BMCR 2022.06.07

Choral constructions in Greek culture: the idea of the chorus in the poetry, art and social practices of the Archaic and early Classical period

, Choral constructions in Greek culture: the idea of the chorus in the poetry, art and social practices of the Archaic and early Classical period. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 761. ISBN 9781107110687. £75,00.


It is more natural in French to speak of the abstract quality of being a chorus. There is even a word for it: choralité. Choral Constructions proceeds at this same level of abstraction: Steiner writes not only of choruses—real, mythical, or figurative ones—but of any group or collective that might have been understood by an Archaic or Classical Greek as choral or chorus-like. In a discussion of mobile cauldrons and tripods, for example, Steiner specifies that her ‘concern is with the latent chorality of these objects’ and other ‘more explicitly choral fabrications’ (p. 28). Emphasis throughout falls on the choral properties of the non-human, especially material and fabricated (or p. 31 ‘factural’ and p. 342 ‘factured’) objects. These range from the synchronized motion of ships and birds, of robots and beasts, to the patterned formations in vats and columns, textiles, and text. The vocal dimension of the chorus is less pronounced in these comparisons than are its physical presence, dance, and movement. If ‘choral projection’ refers to how a performing chorus might come to embody the Delian maidens or the Pleiades, ‘choral constructions’ remove the human performer and the moment of performance from immediate view.

Another peculiarity in the French: the word for choir (chœur) is homonymous with that for heart (cœur). If one is generally happy to follow Steiner in seeing so many non-choral groupings—automata, gorgons, columns, letters—as ‘protochoruses’ (pp. 77, 434, 455) and ‘paradigm[s]’ (p. 139), it is from a sense that the chorus was at the core of Archaic life, education, religion. Although not announced as such, the project is broadly structuralist: Steiner even calls her categories ‘choral archetypes’ (pp. 11, 129). The link connecting chorus and non-choral grouping is a string of ‘association’ (p. 98), an ‘intimate connection’ (p. 316), or ‘multiple relations’ (p. 342). In one chapter, for example, a nexus of associations is developed to link the ‘interrelated phenomena’ of ‘columns, trees, islands or stars’ when ‘conceived as singing-dancing ensembles’ (p. 395). Most of the chapters work to establish one or more such connections as plausible and suggestive, rather than to advance a broader claim or argument. This is sometimes unsatisfying. Do the automated Hephaestean tripod choruses, for example, not tell us something about ancient notions of disability and prosthetic, or ancient technology? As she writes of ancient audience responses to a vase painting in the final paragraph to chapter four, Steiner too seems to ‘want to leave the matter open and to assume a variety of viewer [or, in her case, reader] responses’ (p. 257).

There are some gems among the connections drawn. A remarkable and convincing link is found between the komast dancer vases and a dancing Hephaestus (pp. 67–9, following Tyler Jo Smith).[1] The flailing limbs of the murdered servant-women of Odysseus’ household, who asphyxiate, strung up together from a shared noose, parody the avian dance of a dove chorus (pp. 159–67, following Sheila Murnaghan).[2] The peristyle of the archaic and classical Greek temple may find its origin in ‘a stylized and abstract representation of a chorus’ (p. 369), ‘dancing around an altar, statue or house of the god, surrounding and encompassing the sacred site even as they marked it off’ (p. 371, drawing on Maria Karvouni).[3] While the focus on material objects might be thought to imply something static or rigid, choral motion is captured in many of the book’s comparisons. Choreutes turn the neck as they change direction, like deer (p. 242). Steiner’s ‘constructions’ are most intriguing where they draw us closer to living, moving bodies.

Chorus-like activity is shown to exist across non-choral poetic genres and cultural artefacts. There has been a flurry of recent scholarship about the ways choral and monodic performances might intersect, for example through reperformances in different performance contexts.[4] While these approaches are not mentioned, they go a long way towards justifying the book’s analysis of choral elements in non-choral works. The lion’s share of evidence is taken from Archaic lyric, hexameter, tragedy, and vase painting, yet in line with the theme of the non-human, material evidence of other sorts is also explored. Steiner plays puppeteer to dolls with articulated limbs (pp. 265, 409); she sounds bronze tripod cauldrons (p. 77), a cithara soundbox (p. 63), and an Etruscan tintinnabulum (p. 444); she spins terracotta disks (p. 264). Perhaps most remarkable of all, a rope is plausibly evoked to help with synchrony in choral training (p. 165–7, cf. 453–8, 466).

Old Comedy is underexploited. Steiner mentions comic bird choruses, and Callias’ chorus of letters, but largely ‘bypass[es] fifth-century comedy’ (p. 335) elsewhere, missing what would have been significant support for the book’s argument. This is all the more remarkable since the author herself is aware that, in this genre, constructions or metaphors for the chorus are literalized and ‘spectacularize[d]’ (p. 181). Comic choruses do not merely recall animal movements through their dance, but appear as theriomorphic hybrids or full-blown animal herds. Surely these exemplify ‘the carnival of the animals’? If choral attire and accoutrements meld with the choral performers who wear them, as in Alcman’s first partheneion (pp. 186–7, 589–90, 639), how much more remarkable the chorus of jewellery, devoid of human wearers, thought to have featured in Pherecrates’ Trinkets (Λῆροι). Comedy’s choruses are not just projections of Muses, but representations of the actual Muses (as in the play by Phrynichus). The same goes for choruses of ships (e.g., Aristophanes’ Ὅλκαδες), islands (Ar.), or seasons (Ar.). Moreover, the range of chorus types in Old Comedy tells us something fundamental about the Greek willingness to understand the chorus on highly metaphorical terms. This is reflected especially in the use of comic choruses to represent abstract concepts in ways that are hard to imagine in performance, such as Crates’ chorus of games (Παιδιαί), Cratinus’ of dramatic catalogues (Διδασκαλίαι), or Lysippus’ of mockeries (Καταχῆναι), to mention only intersections with choruses. Self-moving chorus-like utensils (p. 30) are a well-known comic trope: extant occurrences include the trial scene in Wasps (962–6), the animated flatware of Crates’ Beasts (fr. 16), the hint of an automated dining scene from Eupolis’ Golden Race (fr. 299), and the utensil procession of Assemblywomen (730–45). Where is Aristophanes’ enumeration of bird choristers in the chapter on chorus and catalogue? By limiting her evidence largely to the high genres of lyric, hexameter, and tragedy, rather than also including satyr-play and above all comedy, Steiner misses some of the more pronounced ways in which human and non-human become porous and interchangeable in a choral performance.

Here Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux provides useful perspective. Their notion of ‘assemblage’ or agencement offers a way of looking at group complexity which emphasizes fluidity, interchangeability, and mediation. It is not a coincidence that ‘assemblage’ rings remarkably close to ‘construction’. Steiner ends the book by exchanging the idea of a ‘choral constructions’ for that of ‘choral envisioning’ and the ancient (but nevertheless anachronistic) notion of enargeia, which she also partly identifies with phantasia and epiphany. While the idea of a ‘choral construction’, like that of an ‘assemblage’, suggests combination, the book’s concluding treatment of enargeia, in line with the avoidance of comic choruses, keeps the human and non-human elements in a choral formation largely distinct. These are combined only in the imagination of an engrossed viewer, not the transfigured body of the performer. For all the lexemes that Steiner uses to signal interconnection (p. 43 ‘imbrication’, p. 64 ‘intercalate’, 65 ‘tessellation’), the relationship she ultimately settles on between choral performer and choral archetype remains largely metaphoric. Did ancient choruses seem like automata, demons, birds, columns, textiles, letters, or did they actually become those things? The question may sound facetious to a scholar, but ask a professional dancer and one discovers the layers of truth this question reveals. Steiner comes closest to a more transformative view of choral performance where this is seen as a purely ritual act (e.g., p. 675 on the Spring Fresco chamber). One does not need to embrace French theory to appreciate the point, since we have an ancient term which captures the idea of becoming in a choral assemblage: the pre-Platonic notion of ‘mimesis’ is arguably less about representation than it is about performative transformation (e.g., Pi. fr. 107a on p. 192).

At over seven hundred pages, this tome is rich with sources and ideas. The latest in a series of recent volumes on the chorus,[5] it aims at a totalizing vision of chorality in the Archaic and early Classical periods. Despite the omission of powerful examples from Old Comedy, one is nonetheless struck by the extent to which the chorus is shown to have pervaded ancient representations of groups and multiples, and how these in turn affected the way choruses were represented and performed. The basic idea that a chorus has a complex materiality is powerful. Scholars will find here a trove of useful ideas and associations about that materiality.


[1] T. J. Smith, ‘Dancing spaces and dining spaces: Archaic komasts at the symposion’, in G. R. Tsetskhladze, A. J. N. W. Prag and A. M. Snodgrass (eds.), Periplous: Papers on Classical Art and Archaeology Presented to Sir John Boardman (London, 2000), pp. 309–19.

[2] S. Murnaghan, ‘Penelope as a tragic heroine: choral dynamics in Homeric epic’, Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic 2 (2018), pp. 165–89.

[3] M. Karvouni, Treading on the Rhythmos of a Greek Temple, PhD diss. 1997, University of Pennsylvania.

[4] e.g., P. Strolonga, ‘From choral to monodic hymns: some evidence from the Homeric Hymns’, in E. Papadodima and A. Stefanis (eds.), New Approaches to Ancient Epic (= Trends in Classics 12.1, 2020), pp. 16–47.

[5] E.g., R. Gagné and M. Hopman (eds.), Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 2013; J. Billings, F. Budelmann, and F. Macintosh (eds.), Choruses Ancient and Modern, Oxford 2013; L. Gianvittorio, (ed.) Choreutika: Performing and Theorising Dance in Ancient Greece, Pisa 2017.