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The Greek Chorus

The Greek Chorus Greek tragedy and comedy originated with the chorus, the most important part of the performance space was the orchestra, which means ‘a place for dancing’ (orchesis). A typical tragic Greek chorus was a group of some twelve to fifteen masked men just about to enter military service after some years of training (Athenians were taught to sing and dance from a very early age.) An old comedic chorus consisted of up to twenty four men. The effort of dancing and singing through three tragedies and a satyr play was likened to that of competing in the Olympic Games. Like in Elizabethan theatre, the men portrayed women. They made the transitions between scenes, giving actors the chance to enter and leave the playing area, and announced what characters those actors portrayed.

But the function of the chorus goes beyond this. The choral odes, accompanied by dancing and music, were part of the entertainment itself. The chorus both commented on the events and participated in them, so that it was both involved in the action and detached from it. There was a choral leader who led the group, and as theatre developed, who conversed with the actor or actors. In the mid-fifth century, after rebuilding the ruins of the Acropolis, Pericles built a recital-hall or odeion to the east of the Acropolis.

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This building was roughly square in shape with a roof described as pyramidal or conical. The Odeion of Pericles was used for many purposes, one being the proagon, a ceremony in which the dramatic poets announced the titles of their plays and introduced their actors. Members of the chorus would wait in the Odeion to make their entrance. The fifth-century skene was not a permanent building, but a temporary construction of wood, placed across the rear of the orchestral circle for the dramatic performances at each year’s festival. Nevertheless its invention brought about a massive change in theatrical practice and in the semiotics of space. The interior of this flat-roofed building was the ‘backstage’ area, but in visual terms it was not so much ‘behind’ as ‘within’, an enclosed space which, like a real house, was the dominion of female characters.

As a rule, actors could and did step out of the skene and join the chorus in the orchestra, but the chorus did not enter the skene. The masks of Greek Old Comedy were distorted caricatures, sometimes of real people. They were meant to be ugly and silly in keeping with the ludicrous padded costumes worn by comic actors. While tragic actors wore elaborate pattern-woven garments which were similar to the robes of priests and musicians, comic actors wore loose body stockings padded at the breast, buttocks, and stomach, with long floppy phalluses for the male characters. The chorus of Old Comedy was often composed of non-human creatures, such as wasps, frogs, birds, or even clouds. Theater Essays.


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