Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.47

Joshua Billings, Felix Budelmann, Fiona Macintosh (ed.), Choruses, Ancient and Modern.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 424.  ISBN 9780199670574.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Frederick Naerebout, Leiden University (


This volume consists of an introduction and four parts, Scholarship, Aesthetics, Shadows, and Community, containing four, five, five and six chapters respectively. That makes for twenty chapters in all, by the three editors and seventeen other authors. Contributors range from the relative newcomers to very well-known scholars or theatre practitioners such as Goldhill, Rutherford, Seaford, Hall, Fischer-Lichte, Biet and Savage. Within the confines of this review it is impossible to discuss any, let alone all, of these papers in any detail and I will concentrate on the overarching themes and questions.

The book originates in a 2010 conference at the Archive for Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford, but it definitely rises above the all too common haphazard set of proceedings. Authors and editors must be congratulated on making this a coherent piece of work—there is just a slightly irritating overlap in repeated discussions of German Idealism and the chorus, but as this is supposed to be an issue of central importance for the way people have been thinking about the chorus for the past two hundred years, these repetitions may have been unavoidable in this multi-author volume. Altogether, with its overall coherence and its excellent introduction, this is a model of how conference proceedings should be presented.

Scholarship, Aesthetics, Shadows, and Community are rather opaque subheadings, and Choruses seems a very wide subject, so what are these twenty chapters actually about? Scholarship is about the conceptualization of the chorus in, well, scholarship; Aesthetics is about the formal and artistic, i.e. the way choruses are employed and conceptualized in artistic contexts; Shadows is about reflection on the chorus, about feelings of distance and nostalgia, leading to different transfigurations of the chorus (including its absence) on stage; and Community is about the social and political dimensions of the chorus, i.e. the chorus as a collective performance reflecting societal structures and tensions. To be honest, I do not always see why some papers are placed in one category and not in another. Aesthetics, Shadows and Community all deal with staging the chorus—or rather the idea of the chorus and the problematics of putting that idea into practice. Scholarship also addresses the idea of the chorus, and there too the relationship with the theatre is never far away. So all chapters deal with the chorus as a mental construct: it is about conceptualisation, reflection, reception, appropriation and re-appropriation: always in their relationship to the staging of the chorus, true, but if one’s main interest is in actual performance practice and its concomitant organisation, one must turn elsewhere.1

Within this subject of discourse on the chorus, pride of place goes to reception and (re-)appropriations of the chorus in the early modern world and beyond, i.e. the late 16th century to the present, with much emphasis on the past two centuries (it is a pity that the medieval world is completely lacking: the subject of the heavenly chorus would have been a worthwhile addition). Only five chapters in all deal with the chorus in the Greek and Roman/Greco-Roman world. Still, this suffices for the “provocative juxtapositions” (p. 9) of ancient and post-ancient choruses and their contexts that the editors say they have striven for. The hoped-for mutual illumination is in fact really there, but the reader will have to do some quite hard work observing the many juxtapositions and being illuminated in consequence. I am not averse to hard work, but the comparisons between ancient and post-ancient could have been made more explicit, as is done by Martin Revermann in the conclusion to his fine chapter on Brecht. Revermann helps us to realize what the volume wants to do for us, namely to invite us to compare like and unlike and thus deepen our understanding of both comparanda (p. 169). And that again leads up to his beautifully worded statement about the power of choruses. It is by its virtue of its being explicit that I consider Revermann’s chapter to be the high point of the book.

Otherwise, Revermann’s contribution would have been just another one among the twenty chapters, which all range from good to excellent (Savage, Murnaghan, Seaford, Hall, Macintosh); the general standard is very high. Nevertheless, some of the good chapters might have been even better by displaying a bit more awareness of all relevant publications. I know one should not blow one’s own horn too often, but reading my Attractive Performances, referred to by Macintosh only, and related publications,2 might have added a few helpful things to some chapters (I am thinking above all of Ian Rutherford’s overview of anthropology and the dance, where the specialist field of dance anthropology is completely lacking, and of the issue of the re-performance of ancient choruses, introduced by Felix Budelmann), and it certainly would have worked against the suggestion, sometimes made explicit, but easily read between the lines as well, that much of what is on offer here is new and unprecedented. That is not always the case: what is innovative about this volume is above all its organization of the material, the juxtapositions just mentioned, as is quite rightly stated in the introduction (p. 9).

There are three other points of criticism that I would like to make: first, the title of the book should have been: Tragic Choruses, Ancient and Modern. Although there are references to other kinds of choruses, even to non-theatrical ones, these are all fleeting ones, completely lost in a sea of argument about the tragic chorus and its avatars. Besides, they only serve to put the thinking about tragic choruses in perspective. This is not to say that the editors have done something wrong: there might have been more attention for comic choruses, but it is undeniable that the discourse about choruses in western culture—and that is what the volume is about, as we have seen—has been almost exclusively dedicated to tragic choruses. It is only that the title as it stands could be somewhat misleading.

Secondly, we are presented with an excellent analysis how in the circles of German idealism around 1800 the chorus came to be seen as a problem, as a “world we have lost”, and how this has steered, or clouded, our thinking on the chorus since. But then this volume seems itself to fall victim to this German idealist thinking in supposing the chorus to be rare and problematic (with the rather exceptional exception of the Hollywood-style chorus line) as a dramatic ploy, only to be introduced anew in the 1980s and beyond (pp. 6-7). The ground-breaking 1970s performances of Greek tragedy by La Mama ETC that I was privileged to attend are really burned onto my retina, and I have never seen anything like it since (or maybe I have become less impressionable): those performances displayed a very confident use of the chorus. And there was more, also, in previous decades. Helene Foley’s important volume on American performances of Greek tragedy—and choruses—probably came too late to be included in the annotation (although the text of the volume shows that updates were possible up to January 2013), but the omission of all relevant material adduced by Foley is unwarranted.3 Thirdly, there is a general tendency—not with all authors, nor all in the same measure—to overlook or underestimate the kinetic aspect of the chorus, its dancing, as opposed to the aural, its singing. Such bias towards music is apparent from p. 1, where achoreutos is translated as ‘unmusical’. That shows the problem to be very much ingrained in language: Greek mousike—dance and song—has given us music, choros has become chorus. Whatever one understands by ‘music’ or ‘musical’ or ‘choral’, it is bound to be misunderstood. Thus it is something of a struggle not to lose sight of the dance, or appear to do so. Christopher Small has gone some way to alleviating the problem by introducing the neologism ‘musicking’: ‘to music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing’.4 Of course, any other suggestion is as welcome, as long as one is aware of the problem.

Summing up: I am probably expecting too much: the Greek chorus is such a multi-faceted phenomenon, and the debate about it so ingrained for the past two centuries in our cultural discourse (and in our theatrical/performative practices), that a single volume can never do this subject complete justice. However, one has to start somewhere. Moving from the great Athenian tragedians by way of early opera, French revolutionary choruses, Giselle, Wagner, Körperkultur, and Brecht to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics: there is already much more here than one can take in at a single reading. This is an extremely rich collection that one can keep coming back to, a treasure trove of information on our continuing conversation with the theatre of classical Athens, and with all past participants in that conversation. No one interested in the subject of ancient or modern theatre, with all its intellectual and societal repercussions, can leave this volume unread.


1.   For the ancient world Peter Wilson’s The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia. The Chorus, the City and the Stage (Cambridge, 2000) is labelled ‘paradigmatic’ by the editors of the present volume (p. 8).
2.   F. G. Naerebout, Attractive Performances. Ancient Greek Dance: Three Preliminary Studies, Amsterdam 1997, and idem, ‘Moving events. Dance at public events in the ancient Greek world: thinking through its implications’, in: E. Stavrianopoulou (ed.), Ritual and Communication in the Graeco-Roman World (Kernos Suppl. 16: Liège, 2006) 37–67.
3.   H. P. Foley, Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage (Berkeley, 2012). See esp. pp. 96ff, ‘Revitalizing the tragic chorus in the late 1960s and early 1970s’.
4.   C. Small, Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CT, 1998). Quote from p. 9.

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