Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.16

Margaret Rachel Kitzinger, The Choruses of Sophokles' Antigone and Philoktetes: A Dance of Words. Mnemosyne Supplementa 292.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. 146.  ISBN 9789004165144.  $113.00.  

Reviewed by Victor Bers, Yale University (
Word count: 1265 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the late delivery of this notice, but assigns a small portion of the blame to an airline that failed to retrieve his copy of the book that he left on a seat.]

Rachel Kitzinger traces her interest in Sophoclean choruses back to the "helplessness"" she felt explaining them to students. Many readers will think of the challenge to their own pedagogical resources as they drove and pulled their classes through the lyrics of tragedy, and a substantial subset will remember that E.R. Dodds opens The Greeks and the Irrational by relating an encounter with a disgruntled young man looking at the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum. But few Hellenists have, like Kitzinger, directed tragic productions in Greek, an experience she reports as providing a handle on the chorus. Also unusual are the monograph's organization and range. She offers a close study of the choral sections, kommoi included, of two Sophoclean plays. The book's title and announced program might suggest a series of atomistic analyses, but the author has the entirety of each play in mind throughout. I found her readings acute, closely argued, and attentive to a quite enormous bibliography (among major treatments I missed only Kaimio1). All who teach or write about these two plays should have this book at hand.

Where I balk at the book's analyses, the impediment most often rises from my having a different --and, I admit, minority-- opinion of what baggage the chorus may be assumed to be carrying along from its earlier turns on stage or in the community beyond the theater. In her introduction, Kitzinger declares a general adherence to a view of the chorus as retaining a ritual role (4,6), as argued inter alios by Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, and Henrichs; I see this approach as nearly a fetish in much scholarship on Greek tragedy.2 At the same time, she rightly insists that the three major tragedians worked the relationship of chorus to actors in different ways; moreover, she demonstrates that between her two target plays there are, besides the similarities, significant differences. My other criticism is that, to my eyes at least, a few of her readings are weakened by recourse to metatheatrical speculation, another approach endorsed by many scholars.

Kitzinger's treatment of the parodos of the Antigone can serve to illustrate my first doubt. She shows how the anapests carry a self-conscious imitation of the two armies' actions, whereas in the aeolic meters the chorus "interprets its own mimetic action as a representation of universal order" (14). The former is akin to metaphor, the latter to metonymy. "The movement of the strophes and antistrophes to interpret the battle, as it has been mimed in the anapests, is a manifestation of divine order which only song and dance can make present" (19). I think that she is really on to something in the organization of the lyrics, and the claim that divine order has been made "manifest" seems to me to rest with some security on two details she does not make quite explicit, though they might be stated somewhere in the secondary scholarship she cites. Figured as a trace horse that, implicitly, runs in tandem with, but also pulls the weaker horse, i.e., the human component of the action,3 Ares embodies the notion of the stronger power working with human will, a force routinely perceived as autonomous. Second, the call to celebrate and forget that closes the parodos is a literal call to ritual action in a ritual space. But where the text does not frankly refer to ritual, I think it is a mistake to assume that it is ubiquitous matter, just below the surface, whenever a chorus sings and dances on the tragic stage.

Commenting on the Antigone's first stasimon (πολλὰ τὰ δεινά) Kitzinger is broadly right in saying that the "choral performance can express categories and their relationships as fixed and can appeal to a higher power to bring into being what its song and dance picture," but the chorus cannot participate as a decisive agent in the fictive "real" world of the play (29); the remark deserves a cross reference to a point Kitzinger makes on p. 64, that though Creon appeals to the chorus for guidance, he ignores the temporal order of their instructions when he rushes off to build a tomb for Polyneices, thereby postponing Antigone's release from the cave too long to save her life --and Haemon's and Eurydice's. I am not sure, however, that we can go very far with her assertion that "gesture and steps achieve meaning when patterned into a dance" (28). My own sense is that there are multiple, constant changes in register throughout the tragedies, arising from the difference between massed and single voice, speaking and singing, agonistic or reflective content, and so on, all influencing "meaning." Rarely can we say with any specificity what a modulation implies (an exception: Neoptolemus's " sudden switch to hexameters at Philoctetes 839-842, generally understood as a mark of authentic prophecy; cf. Kitzinger 115-116 with n87). And as it happens, Kitzinger is fastidious when it comes to generalizations, as she is alert to the fragility or even disintegration of the very forms to which she attributes persistent, immediately recognizable, properties. To take one instance, she argues (53-54) that Antigone spurns the chorus' lyric consolation as painfully inappropriate to her particular circumstances. In commenting on the especially elusive stasimon at lines 944-987, with its string of mythological exempla, she is rightly skeptical of Sourvinou-Inwood's reading because it leaves out of account the "extremely elliptical form of the narrative" (60n92). I myself doubt that choral interventions were ever stable enough in form and function that it would be clear to characters and audience that a sort of cliché of tragic drama (the chorus is a ritual body, the chorus speaks from and for traditional wisdom, etc) had come apart in a particular realization.

The moral instability of the chorus takes central stage, as it were, in Kitzinger's reading of the Philoctetes, and the play certainly does present startling anomalies, including the split stasimon (391-402, 507-518) and that the chorus lapses into total silence after the close of the kommos at 1217, some 250 lines short of the end. There are valuable aperçus, such as the use of the "homely" word ἄμπυξ to denote the wheel to which Ixion is affixed (101n64) and (132) the metrical identity of lines 1176, spoken by the chorus, and 1177, in which Philoctetes very gruffly tells it to move off now. Kitzinger's main thesis grows from observations of the many points at which the chorus dissembles and contradicts itself (a particularly clear example: her remarks [128] on the oxymoron the chorus addresses to Philoctetes at 1095). My reservation here applies to her suggestion that the play "brings song itself into question as a resource for creating an expansive moral understanding of what happens in the world" (77). If, as I think, the dramatic chorus was from its outset a highly plastic component, it is unlikely that Sophocles' audience in 409 B.C. would entertain notions along such lines because it had seen the chorus compassionate at one moment, an energetic co-conspirator in the intrigue against Philoctetes at another. Sophocles might have fallen under Euripidean influence in devising Heracles' epiphany, but we have no text in which he ventured an explicit reference to poetry, as at Medea 421, or a nearly explicit jab at another tragedian, as at the parody in his Electra of Aeschylus' recognition scene. Luckily this debatable theorizing does not obscure the great value of Kitzinger's sensitive and erudite analysis.


1.   M. Kaimio, The Chorus of Greek Drama within the Light of the Person and Number Used, Helsinki, 1970.
2.   Not, of course, that there are no other skeptics: in several recent articles S. Scullion has presented an especially trenchant criticism of ritual theories in their contemporary form.
3.   Lines 139-140, on which see John Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy, London, 1962: 172.

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