What is the Chorus in Greek Tragedy?

In Classical Greek drama, the existence of a Chorus strikes the modern audience as odd. Why is there a Chorus? What role does it play? Where did the Chorus come from?

The origin of the word “khoros” is cloaked in mystery, however it has been suggested by modern scholars that the word references an open dance floor, or a group of dancers. The contemporary belief is that the Chorus was the original form of performance – tragodia, meaning “goat-song” – in which small groups of men sang dithyrambs, or hymns to the god Dionysus. Gradually, as time went on, the musical performance became a full theatrical performance – mimesis – a representation of the tales of Greek myths. The representation moved to a picture of the dance of life. It has been said that Thespis was the first actor (from which we derive our modern word “Thespian”), and he is said to have been the first person to speak to the Chorus.

Then, Aeschylus added additional actors, as Aristotle notes in his Poetics, and the tragic art was further expanded upon by Sophocles and Euripides. Prior to Aeschylus, the Chorus typically numbered 50 people, then he brought it down to 12, and Sophocles raised its number to 15 where it remained until the decline of Athens. The Chorus was confined primarily to the orchestra or “dancing floor” portion of the stage.

In essence, the Chorus in Greek tragedy is the embodiment of the city. It is a group of people intended to represent the opinions, hopes, fears, and sorrows of the collective Greek polis. They act as one single unit and present the opinion of history, the judgement of the audience. However, the Chorus is not merely a source of opinion, but also attempts to influence the action in the play, as in the case of the Chorus of Theban women in Sophocles’s Antigone. The Chorus plays the role of both spectator and actor. Aristotle addresses the Chorus in Chapter 18 of his Poetics, in which the Chorus resembles a kind of “collective character”, and Aristotle also dismisses the Choruses of later Greek tragedy (Agathon or Euripides) as they employ the use of a Chorus broadly so that it need not necessarily apply to any particular play. That is, later tragedy, following Sophocles, does not relate make Chorus as relevant to the plot. To echo Nietzsche’s theory of Greek tragedy, that Greek tragedy is the child of both Apollonian and Dionysian instincts, the Chorus is the embodiment of the the Dionysian element – singing and dancing – whereas the actors fulfill the contemplative Apollonian element. Therefore, it makes sense that the Chorus reaches an apex in its early forms with Aeschylus and Sophocles, and declines in use in latter tragedy as the intellectualism of Euripides takes over the play and the Dionysian Chorus becomes less relevant until it is finally destroyed.

In Elizabethan England there is no analog to the Greek Chorus, however we might think of it as akin to a single character making an aside to the audience. In this way, the audience is clued-in to the plot before it unfolds. Today, there have been some contemporary playwrights who have attempted to revive the use of the Chorus, such as Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

For the modern mind, it is difficult to imagine a singing dancing Chorus. Our theatre tends to be intellectual and austere with the introduction of song and dance only in whimsical light-hearted comedies. In the classical Greek world the Chorus played a role in comedies, as well, embodying as many as 24 people at a time. In contrast, our world is far more heavy, and Apollonian. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche’s prescription for the modern mind is to live lightly and find ways to sing and dance again.

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