BMCR 2014.10.50

Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy

, , Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ix, 429. ISBN 9781107033283. $104.50.

Table of Contents

Multiple, multifarious, shifting, of many voices and one, authorial and spectator, attentive and vocal, omnipresent and kinetic: the dramatic chorus is an ineluctable draw for contemporary interpreters of ancient Greek drama. Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, edited by Renaud Gagné and Marianne Govers Hopman and part-product of a conference at Northwestern in 2009, offers a new wealth of kaleidoscopic readings on this so-called mediator. We are given the term “choral mediation” and told by Gagné and Hopman that it “encompass[es] all the mimetic transfers that allow different levels of reference to interact and complete each other” (2). So this is a theory not about a particular form of meaning but about the interstices between forms of meaning; it is capacious, almost infinitely so, although also exclusive in its way. In reading the chorus as a translator between various practices and representations, this method largely omits interpretations that advance the chorus as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. Nonetheless, the elasticity of this approach allows the book to offer sixteen diverse but uniformly rich essays that show how the chorus is a mediating figure for scholarly interests as much as it was a figure of shifting meanings on the Athenian stage for its inventors, performers, and observers.

Claude Calame’s essay offers the terms of engagement. After acknowledging the chorus as a performative body, he argues that the polyphony (both literal and metaphorical) of the chorus allows it to play many “intermedial roles” (36), though always occupying a marginal identity, before showing how this perspective sheds light on Aeschylus’ Persians. He points to paradoxes in the characterization of this chorus: its members are sidelined and painted as overemotional, but are also embodied by performers who speak perfect Greek and elegantly transform the tragedy into its own “dramatic dirge” (51), thus performing in a manner that is both internally effective and generically self-referential. Marianne Hopman’s essay also examines the chorus of Persians, but through the application of a narratological approach, focusing on choral perspective and offering categorizations within this rubric (“Object,” “Zooming,” “Filter,” and “Slant”) that show how the chorus functions differently from the other characters onstage. Like Calame, she emphasizes the effect and efficacy of the chorus’ final song with Xerxes, here described in terms of its “collective perspective” (72), and compares the ability of this chorus to “reintegrate” its fallen protagonist with the role and function of Aristophanic choruses. Jonas Grethlein’s essay looks at shifting frames of time in the Oresteia. It is most engaging when picking through the complexities of the parodos in Agamemnon that shift between the present, past, “plu-past” (80), and future. His reflections on gnōmai and “evocations of myth” (94) are more rote, but have a place here as frequent choral techniques of refracting the present through the past and “lay[ing] claim to a timeless truth” (91). Simon Goldhill draws attention to the “lyric voice” (101) of the chorus in Sophoclean drama in an attempt to get closer to the tragedian’s methods of “formal experimentation” (104), often framing the choral voice as a collective in metrical opposition to an individual. Goldhill deftly applies his theories to scenes from a spread of Sophocles’ plays, a fortunately wide selection given that his is the only offering on Sophocles in the volume, though presumably Sophocles’ choruses mediated too. (Joshua Billings, however, contributes to Sophoclean studies by way of Hölderlin and Hegel.)

A series of essays on Euripides begins with Laura Swift on the “fluidity of choral identity” (131) in tragedy. Swift argues that Euripides used his choruses to contemplate group membership, inasmuch as the chorus can act “as representatives of its own Greek community” (131) or can even represent the polis in general. Swift then presents sensitive readings of Medea and Ion, showing in both how affiliation with gender-identity can conflict with political self-identification. Her interpretations are grounded in a picture of the chorus as characters themselves who can make mistakes and misrepresent matters, who indeed “misappropriate the language of group identity” (153). The chorus, by this view, does not hold the hand of the spectator but provides a perspective against which the audience must be on guard. Sheila Murnaghan’s essay on Euripides’ Helen, like Swift’s, suggests that the playwright wanted his audience to actively think about (not just through) the chorus, to ask in this case what it means to be a woman who is repeatedly displaced from the group, i.e., to be Helen. Her emphasis on the fictive nature of the chorus is welcome. Yet, as Murnaghan makes clear, the chorus is not so fully enveloped in the trappings of mimesis as the characters. Her argument presents an evocative sense of how narrative elements might have emerged from the structure, as well as the songs, of choruses.

Barbara Kowalzig offers an intriguing essay on choral dancing as not simply an example of Greek civic and religious practice but as integrative of different cultures and polytheistic systems. She uses Iphigenia in Tauris as her test case for this theory of “transcultural chorality” (179).1 Her reading of Euripides’ play depends on accepting the theory that Artemis was viewed as “goddess of the sea” (183) and that, accordingly, the play deals in issues of trade, travel, and maritime neighbors. Its foreign chorus (Taurian maidens) eventually and strangely expresses a Hellenic identity, transforming from an enslaved chorus to a civic one and traveling from mythic realms of the past into ritual practices of the present. Anton Bierl and Gregory Nagy identify their essays as filling holes left by their previous scholarship. Bierl writes on ritual and self-referentiality in the chorus of Euripides’ Bacchae, describing how the chorus both enacts and projects the actual action, which otherwise does not happen onstage. As he points out, no tragedy is more attuned to its generic framework than this one. This is ground well covered, not only by Bierl but by Foley and Segal as well,2 but Bierl makes an original claim here on the chorus’ combination of self-references and projections of the offstage world of Cithaeron. He argues compellingly that these techniques unite the onstage chorus with the (mostly) offstage Maenads in a fantasy of violence. Nagy discusses the stunning passage of the third Homeric Hymn in which the Delian maidens lay out a program of choral song so rich it seems composed solely for the benefit of avid modern scholars. Nagy suggests that the Delian maidens should be viewed as “models of choral performance in tragedy” (250) and through this argument advances a more provocative one that there should be no “dichotomy between ‘non-dramatic lyric’…and ‘dramatic lyric’” (256), given that both were forms of non-professional participation in civic and ritual performance.

Lucia Prauscello’s essay should motivate students of the chorus to return to Plato’s Laws.3 She shows how Plato’s Athenian stranger offers choral performance as a means of approaching the “divine latent in us” (258) by suggesting choreia as a mode of communality that is manifest through rhythms of the body and melody in the mind. Tragedy, however, often perverts the content of choruses, falling from the triumphant paian to the doleful thrēnos, but Plato knew better than to throw out the choral baby with the tragic bathwater. Jeffrey Henderson’s essay allows for a politic dismissal of tragic choruses (“anonymous, generic, predictable” [279] – but as an asset!) in favor of their comedic cousins, choruses that are truly “protean” (296) and even “iridescent” (289, n. 49) in their shifts and turns, able to change form and identity according to the desires of the poet. Henderson skillfully encases this argument in a narrative of Aristophanes’ establishment of voice in opposition to Cleon, and suggests that Aristophanes reformulated the capability of comedy as a vehicle of attack. Renaud Gagné’s essay looks at the “performance of writing” (298) in classical drama, ending with an extended reading of fragments from Kallias’ Alphabetic Tragedy (by way of Athenaeus). This is wonderful material, handled quite brilliantly and full of daring observations; it even packs a surprise dénouement, which I will not reveal out of turn. Highlights include a character’s reading of Dionysus’ name on a cup interpreted as “a diasparagmos of letters that can only be reunited through reading” (299) and visions of the actual 24-member chorus-as-alphabet on the comedic stage. Little is left or known of this performance, but Gagné pushes as far as refined scholarly speculation can push to gain a picture of it, teasing out themes, images, and jokes in which one very much wants to believe.

Joshua Billings takes on the German idealists that many other essays refer to obliquely, but leaves aside the more commonly cited A. W. Schlegel to tarry with Friedrich Hölderlin in his preoccupations with Sophoclean tragedy as representing extreme acts and revolutions of collective consciousness and with G. W. F. Hegel in his annoyance at polytheism and the alleged “incoherence of Greek morality” (333) manifest in Sophocles’ plays. He argues that the views set forth by the two were in response to the unhappy occurrences of the French Revolution “across the Rhine” (338), and warns us to be aware of the “impulses” (338) behind our own views of the chorus (but does not tell us what they are). Fiona Macintosh offers a snapshot of Britain around the turn of the twentieth century, when dance had a brief flowering onstage before it was shut down again for many decades due, she argues, to its affiliation with German dancers and traditions. Macintosh’s argument is full of captivating detail, but I wish she had included an explanation of the role of Britain’s cultural relationship with America, given that Isadora Duncan (from California) plays such a central role in the essay, and since modern dance would continue to flourish in America after the first World War despite its own anti-German stance. The collection ends with Peter Meineck’s essay on the responses of four contemporary directors (Richard Schechner, Mark Adamo, Anne Bogart, and Will Power) to the challenge and opportunity (not “problem,” Meineck insists [352]) of the tragic chorus. Meineck combines interviews of the directors with more traditional scholarly work to excellent effect, reflecting on the use of space, bodies, gestures, and masks in fifth-century Athens as well as on the present stage. Reader, do not neglect the outer reaches of this volume! These final essays are several of the most compelling and apropos to the actual source material in the whole book.

Will “choral mediation” have legs as a concept? A collected volume is perhaps not the place to find out; the roomy plurality of the concept and the sheer range of topics covered do not coalesce to offer an in-depth exploration of what this sense of the in-between might truly reveal of the particular, and peculiar, character of the tragic chorus. Nonetheless, the figure of mediation allows these readings their exciting variety and even compels them at times into (unstated) conflict with one another. It is of course not answers but further enriching questions that emerge. ​


1. The play appears to be making a comeback: cf. also Hall, E. (2013) Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy. Oxford.

2. Cf. Foley, H. P. (1985) Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides. Ithaca, and Segal, C. (1982) Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae. Princeton.

3. It is a good time for the Laws. Cf. also Peponi, A-E., ed. (2013) Performance and Culture in Plato’s Laws. Cambridge.