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.

The Failure of Orestes

While many other Greek tragedies tend to reiterate already established myths and customs, Euripides’s Orestes appears to be entirely his own invention. Chronologically, the plot of the play takes place after the events contained in Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. It was first performed in 408 BC, near the close of the Peloponnesian War.

In Orestes, Electra recounts the story of her mother, Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon upon his return home from Troy, and her brother, Orestes’s subsequent murder of Clytemnestra at the behest of Apollo. As a result, Orestes lies unconscious for days on the floor. Meanwhile a band of citizens has begun calling for the death of Orestes for his crime of matricide. When Menelaus and Helen arrive from Sparta, Orestes suddenly awakens but he is in a tormented psychological state, haunted by the Furies (recall the plot of Aeschylus’s Eumenides). What are the Furies? Orestes tells us: “I call it conscience. The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime” (395-396). It is not unlike the psychological terror experienced by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Orestes begs Menelaus to save him and Electra from certain death: a verdict of death by stoning from the people of Argos. Initially, Menelaus relents to Orestes, however his father-in-law Tyndareus (also Orestes’s grandfather) appears and is disgusted by Orestes. He persuades Menelaus not to help Orestes. Perhaps we can hear the words of Euripides in the mouth of the elder Tyndareus, defender of a sanitary and rational rule of law, as he criticizes Orestes’s act of murder rather than taking Clytemnestra to trial:

“When his father died-
killed I admit, by my own daughter’s hand,
an atrocious crime which I do not condone
and never shall-he should have haled his mother
into court, charged her formally with murder,
and made her pay the penalty prescribed,
expulsion from his house.

Legal action,
not murder. That was the course to take.
Under the circumstances, a hard choice,
true, but the course of self-control
and due respect for law, and the better choice
of two evils

But as things stand now,
what difference is there between him and his mother?”

Tyndareus believes the law trumps all. He criticizes Orestes for stooping to a petty act of vengeance when he could have taken his mother to court instead, despite Apollo’s wishes. Orestes’s pleas to Menelaus for help fall on deaf ears. He has come to Argos and returned from Troy a weakened man and he cannot help Orestes. He gives some prescient advice on the nature of the mob-mentality:

“Look at it this way my boy.
Mobs in their emotions are much like children,
subject to the same tantrums and fits of fury.
But this anger must be treated with patience
rather like a fire that gets out of control” 

However, the mob quickly declares a death sentence for Orestes and Electra so they both conspire to kill Helen and Hermione, Helen and Menelaus’s daughter. Just as Orestes holds a sword to Hermione’s throat and demands that Menelaus profess Orestes’s innocence to the people, the god Apollo appears – another deus ex machina. He commands that everyone stop: Orestes is to go to Athens to stand trial, and Menelaus is to return to Sparta. Also, Orestes is destined to marry Hermione, Menelaus’s daughter, and Electra is to marry Pylades, Orestes’s lifelong friend and companion. Thus truces are made and the possibility of justice is introduced, though curiously, yet again, Euripides introduces a deus ex machina. For Euripides the plot of the play is almost irrelevant, or is at least secondary, to the feelings of sorrow he arouses in his characters. It matters very little that a god should suddenly appear at the end and set things right. Euripides’s primary goal is to make Athenian audiences reflect on themselves and their activities, particularly pertaining to the war with Sparta, in the words of people like Menelaus and Tyndareus. His focus is on tragic character study, thus inverting the classical Aristotelian view of tragedy.

For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.

Brief Thoughts on The Trojan Women

Known in Latin as the Troades, Euripides’s The Trojan Women was said by Aelian’s Varia Historica (published in the third century A.D.) to have been performed for the first time in 415 BC at the 91st Olympiad. Ultimately, he won second place, losing to Xenocles, a now lost Athenian tragedian. The Trojan Women was part three of a group of three tragedies and a satyr play, as was common. However, unlike his notable predecessors, Euripides rarely wrote a tragic cycle like the Oresteia or the Oedipus cycle. His plays typically do not follow any kind of order. Instead, Euripides is much more interested in the tragic passions experienced by various characters, particularly women and foreigners.

The Trojan Women is a play that is almost devoid of any plot. It details the experiences of several prominent women after the fall of Troy: the fate of Hecuba, as portrayed in greater detail by Euripides in his play entitled Hecuba, as she becomes a slave in the house of Odysseus and her daughter Cassandra who becomes a concubine of Agamemnon. Next we hear from Andromache, also detailed in her own play by Euripides, entitled Andromache. She is the widowed wife of Hector, the warrior of Troy who was slain by Achilles. Andromache bemoans the fate of the Trojan women, as her young son Astyanax is being thrown from the high walls of Troy to his death. Andromache is fated to become a concubine of Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus. Lastly, we hear from Helen, the cause of the Trojan War. She is slated to be taken back to Greece where Menelaus has a death sentence awaiting her (though we know through Homer’s Odyssey and other texts that Helen was never actually killed Menelaus, and that they ruled together again for years). At the end of the play, all the women are taken away to live out their future enslavement, each praying for death. Hecuba comments on her life:

“Ah, wretched me. So this is the unhappy end
and goal of all the sorrows I have lived. I go

forth from my country and a city lit with flames.
Come, aged feet; make one last weary struggle, that I 
may hail my city in its affiliation. O Troy, once
so huge over all Asia in the drawn win of pride,
your very name of glory shall be stripped away.
They are burning you, and us they drag forth from our land
enslaved. O gods! Do I call upon those gods for help?
I cried to them before now, and they would not hear.
Come then, hurl ourselves into the pyre. Best now,
to die in the flaming ruins of our fathers’ house!” (1271-1283)

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Thoughts on Andromache

It has been suggested that Euripides is obsessed with character, but that he is indifferent to plot. Each one of his tragedies might be said to be a character study into the pure hopelessness faced by human beings.

The Andromache is an unusual play for a number of reasons. The unnamed Scholiast, a latter Byzantine, reports that the play was not presented at Athens, and may have instead been presented at Argos as part of Athenian propaganda campaign. Who is the central character of the play? The title would suggest Andromache, wife of the slain Hector of Troy. However, two-thirds of the way through the tragedy, Andromache disappears and the story concludes with a tragedy that has befallen Peleus, father of Achilles. Like, Euripides’s Hecuba the tragedy takes place following the events of the Trojan War.

“Andromache Mourning Hector” by Jacques-Louis David in 1783

Background: Andromache was the wife of Hector of Troy. Hector was the fiercest warrior of Troy, matched only by Achilles of the Greeks. He is eventually slain by Achilles in battle, as told in Homer’s Iliad. When the city of Troy is sacked, all are either killed or enslaved. The children of Hector and Andromache are thrown off the walls of Troy for fear of exacting revenge against the Greeks one day. Andromache is enslaved by Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, and she is taken back to his island to live, along with his grandfather Peleus. Years later, Andromache has a child with Neoptolemus and he later marries a woman, Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen.

The play begins with Andromache lamenting her status in life. Neoptolemus has taken a new wife, Hermione, and she is extremely jealous of Andromache. She plots to kill either Andromache or her young son. Andromache pleads at the altar of Thetis, goddess and mother of Achilles. She has hidden her son away, but a nurse arrives to warn her that Menelaus knows the location of her son. She seeks the help of Peleus, grandfather of Neoptolemus. The elderly Peleus arrives and prevents Menelaus from killing the child. Suddenly, however, Orestes arrives and he has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes carries away Hermione. An attendant appears and tells Peleus that his chain has died out with the death of his grandson, Neoptolemus. The play ends with a surprise appearance from Thetis to Neoptolemus.

Unlike Hecuba, the Andromache is far more patriotic to the city of Athens. At the height of the Peloponnesian War, the portrayal of Menelaus, and therefore Sparta, was no doubt falling upon audiences with approval, as Athens was sorely losing its ascendance.

For this reading I used the Deborah Roberts translation.