New College Professor Carl Shaw is living a classicist’s dream this summer: He is examining and translating 2,000-year-old papyrus fragments at museums in Oxford, Geneva and Florence.
Shaw, associate professor of Greek language and literature, received a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a prestigious fellowship from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation at Harvard University.
The grants support Shaw’s work on his next book, “Ancient Satyr Drama: The Texts, Translations, Documents and Visual Remains.”
Satyr drama, Shaw’s specialty, is an often-overlooked genre of work by some of history’s greatest playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They are best known for their tragedies, including “The Oresteia ,” “Antigone,” “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea,” still read and performed today.
During the fifth century B.C., the writers staged three successive tragedies at an annual festival in honor of the god Dionysius. After each trilogy, they presented a fourth performance, a satyr drama.
Satyr drama is a different beast entirely: The plays essentially recount a myth, with the main characters retaining their serious nature, but with the addition of a chorus of satyrs, half-man, half-goat creatures who sing and joke about wine, dance and sex.
Quoting another scholar, Shaw described the recipe of satyr drama – “take one myth, add satyrs, observe results.”
The genre has been dismissed as comic relief, but in an interview Shaw explained why it is becoming seen as more significant.
“Over the last 2,500 years, most scholars have concentrated on tragedians’ tragedies, and excluded satyr drama, or thought of it as just sort of a “dessert,” for the ‘serious tragedy’ that tragedians really cared about,” Shaw said.
“But 25 percent of their output is pretty significant, and the fact that it was the last performance put on before voting means it probably had a little more weight than we think. It was definitely considered an important element of the Dionysiac festival.”
And part of the critical disdain may stem from a sort of snobbery, a belief that the great tragedians were above base humor and that only their tragedies have intellectual significance.
“People think of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as the foundation of western drama, but 25 percent of their output was satyr drama, which was men dressed up in furry shorts with a tail and a mask and a phallus,” Shaw said.
Scholars are coming around to Shaw’s view, expressed in his first book, the soon-to-be-published “Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Drama.” The NEH Summer Stipend grant is perhaps the clearest validation.
The program receives nearly a thousand applications a year, and on average has made just 74 awards per year, for a funding ratio of about 8 percent. And each college or university is only allowed two applications, so the recipients have to be chosen from the strongest concepts at both their own college and all the others nationwide.
Shaw called the award a “really big honor” and noted he received a congratulatory letter and phone call from Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
He was more hopeful for the Loeb Classical Library award, as it is from a group that is already deeply knowledgeable and committed to Greek literature.
The two awards should afford Shaw the opportunity to both research and write his book. He sees the $6,000 NEH grant as covering the cost of his travel and research at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum in London, the Bodmer Museum near Geneva, Switzerland, and various museums in Florence, Italy.
He will be reviewing pieces of papyrus discovered at Oxyrhynchus, an ancient dump site in Egypt. While all of them have been seen and catalogued, some have never been translated, Shaw said. He will primarily work with digital copies of the fragments, but expects to examine some of the originals in cases where the copy is unclear or ambiguous.
The $35,000 Loeb fellowship will give him the time to write, he said. While there are other scholarly examinations of satyr drama, Shaw’s will be a comprehensive collection of everything known about the works – an introduction and history of the genre, a translation of the only remaining complete satyr drama, Euripides’ “Cyclops,” and a compilation and translation of the portions and fragments of other satyr dramas. It also will include visual representations of satyr plays, taken from vases of the period.
“It’s an exciting feeling to know that in the future this will be the reference, the resource,” Shaw said.
Shaw is known for his devotion to teaching, from in-depth class readings during the day to a translation tutorial at night, and said the only drawback to the grants will be being away from his students. “I do have a visceral, ‘Ohhhhh! I hate to leave them,’” he said. “But I know they’ll be in good hands with whomever they’re with.”