By VICKI J. YIANNIAS
In pre archaic Greece, Greek dance was an important part of public religious ceremonies, performed by a troupe wearing symbolic masks called the “chorus”, and in archaic times, the chorus danced, and also sang choral lyric music accompanied by a flute. By the time of classical Athens, the performance of the dramatic chorus — as important as the role of the actors — was central to civic life.
The prescient voices of a chorus in unison must have taken an ancient audience’s breath away, as did the chorus in a video shown during the panel discussion The Chorus in Classical Greek Drama: A Challenge at the Onassis Foundation on the evening of October 12. The video was of the recently performed Oedipus Rex at the American Repertory Theater in Boston.
Panelists were Lydia Koniordou, who played Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, a leading classical Greek actor, and the stage director of the National Theater of Greece, Robert Woodruff, the Artistic Director of The American Repertory Theater, at Harvard University where Oedipus Rex was peformed, and Evan Zoran, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and Head of Music and Theater Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who composed the music for the production, and Helen Foley, professor of Classics at Barnard College, Columbia University, coordinator and leader of the discussion.
Professor Foley introduced the discussion. “Modern audiences of a Greek comedy or tragedy may think that the actors are the most important, or the story is most important, but let me start by saying that to the ancient Greeks the chorus was the most important part of the play, and certainly the most integrated into the social world of the Greeks who went to these performances. As a matter of fact, being in a Greek performance, whether they were choruses before the performances or whether they were choruses in tragedy or comedy, was more or less a civic duty. Everybody in Athens grew up performing in choruses of fifty men and fifty women before they graduated into performing theater choruses. They spent six weeks at least rehearsing, so they really did extraordinary choral performances when they were ready. They got out of military service for the six months that they were involved which shows how seriously the society they took these performances. Although we might think that Aeschylus or Euripides would go and get their plays put on by telling people the plot, or which myth they were going to base their play, we are told that in order to give a play, when they would ask the Archon Basileus of Athens, they first asked for a chorus. According to Plato, they actually sang some parts of the play rather than telling the story, I think this gives a sense of how critical and central this was to the original audience, and the whole performance originally grew out of that chorus in the sense that tragedy and comedy developed out of the chorus itself. It was considered to be so important that Athenian audiences had huge parts of the choruses memorized, and we know that Athenians who were captured after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in the 5th century got their release from being prisoners of war by singing choruses of Euripides.”
Oedipus Rex in Boston, a remarkably successful re-imagining of the ancient chorus, exciting and relevant for a modern audience was discussed and possibilities for future productions were explored, as well as what can be perceived to be problems regarding today’s use, or non-use, of the ancient chorus. For example, today’s theater audiences (excluding opera and musicals) can find the Greek chorus alien, extraneous, or less engaging than the modern form of plot and character revealed through actors alone. Also, how Greek tragedy and comedy productions today, especially those outside of Greece, rarely include the full range of song and dance on the part of both actors and chorus as did the original productions.
Among the guests that attended this first event of the Onassis Foundation’s season were Mr. & Mrs. Angelos Camillos of the Kouros Gallery, Ms. Elsa Klensch, author and television personality, Mr. Vassilios Lambrinos, artist, Mr. Peter Meineck, Producing Artistic Director of the AQUILA THEATRE COMPANY, Ms. Sharon Schuggs, actor, Ms. Jan Geidt, Development Consultant of the American Repertory Theatre.
Ambassador Tsilas informed the audience that this first event heralded a wealth of upcoming events, and said “You will all be welcomed at the major event, the magnificent exhibiton Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, beginning on December 10, authentic pieces relating to that legendary figure, some of which have never been seen in the United States.”