Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.47

Markus A. Gruber, Der Chor in den Tragödien des Aischylos: Affekt und Reaktion. Drama n.s., Bd. 7.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr Verlag, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 570.  ISBN 9783823364849.  €78.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joshua Billings, Merton College, Oxford University (
Word count: 2442 words

There are two basic ways of understanding the tragic chorus: as ritual constant or mythical variable, χορός and dramatis persona. The chorus at once transcends and participates in the drama, and this dual character has posed difficulties for commentators since Aristotle. Markus Gruber's Der Chor in den Tragödien des Aischylos is a detailed examination of the role of the chorus in Aeschylus, by far the most choral tragedian (judging by percentage of lines spoken). Gruber argues that the emphasis in interpreting the Aeschylean chorus should be laid on its ritual existence, its part in Greek 'song-and-dance culture'. Yet, as the book's subtitle, 'Affekt und Reaktion', suggests, his approach seeks to synthesize the two interpretive stances. He argues that the chorus 'focalises' the response of the audience, steering or even manipulating it in order to increase the affective power of the piece. Gruber's methodology is drawn from the Constance School's aesthetics of reception and aims primarily at understanding the way tragedies act on an implied or ideal recipient. As one would expect from a Regensburg dissertation, the book is thorough and well documented. Gruber's approach yields many interpretive insights, yet one often wishes that the approach might be more flexible, and understand the possibilities for reception as somewhat broader.

The book is divided into three parts: in the first, Gruber establishes his methodology and sets out a hypothesis as to the role of the chorus in the reception of a performance; in the second, he attempts to demonstrate this role as constant across the tragedies of Aeschylus through detailed readings of each extant play (omitting the Prometheus); and in the third, he attempts a synthesis of the individual interpretations and draws general consequences for the interpretation of Aeschylean choral practice. Gruber's central readings will be essential for anyone considering the plays individually, and the outer sections will be useful and provocative for those interested in the chorus generally.

A literature review guided by the dual (or, arguably, triple, if one includes the largely outdated idea of the chorus as a mouthpiece of the poet) nature of the chorus leads Gruber to adopt an 'oscillation model' to characterize the flexible interaction of the two roles. Where Gruber departs from previous research is in posing the question of the effect on the viewer: how are the two roles of the chorus related in the reception of a tragedy? Answering the question leads Gruber into an overview of reception-aesthetic method, which demands the construction of a 'horizon of experience' (Erfahrungshorizont in place of Jauss's Erwartungshorizont) through which the implied recipient would understand the work. This is formed by the 'song-and-dance culture ' of fifth century Athens, which Gruber argues was primarily a means of creating and upholding civic order. Essential to this was the ritual 'healing' of a crisis situation, which is overcome in the choral action. Though this is surely applicable to much choral lyric (Gruber demonstrates it in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo -- itself an odd choice, since it is written in hexameters), it seems only a partial description of the spectrum of choral activity. One need only think of epinician to realize that the 'horizon of experience' was somewhat larger than Gruber makes it out to be.

The most important consequence Gruber draws from his description of 'song-and-dance culture' is that recipients would have expected a strong emotional investment in and identification with choruses. The chorus in tragedy, then, should be defined first and foremost by the affective link it provides between the spectators and the mythical action. This leads Gruber to argue that the ritual nature of the tragic chorus is its essential character, its role in a given play 'accidental'. The spectators, whatever their differences from the chorus, ultimately come to identify with their position. On the basis of such identification, the chorus is able to focalise the reactions of the audience to the events on-stage, to guide them in making sense of the action and seeing a kind of order emerge, embodied by a savior figure. They thus create in the audience what Gruber calls the 'tragische Grundbefindlichkeit', setting the audience emotionally into the crisis of the tragedy and making them hope, with the chorus, for its eventual resolution. At the end of the process, he posits the Aeschylean πάθει μάθος that unites the chorus and audience in a form of tragic knowledge.

Most controversial here is surely Gruber's prioritization of audience identification with the chorus as ritual χορός over the more varied possibilities for relating to the chorus as dramatis persona. Gruber argues that the effects of otherness on the recipient, though real, are subordinated to the sympathetic identification inherent in 'song-and-dance culture', and strengthened by viewing the chorus in a situation of danger. Though this is congenial to my own understanding of the chorus, it will not be to that of many readers, and Gruber's argument, based on a number of questionable (though not necessarily incorrect) assumptions, is unlikely to convince doubters. This is, perhaps, inevitable in the criticism of the chorus: weighing the relative importance of the chorus's two roles is largely a matter of instinct and taste, and not entirely susceptible to argument on either side. If one sees the chorus's ritual role as primary, the audience's identification seems a necessary corollary; if one sees their mythical role as more important, then their specific identity in a given piece must be the greater determinant of reception. This is an obvious problem of reception-oriented criticism: it is always open to the charge of reading one's own responses into those of the implied reader (though Gruber's method at least makes clear what assumptions he is making about audience reaction).

If one has followed Gruber so far, his individual readings will largely prove persuasive. Predictably, his take on the Persians emphasizes the sympathetic identification of the audience with the chorus. Though the chorus of old Persians are experienced as alien, their plight is, according to Gruber, sufficiently generalized that the viewer is able to bridge the gap and see them as representative of a universal human condition. Focusing attention on the question of guilt and Xerxes's recognition of his own culpability, the chorus draws the lesson of moderation, which touches the Athenian spectator as much as it does the Persian characters. In order to reach this conclusion, Gruber has to posit a somewhat unbelievable difference between the historical and the tragic Xerxes: though the πάθει μάθος obviously does not apply to the first, it may apply to the second, outside the time represented on stage. These interpretive gymnastics are necessitated by Gruber's emphasis on the specificity of the lesson learned and the importance of choral focalisation in reception. I doubt that so prescriptive an account of reception is possible, or even necessary to Gruber's argument. His reading of the role of the Persians chorus in guiding spectator affect would be more convincing if it allowed the audience's intellectual response greater independence.

The major focus of Gruber's reading of the Seven is to defend the unity of choral function against critics who see a change in their role, from frightened maidens to wise representatives of the Theban citizenry. He argues that their identity as παρτηένοι draws attention to the ritual element of their practice, though he does not refer to maiden choruses, or to Theban choral practice specifically (against a current of interpretation that sees their female identity as crucial). Rather, they would have been understood primarily in terms of familiar Athenian choral culture, and the audience would identify with them on this basis. This identification is primarily one of sharing the fear of the chorus, and through them, that of the 'large off-stage group' of Thebans. From this comes the focalisation on the savior-figure of Eteokles, and, at the end of the piece, an anxiety for the future. Though destruction has been avoided, the experience of danger leads the chorus and audience together to recognize the importance and the fragility of civic order. Thebes does appear as a counter-image to Athens (the comparison with the much more positive end of the Oresteia is telling), but it does not provide simply a negative example; rather, it is through the positive example of the chorus's longing for order that Athenian civic feeling is strengthened.

The chorus of the Suppliants, the Aeschylean chorus most central to their play's action, would seem to present the greatest difficulties for Gruber's privileging of ritual over mythical elements of choral function. He argues that their centrality to the plot is balanced by a marked reliance on ritual choral language, which 'hellenises' them and creates an identification with the audience. The chorus focalises hopes on Danaos, who represents a possible savior. Much is left uncertain in Gruber's account, both because of textual difficulties (central is the question of a second chorus) and because of the likely importance of the other plays of the trilogy. Gruber sees Suppliants as similar to Agamemnon in ending in a state of uncertainty that will only be resolved in the later plays of the trilogy. Be that as it may, it seems evasive not to confront fully this most difficult test of choral identity, and the chapter proves the least satisfying of Gruber's readings.

Gruber comes into his own in the interpretation of the Oresteia choruses, particularly that of Agamemnon, which receives twice as much space as any other play. Gruber's emphasis is on the chorus's attempts to understand events past and present and ultimately to reach judgment. Through the chorus's narration in the parodos, the audience takes affective part in the action, and shares the chorus's ambivalence about the past and uncertainty for the future. By recognizing the moral ambiguity of the Aulis episode, they focalise hopes on the potential savior figure of Agamemnon while at the same time establishing a standard of justice that will be tested in the events to follow. The chorus's freedom to move between its roles as participant and observer allows for their contribution to be both atmospheric and concrete. The reception-based method emphasizes the shared uncertainty of audience and chorus, rather than trying to pin down a firm standpoint. Gruber understands the chorus's oft-criticized 'dumbness' in the Cassandra scene as necessary for a recapitulation of the factors behind the murder about to take place, a process of understanding that serves to focalise the audience's emotions in the lamenting fourth stasimon and continues through the chorus's non-action following the death cries. It is only once the body has been revealed that they and the audience reach a judgment, which motivates the uprising against Aegisthus, and the continuing hope for the return of Orestes. Having found Agamemnon incapable of healing the sickness of the city, they turn to the next generation. Gruber is persuasive in showing how the chorus leads the audience through the changing landscape of hope and despair.

The Libation Bearers presents a chorus of foreign slave women that establishes the tone for the domestic drama to follow. The audience's identification is ensured by the chorus's affective focalisation on Orestes and their performance of ritual functions -- both of which connect them to Athenian civic life. The kommos appears as the key moment in directing the hope of the audience towards a restitution of civic order. In the intrigue, the chorus's most important function is that of persuasion: not only spurring on the protagonists to action, but, as in their deception of Aegisthus, intervening to smooth the path to revenge. In the murder, though, their bond with the protagonists is broken, and they introduce questions of right and wrong that will be at the center of the Eumenides. The audience, Gruber argues, takes part in this ambivalence after the fact. Here again, the reception-based method makes for a reading sensitive to the affective dynamics of the work.

The chorus of Eumenides presents Gruber with greater difficulties. It is not immediately obvious how the audience would identify with the Erinyes chorus. They are unusual among Aeschylean choruses for their active role in advancing the plot and the specificity of their identity (they are part of no collective, unlike the other Oresteia choruses). Gruber argues, though, that their role in determining affective response remains: they focalise audience hopes for a restoration of order after the carnage of the two previous plays. The savior is not the one they expect, but rather Athena, whose act of persuasion repolarizes the chorus, changing them from punishers of evil deeds into teachers of correct conduct. As Eumenides, they teach the lesson of σωφρωνεῖν, and thus support Athenian civic order. Yet Gruber has had to elide their undeniably blood-thirsty pursuit of Orestes in this account; to argue that the audience identifies with the Erinyes, his account tends to neutralize their destructive force.

The final section recapitulates Gruber's broader argument about the function of the chorus, with details drawn from the preceding accounts. In many ways, this is the strongest part of the book and could be productively read on its own. It eschews the interpretive over-reaching that can mar his readings, and offers a useful summary of the approach. He returns to the ritual functions of the chorus within drama to show how they take part in a choral culture that involves the audience. He then turns to the spectrum of affect created by the choral presence and delineates possible affective responses. It is easy to see how this framework could be applied to other choruses (or how differing responses could come from Aeschylean choruses). As ever, Gruber is best when he is least prescriptive; the chorus surely has a central role in creating and focalising audience affect, but this role may not be so constant or so clearly defined as he maintains. Der Chor in den Tragôdien des Aischylos proves the utility of viewing the chorus through the eyes of a recipient, but does not offer the last word. For, as anyone who has ever disagreed with theatre companions knows, the ideal recipient of a work is always oneself.

The text is clearly presented, with less significant passages set in smaller type, and extensive footnotes. It is followed by a short treatment of the Prometheus chorus and a useful list of the attested plays of Aeschylus and their probable choral identities. The division of the bibliography between primary and secondary literature is occasionally confusing, since this distinction is not made in notes. Two indices, of concepts and of passages, will be helpful to those wanting to dip into the book. Typos are minimal. Gruber's writing is typical of German scholarly prose, and marred only by an annoying tendency (regrettably replicated in this review) not to translate concepts from foreign languages.

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