Life In Dithyrambic Chorus Upon the setting sun I, Hecubus, fondly recall the days of pride and honor I felt in my tribe, as a member of a dramatic, dithyrambic chorus. Acting was not simply my occupation, but a lifestyle highly revered and respected by my fellow Athenian citizens. We entertained, taught moral lessons of the past, illustrated human flaw, but most importantly, we gave the audience a release. During the time I preformed with my chorus, drama was closely tied to the polis, joining the people, the government, and the Gods through public festivals. I felt immense pride to have played and active role in the community bond that was created.
The most important of these festivals was, and remains, the City Dionysia. The exhausting four-day competition was held every spring, in honor of the god Dionysos (Amos and Lang 129). The festival opened with a formal and elaborate processional, where I and my chorus of fifty men would perform ceremonial dances at numerous alters, and ended with sacrifices of wine and sweet meat at the sacred precinct of Dionysus. This was a most glorious event surrounded in the beauty and rebirth of the land! A statue of Dionysos, guided by the intense glow of torchlight, was then carried into the theatre and a reenactment of Dionysos’ initial entry into Athens was preformed. This statue was a constant presence in the theatre. City Dionysia was highly attended and drew visitors and men of political power from all of Greece.
The crowd was not afraid to get into the performances..many times they would cheer and boo, and occasionally throw things at us. Three of the four days were reserved for tragedies, and the fourth day was for satyr and comedies (Cameron and Gillespie 74). Between the great plays, the dithyrambic contests would be held, where the choruses, including my dynamic troupe, would battle each other for the prize. Wine was abundant, and the all day plays and hard stone benches seemed to effect men’s attitudes. Many times I found myself trying to sing passages over the liveliness of the audience, but it was because of this festival that I became commonly known in Athens.
The origin of theatre dates back to religious choral dances that were preformed in simple grain threshing circles. One member of the chorus recited his verse or monologue with the other chorus members (Amos and Lang 130). These primitive religious choruses resembled the organization of the tragic chorus found in the festival. The tragic chorus served as a main part of the tragedies, but were not central. Through lyrical chant they served to move plot along, or recount the action in the performance.
These thirteen men shared the orchestra with the three actors. The tragic chorus’s main form of expression was dance and song, accompanied by a flute-player (Amos and Lang 130). The dithyrambic choruses, which I was a member of, worked as a dramatic team and was the only action on stage (http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/OM/BA/PT/BA/JO-CD .html). Unlike the organization of the tragic choruses, we were not limited by any genre of theatre and could participate in the dark tragedies, as well as comedies if needed. But primarily, always arranged in a circle, our impressive dance entertained between contests at the festivals (Cameron and Gillespie 85).
We were fifty men strong and competed specifically for the dithyrambic chorus. Five Greek tribes consisted of choruses of men; the other five were primarily made up of boys. Not only did we have to be tribal members, but also citizens by birth. During the time that we trained or preformed, all dithyrambic chorus members were exempt from military service. A typical training session would last about eleven months, consisting of vocal, strength, and gesture training (Cameron and Gillespie 73). The vocal training was the most intense exercise, and would leave my voice harsh, and rough.
The intent was to articulate and pronounce everything perfectly, be it in song or slow verse. Voice and diction were the most important aspects to the choral odes, and our training consisted of many hours in full costume to perfect the art. Many days I thought that the military service would have been easier! Gestures were expected to be very rigid and distinct, but most importantly they had to be large. During performance we were required to be in top physical shape due to the stamina required to beat the intense heat and dry air. For all performers, not just chorus members, costume limited our tools of expression to voice and gesture.
No women were allowed to perform, so men had to play women’s roles. All performers, except the flute player, wore bulky masks that covered the entire head, carried hairstyles and decorations, and allowed very little opening for sight lines and air. It was not uncommon, yet still humiliating, to pass out from the heat (Cameron and Gillesie 86). In the Dithyrambic contests at the City Dionysia we would be provided with magnificent costumes in honor of the God, complete with shining crowns, elaborate masks and hairstyles, and lively embroidered robes (http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/OM/BA/PT/BA/JO-CD .html). This attire was a great change from my everyday simple tunic, and sandals.
As Athenian citizens, we are expected to contribute to the public good, and this is where the support and funding for the City Dionysia came from. The supervisor of all dramatic festivals and contests was the responsibility of the archon eponymos, a high civic official (Cameron and Gillespie 73). It was his duty to appoint the financial supporters, or the choregoi. These were wealthy citizens, who served the polis with their money and not a specific trade. The financial burden on these men was high, for they supplied the means for our training, costumes, and or pay.
As a member of the dithyrambic chorus, I charged between thirty-five and fifty minae, dependant upon the festival. In contrast, a member of a tragic chorus charged only twenty to thirty minae (Cameron and Gillespie 73). This is why my ancestry dates to the chorus! The role that the choregoi served was very important and I felt a deep respect towards them, for without their participation there would be no festivals or greatness of City Dionysos. Tradition is very important, and as I am too old to perform with my chorus, I intend to pass my knowledge and experience down to my young son. My father was a great participant in the religious choral odes, and began my vocal training at a very young age. It is so the gods look upon us; we must honor their significance. I have grown upon knowing the importance of sacrifice, and have seen the theatre develop throughout the years.
My son, Parlius, also has learned the importance of our interaction with the Gods. One day he will participate in either my Dithyrambic robes, or become a great actor, performing the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. He will grow up with the respect that his father had, and learn the lessons of what it takes to be an esteemed Athenian citizen. Bibliography Amos, H.D., and A.G.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks.
Pennsylvania: Dufour Editions, Inc, 1979. Cameron, Kenneth, and Patti Gillespie. Western Theatre: Revolution and Revival. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984. “Dionysian Meditations: The City Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei)” http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/OM/BA/PT/BA/JO-CD. html).