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).
Silenus’ sons 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 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 is 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).
The Cyclops returns from hunting and Silenus pretends to have been ill-used by the visitors, who he claims 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). Odysseus comes forth, trying to be respectful of the Cyclops and telling the truth. The Cyclops 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). The Cyclops has no respect for Zeus or the gods:
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 his own stomach. 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, involving the blinding of the Cyclops. The satyrs are enthusiastic.
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. 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 “Nobody,” declares, “Nobody has destroyed me” (543). The satyrs taunt, “Nobody’s nowhere,” and “Nobody’s right in front of you” (544). All are able to slip out of the cave. 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, 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. Ten Plays. Trans. Paul Roche. NY: Signet, 1998. 513-545.