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Talking about Choruses. Χορεία in fourth-Century BC Comedy.

Lucy Jackson

While the choral culture of archaic and fifth-century Greece has enjoyed the focus of many scholars in the past half century, the role of the chorus in fourth-century culture has remained obscure - and with good reason. The texts of choral performance have acted as a mainstay for much discussion of choral theory and, after 400, extant choral texts are few and far between. Peter Wilson has demonstrated in his work on the institution of choregia that non-lyric texts can be just as illuminating, if not more so, in this kind of enquiry. Turning from choral text and looking instead at choral context, at who talks about choruses and how they talk about them, it is possible to investigate the form and function of choruses in a new way.

This paper analyses three groups of examples taken from (so-called) middle and new comedy where characters talk about the choruses, both real and abstract, that formed a part of daily life in Athens and Greece. The first group contains references to all-night female choruses that often provided the location for rape in Menander, a connection of event and circumstance that alludes to an archaic trope going back to the Iliad (16.179-183). The second group highlights the innovative way in which choral language could be used in increasingly abstract ways as evidenced in two fragments of Diphilus. The third links choregic discourse found in a fragment of Antiphanes to possible shifts in attitude towards the choregia and its connotations of luxury or wanton spending. Taken together, these three groups demonstrate the variety and flexibility of choral discourse in contemporary society and show how comedy provided one forum in the public domain for the evaluation of the role of the chorus in that society.

In addition, this brief study contributes to the on-going re-evaluation of the notion of ‘choral decline’ in the fourth century. Scholars since at least the 1950s have shown how comic choruses after 400, far from being reduced to the stock characters of ‘tipsy revellers’ continued to have various fictional identities (Webster 1953), could interact with the characters of the drama (Sifakis 1967) and maintained a basic political role in drama (Sifakis 1971) as well as maintaining its metrical variety (Hunter 1979). It had continued institutional support (Rothwell 1995 and Wilson 2000) and even the relatively standardised Menandrian komos-chorus had an important poetic role within the drama (Lape 2006). These works have encouraged a move away from the questionable narrative of decline towards a more nuanced picture of continuity and diverse choral practices.

In recognising the references to the thriving choral culture of contemporary society within the comedies themselves, I show how fourth-century comedy itself acts as further evidence of continued and various choral performances in Athens. Despite our near complete lack of choral texts (necessitated perhaps by the nature of ‘publishing’ at the time, Pöhlmann 1977), comedy can nevertheless provide vital contextual information for choral culture in the fourth century. 

Session/Panel Title

Performance and Space in Ancient Drama

Session/Paper Number

30.1

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