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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Donald J. Mastronarde
Department of Classics
University of California, Berkeley

Knowledge and Authority in the Choral Voice of Euripidean Tragedy

Choral song is a vital component of classical Attic tragedy, completely integral to the composition and the performance of the extant plays. This applies even to Euripides, who is faulted by Aristotle for not using the chorus as effectively as Sophocles: the non-integral choral ode (embolimon) is not yet found in Euripides.

The chorus carries with it many inherited aspects of authority. Choral song and dance had a traditional role in religious cult, conveying a compelling communal voice to the attention of a god and declaring for the god and for the listening community basic tenets of religious and social interaction. In praise and in lamentation, group-song generalizes the recognition of value and achievement. The choral dance echoes on earth the supreme entertainment enjoyed by the gods entertained by the Muses, and the gnomic and mythic content of much choral song may elevate the here-and-now of a particular occasion to a paradigmatic status.

Within the dramatic performance, the chorus potentially draws strength from the contrast of group vs. individual, of moderate/mediocre vs. impassioned/heroic, of survivors vs. doomed. Its distance (spatial and emotional and moral) from the crisis allows it a broader perspective than is allowed to most agents within a plot. Its similarity to the audience in their respective roles of spectator may also create a special reception for the chorus' contributions amidst the polyphony of voices that make up a tragedy.

In Euripides, these potential strengths are balanced by factors that may exert a competing force. It is well known that a majority of his choruses are composed of groups outside the privileged class of male citizens in their prime: they may be female or aged or foreign or slaves or have some combination of these disabilities. And Euripides, more often than Aeschylus and Sophocles, flaunts the powerlessness of the chorus by exposing the convention that it cannot intervene in the action, even at desperate moments. In several plays Euripidean divine prologues weaken the position of the chorus relative to the audience's fuller knowledge of crucial causation and anticipated events. While these factors have the potential to undermine the authority of the choral voice, the immediacy of connection between choral song and stage events may be loosened by the lyric structures favored by Euripides (for instance, starting with mythic narrative, gnome, apostrophe, or general judgments of the chorus and arriving only near the end — and occasionally not at all — at the application to the current situation or address to the involved character).

In this presentation Euripides' experimentation with the choral voice, especially with variations and tensions in its authority, knowledge, and moral judgment, is illustrated with examples from specific plays, esp. Medea, Andromache, Hecuba, and Trojan Women.

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