BMCR 2011.01.02

The Hidden Chorus: Echoes of Genre in Tragic Lyric. Oxford Classical Monographs

, The Hidden Chorus: Echoes of Genre in Tragic Lyric. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xii, 451. ISBN 9780199577842. $130.00.


In The Hidden Chorus: Echoes of Genre in Tragic Lyric, Laura Swift explores the pervasive disposition of the Attic tragedians to adopt and incorporate the language and attributes of (other) lyric genres into their tragedies. Rather than identify intertextual engagement with specific lyric predecessors, Swift explores the more complex sphere of what she calls “generic interaction”: the tragic poets’ allusive activation of lyric song-types. Swift argues that this engagement, though effected by the importation of formal generic properties such as language, meter, or theme, achieves the far broader outcome of evoking – within tragedy – “a whole set of cultural and normative assumptions” variously associated with the diverse genres of lyric poetry (p. 4). Swift is certainly not the first scholar to explore this fertile area of study, but she presents a far more systematic and comprehensive account of this salient aspect of tragic composition than has yet emerged. Swift’s central claim, set out in her brief introduction, is that “by taking seriously tragedy’s use of lyric genre, we stand to gain not only an enriched interpretation of individual plays and passages, but a better understanding of tragedy’s role within its community and its nature as a choral genre” (p. 5). It is a perspective that few contemporary scholars of lyric or tragedy will wish to gainsay, and its clear and decisive articulation in Swift’s book is long overdue.

In two introductory chapters on “Understanding Lyric Genres” and “Lyric Poetry in an Athenian Context”, Swift sets out the methodological grounding of her study. Some readers will find her theoretical approach somewhat narrow, particularly in relation to the fraught problem of defining the concept of genre. A brief survey of this intractable conundrum for literary studies is resolved by the rather circular logic that because the genres of Greek lyric each performed a social function, they will be identifiable through their performance of that function. Secondary characteristics (formal attributes such as meter and non-essential language) are accorded an important but not definitive role in identification. Notwithstanding Swift’s recourse to Wittgensteinian models of family resemblance, her position would appear to rely on an element of recognition that is hard to specify (as Justice Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it”). It should, however, be quite clear that Swift’s aim is not to construct a theory of Greek genre, but rather to explore the uses to which song-types can be put outside of their most familiar contexts, and her minimalist definition is well suited to this purpose.

The heart of the book consists of five main chapters which examine the tragic appropriation and manipulation of the generic properties of, respectively, “Paian”, “Epinikion”, “Partheneia”, “Hymenaios”, and “Threnos and Ritual Lament”. Each of these chapters follows the same basic structure: a general introduction to the form and characteristics of the chosen lyric genre serves as the basis for exemplary readings of extant tragedies, “case studies” as Swift calls them “of plays in which the genre is deployed to particularly interesting effect” (p. 4). This structure is one of the book’s great strengths, as it allows Swift to provide a compelling picture of how the attributes of lyric genres are mobilized within tragic drama without reducing her analysis to a mere catalogue.

Swift generally restricts her investigation to passages of tragic lyric, as when, in the chapter on “Paian”, she traces the shifting paeanic tones of the Chorus of the Oedipus Tyrannus from the dark mood of the parodos to the false joy of the third stasimon. But she never loses sight of the dramatic properties of tragic poetry. Thus in her treatment of the Ion, in that same chapter, she details how the strong paeanic language of Ion’s and Creusa’s respective monodic passages takes on a particularly charged significance in light of Apollo’s role in the action and his refusal to appear on stage at the play’s end. And yet, some of Swift’s most compelling readings come at those points where the development of lyric themes bleeds into the tragic trimeter. This is very much the case in her judicious chapter on “Epinikion”, which sets the “tragic” Heracles, as represented in the Trachiniae and Hercules Furens, against his epinician counterpart. As Swift elegantly points out, while Euripides’ Chorus sing of Heracles’ battle with Lycus as a kallinikos agon, the generically charged adjective is also used by a number of other speakers throughout the play. Most notably, it is found in the mouth of the hero himself, who laments that he “will no longer, as before, be called Herakles kallinikos ” (ll. 581-2). Within the matrix of generic interplay, Swift invites us to understand this statement as a moment of metapoetic self-reflection, in which the dramatic character “denotes his awareness of his own status as a cult hero” drawing a stark contrast between his traditional role in epinician song and that which he embodies on the tragic stage (p. 145).

In the chapters on “Partheneia” and “Hymenaios”, Swift enters more substantially into the cultural context of fifth-century Athens introduced in her second introductory chapter and already explored to some degree in her treatment of Orestes as returning epinician hero. While she notes that these two lyric forms evince a “noticeable degree of continuity” in theme and motif, the chapter division allows Swift to focus on two distinct aspects of their deployment within tragedy (p. 249). Swift’s assessment of Partheneia looks at how Euripides exploits the language and themes of this lyric genre through the female choruses of the Iphigeneia in Tauris and Helen. The sustained allusive engagement creates multiple layers of meaning, allowing both plays to become expressions (almost instantiations) of the female rite of passage even as they offer aetiological narratives of the ritual form. Swift impresses upon us the multivalence that this type of generic allusion permits in her discussion of Helen’s resulting double status as literal gune and figurative parthenos within the later play. In treating the tragic use of Hymenaios, Swift turns her attention to how the manipulation of highly gendered lyric forms can magnify tensions at work within a play. She takes as her focus Euripides’ Hippolytus and Aeschylus’ Supplices, two plays in which the central refusal of marriage rites is framed and nuanced through allusions to the song-type most properly associated with its successful and happy consummation. Rather than linger on the already well-established tragic figuration of “marriage to death”, Swift addresses the performative nature of the tragic chorus in her interrogation of the possible use of “mixed choruses” (paired choruses of men and women) in these two plays, bringing the tragic allusion into even closer relationship with the ritual practice.

The final chapter on “Threnos and Ritual Lament” examines the quite disparate representations of tragic mourning in Aeschylus’s Persai, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Alcestis. Swift focuses on the problematic status of ritual lamentation at Athens following the sumptuary legislation of the sixth century. She details how the foreign, hyperbolic, and transgressive depiction of lament in these plays serves to draw a contrast between contemporary Athenian practice and other types of mourning, and thus allows the plays to interrogate the conventional practice of a ritual that is fundamental to both civic and individual identity. Given the plethora of scholarship, and scholarly opinion, on all aspects of funerary ritual – be it its role in Athenian politics and civic life or its fundamental importance to poetic expression from epic onward – the analysis of interaction between tragedy and the lyric lament presents significant interpretive challenges. Perhaps as a result of this, not to mention the complexity of treating lament as a lyric (rather than a rhetorical or even inscriptional) genre, I found these readings to be more fragmented than those offered in the other chapters. Swift’s study is capped off by a comprehensive appendix which provides a detailed catalogue of references to lyric genre and related imagery throughout the extant tragic corpus.

The Hidden Chorus offers the reader a substantial and subtly nuanced picture of the polyphony of generic expression in the tragic theater. But at least for this reviewer, the strength and insight of Swift’s extended readings cannot wholly banish a sense that some of the larger questions raised by her approach are left unanswered. As Swift affirms, tragedy is itself a “choral genre”, and a remarkably complex one at that, yet the rich readings of The Hidden Chorus rarely approach the more global question of how generic mixing contributes to our understanding of the genre of tragic poetry as a whole. To some degree, this is a natural result of Swift’s generally productive choice to structure her readings around individual plays, privileging “high-level interaction” in which generic allusion is sustained throughout a play and helps to shape its central themes. But I suspect that her decision to exclude dithyramb from her investigation, on the grounds that “tragic allusions to dithyrambos would consist primarily of an allusion to another art-form, not an allusion to a culturally embedded ritual” (p. 25), has also closed off a number of rich avenues in this regard. Not least the contested opposition between ritual and art would merit further exploration. Swift’s brief conclusion recapitulates the arguments of the individual chapters, but does not expand on their broader implications for reading tragedy within the discourse of lyric song. Yet if such questions remain, it is certainly due to Swift’s unquestioned success in conclusively demonstrating the pervasive and vital role played by the “hidden choruses” of lyric genres within our tragic texts.