This paper describes and analyzes the staging of the chorus in the American Repertory Theater’s 2011 production of Sophocles’s Ajax. It identifies key points of contact with and innovations upon the ancient form, focusing in particular on the chorus’s physicality, movement and composition. Aside from the chorus leader, who was played by a live actor, the rest of the choral performances were pre-recorded and projected on video screens. This format enabled director Sarah Benson to experiment with the chorus’s liminal nature: they were at once physically present and also ethereal; they could watch the story unfold from afar and actively participate in it; they were made up of actors and non-actors alike, all from the local Boston community. This paper reveals how these dramaturgical decisions not only updated the ancient device for a modern setting, but also actively encouraged the audience to (re)consider the form and function of a traditional chorus.
The first part of the paper explores the chorus’s physicality. Their images were projected on the sloping ceiling of the military mess hall in which the play was set. Each member occupied one of thirty square panels. They were adult men and women of diverse ages and races wearing modern, everyday clothing. Their virtual nature made them seem part human and part otherworldly. Contributing to this impression was the fact that the screens were suspended above the stage in the deus ex machina position. The screens created the illusion of a cyberspace community, a chorus of anonymous voices participating in a shared experience. They introduced yet another layer of theatricality by reflecting the voyeuristic nature of the chorus back onto the audience. This production revitalized the ancient device by reincarnating it in a modern medium.
The second part of the paper investigates the chorus’s movements. A traditional Greek chorus, of course, wore masks that restricted their ability to manipulate facial expression and, consequently, amplified the impact of their body language. This production inverted the traditional model. The video footage presented the chorus members from the shoulders up, directing all the attention to their faces. The limitations on their bodies heightened the effect of their smaller movements; a subtle shift, twitch, or frown became all the more dynamic. The videography enabled the production team to make quick edits and guide the audience’s eye to a particular character or group of characters. In this way, they were able to choreograph a vivid dance, bringing carefully selected combinations into view in a precise rhythm. The chorus members would appear on the screens and speak individually, in rounds, over one another, or in unison as one collective body. They would also simply appear and wordlessly observe the action, speaking volumes with their silence. The overall effect was that of a living, breathing mosaic.
The final part of the paper examines the composition of the chorus. This production was designed in collaboration with Theater of War, which uses ancient plays as a forum for dialogue with modern soldiers about the psychological aftermath of war. As with an ancient chorus, this modern group was composed of people from the local community. In addition to professional actors, it featured real-life veterans as well as their friends and families. This created a meaningful sense of meta-theatricality, especially when these individuals departed from Sophocles’s script and spoke about their own experiences with and opinions about war. In this way, A.R.T.’s production of the Ajax successfully, and poignantly, addressed the challenges of reimagining an ancient Greek chorus for the contemporary stage.