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55.4.Foley

This paper represents a work in progress that responds to David Wiles' chapter on "The Mimetic Action of the Chorus" in his book Tragedy in Athens. Choral strophes and antistrophes in tragedy shared the same meter and (almost certainly) the same music. Whether they shared the same choreography cannot be demonstrated more than speculatively, given lack of evidence. Wiles argues that by examining the relation between choral strophes and antistrophes in tragic choruses, it is possible to suggest a mimetic relation between them, even in the most apparently resistant cases, Although I am skeptical about many of the details of his specific and probably overly busy reconstructions of possible choreography, the questions that his chapter poses are in my view worth thinking about further. Identifying possible connections between strophe and antistrophe that could have been performed, even if we cannot reconstruct ancient dance schemata (figures) specifically, enriches the meaning of the odes. For example, both the first strophe and antistrophe of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (104-122 and 123-139) end with a reference to the image of two eagles feasting on a pregnant hare followed by the same final refrain. Plutarch (Table Talk ix.15. 747) even suggests that choral dance schemata consisted of tableaux that concluded dance movements. The verbal/musical echo in this strophic pair is obvious, but if this echo were performed choreograhically (and in some sense mimetically), the whole parodos would have pointedly established from the first a visual focus on the image of a terrible “sacrifice” to which this long choral ode leads. Similarly, the second strophe and antistrophe of the first stasimon of the same play are linked by an image at 407-08 and 424-26 of a figure who eludes the grasp of those who desire it, initially Helen, but the image expands and becomes plural in the antistrophe to evoke the larger group of those lost to the Trojan war. Here the repeated figure could serve as a powerfully visualized transition point and link between the two groups of dreamlike figures. In both cases, the choreography would direct the audience’s attention to the central point of the linked units and embody its meaning. Choreographical links might also have served to enact a more abstract connection. For example, in the first strophe and antistrophe of the “Hymn to Zeus” in the parodos of the Agamemon, lines 165 and 174 embed five dactyls in a series of metrical lekythia; each line refers to Zeus at its opening. Although 165 refers to throwing off a mental burden through Zeus and 174 to performing a victory ode for Zeus that will hit a target, the same choreographical gesture could profoundly link the climactic solution to a choral struggle involving comparison and weighing of choices central to the strophic pair as a whole.

This paper will present the preliminary results of work I have shared on this question with my graduate students and invite the panel to join in considering the same question in the odes of plays on which they are giving papers in this session. My own paper will start with examples from Agamemnon, but use several additional strophic pairs from the odes of Sophocles and Euripides to develop some basic approaches to this question and identify further possible ways in which choreography might critically enhance choral meaning.

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