BMCR 2021.03.61

The chorus of drama in the fourth century BCE: presence and representation

, The chorus of drama in the fourth century BCE: presence and representation. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780198844532 £75.00.


Lucy C.M.M. Jackson’s The chorus of drama in the fourth century BCE sets out to gather ‘in one place, for the first time, all relevant sources that speak to the presence and activity’ of just what the title describes (p.12). Her animating commitment is to the thesis that, contrary to the old and dominant narratives, the fourth-century theatrical chorus was still a site of dramatic, poetic, musical, and choreographic vitality and innovation. The hypothesis of precipitous fourth-century decline in the quality, if certainly not quantity, of Athenian dramatic productions was once regarded as both symptom and cause of choral decadence, itself a notion propped on two pillars: Aristotle’s characterization of choral songs as ἐμβόλιμα (Poetics 1456a29; often translated as ‘interludes’) and the ‘scribal habit of writing χοροῦ in the place of the text of a choral ode’ (p.4). Jackson seeks to show that neither pillar is stable, and that a whole host of evidence (much of it circumstantial, and much of it admittedly to do with non-dramatic choruses) rather suggests that a lively choral culture endured throughout the ‘late classical’ period. The book is thus an attempt to fill the choral lacuna in an ever-growing body of work that seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of post-fifth-century drama and to unsettle the cliché that the fourth century was an age of prose.[1]

The fourth-century chorus, it turns out, is paradoxically elusive and omnipresent in our sources. That presence is palpable in surviving scripts (even the transmitted scripts of fifth-century plays; even fourth-century texts that do not preserve choral odes) and detectable in theater architecture, oratory, festival records and monuments, and philosophical works. Yet despite, for example, Aristotle’s several chorus-related obiter dicta (thickest on the ground in the Politics), in the Poetics he notoriously eschews any dedicated discussion of the dramatic chorus but for the famous passage cited above. Though Plato and Xenophon think and instruct in choral metaphors, they do so in Socratic dialogues meant to conjure (nostalgically?) the atmosphere of Socrates’ lifetime. The surviving monuments tend to commemorate victories for ‘circular’, as opposed to dramatic, choruses. And while Jackson compellingly demonstrates the interest of the chorus’ role in the Rhesus, already by the late fourth century the play was thought to have been by Euripides. On the whole, then, she has set herself the challenging detective-work of identifying chorus-shaped negative space in the sources. In view of that task, this strong and absorbing book is valuable as an archive of testimonia for late-classical choruses and choral imaginaries, but also as a ‘demonstration of how … absences and silences might, nevertheless, be read’ (p.249).

In a crisp and clear Introduction, Jackson offers an account of why the topic of the fourth-century dramatic chorus has gone largely overlooked in studies both of drama and of lyric poetry and performance. She rejects the usefulness of the concept of ‘decline’ and establishes the premise that evidence for the fourth-century chorus might actually challenge and enhance modern understandings of ‘what the dramatic chorus is and does’ (p.10). She also speculates—quite reasonably—that narratives about the ‘rise of the actor’ in this period pushed (evidence for) the chorus and its several, non-celebrity members to the margins of history and scholarship.

Chapter 1, The Material Circumstances, begins by seeking to locate the fourth-century chorus at festivals in and beyond Attica. The brisk review of the festival landscape may be largely familiar to historians of the Greek theater, but the subsequent chorus-focused sections on Choral Performers (which considers at length the question of when and where ‘citizenship requirements’ determined choral eligibility) and Training and Preparation offer fresh insight into the practical, logistical dimensions of chorus recruitment and training. Particularly exciting is the emphasis here on the potential mobility not merely of star actors but of highly skilled, seasoned choreutes.

The next three chapters present genre-based studies, and in all cases Jackson’s close readings open windows onto potentialities for choral dynamism. The fragments of fourth-century tragedy are too scarce to be of much help, thus in a chapter The Chorus in New Tragedy (Chapter 2; the phrase ‘new tragedy’ is provocative but remains unglossed) she investigates the choral role in the Rhesus ascribed to Euripides but assigned to the fourth century by its most recent commentators (Liapis, Fries, and Fantuzzi). She concludes that the play diverges ‘from our existing (fifth-century) models of choral dramaturgy’ on three main points: ‘the individualized speech of the chorus, the strikingly independent character display by the chorus, and the way that separated strophic pairs are used within the structure of the play’ (p.54); together these features make, among other things a ‘case for a different kind of choral soundscape’ (p.57). Non-dramatic lyric poetry also offers insight into the potentials of chorality, as in the case of the Paean to Dionysus (c. 340 BCE), which was inscribed at Delphi and ascribed to ‘Philodamos and his brothers’.

In The Chorus in ‘Old’ Tragedy (Chapter 3), Jackson ingeniously considers the ways in which the transmitted scripts of Iphigenia at Aulis and Seven against Thebes bear signs of ‘choral interpolation’, that is, tampering with the choral parts that may well have occurred between the introduction of tragic revivals at the City Dionysia in 386 BCE and the establishment of the ‘Lycurgan’ texts some half-century later. In The Chorus in Comedy (Chapter 4), she casts her keen eye over Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen and Wealth, two fourth-century comedies that bear appreciable signs (if you know where to look) of choral sophistication. The chapter concludes with a section on The Chorus in Menander and the Fragments (4.3), though the Menandrian fragments are rife with the χοροῦ notation. For me, these pages forced questions of periodization. In what way is the ‘fourth century’ a meaningful category? Where does the generation of Menander—who made his comic debut in 321, the first year of the Macedonian occupation of Athens—belong in a ‘late-classical’ picture?

In Chapter 5 (cleverly titled An Interlude: Absence, χοροῦ, and the Aristotelian Embolima), Jackson convinces us that there is more than meets the eye to the χοροῦ [sc. μέλος] notation (to designate excised choral odes) and Aristotle’s ἐμβόλιμα remark. In the case of the first, she suggests that we ought to view ‘the intervention of Lycurgus in the 330s’—that is, the creation and enshrinement of the Athenian ‘state texts’ of tragedy—as the reason that we do have odes preserved in the cases of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, rather than the χοροῦ notation as a sign that the choral parts composed by subsequent tragedians devolved into mere intermezzi. In an extended analysis of Poetics 1456a25-32, she then demonstrates just how semantically slippery this key passage really is. In any event, Aristotle’s reductive dismissal of contemporary practice is likely a reflection of his own conservative aesthetic tastes.

In the final two chapters, she widens her ken to consider fourth-century choruses and choral imaginaries. In Chorus and Festival (Chapter 6), she explores the range of testimonia for choral performance at festivals. The first section includes a discussion of the ‘choral rape motif’ in Middle and New Comedy, that is, the trope of festivals as sites of rape; I would have been interested to hear more about the politics and significance of the plot device within the broader context sketched by the book. The chapter’s second major section, Chorus and Choregia, necessarily retreads much that is covered by Wilson 2000,[2] but Jackson’s foregoing discussion of choral practice as evidenced by the surviving dramatic scripts allows this material to acquire new depth and texture.

Chorus and Society (Chapter 7) consists in a discussion of the choral imaginaries of Xenophon and Plato. Both authors make frequent recourse to choral metaphors: Xenophon does so most often in his discussions of leadership and ‘management’, which like a good choral performance depend on synergy and good arrangement/order (τάξις). Plato’s choral references are more plentiful and varied but he, too, uses choral metaphors in theorizing, among other things, the relationship between ‘leader and led’. Given how up-to-date the bibliography cited in the previous chapter had been, it seems a bit regrettable that the last decade’s work on the Laws is not fully taken into account here (as Jackson herself acknowledges at p.214 n.31). I would also have been keen to hear Jackson’s thoughts about the degree to which references in Socratic dialogues are meant to evoke the choral culture of Socrates’ lifetime, as opposed to the realities of contemporary choreia.

On the whole, what I found most refreshing about the approach taken in this book was the holistic approach to the evidence. Oftentimes, studies of theatrical testimonia and Realien ignore the literary qualities of the surviving texts and vice versa. This book, by contrast, both assumes and implies that e.g. the iconography of choregic monuments might profitably be ‘read’ alongside, say, Plato’s politicizing discussions of choral dynamics or the particularities of the choral role in Rhesus. Future works might profitably go even further in terms of teasing out the potential of such juxtapositions. And though Jackson seems to resist casting the book as a study in Athenian cultural history, the nature of the evidence—most of which derives from or pertains to the Athenian context—gathered here will no doubt prove hugely useful for those who wish to consider the chorus in the light of fourth-century Athenian history and political thought. This study overwhelmingly demonstrates that the chorus remained central to Athenian cultural life in this period, and I found myself wondering about how and to what extent a kind of ‘choral logic’ also subtended Athenian ideas about democracy, identity, political membership, etc. Anyone interested in pursuing those sorts of questions—or simply in the history of ancient Greek theater and performance—will be well rewarded for time spent with this book.


[1] Patricia Easterling pioneered this line of scholarship in the 1990s, starting with her seminal 1993 essay ‘The End of an Era? Tragedy in the Early Fourth Century’, in A. H. Sommerstein (ed.), Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari), 559-69. Jackson p.1 n.1 provides an overview of the relevant theater-related bibliography since then. A. L. Ford’s 2011 Aristotle as Poet: The Song for Hermias and Its Contexts (Oxford and New York) and P. A. LeVen’s 2014 The Many-Headed Muse: Tradition and Innovation in Late Classical Greek Lyric Poetry (Cambridge) charted new courses through the fourth-century lyric landscape.

[2] P. J. Wilson, The Athenian Institution of the ‘Khoregia’: the Chorus, the City and the Stage (Cambridge).