- The Choruses of Sophokles' Antigone and Philoktetes: A Dance of Words
Kitzinger studies the choruses in Sophocles' Antigone and Philoctetes, combining the perspectives of a philologist with those of a practitioner of the theater. She proceeds song by song, her method of treatment being "close reading" (1). The book's many detailed analyses cannot be summarized here, but Kitzinger's clearly articulated vision of the nature of the Sophoclean chorus can. It is the book's thematic core and the basis throughout for Kitzinger's interpretations.
First, a paraphrase of Kitzinger's approach: The chorus' mode of expression is fundamentally different from that of the actors. Actors speak and act, while the chorus sings and dances. This distinctly choral mode of expression is connected with a distinctly choral worldview, also different from that of the actors. Sophocles thus presents the action of his plays from two different, irreconcilable but complementary, viewpoints. Neither of them is superior to the other; instead they reflect different ways of understanding and responding to the world. The actors' words and actions are situated on the level of the plot. The notions of causality and responsibility and of time and place are fundamental to them in their decisions and their actions. The chorus, on the other hand, is essentially situated outside the plot. Its performance refers to other traditions of choral lyric and their ritual contexts. The chorus recognizes and expresses the divine order of things and the human condition, namely the limitations of men's reasoning and actions. This choral worldview can be expressed only through its singing and dancing. The chorus in Antigone and actually in most Sophoclean plays (Kitzinger claims that her approach has a general validity) is mostly true to its typical function. Philoctetes is chosen as a second test case because of the chorus' close, if sometimes questionable or unclear, involvement in the action. But it too serves to confirm the outlined understanding. Rejecting common explanations (psychological realism, decline of the chorus' importance), Kitzinger argues that in this pessimistic play Sophocles has intentionally undermined and fragmented the usual choral perspective, depriving the audience of a worldview that would meaningfully complement that of the actors.
Kitzinger's approach, to put it briefly, works for some choral passages and songs, but for others it does not. In any given Greek tragedy, the chorus' multifaceted role is among its most striking features. Kitzinger rightly argues (72 n.6) against an approach that "reduces the complexity and variety of the playwrights' uses of the chorus to a single issue [ . . . ]," but in allowing only one genuine function for the Sophoclean chorus she has done precisely that. As a result, her close reading oftentimes turns into a reductionist reading. Some random examples: For the sake of her argument, Kitzinger prefers an unlikely manuscript reading and understanding against the communis opinio (51 with n.77). Dionysus' special relations with the city of Thebes are unduly played down (65–67). The general human condition is hardly an issue when [End Page 269] the chorus sings in the parodos of Philoctetes that they hear "a sound which is like the companion of some desperate man" (transl. Kitzinger, 84–85). On the other hand, Philoctetes' explicit remarks about the general human condition (Phil. 501–502, maybe up to 506) are not mentioned, even though they immediately precede a choral passage (discussed on 92).
But it must also be said that whenever the chorus does sing what according to Kitzinger it should, she makes insightful observations on differences and tensions between the action on stage and the choral performance. The book is a powerful reminder to take seriously the chorus' special role and the distinct nature of choral performance. It is clearly organized and written in a pleasant and elegant style, with hardly any misprints (40 n.59 Greek font, n.60 German orthography). Relevant scholarship is well taken into account (Th. Paulsen, Die Rolle des Chors in den späten Sophokles-Tragödien, Bari 1989, is...