Every theatre performance is a unique, short-lived, fleeting event that disappears. Reconstructions of ancient theatre performances are inevitably always an approximation, because over the millennia a huge amount of information has simply been lost. From surviving texts, inscriptions, vase paintings and the remains of theatre buildings, we know the programme of the Dionysia Festival in Athens, for example, and a great deal about the structure, poetic verse, costumes, special effects and theatre architecture of the plays performed. However, our understanding of the sound world of the plays and the movements, gestures and postures of the actors and chorus is fragmented. In this article, we consider the role of the chorus in Golden Age Greek drama, whose influence was felt in the later Mediterranean dramatic tradition.
The English word chorus comes from the Greek word khoros, “dance.” It also referred to the concrete place of dance, the dance floor. Khoros included the idea of collective dance: khoros is a chorus that dances. Without dancing there is no chorus, but a chorus can also sing or act. This ensemble was called a khoreia. It is therefore closely related to the Greek word mousikē, which is too narrowly translated as music. Mousikē included dance, music and song, i.e. it was a whirlpool of movement, sound, rhythm, melody and language. The chorus (khoros) is one of the performers of this whole.
Although khoros also meant a dance floor, in theatre architecture the performance space for the chorus was a circle, semicircle, horseshoe or irregularly shaped orkhēstra. This word comes from the same basis as the words orkhēsis and orkhēstēs, whichrefer to dance and dancers in general, and which later in Roman times acquired a special meaning in stage performance. Although they are the origin of our word orchestra, even in Roman times they still referred primarily to dance, typically the solo dance and dancer in a pantomime performance largely inspired by the Greek dramatic tradition.
The chorus’s place, orkhēstra, was between the audience and the actors. In addition to the orkhēstra, typical architectural structures in a Greek theatre building were the skēnē, thebackstage building in front of which the actors performed, and the theatron, where the audience sat. On both sides of the skēnē were passages (parodos, plural parodoi) leading to the orkhēstra, along which the chorus entered at the beginning of the play and left at the end.
In Greek tragedy and comedy, the parodos was also the opening song of the chorus, preceded by a prologue. This was usually followed by an alternation of parts performed by the actors, the episodes and parts performed by the chorus, the stasima (sing. stasimon). The chorus and the actors also often had a common part, the lament or kommos. Thepart after the last stasimon of thechorus was called the eksodos. In the “old comedy’ represented by Aristophanes, after the entrance of the chorus (parodos) there was a contest between the main characters, the agōn, after which it was the turn of the chorus to come out in the parabasis sectionto address the audience. At the end of the comedy there was an exodos of the chorus, as in the tragedy, but often in the form of a triumphant and celebratory procession of kōmos.
The Composition of the Chorus and Its Relationship with the Audience
In tragedies the chorus could play, for example, the women of Troy, the old men from Thebes, sailors, the female servants of Dionysus, and in comedies, in addition to people, they could play animals such as frogs or wasps, or even clouds. Like the actors, all the members of the chorus were always men. In the second half of the fifth century BCE, the chorus of tragedies and satyr plays had 15 members, and the chorus of comedies had 24.
The number of verses the chorus has in relation to the number of verses the actors has varied. The general trend was that in tragedy the proportion of chorus decreased over time. For example, in Agamemnon by Aeschylus, which was first performed in 458 BCE, the proportion of verses the chorus has is about half (842/1673). In Sophocles’ Antigone, late 440s BCE, the chorus has a quarter (351/1353); in Euripides’ Medea of 431 BCE, a fifth (297/1419); and in the only surviving satyr play, Euripides’ Cyclops, a quarter (186/709). The year of the first performance of Cyclops is not known. For comedy, our knowledge is scarcer, but the same trend can be seen.
This decline in the chorus parts has been seen as an indication of its declining importance. This decline was influenced by the fact that the professionalisation of theatre superseded the earlier practice of actors and chorus being amateur performers assembled from the citizens of Athens. Over time, acting became a profession for performers, but the chorus was still made up of ordinary citizens until the early fourth century BCE. It is worth remembering that the word amateur is not a qualitative qualifier in this context, but a reflection of the social role of the theatre in the context of the democratic city state of Athens. At the annual Dionysia festival in Athens, three tragedians were “awarded a chorus” and their performances competed against each other. The chorus’ training, living expenses during the rehearsal period and possibly the costumes were financed personally by the producer (khorēgos)of each author’s plays. There was no unlimited tax liability in Athens, and its wealthy citizens were obliged to contribute to city maintenance and the common good. In this way, the producer of the play fulfilled his civic duty, just as another rich Athenian was responsible for equipping a warship.
The importance of the chorus within the drama cannot be reduced to a purely quantitative analysis. By the time of Euripides’ later production, musical expression was changing, especially in the dithyrambs, which are closely linked to the history of drama: these choral songs and dances in honour of Dionysus are considered to be precursors of Greek drama (Figure 2). The general changes in musical expression may have been reflected in Euripides’ works, where the choral parts are somewhat detached dithyrambic performances in the middle of the play. But they can also play an important role in the construction of the world of the play. The seemingly disconnected deviations of the chorus bring distant myths or geographical locations to the audience’s experience, and thereby create a sense of vitality and tension in the work as a whole (Weiss 2018, 8–11).
The chorus as a whole, in its Athenian context, created a strong bond between the members of the chorus and the audience, since the chorus members were in reality, in their everyday lives, relatives, neighbours or acquaintances of the audience, and the audience consisted of chorus members from previous and future years. Each audience member had some personal experience of choral dance, as it was part of all walks of life. In the fictional reality of the plays, some comedy and many tragedy choruses perform a variety of real-life rituals and songs, such as prayers, invocations and exorcisms, as well as hymns of praise and thanksgiving, lamentations, wedding and victory songs. The choreography of such scenes certainly had memories of and similarities with real-life rituals. In ancient Greek culture, choral dance was always a ritual performance, whether it took place in the context of plays at the Dionysia festival or other festivals and ritual activities.
The Role of the Chorus and the Language of Movement
In Greek drama, the chorus commented on events and advised or warned other characters in the play. The chorus could provide additional information about the mythological background of the plays or foreshadow future events. The chorus also indicated to the audience when the play began and ended. Since the plays were performed in sunlight and in an open space, the beginning and end could not be marked by, for example, the lighting or curtains we are familiar with. During the first part, the prologue, the audience could perhaps still settle down, catch up with each other and get ready to watch the play. After the prologue, the chorus came out and the play really got under way.
Although we know the names of the dances of the different dramatic genres – the emmeleia of tragedy, the kordaks ofcomedy and the sikinnis of satyr plays (Figure 3) – our knowledge of the movement of the chorus (and the actors) is rather scarce. The chorus and the actors themselves may give some clues to their own dance: the lines of the plays may talk about spins, leg lifts or jumps. In addition to the pictorial material, descriptions of dances and names of dance movements can be found in literary sources other than ancient drama literature, which may give clues as to how the dances were danced. The lyrical sections between the chorus and sometimes between the chorus and the actors contained verses (strophes) and counter-verses (antistrophes) that were similar in size and sometimes in content. It is very likely that the choreography of the verse and counter-verse corresponded, perhaps with the chorus moving first to the right during the verse and then to the left during the counter-verse, and standing still during the epode, thefinal verse of the chorus, which may be unanswered.
The movements of the chorus and actors were affected by the full head masks and the clothing they wore, and the props they might have carried. The clothing and masks of the chorus were generally coherent and depended on the identity of the chorus (old men/young women/frogs, etc.). For example, the large fake phalluses, buttocks, beards and breasts of comedy actors (Figure 4) influenced the way the actors moved, and certainly the chorus’s clothing and other props carried by the chorus members influenced the dance movements – the jumps, spins and step patterns that the chorus members could perform in each costume. Through reconstructions and practical experiments, we can speculate on how, for example, the mask affected the chorus’s dancing. Experiments like that can add to our understanding of the performer’s experience, even if reconstructions reduced to the movements and rhythms of ancient choral dance – or any dance – are too far-fetched. It is clear, however, that movement and masks affect the use of sound. Lucian picked up on this point when, hundreds of years later, he defended the popular pantomime dance of his time by comparing it to the performers of Greek drama, the forerunners of pantomime dance:
In the past, to be sure, they themselves both danced and sang; but afterwards, since the panting that came of their movement disturbed their singing, it seemed better that others should accompany them with song.
The pantomime continued the Greek dramatic tradition well into late antiquity. The role of the chorus had evolved into a kind of backing for the solo dancer, who performed when the dancer changed costume. The chorus still carried the story forward. Even in a pantomime performance, the chorus’s part cannot therefore be considered as an actual interlude or performance, which was called in Greek embolima. In the context of Greek tragedy, it was conceived of as a rather detached part of the choral performance, and the role of the tragic chorus was perceived to go in that direction, for instance in some of Euripides’ works, as mentioned above. However, the presence of the chorus in the work as a whole was indispensable, even if its role changed over time. Aristotle’s summary of the chorus in Greek canonised drama is apt:
The chorus too must be regarded as one of the actors. It must be part of the whole and share in the action.
The structure of the Sophocles’ Antigone
1–99 prologue, Antigone and Ismene
100–154 parodos, chorus
155–331 I episode 1, Creon and chorus (155–222), Creon and guard (223–331)
332–375 first stasimon, chorus
376–581 episode 2, Creon and guard (376–445), Creon and Antigone (446–530), Creon, Ismene, and Antigone (531–581)
582–625 second stasimon, chorus
626–780 episode 3, Creon and Haemon
781–800 third stasimon, chorus
801–882 kommos, Antigone and chorus
883–943 episode 4, Antigone and Creon
944–987 fourth stasimon, chorus
988–1114 episode 5, Creon and Tiresias
1115–1154 fifth stasimon, chorus
1155–1353 episode 6, messenger, Eurydice and chorus (1155–1260), messenger, Creon and chorus (1261–1353)
1 What khoros does is khoreia in Greek, and the verb is khoreuō. For example, Weiss (2018, 11) specifies that he uses the term khoreia to refer to choral song and dance and the term mousikē to refer more generally to a combination of dance, music and song. Mousikē or mousikē tekhnē (musical skill) also refers more broadly to all the arts that the Muses embodied. Different ancient writers have different ideas about the names and numbers of the muses. Hesiod, in his Theogony (probably written in the late eighth century BCE), lists the names of the Muses, but the arts represented by the Muses were not established until the Hellenistic period: Kleiō (historiography), Euterpē (flute music), Thaleia (comedy), Melpomenē (tragedy), Terpsikhorē (choral lyricism and dance), Eratō (lyrical love poetry and hymn poetry), Polyhymnia (dance, pantomime and geometry), Urania (astronomy) and Kalliopē (epic literature and string music).
2 While the chorus was performing stasimon, the actors could go inside the skēnē to change their costumes and masks to suit the roles in the next episode.
3 A few sources report that the chorus had 12 members at the time of Aeschylus and that Sophocles raised the number to 15. See Pickard-Cambridge 1988, 234–236 and Csapo & Slater 1994, 352, 360–361.
4 Csapo & Slater 1994, 349–351
5 On the organisation, programme, judging etc. of the Dionysia festival in Athens, see Pickard-Cambridge 1988 and Csapo & Slater 1994.
6 Dithyrambs had their own competitions at the Dionysia festival. There were 50 performers in both the boys’ and men’s dithyramb chorus. See, for example, Wilson 2000, 22–24.
7 On the different types of choral songs in tragedies, see e.g. Swift 2010.
8 Heinrichs 1995, 58–59. Weiss 2018, 3 notes that Plato, especially in his work The Laws, highlighted choral dance and song (khoreia) as a key element for the well-being of the city and that khoreia was a means of conceptualising tragedy in general.
9 See, for example, Aristophanes, Wasps 1485–1537; Euripides, Trojan women 332–334; Sophocles, Women of Trachis 216–221.
10 Pollux and Athenaeus, writing much later (late second century CE), list various dance movements in Onomasticon (4.103–105) and Deipnosophistae (14.629f–630a). Pollux lists the following tragic dance moves: upturned hand, basket, downturned hand, receiving wood, double leg, pincers, somersault/reverse/spin/spiral and going into all fours. Athenaeus lists both tragic and comic dance moves, and mentions the same moves as Pollux, but also adds other moves: for example, a sword dance, two owl dances and a sighting dance, as well as some kind of elbow dance and a dance with a rapid change in the position of the hands (or feet). According to Athenaeus, the owl dance involves looking into the distance while holding the hand on the forehead above the eyes. Athenaeus also mentions some of the names of dances that are otherwise unknown. See Aylen 1985, 117–118; Arnott 1989, 58–59; Csapo & Slater 1994, 365, 394.
11 Aylen 1985, 121. This is suggested in a marginal note in a manuscript at verse 647 of Euripides’ play Hecabe.
12 In Aristophanes’ Birds, themembers of the chorus represented different species of birds, so it is likely that they had at least some details of their costumes that differed from each other.
13 Actors and chorus members could carry small pieces of furniture, baskets, boxes and crates, musical instruments and other objects that were important to the plot of the play and the identity of the actors or chorus (for example, soldiers’ weapons, farmers’ tools or fishermen’s nets).
14 See Delavaud-Roux 2011.
15 Lucian, On Dancing, transl. A. M. Harmon.
16 Aristotle, Poetics 1456a 25–27, transl. W.H. Fyfe.
Aristotle, Poetics: Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Vol. 23, translated by W.H. Fyfe. 1932. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Arnott, Peter D. 1989. Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre. London & New York: Routledge.
Aylen, Leo. 1985. The Greek Theater. London & Toronto: Associated University Presses.
Csapo, Eric & Slater, William J. 1994. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.
Delavaud-Roux, Marie-Hélène 2011. “Rhythmes, musiques et danses dans les verses 209 à 220 des Grenouilles d’Aristophane.” In Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux (ed.). Musiques et danses dans l’Antiquité. Actes du colloque international de Brest 29–30 septembre 2006, Université de Bretagne Occidentale. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 209–223.
Goldhill, Simon & Osborne, Robin (eds.) 1999. Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heinonen, Timo & Kivimäki, Arto & Korhonen, Kalle & Korhonen, Tua & Reitala, Heta & Aristoteles. 2012. Aristoteleen Runousoppi. Opas aloittelijoille ja edistyneille. Helsinki: Teos.
Henrichs, Albert. 1995. “‘Why Should I Dance?’ Choral Self-Referentiality in Greek Tragedy.” Arion, Third series, Vol 3.1, 56–111.
Lucian, On Dancing: Lucian in eight volumes, volume 5, with an English translation by A. M. Harmon. 1936. Loeb Classical Library 302. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1936.
Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. 1988. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd revised edition, John M. Gould and David M. Lewis). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Swift, Laura A. 2010. The Hidden Chorus. Echoes of Genre in Tragic Chorus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weiss, Naomi A. 2018 The Music of Tragedy: Performance and Imagination in Euripidean Theatre. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Manna Satama (PhD) is a scholar of antiquity whose PhD thesis was on the social status of professional dancers in Roman Egypt. In addition to her research on antiquity, she has worked on issues of data management. Her book Tanssia antiikin näyttämöllä: Lukianos ja tanssin puolustus, published in 2021, consists of a Finnish translation of Lucian’s essay on dance (2nd century AD)and supporting material on the theory, aesthetics and role of the dancer in the period. orcid.org/0000-0003-3775-9363
Vesa Vahtikari (PhD) has been studying ancient Greek theatre for two decades and has written both his master’s and doctoral theses on subjects related to Greek tragedies. He has also translated ancient Greek literature. In recent years he has published Finnish translations of Sophocles’ tragedy Elektra and Euripides’ tragedy Hecabe, andis currently working on Aristophanes’ comedy The Acharnians.