes of translation, Wilamowitz handed the text over to another German scholar, Carl Robert, perhaps the most remarkable of all the remarkable men who have dealt with the contents of this papyrus, for in addition to being a scholar Robert also had a sense of the theater, and had previously translated and produced his own German version of Menander. Like Wilamowitz, he was intrigued by the manure and recognized it as a dramatic element to be dealt with, for he had a concept of the Greek theater that was not limited by the groaning, moaning choruses of his time (and ours as well). Robert prepared two versions of Die Spürhunde, as he chose to call the Ichneutai, the first with a pantomimed ending, the second throwing all caution to the winds with a spoken denouement in addition to the action.8 Robert prefaced the second edition with the following excerpt from Molière:
It isn't necessary to warn you that there are many things which depend upon action: it is well known that the only reason to make comedies is to play them; and the only people I would advise to read them are those who have eyes to discover in their reading the whole interplay of the Theatre.
Robert was not to rest until he had organized a full-scale production under the best possible conditions. Thus there occurred in the theater of the town of Lauchstedt,
7 Wilamowitz was later to write of the 'hypocritical decency which prevented a faithful representation of the satyrs.'
8 Carl Robert: Die Spiirhunde (Berlin, 1912 and 1913). Neither edition is to be found either in the British Museum or in Oxford's Bodleian Library, although the latter institution has a virtually complete collection of Robert's works. It is therefore possible that there is only one copy in existence in all of England.
sacred to the memory of Goethe, in June of 1913 and later that year in the Gymnasium Phillipinum at Marburg, performances of the Ichneutai whose importance to the understanding of ancient theater can scarcely be underestimated. Manure, not the word but the thing itselfor a suitable synthetic substitutewas hurled on the modern stage in the name of high Greek culture after a lapse of two thousand years. England greeted these performances as though they had never taken place, although they were well publicized within the scholarly world, and even in Germany the reaction, except for a hard core of enthusiasts, was one of silent outrage. A manureless ending was soon contrived by other scholars for the purpose of school performances.
WHATEVER THE IMPACT of Robert's production, it was swallowed up by World War I, and it was not until the last year of this conflict that an English scholar registered any reaction to the manure in Sophocles. As might be expected he was a very odd Englishman, though at first glance he was a familiar enough type, the Anglican clergyman who underwent a crisis of faith and became a Roman Catholic. His name was Richard Johnson Walker, and he was a man who could never say anything simply if a more complicated way of saying it could possibly be devised. His six-hundred-page work, The Ichneutai of Sophocles, may be one of the most thickly written works extant on any subject, a work to out-German the Germans. Not surprisingly Walker was a dilettante rather than a professional scholar, as no professional would have been likely to touch the subject. Nor was Walker one to stand in awe of scholarly protocol; in the first pages of his preface he leaps to the attack:
'Alterations, not only avowed, but also . . . in some cases unavowed and disguised, have been effected. How far such camouflage extends I have no idea. Professor Hunt's achievement is magnificent, but nevertheless the secrets of the papyrus have not yet been fully probed.'
Nor are they fully probed in Walker's book, for it was his passion to see anagrams, mysteries, and acrostics lurking in every line of the play, to invent his own imaginative readings whenever the text seemed unclear to him, and to interject comments occasioned by his newly found religious beliefs. His few genuine insights were widely scattered in a sea of trivia, and professional scholars had no trouble in ignoring his contributions. Yet there is no doubt that Walker was aware that a problem existed concerning the relationship between the 'tragic' and the 'satyric,' however disgruntling be may have found it. In his chapter on the origins of tragedy and satyr play, he points out that various plays generally classified as tragedies seem to have contained some markedly satyric episodes. It is typical of the man that some of the sexual references in the play went right by himhe did not suppress them in his edition, he merely failed to recognize themand his only references to manure are attempts to minimize its importance.
Walker's book was published in 1919, and it was twenty-one years before any English scholar was to re-exhume the Greek text of the play, this time in the form of a Loeb Library edition entitled Greek Literary Papyri, where it was sandwiched between countless other 'newly found' fragments of lyric and dramatic works. This edition provided a Greek text with adjoining English translation, but both the Greek and the English stopped a few lines short of the disputed section. Comparing the Ichneutai with Euripides' Cyclops, the editor, D. L. Page, maintains that 'Sophocles' play revealsso far as we can tellmuch less both of humor and of indecency.'
The markedly different opinion of Robert and Wilamowitz was not confronted, nor was it ever to be. And another English translation, by Sir George Young, also stopped several lines short of the crucial section. At this point the strange history of the Ichneutai veers off into the absurd. The next, and the most recent, translator of this play was Professor Roger Lancelyn Green (Two Satyr Plays, Penguin Books, 1957). At about the point when Silenus and the satyrs were hurling manure in the original, the satyrs in Professor Lancelyn Green's version gather together and sing a little song:
Oh, give us the hills where the Maenads dance
In the train of the Bromian king;
Let us kick up our heels as we caper and prance,
As we cast on each maiden an amorous glance,
And gleefully gambol and sing!
Such is a brief account of this play's treatment in England. The account could be expanded, and to it might be added a list of similar evasions, omissions, and/or oversights among French, Italian, and later German scholars, but the overall pattern is clear. What may still not be clear to the reader is the reason for these evasions, the 'shameful secret' that has made these suppressions and omissions necessary. Like other people, classical scholars enjoy disputationthey vie for space in little magazines with esoteric names like Gnomon, Mnemosyne, and Hermes, or more prosaic ones like Transactions of the Proceedings of the American Philological Association. Within these pages they engage in minute controversies on large issues or large controversies on small ones, prolonging these disputes for years on end with little prospect of a final settlement. No text, no variant reading, no footnote is too slight to be over-looked in these debates, and so one might expect to find a vast literature on the crucial section of the Ichneutai. But on this subject there has been next to nothing since the work of Robert and Wilamowitz.
To UNDERSTAND the hesitation of these scholars, we must briefly examine certain other fragments of 'tragedies' and/or 'satyr plays' which have come down to us from antiquity. Many of these fragments are every bit as controversial as the critical section of the Ichneutai. To confront the one would involve confronting the others as well, and such a confrontation would have initiated thought currents so powerful that they might not have stopped until they toppled the entire structure of our knowledge about the Greeks. The first of these fragments comes from a lost play by Aeschylus called the Ostologoi, or The Bone-Pickers. It was evidently a 'tragedy,' and the fragment reads as follows:
There he is, the one who flung that laughable missile at me, the smelly pisspot, and he didn't miss: it hit my head and broke and fell to pieces, and it didn't make me smell like a perfume bottle.9
The only extant English translations of this fragment are a good deal less explicit, but there is no doubt as to the meaning of the Greek. Some scholars have tried to maintain that Aeschylus wrote another Ostologoi, from which this fragment comes, which was not a tragedy but a satyr play, but there is no evidence that this is true, just as there is no clear evidence presenting a black-and-white distinction between tragedies and satyr plays in the time of Aeschylus. 'While it is possible that only the last of the four plays in a series was in fact a 'classical satyr play,' it is not impossible that the other four may have contained satyric elements. The evidence is quite ambiguous, although it is perfectly well known and accepted that Aeschylus was considered to be the foremost author of satyr plays of all antiquity. Clearly a fresh look at the temperament of this author is in order. Plutarch, for one, referred to Aeschylus as 'filled with Dionysus.'
The second fragment is by Sophocles and is almost identical with the first, throwing an interesting light onto the subject of literary borrowing in the Fifth Century. It is from a tragedy called Hoi Syndeipnoi, or The Banqueters:
Yet he flung the smelly pisspot in anger,
and he didn't miss:
it broke upon my head
and it didn't smell like perfume
I was frightened by the unfriendly smell.'10
In this case the evidence is even more impressive that The Banqueters was in fact a 'tragedy,' and even some of those most embarrassed by the fragment have not tried to dispute its 'tragic' origins.
But these fragmentsand others like themare only the beginning of the story. They have come down to us, as
Nauck: Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 59. Recorded in Athenaeus 17cd, Loeb edition, vol. I, pp. 7475. Translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.
10 Nauck: Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 162. Recorded in Athenaeus, 17d, Loeb edition, vol. I, pp. 7677.
has all our knowledge about the Greeks, from a great variety of ancient sources, and their genuineness cannot be called into question without seriously weakening the foundations of all our knowledge of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps the most important source book for the ancient theater is the lengthy Deipnosophists by Athenaeus of Naucratis, available in English in a seven-volume Loeb edition. It is written in the form of a symposium among scholars, who constantly quote selections from the classics at one another. To Athenaeus we owe almost all the fragments of Middle Comedy that have come down to us and, until some of Menander's plays were found on papyrus, of New Comedy as well. Acknowledged to be a major source in all books on the Greek theater, Athenaeus is also responsible for the survival of numerous fragments from the fifth century, much behind-the-scenes information concerning the plays, and also a few informal stories about the dramatists. According to information found in Athenaeus, both hetero-and homosexual love stories were a commonplace in fifth-century tragedies, the latter to such an extent that the entire genre of tragedy was sometimes jokingly referred to as Pederastreia. There are also two references to scenes of drunkenness occurring in tragedy, one of them in a work by Aeschylus. Another interesting story concerns a tragedian named Gnesippus, famous for his 'nocturnal songs for adulterers,' who on one occasion was granted a chorus to produce tragedies when Sophocles was refused the same privilege. It is Athenaeus also who is responsible for the information that wine and incense were among the elements present in the Theater of Dionysus when tragedies were presented. This is the same Athenaeus whom the editor of the Loeb Library edition of Sophocles dismissed as a scandal-monger, but modern scholars are beginning to realize that they are so indebted to Athenaeus for what little they do know that they are no longer able to select those sections of his writings which fit their preconceptions and dismiss the rest as idle gossip.
Other sources of information are ancient lexicons such as the Suda (formerly called after Suidas, its supposed author), Hesychius, and the Etymologicum Magnum. These were compiled by some of the most ferocious pedants of all time who made distinctions at the drop of a comma, whether or not the distinctions actually existed. Great then is the dismay of many scholars that the compilers of these lexicons often referred to tragedies and satyr plays in the same breath, making no particular distinction between them, as though the precise line where the one began and the other ended were of no great importance, This confusion has had its uses in modem times, however, for it has enabled scholars to make the 'clear' distinctions between the tragic and the satyric which the ancients most often avoided: whenever a 'tragic' fragment has been a source of embarrassment to modem scholars, they have not hesitated to label it 'satync' and thus put an end to a troublesome question.
Similarly, most of the notes on ancient dance which have come down to us indicate that the tragic and satyric dance forms were often, though not always, identical.11 Descriptions of the costumes worn in the ancient theater and surviving works of art showing these costumes also tend to demonstrate that there was a fair amount of over-lapping between the tragic and the satyric. I have already called attention to what Aristotle's opinion seems to have been, and it may also be significant that the entire chapter of his much-disputed Poetics which dealt with comedy has failed to reach us through the centuries. Many ancient works on comedy and the theater have failed to survive, as have numerous works on the more ribald aspects of ancient life, and it may be that this portion of Aristotle's treatise, like these other works, was suppressed centuries ago by monks or scholars who had no taste for theater or ribaldry.
Nonetheless, a careful reading of the Poetics as it exists can prove revealingthus, at one point Aristotle claims Euripides as the 'most tragic' of the playwrights because he inflicted horrible misfortunes and disasters on his characters. He furthermore 'insists that other critics
11 One of the clearest and most informative books about the ancient theater now in print is The Dance of the Ancient Greek Theatre by Lillian B. Lawler (Iowa City, 1964). See p. 118 concerning tragic and satyric dance forms.
have failed to understand how 'tragic' this was, which would indicate that the word was only beginning to gain its current meaning in Aristotle's time, many years after the classical period of the drama was over. It is also commonly accepted that violence was always stylized or performed offstage in Greek tragedy, but Aristotle makes it plain that 'deaths, torturings, woundings, and the like' took place en phanerôin the open. Thus, whether Greek tragedy was truly tragic or comic or satyric (which may never be conclusively proved), it was quite often violent.
Another interesting point is the proportion of tragedies to satyr plays written by any one playwrightif three tragedies were followed by one satyr play, then the total number of plays for each author should also be roughly of the same proportion for the two genres. But Pratinas, who was an older contemporary of Aeschylus, appears to have written fifty plays, and of these it has been recorded that thirty-two were satyric. And Achaeus of Eretria, a contemporary of Sophocles who was famous for his satyr plays, appears to have composed three out of four of his works in this genre, though the documentation for this is not perfectly secure.
BUT THE most eloquent evidence of what Greek tragedy was really like lies in the mythological subject matter of the lost plays and in a thoughtful consideration of the lush, luxuriant, and altogether lustful domain of Greek mythology in its entirety. There is not the slightest doubt that the Greek theater pursued these mythological themes in all of their flowering details, deterred by no modern taboos concerning the scatological or the homo-, hetero-, and animal-sexual. In a fragment of the Dictyulci, a satyr play by Aeschylus, Silenus offers his phallus to the infant Perseus as a plaything to caress and suck, and there are other indications that the phalluses worn by the satyrs may have had onstage functions.
This fragment of the Dictyulci is of particular interest because it was only published in 1941, thirty-eight years after its discovery in Egypt, and then only because of pressure from foreign scholars. During the years preceding its publication it lay in an obscure room at Queen's College, Oxford, where other papyri of equal interest may still be awaiting the slow process of scholarly dissemination.
All of the various love affairs of Zeus and the other gods were shown on the Greek stage, and whether these dramas should be considered 'tragedies' or 'satyr plays' is probably not a question of the first importance.
Most plays dealt with rape, robbery, and divine ruthlessness as a matter of course, and we would do well to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the Greeks regarded their gods in a way that Victorian-minded scholars would consider proper. Some critics have maintained that the figure of Zeus as father of the gods can never have been so demeaned as to have been shown on the stage, but it is well known that Zeus the lover did in fact appear, and the distinction between these two aspects of his divinity would probably only have been of interest to ancient theologians.
One would also do well to remember the atmosphere in which these ancient dramas were performedof which classical scholars have spared us many of the actual details. A sixteen-foot phallus stood in the middle of the orchestra throughout the performances. According to Athenaeus, strong incense of the Phrygian storax tree was burned, and wine and sweetmeats (called tragemata, or goatfeed) were freely distributed and consumed by members of the audience. Most accounts agree that this audience was not the deeply attentive one we have been led to envision. The seats of the theater during the fifth century were not of gleaming marblerather they were rude wooden benches which the spectators would beat or kick on occasion to show their disapproval. Nor did the actors at this time wear
cothurnoi, the high-soled boots likely to have inhibited their movements, which means that stage actors may have been much more vigorous than is usually imagined. Cothurnoi, scholars agree, were a later innovation, dating from the Hellenistic period. Moreover, the procession which opened the Dionysian festival was marked by exuberant and close to riotous behaviorperhaps the closest comparison is an Aldermaston march run amok or a Central Park Be-in.
THUS, IT SHOULD begin to be clear that what many scholars have been frightened of in the Ichneutai and other plays has not been merely a bit of manure but something much larger. In an irrational and almost religious way, they have tried to foreclose the entire question of the identity of the Greeks as the founders of Western culture. The deeper one pursues Greek mythology and the possible nature of many of the plays, the less 'Western' they begin to appear, and it is perhaps understandable that scholars have closed their minds to what must have seemed to them dangerously close to Oriental abandon or even (heaven forbid!) primitive African rites. Some knowledge of anthropology or some glimmer of a sense of humor might have helped the scholars to accept and appreciate these new possibilities, but evidently they have not been equipped with either.
Be that as it may, the conventional wisdom about the Greeks and their theater is a cumulative misconception with a long history. As the Renaissance spread from land to land, each nation attempted to convert the sterile precepts of Aristotle's Poetics into a living drama which would recapture the solemnity and profundity it was felt the ancient theater must have possessed. The Italians were the first to fail, inventing opera in their attempt (which may be closer to ancient theater than we realize). The pretensions of the English schoolrnen were effectively demolished by Shakespeare and other Elizabethans who reintroduced the bawdy, boisterous, informal elements, in short the satyric, into the theater without even knowing they were doing it. The Spanish also found ways to bypass Aristotle and bring something of the full scope of life into their plays. Only the French took Aristotle's three unities (which were largely invented by a group of French critics) seriously and equated tragedy with solemnity, a position which is reflected in the French drama to this day. Thus those who lament that 'pure tragedy' is no longer possible in our age should ponder if it were ever really possible in any age.
There is still a tendency, even among relatively intelligent people, to see the ancient Athenians more as shades than as human beingssheeted, solitary spirits, they stand brooding over a dark and stony hill. The similarity of this image to the classic Victorian vision of a ghost is itself something of a giveaway. The English (and this is probably true of most Europeans) have long been content to regard the Greeks as objects of ancestor worship, as precursors of the supercultivated beings they believe themselves to be. Thus, in their intellectual version of Cowboys and Indians, they have always played the Athenians, while their enemies or rivals of the momentbe they Germans or Russians or Americanshave been cast as Spartans or Persians or Romans.
Part of this stereotype may of course be attributed to the battered sculptures that have come down to us, often in Roman copies, and to the even more battered plaster casts of those statues to be found in schools and public places. Here too there is a strange resistance to reality: while it is perfectly well known that the sculptures on the Acropolis were agleam not only with bright colors but with a blinding array of jewelry and armor as well, the mind of the beholder has refused to undertake the task of visualizing the actuality. Or rather, it has preferred its austere white phantom to the multi-colored reality. No thinking person would still dream of visualizing his god (if he has one) as a gloomy old man with a beard, and yet no one seems to have thought twice about accepting precisely such an image as a portrait of Sophocles. This solemn attitude would appear to be as prevalent among intellectuals as it is among classical scholars.
The discovery of the Ichneutai might have blasted this image from the face of the earth, if scholars had been ready to accept it. For the ironic fact of the matter is that the modern mind, which believes itself free of all idolatrous pagan superstition and utterly emancipated from every notion of an anthropomorphic god, has taken over not the ancient Greek gods but the pagan Greeks themselves as its theomorphic substitutes, its god-surrogates.
When Hunt and his colleagues surveyed the papyrus of the Ichneutai, they saw a vision quite unthinkable to them. Sophocles had descended from his pedestal, from his solitary crag, and had leapt into lusty action before their very eyesit was as though Sophocles had aimed his manure directly at them. The full significance of this revelation has yet to be gauged, and it may be that the same sort of people who less than a century ago took violent exception to being descended from tree-swinging apes may continue to object to their descent from dung-slinging Greeks. Until quite recently, the percentage of clergymen and clergymen's Sons among classicists was very high, for scholars were most often recruited from what was shamelessly referred to as the 'better' element of English society. It is therefore not altogether surprising that these scholars should have visualized their Greeks as merely another set of long-robed biblical prophets. What is surprising is that the rest of the world should have taken so long to recognize this misrepresentation, for what these people have to tell us about religion or politics is no longer regarded as the last word, and it is all the more strange that we have permitted them to impose their gospel where the Greeks are concerned. Evidently the idea of a god, any kind of god, dies hard.
WE ARE NOW in a position to begin to give a partial answer to our original question concerning what Greek tragedy was actually like in the fifth century. It is essential to realize that while we are acquainted with two contrasting styles of drama called comedy and tragedy, and while the Greeks also had two contrasting genres with fairly similar names, this will not allow us to suppose that the contrasts were the same or that the markings in between the two extremes were in the same places on the scale as today. In other words, some of what the Greeks called tragedies might impress us today, assuming a transposition into terms of our own culture were possible, as comedies (or even musical comedies). Similarly, some of what the Greeks called comedies we might think of as night-club acts or circus routines. And what we ourselves term tragedy, be it Phèdre, Doctor Faustus, or end game, might have no corresponding place on the Greek scale at all, while what we term melodrama may have played an important role. This is not to say that Greek tragedy was incapable of concentrated solemnity and deep reflectionit is merely probable that these qualities were encountered less often than we imagined and even then were not necessarily appreciated by the audiences. Our distinction between tragedy and comedy becomes even more blurred when we attempt to fit the satyrs into the picture. It is known that they appeared in the comedies as well as satyr plays, and it would seem to appear that they appeared in tragedies such as The Banqueters. It is obvious that they did not appear in any number of other tragedies where a chorus of Theban Men or Women of Trachis is clearly called for, but this does not mean that the chorus in all cases would have abandoned their satyrlike traits along with their satyrs' costumes. The final answer must be that there were of course certain general categories (which were not necessarily the same as our categories), but that the overlapping area between them must have been extremely large. We must perhaps return to Aristotle's explanation that 'tragedy' was a long time evolving from 'the satyric,' and that in the time of Aeschylus (and even that of Sophocles) it may not have been in all cases fully 'evolved.'
A confusion of words, a weak sense of smell, and a strong sense of shamefrom such slender threads as these does human understanding hang. It is clear that the Greeks are not quite the people we thought them, but neither, perhaps, are we. It is impossible to criticize this new aspect of the Greeks without criticizing our own exalted pretensions as well, and it will not help to dismiss the Ichneutai as slight when it is its very slightness that is the most revealing thing about it and the people who enjoyed it. Nor can we simply dismiss the Greeks as 'primitive,' for the final effect of these new discoveries may be to make them seem more human and, despite their sanitary transgression, more like ourselves.
This article is Copyright © 1969
by Alexander Gross. It may be
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educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
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