• Guido Avezzù Greek Literature, Verona



Over time the originally tragic chorus has undergone significant changes which have emphasised its melodramatic potential, reshaping its role from the fourth century b. C., and later, from the sixteenth century onwards, fostering controversial revivals. Despite these transformations, however, the chorus has always represented a constant feature of tragedy since its classical origins, when during festive rituals the panhellenic myth was turned into drama and the chorus became its focus (the dithyramb being the expression of the Attic tribes from the Cleisthenic reform onwards). Before involving two characters, the dialogue took place within the choral collective. According to Aristotle, Western theatre was born with the recitative of the singer who, by starting to sing the dithyramb, prompted the chorus’s mixed response of recited and sung passages. Traces of these mixed forms can still be found in the so-called epirrhema of fifth-century tragedy. This dialogic process brought about the gradual qualification of roles: that of the actor, who developed narrative and/or pathetic monologues, but also, after the ‘invention’ of the second and third actors, exclusively recited dialogues; that of the chorus, who, albeit closely involved in the action, remained a distinct entity, not only for its specifically choreutic components (music and gestures in the articulation of the theatrical space) and stylistic ones (syntax, lexis, intertextual relationships with the lyric genres etc.), but also for the slightly Doric nuance of their language, which, being absent from the recited and recitative parts, had an estranging impact upon the audience. To its formal features corresponded a markedly self-referential identitary awareness, even when the chorus took on the role of actor among actors (synagonistés, as Aristotle defines it with reference to the Sophoclean chorus). At the end of the fifth century b. C., when the chorus was about to be transformed into an interlude, the most daring experimentations comprised the development of performative modes verging on the operatic, including the chorus’s elaborate interaction with one or more actors in both sung and recited parts. This complex historical phase, which includes the genesis, development, and end of the Attic theatrical chorality, both comic and tragic, will be the focus of some of the articles of the issue: they will concentrate especially on the intertextual relation between the chorus and the epic tradition, as well as on the comic chorus. 
In the sixteenth century, the rebirth of the ancient dramatic chorus was meant both as a re-appropriation of the classical legacy and as an exploration of the potential of an independent choral semiosis. It was influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, which «virtually dictate[d] the devaluation and neglect of choral lyric» (S. Halliwell), and – especially in regard to Greek tragedy – by the difficulty of understanding the structural hallmark of the lyrical sections as well as the traces of the interaction between the ‘libretto’ and the by now irretrievably lost musical score. This began, however tentatively, only after the relics of ancient scholarship allowed to restore the metrical forms of the sung texts.  From the first half of the sixteenth century, the most relevant philological contributions can be found in the editions of Greek tragedies produced by Adrien Turnebou and Willem Canter. Theoretical studies and experimental research on ancient music, instead, were carried out in the same period especially by Italian scholars and learned amateurs, as will be seen in one of the article included in the issue. The purely ‘choral word’, occasionally neglected and dismissed as unnatural by playwrights, persisted thanks to innovative forms, such as the allegorical ‘intermezzo’, or by the replacement of the collective chorus with an individual actor – as in the Shakespearean Chorus/Prologue –, or by transferal  of its gnomic and allegoric function to a character (the advisor, the trusted friend, or the fool), or, finally, through the diffraction of the collective voice into multiple characters. In the most crucial phase of poetical and philosophic in-depth critical reflection on the dramatic chorus, a paradigmatic case in point of this diffraction is provided by the first part of Wallenstein (1796), while soon afterwards Schiller would compose the tragic chorus in its classical form in Die Braut von Messina (1803), also adding a theoretical preface to the play. The modern dramatic chorus in prose theatre, opera, and oratorios, re-elaborates, with ever fresh insights, the word/music dichotomy already implicit in Monteverdi’s melodrama and later foregrounded by the ‘reforms’ carried out in the eighteenth-century musical theatre, and further developed by Wagner in his Opera und Drama (1851). The modern chorus also draws on the philosophical and anthropological analysis of the tragic chorus inspired, on the one hand, by the philosophy of ‘the tragic’ of German Romanticism, and, on the other, by K.O. Müller’s insights, later appropriated by Nietzsche in his Basel lectures and in Die Geburt der Tragödie (1869 and 1872). Within such a theoretical and historical framework there stand contemporary versions of the classical chorus, as well as twentieth-century experimentations with anti-tragic – in Aristotelian terms – forms of choral counterpointing or complementing of the hero, as in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Author Biography

  • Guido Avezzù, Greek Literature, Verona
    Executive and General Editor






Monographic Section