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The Historical Peculiarity of the Greek Chorus

9th of July, 2022

The Borges story Averroës's Search describes the difficulty faced by 12th century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Latinised as Averroës) in translating Aristotle’s Poetics. The work concerns the aesthetics of Greek drama, something almost incomprehensible to Ibn Rushd as the culture of medieval Islamic Spain lacked anything resembling a play.

“I felt that the work mocked me, foiled me, thwarted me. I felt that Averroës, trying to imagine what a play is without ever having suspected what a theatre is, was no more absurd than I, trying to imagine Averroës yet with no more material than a few snatches from Renan, Lane, and Asín Palacios.”
—Jorge Luis Borges

In the story, Ibn Rushd is given two chances to understand the theatre. He hears a traveller who has been to China poorly describe a play he saw there, but before any of that he sees children play acting in the street. Special attention is given to their dirtiness, their nakedness, and their brutal and barbaric language: an incipient medieval Spanish far below the exalted Arabic of the Quran. To Borges, it is important that Ibn Rushd’s cultivation robs him of the ability to understand what the children understand. I have told people, untruthfully, that I had never seen a play before I first read Shakespeare as a 13 year old in school. This is not true because, my memory having filtered and justified the content of experience according to present understanding of what a play is, I had totally forgotten that I had seen half a dozen pantomime shows by that age. Pantomime as a modern folk art—part play, part musical comedy, part drag show—did not register as a form of theatre until, in an embarrassing flash of recognition, it did.

“…as in some of Molière’s plays, where two actors who have been delivering long soliloquies from opposite sides of the stage, a few feet apart, are supposed not to have seen each other yet, and then suddenly catch sight of each other, cannot believe their eyes, break off what they are saying and finally address each other (the chorus having meanwhile kept the dialogue going) and fall into each other’s arms.”
—Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

In the theatre of Shakespeare, at least as I came to read and see it, I recognised the relationship between stage and audience as fundamentally similar to that of the cinema. Characters interact on the stage, which is a pocket universe with its own internally consistent rules and mechanics, and we watch through a fourth wall, that ideal membrane that preserves and seals in the causal sanctity of the narrative. Where conditions are set up, they then evolve according to a contrast and collision that is determined by a symbolic causality of the writer’s choosing.

Causality works strangely in Greek drama. Fate is taken for granted by the audience, and this is of crucial importance in understanding the role of the Chorus. The Chorus in the context of the Ancient Greek plays was a large group of commentators who commented on the action of the stage without actually being present there, situated instead in a space called the orchestra. They sang songs and danced as a complement to the actors on the stage. It seems to us the most natural thing in the world for that stage to feature two or more characters who talk to each other. According to Aristotle, it took until the iconoclastic Aeschylus for this to actually develop as a feature of drama. Modern scholarship seems to doubt that Aeschylus is personally responsible for the innovations that Aristotle credits him with, but what is most interesting to me is that Aristotle identifies actors talking to each other on the stage as itself a form of innovation. Before this narrative device, characters on the stage interacted only with the Chorus, which served as an intermediate party. Greek tragedy’s causality then did not admit dialogue; in a dualistic sort of way, dialogue existed as a superposition of meaning on top of a causality of martial skirmish and destiny.

Characters on the stage were not a part of some continuous and contiguous universe of possibility, but representations and images of human nature which could only express their dynamism in their relation to the audience and the chorus, and not with each other. In this sense, they were like two figures in a painting: essentially representational and separated by the different coloured paint of their ground, and only seen to be interacting by a viewer who has to interpret them as doing so of her own accord.

“Probably these things aren't as natural as we suppose. Perhaps until you see someone else do it, dialogue in theatre is no more natural than showing two people talking to each other in a painting.”

August Schlegel’s essays on the arts, in which he discusses the Chorus, are unusually receptive to this culturally contingent conception of the arts for having been written in the early 19th century. This was the time of grand and absurd theories of eternal beauty, of the hunt for logical solutions to matters of the heart and the arts which transcend time and specificity—though which actually in practise just assume that the norms of their own time can be extrapolated as the only truly right and eternal standards of morality and spirituality, against which the barbarism of alien cultures more or less compares. Indeed, Schlegel himself makes fun of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing for having found in Aristotle’s aesthetics “a poetical Euclid”. This receptivity to the plasticity of beauty gives him an insight into the ideal character of the Chorus precisely in how it reflects Greek ideas about material, spirit, and destiny, which are different to modern conceptions of them.

“We must consider it as a personified reflection on the action which is going on; the incorporation into the representation itself of the sentiments of the poet, as the spokesman of the whole human race. In a word, the Chorus is the ideal spectator. It mitigates the impression of a heart- rending or moving story, while it conveys to the actual spectator a lyrical and musical expression of his own emotions, and elevates him to the region of contemplation.”
—August Schlegel, Essence of the Greek Tragedies

Understanding the Chorus as an ideal representation of all mankind makes the relationship between audience and stage in those early tragedies still stranger. Where characters on stage were bound only to the Chorus, it is through their communication with this body that they are able to express that dignity of human nature. Communication is then understood to be between character and audience, character and playwright, character and character, and character—himself an ideal expression of humanity elevated from material— with an elevated ideal representation of audience, playwright, and “the whole human race”. In lieu of a curtain, the Chorus’s entrance and exit even signified the beginnings and endings of acts and plays. The Chorus was traditionally made up of fifty performers. That this representation of all mankind is itself a collective—which, we must remember, always behaves in unison, is one of the great peculiarities of the mutant history of dramatics.

If we are to regard the essential dialectic of Greek tragedy as the struggle between the inward liberty of humanity and the external necessity of an unaccountable fate, then bizarrely the tension between these two poles can only be expressed according to the mediation of an ideal collective surrogate which represents almost everything at once, and which is not diegetically present in that space of activity. The individual doesn't really properly exist on the stage. He cannot move freely in his bubble universe, behind the fourth wall. He is only allowed to move—to live—in that bubble universe, as long as he promises not to touch anything, and as long as he maintains a constant line of communication with the outside.

The etymology of the Chorus in large part contributes to our knowledge of what they did. Their allocated space, the orchestra, literally translates to ‘dancing floor, and the Greek verb choreuo, means ‘to dance’. Historical consensus has not decided whether the entire field of Greek dramatics grew out of, or was simply grafted onto, the traditional Chorus: a group of performers (dancers and singers) at a religious festival. It is this mutation, either of spontaneous growth or of transplant, that gives the particulars of this drama—the dialectical explosion of stage and audience and the musical and choreological character of its Chorus—its most enduring aesthetic character. It is defined by its historical peculiarity: the very thing that makes it impossible for Ibn Rushd to understand it is what allows for its complex and wonderful tensions to produce living art.

Further Reading:

Two Qualities: of Silence, and of Putting Words in Order
The Shining Ice
Film Acting and Identity