The Character of The Chorus by Dan Starling

The tragedians of ancient Greece who chronicled the lives of heroes from their own mythological past made an impact on their context just as our contemporary fascination with heroic quests and superheroes says a lot about our world today. When examined closely, there is little difference between the storytelling of ancient Greek tragedy and our contemporary diegetic theatre and films with one exception: all the known Greek tragedies had a chorus, and the chorus no longer exists. The central questions of this essay are why was the chorus cut out of the theatre and what would it mean to bring it back? It is not just that no such character exists today, it also seems impossible to reconcile such an entity as the chorus within our storytelling. Whenever a Greek tragedy is performed now the most difficult aspect of the staging has to do with the chorus. There is standard agreement that “…the chorus is every director’s nightmare. It almost never “works”(1) .” We have little understanding of the chorus.

All the surviving tragedies and comedies that we know of from the 5th century BCE have a chorus who play “the people,” but, how did the chorus and the theatre emerge in ancient Greece in the first place? The crowd was the original chorus, undivided and collective. Before there was theatre there was just one big chorus. At some point a solo singer, Thespis, stepped out from a chorus, with an enthusiastic, wild and ecstatic solo song dedicated to the god Dionysus. A resulting sung dialogue between a singer and chorus that emerged is now known as the dithyramb. It is thought that tragedy was born when another actor was added and the chorus composed of a set number of people. At its peak, ancient theatre was a competition were three poets competed by writing and directing three tragedies and one satyr play each to be performed on consecutive days during the festival of Dionysus.

The festival of Dionysus had a social and political component. Every year at the festival the whole community would gather in a big group, drink wine, sing and dance songs in celebration of the god Dionysus. There was both a rural Dionysia held in the winter to celebrate the harvest and a city Dionysia held in the spring to celebrate the end of winter. At its height, before the performance of the plays, ten choruses of fifty boys apiece and ten similar choruses of men competed in a singing and dancing competition of the different tribes of allies protected by Athens(2). During the Athenian empire the allies all had to bring their tribute money to the festival, where it was laid out on the ground in units so the amount was visible to all. The occasion was also used to present suits of armor to young men upon their coming of age and if their fathers had died fighting for the city they would now be brought up by the polis. Because the theatre addressed issues relevant to the Athens at the time, it played a role in democratic debate and therefore was not only for the wealthy; a special fund was created by the city to ensure that poorer citizens could attend the festival if they couldn’t afford it. The performances could be noisy and contentious with spectators hissing, shouting and clucking at performers.

In The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche theorizes that the music and dancing of the frenzied chorus in the grip of a Dionysiac madness as capable of putting the participants in a state of Rausch (intoxication). This loss of personal identity through collective music, thought Nietzsche, bonds people together because in this state they have the experience that our individual identity is an illusion. Pure, unadulterated Dionysiac music, however, puts one in a state that is so close to unfiltered reality that it is dangerous and no one, Nietzsche suggests, could survive in it for long. The words and stage-action of tragedy are a way to tame, to deflect and dilute, the impact of that reality and thereby make it tolerable. The words do this by constructing a realm of Schein, of appearance or semblance(3) . In tragedy the duality of the unadorned primal reality that is both intensely pleasurable and painful at the same time is held in balance by the identification of an appearance, which is outside the self. It gives chaos a semblance, an image, which places it at a distance; the separation is what allows one to cope with it. Reality and appearance are separated but held together in balance. For Nietzsche, the chorus is necessary because it serves as a link to reality: “…the stage and the action were originally and fundamentally thought of as nothing other than a vision, that the only ‘reality’ is precisely that of the chorus, which creates the vision from within itself and speaks of this vision with all the symbolism of dance, tone and word.(4)” In Nietzsche’s view then, the stage is the “vision” of the chorus and is a vital character to maintain a relationship with the reality.

According to Nietzsche, the Greeks invented the “world on stage(5) ” in order to turn their lives into art, so they could see themselves at a distance and they could better deal with the world they found themselves in. This is the key of theatre for Aristotle, for whom its role in education is what makes it the highest art form because men can learn by example of the “correct” way to live. It is the true art form of mimēsis in the sense of being an imitation of life, and the term drama arises from the Greek verb dran, “to act.” For Aristotle, "tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life, and happiness or unhappiness consist in action. The point is action, not character: it is their moral status that gives people the character they have, but it is their actions that make them happy or unhappy. So it is not in order to portray moral character that the actors perform; rather, they include character for the sake of action. The events, the story, are the point of tragedy, and that is the most important thing of all."(6)

The crossover of the term “actor” from the theatre to the social arena is no accident. In public life men are actors. In doing so, people are willing to reveal themselves to others. It is this “appearance” that Hannah Arendt takes to be the true consequence, not only of theatre but of public life itself. The theatre, is an important model for political action, because “The hero the story discloses needs no heroic qualities; the word “hero” originally, that is, in Homer, was no more than a name given each free man who participated in the Trojan enterprise and about whom a story could be told. The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in the willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own. … The extent of this original courage, without which action and speech and therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be possible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the “hero” happens to be a coward.” (7) It is in this revelatory aspect of acting that Arendt locates theatre as an important social institution, and only makes sense, where decisions are made collectively and through public disclosure and debate. Thus the theatre is the “…political art par excellence” because “…it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others.” (8)

The chorus then had a role in allowing “the people” to appear. In the classic tragic plays that survive the chorus was a convention of the theatrical performance. However, they are not a typical kind of character. Both their role in the play and their poetic comments are different than the other characters. The chorus represents simultaneously both a crowd and a group of individuals. The chorus is many bodies with one identity and can speak collectively, but also, even though individual members of the chorus do not have names, the chorus can split or fragment and engage in debate (9) . The size of the chorus also varied, from 50 at the beginning of the 5th century, it was lowered to 12 in the tragedies of Aeschylus and then raised to 15 by Sophocles.

The chorus performs in the orchestra, a circular area that has two entrances on either side of the semi-circular seating area where they danced and sang “poetic” songs. The way in which they did this, because there are no stage notes that survive, just like the music, has provoked considerable debate. It is clear though that the chorus is at once both more and less than the drama. It is independent of the play in the sense of being prior to it as an institution but is always within the play dependent upon the drama for its identity. While imagined as belonging to the fictional world, the chorus remains a kind of institution-in-itself; although it may be quite marginal within the world of the play it is always central within the theatrical event of public performance (10) . Having been foundational to Greek tragedy, the chorus preserves the link to the solidarity of the collective that brought Athens its power and to the establishment of democracy. As a representation of this, once the chorus enters the drama they remain there until the end and therefore, the presence of the chorus makes the on stage drama a public affair.

Theories of the “proper” role of the chorus vary. The two most influential theories have been either to have the chorus become integrated into the drama or to have them act as an intermediary, either by having it direct the audience’s attention, informing them how to react and acting as an audience on the stage, or by acting as a Brechtian “pressure release” for the audience.

The most influential theorist on the Greek theatre, and on writing a play in general, is still Aristotle. For Aristotle, because the purpose of Greek drama is to educate the citizens on the correct way to live, all the elements of the play must focus on producing a katharsis, that is, an identification of the audience with the plight of the characters and allow their own emotions to be entangled with that of the actors. This feeling takes the audience away from their ordinary lives and allows them to identify. Accordingly, it is problematic if the chorus stands out in some way and must be “properly” integrated into the play, subordinate to the actors and akin to costume, so that it does not have an impact on the action. For Aristotle, in order to do this they should be “people of importance” to the play, for example the citizens of Thebes who are dependent upon Oedipus in Oedipus the King, and not as Euripides’ choruses who are usually often made up of groups that hold a marginal positions in society such as “women,” “slaves,” or “foreigners.” Of the seventeen surviving Euripidean tragedies, fourteen have female choruses. The choral odes should also have something to do with the plot of the play. Aristotle criticizes the poet Agathon for composing odes that could be used in different tragedies.(11)

This view of the chorus and tragedy corresponds to Sigmund Freud’s. For Freud “The spectator is a person who experiences too little, who feels that he is a “poor wretch to whom nothing of importance can happen,” who has been obliged to damp down, or rather displace, his ambition to stand in his own person at the hub of world affairs; he longs to feel and to act and to arrange things according to his desires – in short, to be a hero. And the playwright and actor enable him to do this by allowing him to identify himself with the hero.”(12)

The chorus should surrounded the hero, hanging on his words and deeds, offering sympathy, “to warn him and to sober him and mourned over him when he had met with what was felt as the merited punishment for his rash undertaking.”(13) Freud goes further, seeing “the suffering caused by the tragic guilt of the hero because the crime committed by the band of brothers, that of killing the father is thrust upon him, and he becomes the redeemer of the chorus.” (14) The former if not the latter is still the most commonly held view about the purpose of theatre.

Freud’s interpretation was formed watching the famous French tragic actor Jean Mounet-Sully playing Oedipus in the late nineteenth century. Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the chorus as a projection of the Ego was a result of watching a performance in which the chorus had a purely incidental role in the production and the focus was on Oedipus, a man of great suffering (15). It a contemporary update of Freud, Margaret Clark uses the example of the chorus of the furies in the Orestia stating that they represent the guilt feelings for the bad things that we have done to others and to ourselves (16). Yet the play itself resists this simplified analysis. The chorus cannot be reduced to projections of Orestes ego because in the Eumenides the Furies become speaking agents in and of themselves.

The shift in the role of the Furies between the Libation-Bearers and the Eumenides is akin to the shift in the emphasis of psychoanalytic theory between Freud and Lacan. For Lacan the unconscious is located not in the individual psyche but outside of the self in the Other; the internally disruptive nature of Freud’s Id becomes equivalent to that of Lacan’s objet petit a which is located at the interface between the individual and society. The Eumenides demonstrates a way in which “guilt feelings” can be incorporated, not by being repressed as in Freud, but becoming signifiers in a symbolic cultural system. It is interesting to note that the symbolic system that is capable of doing this through the character of the chorus is democracy. After the trial of Orestes at the end of the play the Furies are persuaded by Athena to stay in Athens as guardians of order and fertility, and they become Eumenides (“the kindly Ones”) and the court of law, the reform of the Areopagos Council, replaces the vendetta of blood justice “which many regard as the beginning of true democracy.” (17)

Others see the role of the chorus as vital in a different way, acting as an ideal audience or intermediary between the spectators and actors. In this intermediary position, the chorus is to instruct the audience on the way to read the play by demonstrating the appropriate reaction to the characters words and actions. This viewpoint spontaneously adopts the position that the audience has difficulty in arriving at the “correct” interpretation of the play. While this view of the chorus is commonly held, evidence suggests that the chorus didn’t serve this role because “not only do the chorus regularly misunderstand the action” but they “show themselves to be extreme in their aggression or passivity, and fail to exert adequate influence on events.” If the chorus acts as an intermediary, according to theatre theorist Albert Weiner, it can only be as a kind Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte. For Weiner, “interrupting the action with “irrelevant” songs, dances and sermons” is a good thing since it acts as an “interlude of alienation during which the audience could readjust itself, relax, watch the dancing, listen to the music, and perhaps ponder what it had just seen.”(18) This view sees the disjunctive role of the chorus as positive.

Based on the surviving plays, there is a breadth of different ways the chorus acts. Even during the height of the democracy in Athens, the chorus was a challenging character for the Greek playwrights. This was due to its political nature. The promotion or demotion of democracy is tied in a special way to the character because the chorus is inextricably linked to staging public debate. The influence of the chorus changed; some believe that its important position in the tragedies of Aeschylus was changed to a more marginal position in the plays of Euripides. One thing is certain however, it was removed altogether by the time of New Comedy around 323 BCE simultaneous with the beginning of the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. By the time of the Roman Empire, plays were still about Greeks but they were now about foreigners. There was little incentive to give the people a voice under such conditions. Roman theatres were then built that did not even include an orchestra in the plan.

The chorus has not always been liked and there were already those in ancient Athens who saw the reasons for what theorist Jacques Rancière calls the “hatred of democracy.” Plato outlined his reasons in Republic. He saw the public as a great beast or a bewildered herd, without any ability to think beyond their local opinions and therefore inadequate decision makers. For Plato, democracy is “…the regime that overturns all the relations that structure human society: its governors have the demeanour of the governed and the governed the demeanour of the governors; women are the equals of men; fathers accustom themselves to treating their sons as equals; the foreigner and the immigrants are the equals of the citizens; the schoolmaster fears and flatters the pupils who, in turn, make fun of him; the young are the equals of the old and the old imitate the young; even the beasts are free and the horses and asses, conscious of their liberty and dignity, bowl over anyone who does not yield to them in the street.” (19)

To Plato, democracy and its major features, the cultivation of public speaking and the theatre, were deeply flawed and that the traditionalism of Dorian societies like Sparta, was highly valued. There are echoes of these ideas in the present. As Rancière explains it, “the thesis of the new hatred of democracy can be succinctly put: there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization…which wants for everyone to be equal and for all differences to be respected.”(20) Even for those who live in a society that calls itself democratic, many no longer believe that democracy functions. According to Slavoj Žižek “this is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them.”(21)

The malaise with the results of democracy and the expansion of globalization in many ways echo the Greek situation in the fourth and fifth century BCE. The contemporary talk of the crisis or hatred of democracy and our fears of an impending empire has made Greek tragedy particularly popular to restage today. The problems posed by the chorus, however, have resulted in its restriction, if not outright annihilation. In contemporary stage productions of Greek theatre several avenues to downplay the chorus have been to reduce it to three or even one actor, or to write a role for it that restricts it’s physical position, such as turning it into a gospel choir in Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus. Often, film adaptations of Greek tragedies remove it altogether; Both Piero Paulo Pasolini and Lars Von Trier in their film versions of Medea remove the chorus. The re-emergence of democracy did not result in the re-assertion of the chorus. Not many people have noticed. For Walter Benjamin, “the filling-in of the orchestra pit” is a “circumstance which has received too little attention.”(22)

The role that art occupied in Greece of provoking a discussion about social matters is similar to its role today. Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith from 2005 raises questions about the justification for war in a foreign land just at the Persians did in 472 BCE. The stories that we use to understand ourselves, the way they are written and organized, have just as much to say about the state of politics today, as does their content. Plato alleges in the Republic that he has learned from the musicologist Damon that music cannot change without there being accompanying changes in the laws of the polis; that a change in music has an effect on the laws of Athens “…any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; - he says that when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”(23)

For many critics of modernity, such as the Frankfurt school, the “culture industry” has played a significant role in the “manufacture of consent” in representative democracy. Within the “culture industry” film has played a key role. Yet film, in overtaking theatre as the popular artistic medium that addresses itself to a mass audience encounters the possibility of becoming a space for debate. For Benjamin the medium of film itself, challenges the aura of the work of art of the painter, that of creating a world in which the viewer as an individual can become absorbed in fantasy. The nature of watching a film is to be alienated by the distance it creates to the image due to the way it cuts and fragments and can be endlessly re-combined. (24) The total vision is impossible.

This inability to grasp film as a whole is both the experience of the viewer and the creator alike. A film always leaves room for improvements. To use a contemporary example, Star Wars was re-edited and re-released by George Lucas, unsatisfied with the original. As a spontaneous by-product of this state of not being complete, many other people have supplemented Star Wars with the “Expanded Universe”, adding characters and plot lines in an endless unfolding trajectory. The “Expanded Universe” can be seen as the spontaneous assertion of the “voice of the people” to supplement the film.

Artistic innovations then, have political consequences; it matters whether a play contains a chorus or not. This is the case because according to Jacques Rancière “political statements and literary locutions produce effects in reality. They define models of speech or action but also regimes of sensible intensity. They draft maps of the visible, trajectories between the visible and the sayable, relationships between modes of being, modes of saying, and modes of doing and making. […] They thereby take hold of unspecified groups of people, they widen gaps, open up space for deviations, modify the speeds, the trajectories and the ways in which groups of people adhere to a condition, react to situations, recognize their images.” (25)

For Rancière the task is to re-activate the politics of democracy as an inherently disruptive regime. For Rancière, “politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.”(26) Rancière’s concept “the part of no-part” is a disruption of or a supplement to the “the distribution of the sensible,” or the system of divisions and boundaries that define what is visible and audible within a particular aesthetic-political regime. The “part of no part” is crucial for Rancière because “it is simply the dissolving of any standard by which nature could give its law to communitarian artifice via the relations of authority that structure the social body.”(27) This is what makes Democracy political, instead of being another justification for the power of the rulers over the ruled. Democracy is “a supplementary, or grounding, power that at once legitimizes and de-legitimizes every set of institutions or the power of any set of people.”(28) These views are echoed by Jean-Luc Nancy for whom the Nietzschean “spirit of democracy is nothing less than this: the breath of man, not the man of a humanism measured against the height of man as he is given…but man who infinitely transcends man.”(29)

The symbolic efficacy of disruption, as seen in the character of the chorus, is crucial today since it creates a space constructive debate to emerge. For if we can dream of a new configuration of an artistic form, then we can make room for a new social configuration. To re-invigorate our democracy perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this disruptive “part of no part” today; to bring back the chorus then would be an assertion of politics.

1. H. Golder and S. Scully, “The Chorus in Greek Tragedy and Culture, One.”, Arion 3, no. I. Special Issue. 1995 2. David Wiles, Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. p. 13 3. Raymond Geuss, “Introduction,” The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. xx. 4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p. 44 5. Ibid. p. 70 6. Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Anthony Kenny, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 24 7. Ibid. 186-187. 8. Ibid. 188. 9. Anthony Stevens, “How to Write a Greek Tragedy,” 2011, online, 10. Albert Weiner, “The Function of the Tragic Greek Chorus,” Theatre Journal. Vol. 32 N. 2, May 1980, p. 211. 11. Aristotle, Poetics, p. 31 12. Sigmund Freud, “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage,” Standard Edition, translated by James Strachey, reproduced in Sigmund Freud: Vol. 14 Art and Literature, London: Penquin, 1990, p. 121-122. 13. Ibid. 14. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, Standard Edition xiii, translated by James Strachey, p. 156. 15. Fiona MacIntosh, “Tragedy in performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy edited by P.E. Easterling, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 289 16. Margaret Clark, “Suppose Freud had chosen Orestes instead,” Journal of Analytical Psychology, No. 54, 2009, p. 243. 17. Ian C. Storey and Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, P. 249. 18. Weiner, p. 213. 19. Plato, Republic, book VIII, quoted in Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso, 2006, p.38 20. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso, 2009. p. 4 21. Slavoj Žižek, “Berlusconi in Tehran” London Review of Books, Vol. 31 No. 14 23 July 2009 22. Walter Benjamin, “What is Epic Theatre?” in Understanding Brecht, translated by Anna Bostock. London: Verso, 1998. p. 22 23. Graham Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 148 – 149 24. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York: Random House, 2007. P. 239 25. Jacques Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 2006, p. 39. 26. Jacques Rancière, The Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 11 27. Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, p. 41 28. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 2010, p. 52 29. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 15