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Analyse The Dramatic Uses Of The Chorus In Greek Tragedy; In What Ways Do Traces Of The Choric Function Occur In Twentieth-Century Drama?

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Essay Preview: Analyse The Dramatic Uses Of The Chorus In Greek Tragedy; In What Ways Do Traces Of The Choric Function Occur In Twentieth-Century Drama?

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The full influence of Greek tragedy upon our modern theatre is incomprehensible, with the mainstays of theatrical convention largely demonstrating roots within Greek tragedy. The choric function is just one of these conventions. This essay hopes to explore various uses of the Chorus within Greek tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles, and then to analyse how traits of a Greek Chorus, and the choric function can be found within 20th Century Theatre.

The Chorus in Greek tragedy was a large group (it is suggested between 12 and 30) of people who sang or chanted songs and poems that helped set the scene of the play, bring the audience up to date with the events preceding the play and inform the audience of any political or social consequences of events within the play. As Greek drama progressed, the writers of tragedies began to use the Chorus more as a character in its own right, with feelings and opinions. The Chorus were witnesses to the tragedy, but also often encouraged the tragedy to happen, incensing the characters and prompting them to act .

The Chorus can serve a number of different roles to the dramatist. These roles vary from play to play, and from playwright to playwright. They perform in some cases a narrator role, often setting the scene and ethical and political atmosphere of the piece, yet they also often interact with the actors, at points questioning their actions and giving advice. They also, through the pace and style of their songs/dances/dialogue set the mood of the play, and demonstrate changes in mood throughout the play. The Chorus also served to add to the theatrical effect of the piece, adding movement and heightening the spectacle of the performance . The Chorus are often also considered as the 'ideal audience' for a play, in that their reactions to the action on stage reflect the way the playwright hopes the audience might react.

Within The Oresteia Aeschylus' Chorus play a variety of roles. Aeschylus was the first Greek poet to diminish the role of the Chorus by introducing more than one principal actor. Before Aeschylus, the Chorus were the main focus of the play, and interacted predominantly just with one actor. However, Aeschylus found this was limiting, and wanted to explore increasing the number of actors, as this meant more focus could be placed on dialogue and relations between specific characters. Thanks to Aeschylus, the principal characters could interact with each other; this however meant the role of the Chorus was reduced.

In Agamemnon the Chorus is made up of men 'too old to join in the expedition' (page 5) to elderly to fight in the war at Troy. They were left behind in Argos, and have seen all that has happened since Agamemnon and Menelaus left for Troy. As soon as the Chorus enter, they begin to set the scene for the audience, explaining the bloodshed at Troy, getting excited about a possible victory and reflecting on past sacrifices. In the Harrison translation, the language used by the Chorus during is poetic and rhythmic; it is easy to imagine a Chorus of men shouting, singing and moving to these words, drumming up a sense of passion and atmosphere within a theatre. As the Chorus explain the events leading up to the war, including the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, we begin to see already the problems caused by killing one as revenge for the killing of another. This appears to be Aeschylus' intent - that we already see the pattern emerging of one life shed for another. This seemingly unending line of bloodshed and revenge is a key theme in the play, and we are constantly reminded of this by the Chorus. The Chorus take on an emotive role as well as a narrative role at various points during the play, as they express the feelings of the citizens of Argos, angry at times at a war being fought by their leader for his personal revenge, when their own loved ones are the ones suffering. The Chorus ask as they portray 'women's grief strings',

'Where's my father husband boy?

where do all our loved ones lie?

six feet under near the Troy

they died to occupy' (page 15).

They also question the main characters, for example they doubt that Clytemnestra is right about the fall of Troy, they want more evidence before they celebrate the return of the battle troops; 'Women! Women are always ready to act before they know if a rumor's true fact. (page 16)'. The Chorus also build up tension, and help the audience to understand that anger of the citizens towards Helen. In the Harrison translation, a play on words is made between Helen, and Hell (page 22). Aeschylus also uses the Chorus to hint to the audience about possible future events, for example when they hint that Clytemnestra has been unfaithful to Agamemnon (page 25).

In Choephori the Chorus are slave-women of the palace. In this second part of the Oresteia trilogy, the Chorus appear to gain in confidence, and are happy to influence the action fairly radically. From the very beginning of the play are one of the key factors that persuade Orestes and Electra to seek revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegistthus, reminding them that,

'The law's the law: when blood gets spilled

there's no rest till the killers killed.

Bloodflow for bloodflow the doomsong goes -

blood shrieks for the Fury as it flows (page 61)'.

In Eumenides the Chorus become a Chorus of Furies. Furies, according to classical myth are 'chthonian powers of retribution for wrongs and blood-guilt especially in the family' . They become far less of a narrative Chorus, just commenting on the action, and far more involved as a 'character' themselves, chasing Orestes and arguing with Apollo. The furies are not evil in so much as they are wrongdoers, they simply believe in their own rules and laws, ones that encompass the blood-grudge - in order to prevent people from killing, the furies believe they themselves must have a fear that they too may die due to an act of revenge. They explain, 'Fear's a good gateman to stand guard of the passions' (page 100).

For Sophocles the Chorus has yet again a more reduced role, as more actors are introduced into his plays. The focus yet again turns towards dialogue between characters, and away from interaction purely between actor and Chorus. The Sophoclean Chorus is not emotionally separate from the action, it is involved emotively with the story being portrayed, and can show sympathy (and in contrast, hatred) towards the events on the stage.

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