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U. J. CONACHEK Some Dramatic Uses of the Chorus in Greek Tragedy' Two distinct uses of the Chorus in Greek tragedy can both be illustrated from Aeschylus' trilogy, the Oresteia . One is concerned with theme, with intimations of the meaning, the tragic significance of the action which is taking place or is about to take place before our eyes. The other is concerned with the actual furthering of the dramatic action itself. When the Agamemnon, the first play of this trilogy, opens, we are all waiting for the great overlord to come home victorious from the Trojan Wars: we, the audience (who know something of his dreadful past); the Watchman on the palace roof (who is to announce the victory beacons to the plotting Queen); the Chorus, loyal to Agememnon but vaguely aware of the sinister past and shaky future of the house of Atreus. The Past is to be all important in the present action of this play for it is this which gives meaning, and the dread sense of tragic inevitability, to the impending murder of Agamemnon by his Queen. Two dreadful events are known to the audience: one 'remote' - the heinous offence of Atreus, Agamemnon 's father, who served his brother, Thyestes, a banquet of his own children's flesh; the other, closer in time, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis, to win favourable winds for Troy. In Aeschylus' version of the myth, the murder of Agamemnon is given a meaning which is both 'moral' (ie, involving a sense of just retribution) and 'tragic' (ie, involving a certain blend of freedom and of necessity in both the 'crime' and 'punishment' of Agememnon: for Agamemnon is himself under a curse, not of his own causing, and tragedy, we must remember, is never simply 'crime and punishment') . The play is concerned with expressing dramatically the full meaning of Agamemnon's violent death, as we witness the awful spectacle of his past, and that of his family, catching up on him. The theme, the 'moral lesson: of a great tragedy may be a very simple, if important, truth. What makes a tragedy great is the dramatic statement of that theme in such a way that the audience feels it as an immediate experience. The past of Agamemnon • This paper is one of a series of three general1ectures on Greek tragedy given under the auspices of the Classical Association of Canada at universities in western Canada in December 1973. UTQ, Volume XLIVI Number 2, Winter 1975 ts2 D.]. CONACHER and the increasing sense of the inevitability of his violent death must be injected into the very blood-stream of the action. In this process, the 'thematic' role of the Chorus is immense. First of all, it is used to light up the crucial moments in the past, not simply to give 'the antecedent material' (for the audience knows that, or most of it) but to highlight them in such a way that the audience feels their presence at the appropriate moments in the play. The ability of the Chorus' song-and-dance - in contrast to the more prosaic and rational discourse of the dramatic part - to fulfill this function is, of course, obvious. Freed from the need to be rational, to spell things out, choral lyric can be evocative in technique and immediate in effect: it can swoop and light and swoop again and settle on this dread moment or on that. A word or phrase here, an image cluster there, can suggest, especially to a tutored audience, a multiplicity of meanings and associations, all at once, and leave in darkness and silence the intervening (and irrelevant) gaps of time and sense. Secondly, the Chorus can make us aware (in a way that a character cannot, without sermonizing intolerably) of certain recurrent and inevitable patterns in human destiny - and in the justice of Zeus. Sometimes this function takes the form of great mythical paradigms in which the known fate of an offender (for example the punishment of Paris and the Trojans) is used as a warning example ofZeus' justice. Sometimes, on the other hand, it appears in the form of a powerful ethical 'coda' sung...


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