As a performance begins, the audience rests quietly while a group of people in front of them hold up a mirror. The performer strives to grab the audience by the heartstrings, and builds a strong connection between the stage and the seating area. Throughout history, the world of theatre has helped humans make elaborate changes to social and political issues, including certain decisions that pertain to morality and religion. This impact is the reason humans seek the cathartic experience of theatre, specifically the classic Greek plays that have lasted for so long. What is it about Aeschylus’ Agamemnon or Euripides’ Medea that still rings true to an audience of modern humans? The text and music are certainly crucial to the telling of a story; however, without physical movement there is not enough context for the audience to relate to. Especially if the performance is set in a different language, the audience can only hold onto the visual picture for guidance. This is where the chorus, primarily meaning “the dance” in Greek language, comes in handy (Hamilton 144). The group of performers who comment on the action of the play and usually move in unison is the essential element for a performance to be successful. Without the chorus and their body language, the audience loses touch with the humanity of a performance, especially during a play written many centuries ago.
In terms of the history of Greek movement, there was a time when chorus work was limited to singing and text-work. Although this was still a valid opportunity for objective narration and commentary, it was not effective enough to aid the audience in understanding the play (Wiles 110). It was not until 467 B.C. when a legendary dancer by the name of Telestes was performing in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes and decided to break off from the chorus group. Telestes was the first recorded pantomime actor in Greece to use gestures and fancy footwork as a way to interpret the text of the chorus (Lust 20). This sudden change led to expand the way the audience hears a phrase of words, and it shaped the harmony of choreography and text. As a word is being recited, the movement correlated with it defines the rhythm of pitch and volume so as to widen the understanding of the definition (David 93). The marriage of text and movement creates more depth to a play, causing the audience to feel more deeply. The famous author Homer states that the Greek mime’s art is “noble and divine”, while Seneca, the Roman philosopher, describes it as a mute language well “spoken” (Lust 23). While words and music have so much to give, the articulation of movement has the ability to take over in the most fruitful way. Another example of how movement explores the human condition is shown in the complicated play Medea by Euripides. During one scene, Medea announces that she will murder her children, and the chorus distances themselves from her into a tight circle to demonstrate the effects of exclusion (Wiles 107). Visually, the audience can label Medea as an outcast, who is making a self-assertive decision by herself. If the chorus orients themselves closer to her, the effect of her choice to kill her offspring would be illustrated in a tame manner. Working with the strengths of the chorus can heighten the stakes for the main character and bring more emotional complexity to the play.
Indeed, when a performer chooses a movement to display on a stage, the audience finds relatable qualities in the performer’s vulnerabilities. The everyday human walks, claps, shakes, and freezes without realizing how much movement is created. Many theatre-goers are uneducated in the study of movement, but use the experience of live performance to assess emotional situations. Bryan Doerries writes in his book, The Theater of War, that “certain plays seemed as if they might have something important to say to people working in professions that brought them into close, daily contact with suffering and death, but who had no outlet for acknowledging the moral and emotional stress of their jobs” (Doerries 153). Considering this, it is clear why performance continues to be so impactful in the life of the working human. Going to a stressful job that requires many relentless tasks can take a toll on the emotional response of a human and can cause the creative soul to deteriorate. This terrible consequence must be met with means of outward expression, and by attending a live performance with other people looking to release their own stress, the working human can return to their most instinctual self. Furthermore, the audience members form a natural community with each other during a performance due to the simple fact that they all decided to sit down, and face the same direction for a period of time. Being a part of a group sends a feeling of belonging to each audience member, and this experience is unique to the magic of live theatre: “Sometimes during powerful moments, when actors are able to convey the truth of an experience, audience members begin breathing together, inhaling and exhaling at once. Whenever this happens, the quality of the silence in the theater deepens, and the audience listens with a level of attention that is rarely achieved in today’s fast-paced world” (Doerries 209). Here, Doerries describes the atmosphere through the involuntary movements of theatre-goers. Even as the audience sits still, there is a ceaseless physicality in their position, causing the audience to feel united. In some ways, the audience assembles into its own choral group, staying put for the duration of the performance (Wiles 110). If the main characters of a play function to solve the problem of the plot, then the chorus represents the through-line between performer and audience member. Just as the chorus comments on the action of the play (Hamilton 144), the audience watches in a state of intense pensivity and emphasizes for the main characters. Thus, the working human, who spends many hours moving around to accomplish tasks for the sake of their job, finds solace in the profound experience of being an audience member of live performance.
Not only is a Greek chorus important for the use of movement, but it can also help reach audience members sitting at the back rows of an enormous Greek theatre. The elaborate structure of ancient Greek theatres forces performers to project their voice outwards. When discussing movement, the human eye is better equipped to focus on a group of performers in unison, predominantly if an audience member is sitting far from the stage (Wiles 110). The scaling of movement in regards to a large theatre can only be executed when the members of the chorus are being used properly. Consequently, this created a division between the actor and the chorus when ancient Greek companies were touring:
“The surviving theatres of the Greek world have stages on which the ‘actors’ performed, whilst the chorus danced in the orchestra below… It was not feasible for a team of fifteen dancers to tour the world, and if the local community was able to provide choral dancers, those dancers would not have a chance to rehearse with the actors, so the physical separation of actors and chorus became an inevitability” (Wiles 104).
Moreover, when an actor stands alone on the stage, they can use their singular voice to express the character’s pain and suffering, aiding in the display of vulnerability. On the other hand, when a chorus erupts into using voice and movement as a group, the audience hears and sees more clearly into where the plot is going and why the main character is troubled. Trying to broaden the storytelling to a theatre of over 700 people is quite difficult with one performer. In the example of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the character Clytemnestra positions herself upstage for most of the play, making small movements on the spot. Although this blocking decision causes her to dominate as the magnificent element of the play (Hamilton 154), she pales in comparison to the choral work of the men spread out in front of the stage who, as a group, move with grace and speak with gusto. The eye falls towards the chorus who fill up the theatre “as the extension of a particular character with whom it expresses solidarity” (Wiles 110). For this reason, Clytemnestra would seem too small in front of such a large audience if it were not for the juxtaposition of the chorus members. An audience member that views the performance from a substantial distance must be able to experience the show in a similar way to another spectator, sitting in the front row. Therefore, the relationship between actor and chorus has a significant role in the effectiveness of a play that is staged in an ancient Greek theatre.
In conclusion, the members of the chorus have a remarkably important job to do in order for a play to successfully attain the attention of the audience. Within its movement and spatial patterning, the chorus is crucial in guiding the audience towards the most touching elements of a live performance. Dance gestures that speak to the text and the song of a play enhance the way an audience connects to the main characters and the problems that they work through. Simply put, if the chorus is not involved enough in a performance, the audience would feel left out to a certain extent. Ancient Greek theatres, and the ones that are still active to this day, challenge the performer to cast out their expressiveness to the theatre-goers sitting in the back row, and this can only be done well with the extraordinary role of the chorus.
David, A. P. The Dance of the Muses: Choral Theory and Ancient Greek Poetics. O xford University Press, 2006.
Doerries, Bryan. The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies can Teach Us Today. Alfred
A. Knopf, 2015.
Hamilton, Edith. Three Greek Plays. Norton, 1965.
Lust, Annette. From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond: Mimes, Actors, Pierrots, and Clowns : A Chronicle of the Many Visages of Mime in the Theatre. Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Wiles, David. Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction. C ambridge University Press, 2000.