This paper theorizes the Greek chorus in performance by addressing the relationship between words and movement. Specifically, I argue that the chorus performs a dialectic between text and action by performing two distinct creative personae (viz., poet-playwright and director). This in turn illuminates certain issues fundamental to performance reception studies.
The chorus is the synecdochic crux of Greek drama: choral song and dance is central to reception (Fischer-Lichte 2005: 240-52; Bierl; Goldhill: 45–79); so too is the translated text (Hardwick 2005, 2010; Walton; Ioannidou; Perris). Indeed, it is the formal element least amenable to proscenium-arch naturalism and most amenable to avant-garde techniques. Choral verse, which is difficult and markedly ‘poetic’, also offers the greatest possibilities for translation in (post)modern poetic idioms. In contemporary productions, then, the chorus can, at one and the same moment, represent a director and a poet-dramaturg. Thus, while many scholars prioritize performance over text (Walton) or separate poetry and movement (Goldhill: 169–78), some consider the fraught interactions between playwright, translator, and director (Hardwick 2005: 217–21; Taplin; Harrop). My paper likewise reconsiders embodied choral poetry within the spectator’s totalizing aesthetic experience.
Using this framework, I address certain issues raised by contemporary reception of the chorus. One such issue is discursive relevance. Do authors and directors use the chorus to construct meaning? How? In The Cure at Troy (1990), Seamus Heaney interpolated original choral poetry into Sophokles’ Philoktetes in service of political commentary, demonstrating the power of choral song—even after the performative turn—to make an enduring literary statement about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Authenticity is another fundamental concern, which comes in different, sometimes contradictory guises (Gamel). For example, the National Theatre of Scotland’s 2007 Bakkhai subordinated poetry to music and movement for the sake of a certain kind of authenticity. John Tiffany’s ostensibly radical production ultimately assimilated the chorus into a popular musical theatre idiom: Broadway. The result was an inauthentic production and a hyper-authentic, over-determined translation. By contrast, the 1981 Hall/Harrison Oresteia made effective use of the mask (see Hall) as a formal(ist) intermediary between alliterative poetic translation and the phenomenological body of the performer. This suggests different modes of formalism, poetic and dramaturgical, operative in performance reception. Finally, Yael Farber’s Molora (premiere June 2003; no text published) merged the Oresteia with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Xhosa chorus performing their own dances in their own language to an anglophone audience. This chorus asserted its autonomy qua collective performing body. In so doing, it short-circuited the ‘problem’ of text and performance and emphasized the primacy of the body in constructing theatrical meaning.
The singing, dancing, versifying chorus exemplifies Greek drama as multimedia performance art: not quite poem, not quite play, not quite opera. By playing (with) director and poet, the chorus foregrounds, and problematizes, text and body, poetry and physicality. It thus embodies the ever-present, unstable dialectic – that between text and action – at the center of classical reception studies (Griffiths). Thick description of performance reception (à la Fischer-Lichte 1983) must account for a spectator’s experience of the embodied chorus in toto: movement, music, words, et cetera.