Role of CHORUS in Tragedy

Role of CHORUS in Tragedy

According
to Encyclopaedia Britannica “The chorus in
Classical Greek drama was a group of actors who described and commented upon
the main action of a play with song, dance, and recitation.”

Choral music is interwoven into the drama to develop a deeper sense of
emotional urgency, to express meaning emotionally rather than simply logically.
Of course, Greek tragedies are cool and Broadway musicals suck, but that’s a
different subject. Most modern lyrical music (as in music with lyrics), whether
it’s pop, rock, metal, hip-hop, country, whatever, also continues the tradition
of using a chorus to further develop verse.  So thinking about the role of
a chorus in modern music should help us understand the chorus in tragedy: it is
essentially the same.

The
origins of the chorus in particular may have stemmed out of ancient rites and
rituals with elements of song and dance, and most importantly – the gathering
of people. One of the ingredients of Tragedy as specified by Aristotle is
thought. Chorus is one of the principal vehicles of thought. Tragedy arouse out
of the chorus, whether Dithyrambic or some other sort.



Chorus
serves different purposes for the playwright. As there was this clear
need to distract the audience while the actors went off-stage to change clothes
and costumes, and perhaps prepare for their next role. Aside from the practical
the chorus would have had numerous functions in providing a comprehensive and
continuous artistic unit. Firstly, according to a view accepted by many
scholars, the chorus would provide commentary on actions and events that
were taking place before the audience. By doing this the chorus would create a
deeper and more meaningful connection between the characters and the audience.
Secondly, the chorus would allow the playwright to create a kind of literary
complexity only achievable by a literary device controlling the atmosphere and
expectations of the audience. Thirdly, the chorus would allow the playwright to
prepare the audience for certain key moments in the storyline, build up
momentum or slow down the tempo; he could underline certain elements and
downplay others.



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Chorus, however, plays different role in different
tragedies. It is the protagonist in in The Suppliants.
In the Prometheus
Bound
and the Agamemnon,
the chorus is the sympathetic observer rather than an active participant. In The Choephorae,
it takes a minor sharein the action of misleading Aegisthos, but in The Eumenides,
the chorus is a prominent participant in the action.

In
Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound”,
the chorus is composed of Oceanids (nymphs from the ocean, the children
of the sea god Oceanus and his wife Tethys). Aeschylus changed the role of the
chorus which brought criticisms from Aristotle who his Poetics suggested
that “he
diminished
the importance of the Chorus” (Aristotle 5), and by more modern writers
such as H. D. F. Kitto who in his Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study writes “Aeschylus
arranges things differently. He makes the chorus do what Greek choruses are
supposed never to do: to take a part in the action.” 

In
the works of Nietzsche the chorus takes on a completely new and profound
philosophical meaning. In his The Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche presents a view of a distinct dissonance between what he calls
the Apollonian and the Dionysian paradigms, referencing
to the dramatic and choral qualities of Greek drama respectively. In a
metaphysical framework the chorus is the essence of the play and embodies a
certain Dionysian consciousness which deals with the primal realms of the human
condition.

The
use of the Chorus in Elizabethan plays derives ultimately from its use in
Ancient Greek drama. In Shakespeare’s King Henry V
(1599), for instance, a play which includes military sieges and battle scenes,
the Chorus is used to ask the audience to exercise their imaginations to
conceive of such vast doings taking place in so small a theatre. Marlowe
employs chorus in Doctor Faustus for a number of
functions.

In
the modern theatre chorus has become almost of no use. G. B. Shaw has
used prefaces and elaborate stage directions which serve the purpose of the
Greek chorus.

The
chorus comments on the action in lyrical speeches. Thus they add lyrical
splendour to the drama and help in transforming horror and pain to beauty
and music. It also knows the past, observes the present and has shrewd sense of
the future. It participates in the action in the sense that it suffers it
consequences.

Aristotle says in his Poetics
that chorus “should be an integral part of the whole, and take share in the
action.”
But in the Problemata
he admits that “action is not fitting for the chorus. The main function of
chorus is dancing and singing. Twelve or more persons always standing on the
stage can not effectively participate in any action. They interfere with
dramatic probability and movement. It has been rightly said that the chorus
contributes “in some degree to the progress of the action, by active offices of
friendly assistance as, for example, in the Philoctetes, and the Ajax of
Sophocles”
. (Twining- Aristotle’s
Treatise on poetry
)

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