The forgotten chorus – reception reflections

I was lucky enough to attend a Zoom meeting where Timberlake Wertenbaker was in conversation about ‘The Transformative Power of Greek Tragedy’. It was a fascinating hour and a half and the conversation ranged from her approach to Greek texts and how her plays have developed to her recommendations as to how to engage with plays and her perspective as a playwright on a range of issues.

Amongst the many topics discussed there was one I would like to share that resonated as it is not only something I have giving some thought about recently but also maps my reception journey specifically through “The Trojan Women” and how it has personally changed my perspectives.

She stated that the Chorus is the most attractive part of tragedy for her as a playwright. The Chorus can echo, foresee, worry about things to come, be optimistic or pessimistic, advise but all with a sense of powerlessness. They can only observe not enact. However, it is the opportunity for the playwright’s voice to be heard and sometimes the real questions come through the chorus. So far so good, but then she went on to draw a comparison with protest marches. If you go on a protest march you are part of the chorus who seldom change events. People are powerless.

I had not thought of this comparison before but a quick think about the marches on television; even huge marches like The Iraq War changed nothing. Opinions can be raised and communicated often from different viewpoints and with different degrees of passion, but it changed nothing.

The thought of the masses behind the on-stage Chorus is something that I have come to recognise and appreciate, and it is as a result of reception through literary text, film and theatre.

As a Classical Studies undergraduate I was introduced to several tragedies: The Persians, Burial at Thebes, Hippolytus which fired my enthusiasm and I went to as many theatrical performances as I could, Antigone, Oedipus and Colonus, The Oresteia, Electra, Medea to name a few which, as far as I could tell, adhered as closely as possible to the original performance after which I bought the play to read. What I did not do for some reason is watch films, which is ironic as my tragedy love affair was started by the introduction to Professor Michael Scott’s documentary “The Greatest Show on Earth“.

Finally, and after a few years, to complement my Penguin Classic I bought the DVD: Trojan Women dir. Michael Cacoyannis (Trailer). By now I was getting to grips with various aspects of reception: cultural differences, playwright bias, audience reception but, what a revelation! It was fun to think about why scenes were framed and shot in a certain way, why scenes were edited or even extra included but is was the wider (maybe superficial to some) aspects which, to me, prompted further thought. It was the flesh on the bones of the context hidden behind the text such as scenes of violence and the nets being put on the wagons to cage prisoners and, importantly, the number of extras being herded. These were ordinary, voiceless people behind the main characters.

Whilst Cacoyannis’s reception displayed the wider context and background it was another adaptation, The Queens of Syria, that lays bare the suffering of the wider population through the main characters. A play and a filmed documentary it is a story of Syrian women who are the victims of warfare, have lost everything and are now exiled in Jordan (More information here). Their own stories mirror those spoken through queens and princesses in The Trojan Women, except the performers could be neighbours, friends or family. Their stories are powerful as they relate the everyday mundane; gardens, cooking, shops, work and family, that we all take for granted and that has been lost. The parallel with Euripides does not end there. As exiles they are prisoners to events beyond their control. For instance, they are unable to perform in America because of Trump’s travel ban of certain Middle Eastern countries. But it is the delivery that completes Timberlake Wertenbaker’s comparison to people, protest and powerlessness. They recount their own experiences as a single character, as individuals, and then combine as a chorus to challenge the audience. The blurring of the lines between character and chorus powerfully underlines that, as individuals, a group, a people, a protest group they are all in exile, a state of limbo and a state of loss. So, although it may be a queen or princess speaking in Euripides, their loss, devastation, fate and emotions are inextricably intwined and are reflective with the sometimes forgotten masses.

All this may seem obvious to some but it is an illustration as to how reception has not only changed my perspective on many aspects of current events but, through the media of film, has provided a lens to interpret and interrogate classical times.

6 comments

    • I have to say I love tragedy and reception is creeping into my thinking more and more. If you haven’t had a chance to watch Queens of Syria I thoroughly recommend accessing a copy. I defy anyone not to be emotionally involved and affected and don’t mind saying it moved me to tears.

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  1. Hello Colin. I really enjoyed reading this exposition. I became interested in what one might call “the role of the chorus” a little while ago. I haven’t pursued this yet, but have collected some reading to get me started. Unfortunately it will have to stay on the back burner for a while. The OU MA is keeping me pretty busy at present.

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    • Thank you for commenting and good to hear from you Sheila. If memory serves me the was an option question about the chorus in one of the OU undergradute essays (which I didn’t pick) although my mind might be playing tricks. Either way I think it would be a great topic. Certainly I am far more aware as to the performance of the chorus in recent years, the stadout ones being Medea at the National Theatre although that was a few years ago but I was struck by their frenetic dancing and movement and the last Cambridge Greek Play, Oedipus at Colonus, where the chorus added aurally to the ;action’, for instance they turned into a rhythmic, marching army when Antigone and Ismene were being rescued. Another instance where the chorus ‘expands’ the experience to a larger group, namely an army.

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