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Reconsidering choral projection in Aeschylus through performance

Simone Oppen

This paper considers how the phenomenon of choral projection motivates the disappearance of Electra midway through Aeschylus’ Choephoroi.  Electra’s departure can be explained by the Rule of Three Actors (Marshall, 2003, 260, 263 n. 34).  But, as I found in a recent production, understanding the plot and character motivations underlying this departure is also crucial to staging this play.  Scholars explain this departure on a narrowly pragmatic basis:
[s]he has played her part and so she is dispensed with” (Taplin, 1977, 340, cf. Garvie, 1986, 200 n. 579).  I suggest that the Chorus’ shift in focus from Electra to Orestes also drives her departure.  Four moments of imagined choral song mark this shift: the Chorus begins with a wish for someone to sing a paean (340–344), and then the Chorus members wish that they might sing the ololugmos (386–392), before alluding twice to future song either for Orestes (719–729) or sung as he kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (819–826).  Although Albert Heinrichs defines choral projection as occurring only in reference to choral dance and, hence, almost exclusively in Sophocles and Euripides, these four moments appear to be examples of choral projection (1996, 49).  In the Choephoroi, this phenomenon allows us to understand Electra’s departure as part of the Chorus’ progression away from the song type she suggests and towards an imagined performance context in which Orestes is an athletic competitor.

In the first scene, Electra asks the Chorus members to garland her father’s tomb with the paean (150–151).  Seemingly inspired by this interaction, the Chorus wishes for a paean instead of lamenting over the tomb in the first moment of choral projection in the kommos (κομίσειεν, 344).  The imagined context of this later paean’s performance suggests rather bland escapism: the Chorus does not wish for solutions to the problems presented in the kommos, but imagines better-sounding sounds (341) and wine (343).  The next imagined song is also evoked with the optative mood, but contains three crucial differences: the Chorus leader is specified as its singer by the addition of the first-person pronoun (γένοιτό μοι, 386); the song type has changed from the paean to the ololugmos, and this song encapsulates the result of vengeance in two genitive phrases, implicitly referring to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (ὀλολυγμὸν ἀνδρὸς | θεινομένου γυναικός | τ’ ὀλλυμένας, 387–389).  In a little over 40 lines, both song type and imagined performance context have changed, from the paean and its escapism (340–344) to the ololugmos accompanying a gruesome solution to the situation (386–389).  With the paean goes Electra’s relevance to the enactment of events on stage in the way visualized by the Chorus members in their projections of future performance.

Lines 386–389 envision, without an agent, the achievement of the task that Orestes will complete.  In the next evocations of the Chorus’ imagined song (719–729 and 819–826), however, the Chorus members more vividly picture themselves as future performers (as indicated by the first-person plural, future-tense verbs: 721, 824) and depict Orestes as the agent who brings about the context for their performance.  The astrophic song (719–729) implicitly depicts Orestes as the agent of vengeance via an athletic image at its end (ξιφοδηλήτοισιν ἀγῶσιν, 729) that corresponds to his own description of his participation in the killings (ξιφηφόρους ἀγῶνας, 584).  Immediately following the description of the song that the Chorus will perform in the second stasimon (819–826) are direct, explicit instructions to Orestes on how to bring about the performance context for this song by killing first Clytemnestra, then Aegisthus (827–837).  Choral projection in this play, rather than showing a chorus disconnected from the action, reveals one that brings about the performance context for its projected song by lyrically bypassing Electra and the song type she suggests in favor of a song that can only take place as Orestes kills Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Session/Panel Title

Performance as Research, Performance as Pedagogy

Session/Paper Number

34.1

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