Greek Chorus in History

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THE GREEK CHORUS' SMALL PLACE IN HISTORY

The history of the Greek Chorus can be traced back to a relatively small time period; from the original Dithyrambs, to Thespis' small, but revolutionizing changes to the system, to Aeschylus' triple entente of tragedies The Oresteia, which included the infamous Agamemnon. To truly understand the Greek Chorus, and what role it was meant to play when it was created and thereafter altered, one has to go back to the beginning of time…which in this case happens to be somewhere around the seventh century, B.C. During this time, the festival of Dionysus was held annually in Athens to celebrate and honor the god for which it was named. Dionysus, being the Greek (and Roman) god of wine and of an orgiastic religion celebrating the power and fertility of nature, was a god mainly devoted to pleasure. (As it turns out, Dionysus generally had an accompaniment of nymphs and satyrs; this fits in quite well with his sexually promiscuous personage.) ("Dionysus" 391) These festivals consisted of somewhere in the area of fifty men (occasionally dressed up as non-human entities such as birds, clouds, frogs, etc…) who sang ceremonial songs and danced throughout the festivities. The effort of dancing and singing for such long periods of time has often been compared to competing in the Olympic Games. (Greek Tragedy and Chorus)

After over one hundred years of this, a man named Thespis got the chance to direct the festive dances. In 534 B.C. Thespis separated one man from the group, and coordinated the dance to be a call-and-response-type arrangement. The dancers sang and danced mostly as usual, while the separated man called out to, commented on, and talked with the rest of the group, usually in verse. After several years, this slowly evolved into the Greek chorus, mostly as it is known today. The dancers eventually became actors in a play, and the chorus became larger until their number reached at least a dozen or more, depending on what type of play was being acted out. Comedies generally consisted of up to two dozen men, while tragedies usually contained twelve to fifteen members of the chorus. The ‘men', who were usually just about to enter military service after some years of training, as Athenians were taught at quite an early age to sing and dance, often portrayed women as well, because women were forbidden to become actors, much like in the age of Elizabethan theatre. (Greek Tragedy and Chorus)

The chorus, however, also served other purposes. They made the transitions between the ‘skenes' so that the actors could have time to enter and leave the stage area, and they also announced who the actors were playing. And instead of being completely detached from the action of the play, the chorus often became an entire character who interacted with the actors, and who generally represented the common people's thoughts and ideas. It is even said, that actors could and did step out of the ‘skene' and joined the chorus, though the chorus was forbidden to enter the ‘skene' with the actors. (Greek Tragedy and Chorus) Beginning at this time also, the Greek chorus also began to dress like the main character or hero did, whether they happened to be portraying a man or woman. (Watt 15) The chorus actually evolved to become part of the entertainment, not just a small sideshow.

Of the hundreds of plays that were written in the fifth century B.C., we've only recovered a total of 33 tragedies, 11 comedies, and 1 satyr. Among the most famous, is a tragic trilogy called The Oresteia, which includes Aeschylus' infamous tragedy, Agamemnon. The chorus is heavily used in this unique play, as they have over half of the lines in the play. They interact with nearly every character, and comment to the audience on almost every event that happens during the performance. Throughout the theatrical presentation, the chorus also adds something else; they garner sympathy for the heroes of the piece,...
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