Euripides, The Cyclops
Euripides’ play The Cyclops is the only surviving complete satyr play from ancient Greece, where the subject matter is still mythological (and Homeric) but “given a comic, even a grotesque, twist” (Roche 515). A satyr play would originally have followed a trilogy of tragedies at the dramatic festivals, but we do not know what plays were connected with this one.
The play begins with the complaints of old Silenus, a satyr (half-horse) who with his sons has journeyed to rescue Bacchus from pirates but has been enslaved to Polyphemus the Cyclops: “what chores you’ve saddled me with / ever since I was young and strong!” (516). He recalls his more impressive days and laments having been blown by an east wind “to this rocky shore of Etna” (517) with its “one-eyed man-devouring brutes spawned by the sea god” (517). He finds himself “filling the troughs, sweeping the den, / cooking the stinking dinners of this stinking Cyclops” (517): “I attend his one-eyed unholiness at his godless meals” (212).
Silenus’ sons (functioning as a Chorus) return, driving the flocks, and we get songs until Silenus notes a Greek ship by the shore. Odysseus and his men approach, hoping to exchange some of their wine for water. Silenus knows of Odysseus, “a sharp-tongued chatterer, Sisyphus’ son” (213), and says a bit about where they have landed. Odysseus asks, “Ruled by whom? Or is it a democracy?” “Hillbillies — ruled by no one no how,” answers Silenus (522). Silenus has no bread, but does offer meat and dairy products. He is giddy at the thought of tasting wine once again: “I can’t wait to remember” (523). Silenus drinks and gets bawdy, even vulgar, especially regarding his inquiries into the end of the Trojan War and the fate of Helen, “that little piece of fluff…. The slut” (524). “Once you had caught the woman, didn’t you all take turns in banging her…?” (216).
Silenus sees the Cyclops returning from hunting and urges Odysseus to hide with his men in the cave, but Odysseus considers that cowardly. The Cyclops makes his demands about dinner and milk, then sees Odysseus and his men. Silenus pretends to have been ill-used by the visitors, who he claims stole cheese and tried to rob the Cyclops’ cave. “They said they’d strap you into a dog collar three feet thick / and squelch out your innards through your one big eye, / and flay your backsides with a whip” (526). The Cyclops decides that “a meal of human flesh is long overdue” (218). Odysseus comes forth, trying to be respectful of the Cyclops and telling the truth about offering to buy lambs and food. The Cyclops briefly questions Odysseus, and is crude and dismissive: “Well, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves: / sailing off to Troy and all that fuss / just for one single female” (528). Odysseus tries to talk the Cyclops out of his cannibalistic plans: “restrain your drooling jaws; choose righteousness, not wrong” (529). It goes against the code of hospitality and the gods. The Cyclops has no respect for Zeus:
And why don’t I give a damn?
Because when he [Zeus] 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.
He sacrifices to no god but “the greatest divinity there is, this stomach” (221). After another set of songs, we learn that the Cyclops has murdered and eaten two of Odysseus’ men, “the plumpest and most robust” (532). Odysseus has decided to get the Cyclops drunk on wine, and he invites the satyrs to join him in a plan for escape. Silenus is still in the cave, too drunk himself to be of any help. The satyrs are enthusiastic over the plan to blind the Cyclops.
More lyrics follow, including an epode “invoking the imagery of a wedding, … a metaphor for the destruction of the Cyclops” (537), as Odysseus prepares the”red-hot shaft” to be plunged into the monster’s eye (536). The Cyclops proposes sharing wine with his kin, but Odysseus talks him out of this while Silenus steals sips of as much wine as possible. Odysseus tells the Cyclops he is called “Noman.” As the Cyclops also grows drunker, he seizes Silenus to function as “my own little Ganymede” (540). With Silenus worried that he’ll be raped, Odysseus puts the stake in the fire and takes it into the cave.
After a set of songs, everything is ready, but the satyrs chicken out with cheesy excuses of sprained ankles and dust in their eyes. Odysseus calls them “spineless bastards” (542) and rounds up some of his crew instead. When the Cyclops emerges from the cave, screaming and bleeding, the satyrs rejoice. “Did you fall into the fire — smashed?” The Cyclops, to whom Odysseus gave his name as “Noman” or “Nobody,” declares, “Nobody has destroyed me” (543). The satyrs taunt, “Nobody’s nowhere,” and “Nobody’s right in front of you” (544). Although the Cyclops positions himself at the entrance to the cave, all are able to slip out past him. Odysseus reveals his true identity, and the Cyclops rages:
The oracle of old’s proved true,
which said that on your homeward way from Troy
I’d be blinded in my eye by you . . .
Ah, but it also said
that you’d be punished for what you did to me
and spend an age being tossed upon the sea.
The Cyclops says he’ll throw a large rock at them, but Odysseus, his men, Silenus, and the satyrs all sail off.
* * *
The Cyclops, in a perverse way, seems to critique domesticity. It seems to suggest that one grows fat, lazy, and cowardly, even sneering at and interpreting in the most vulgar way possible others’ more glorious adventures, when one settles into one’s domestic environment, even if that situation is abusive and one is enslaved to a stupid lumbering monster devoted only to self-indulgent consumption. Perhaps Medea was one of the tragedies connected with this satyr play.
Euripides. The Cyclops. Heracles and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 2002. 205-233, 280-285.
Euripides. The Cyclops. Ten Plays. Trans. Paul Roche. NY: Signet, 1998. 513-545.