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THE USE OF THE CHORUS IN GREEK PLAYS
Greek tragedy contained two basic elements: the dramatic spoken exchanges between two or three lead characters (usually in iambic trimeters) and the choral song in lyric meters, sung to the accompaniment of music (mostly the flute or lyre). By the early fifth century, Aeschylus and Phyrnichus invented many graceful and dignified steps for the Chorus to perform, as they recited or chanted their lyrics.
The word Chorus comes from the Greek word “choros” which means “dance.” At first, the Chorus was an important part of public religious rituals and was later included in public performances of Choral lyric poetry. As early as the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., the performances of tragedy in Attica (an area around Athens) were part of religious festivals, like the Dionysia, and included the use of a Chorus. It was later featured in comedy as well.
The original choral lyric was called the “dithyramb.” It was sung and danced in honor of the god Dionysus during his festivals. In Antigone, the final Chorus before the close of the play is an apostrophe (an address or speech) to Dionysus: “O God of many a name!...” Sophocles follows the archaic Attican tradition in assigning a dithyrambic Chorus to the singers in what is their final major utterance on stage. From being a separate literary genre, the choral lyric thus came to be incorporated as part of tragedy and comedy.
The Chorus sang or chanted the lyric passages of a drama to the tune of a flute with stylized choreography. The grave and dignified dance of tragedy was distinct from the more abandoned dances of comedy and was denoted by the term “Emmelia” which means gracefulness.
Like the main actors in a play, the Chorus was masked, as the surrender of individual identity was an intrinsic part of all Dionysian ritual. In tragedy, the Chorus always performed in character as a group of people involved in and commenting on the main action of the drama. Sophocles uses the Chorus in Antigone as a group representing the ordinary people of Thebes. Through them he is able to show public reaction to the crises of unfolding events, particularly, to the actions of the leaders and how these affect people’s lives. All through the play, one observes how the Chorus is concerned with public welfare, peace and the internal security of Thebes, which ensures their own survival.
Occasionally, the leader of the Chorus, known as the “coryphaeus” or “hegemon,” got singled out from the rest of the group. He was sometimes allowed to converse briefly with the other characters on stage or to utter a solo speech addressed either to the rest of the Chorus or directly to the audience. This gave him the
possibility of partaking in the main dramatic action. Although Sophocles permits the Chorus-leader in Antigone to utter a few separate dialogues, they are not of major significance. His only important utterance is the last one, in which he sums up the moral of the tale at the close of the play:
“High boastings of the proud Bring sorrow to the height to punish pride: A lesson men shall learn when they are old.”
The Chorus was often trained by the poet himself, who, in this capacity, was called the “chorodidaskalos.” The members of the Chorus were selected and backed financially by a prominent private citizen called the “choregus.” The Chorus originally consisted of twelve members, and Sophocles is known to have increased the number to fifteen.