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Historian H. D. F. Kitto argues that the word "chorus" gives us hints about its function in the plays of ancient Greece: "The Greek verb choreuo, I am a member of the chorus has the sense 'I am dancing'. The word ode means not something recited or declaimed, but 'a song'. The 'orchestra' in which a chorus had its being is literally, a dancing floor". From this, it can be inferred that the chorus danced and sang poetry.
Plays of the ancient Greek theatre always included a chorus that offered a variety of background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance. They commented on themes, and, as August Wilhelm Schlegel proposed in the early 19th century to subsequent controversy, demonstrated how the audience might react to the drama. In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they needed.
Some historians argue that the chorus was itself considered to be an actor. Scholars have considered Sophocles to be superior to Euripides in his choral writing. Of the two, Sophocles also won more dramatic contests. His chorus passages were more relevant to the plot and more integrated in tragedies, where as the Euripidean choruses seemingly had little to do with the plot and were often bystanders. Aristotle stated in his Poetics:
"The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, not in the manner of Euripides but of Sophocles".
The chorus represents, on stage, the general population of the particular story, in sharp contrast with many of the themes of the ancient Greek plays which tended to be about individual heroes, gods, and goddesses. They were often the same sex as the main character. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the chorus comprises the elderly men of Argos, whereas in Euripides' The Bacchae, they are a group of eastern bacchantes, and in Sophocles' Electra, the chorus represents the women of Argos. The parts however were acted by males.
Choral structure and size
The lines of choral odes provide evidence that they were sung. Normal syllabic structure has long sounds that are twice the length of short sounds. However, some lyrics in Greek odes have long syllables that are equal to 3, 4 and 5 shorter syllables. Spoken words cannot do that, suggesting that this was a danced and sung rhythm.
The chorus originally consisted of fifty members, but some later playwrights changed the size. Aeschylus likely lowered the number to twelve, and Sophocles raised it again to fifteen. Fifteen members were used by Euripides and Sophocles in tragedies. The chorus stood in the orchestra. There were twenty-four members in comedies.
They often communicated in song form, but sometimes spoke their lines in unison. The chorus had to work in unison to help explain the play as there were only one to three actors on stage who were already playing several parts each. As the Greek theatres were so large, the chorus' actions had to be exaggerated and their voices clear so that everyone could see and hear them. To do this, they used techniques such as synchronization, echo, ripple, physical theatre and the use of masks to aid them. A Greek chorus was often led by a coryphaeus. They also served as the ancient equivalent for a curtain, as their parodos (entering procession) signified the beginnings of a play and their exodos (exit procession) served as the curtains closing.
Decline in antiquity
Before the introduction of multiple, interacting actors by Aeschylus, the Greek chorus was the main performer in relation to a solitary actor. The importance of the chorus declined after the 5th century BCE, when the chorus began to be separated from the dramatic action. Later dramatists depended on the chorus less than their predecessors. As dialogue and characterization became more important, the chorus made less of an appearance. However, historian Alan Hughes argues that there was no such thing as decline, but rather the slow dissolution of one form into another:
At their best, they may have become performance art, blending music, lyrics, and dance, performed by polished choreutai and accompanied by distinguished musicians. That is neither improvement nor decline: it is simply change.
Modern choruses; Wagner
Musical theatre and grand opera sometimes incorporate a singing chorus that sometimes serves a similar purpose as the Greek chorus, as noted in Six Plays by Rodgers and Hammerstein: "The singing chorus is used frequently to interpret the mental and emotional reactions of the principal characters, after the manner of a Greek chorus."
During the Italian Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the theatre of ancient Greece. The Florentine Camerata crafted the first operas out of the intermezzi that acted as comic or musical relief during the dramas of the time. These were based entirely on the Greek chorus, as historian H.C. Montgomery argues.
Richard Wagner discussed Greek drama and the Greek chorus extensively in his writings, including "Art and Revolution". His longest work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, (The Ring of the Nibelung) is based in the style of Oresteia with parallels in rhythm and overall structure (both have three parts, with the exception of Das Rheingold, the prelude to The Ring of the Nibelung). Wagner said of himself, "History gave me a model also for that ideal relation of the theater to the public which I had in mind. I found it in the drama of Ancient Athens".
- Pavis (1998, p. 53)
- Kitto, H.D.F. (March 1956). "The Greek Chorus". Educational Theatre Journal 8 (1): 1–8. doi:10.2307/3203909. JSTOR 3203909.
- Schlegel, August Wilhelm. 1846. Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur 1. translated by John Black under the title Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Litereature (London, 1846; reprint, New York, 1973), 76-77.
- Montgomery, H.C. (December 1942). "Some Later Uses of the Greek Tragic Chorus". The Classical Journal 38 (3): 148–160.
- Weiner, Albert (May 1980). "The Function of the Tragic Greek Chorus". Theatre Journal 32 (2): 205–212. doi:10.2307/3207113.
- Aristotle, Poetics, chapter 18
- Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb (1999) Theater, The Lively Art, McGraw-Hill, New York ISBN 0-07-240718-2
- Brockett and Hildy (2003, pp. 22–23), Pavis (1998, p. 53), Rehm (1992, p. 26)
- Haigh, 1898, p. 319
- Kitto, 2002, pp. 22, 27
- Hughes, Alan (2012). Performing Greek Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107009301.
- Rodgers and Hammerstein. Six Plays by Rodgers and Hammerstein, p. 185
- Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-41050-2.
- Calame, Claude; (tr. Derek Collins & Janice Orion), "Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Functions", Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. ISBN 0-7425-1525-7
- Haigh, Arthur Elam, The Attic theatre: a description of the stage and theatre of the Athenians, and of the dramatic performances at Athens, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1898.
- Kitto, H. D. F., The Greeks, 1952.
- Pavis, Patrice. 1998. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P. ISBN 0-8020-8163-0.
- Rehm, Rush. 1992. Greek Tragic Theatre. Theatre Production Studies ser. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11894-8.