- Choruses, Ancient and Modern ed. by Joshua Billings, Felix Budelmann, Fiona Macintosh
Though of paramount importance to ancient Greek life and culture, the chorus continues to pose an enormous challenge to modern sensibilities. The world today offers little that might suitably compare to this ancient collective of singers and dancers, which stood at the cultural and religious heart of the polis, and the multiple attempts to understand and approach the Greek chorus from the Renaissance onwards have only served to cloud our judgment even further. The volume, which stems from a conference held at the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in 2010, contains twenty essays that not only examine ancient and modern choruses in a variety of scholarly and performative contexts but also help explain the wide gulf in choral thinking [End Page 443] between antiquity and the present day. Despite its title, the volume is not a comprehensive overview of ancient choruses and their manifold forms and manifestations, but rather a transhistorical exploration in the reception and afterlife of the tragic chorus in particular. Though a piece or two addressing the modern echoes of other types of choruses—which might include, at the very least, the comic chorus—would have further enhanced this exciting collection of essays, such an omission should not deter anyone interested in the history, reception, and performance of drama.
While some essays give an overview of the importance and prevalence of choruses in Greek antiquity (Peponi, Budelmann, Seaford) as well as the manifestation of this collective in Attic tragedy (Murnaghan), perhaps the most useful essays in the book relate to the manner in which certain conceptions of the chorus arose and held (in some cases continue to hold) sway over modern imaginations. The essays by Goldhill and Güthenke discuss the pervasive influence of German Romantic thinking and scholarship, which obsessed over the tragic heroic individual, and how this myopia has ultimately affected the manner in which we conceptualize the chorus. Billings’ contribution, which analyzes pre-nineteenth-century French and German discussions of the chorus, explains how it came to be that German thinkers of the early nineteenth century began, for the first time, to emphasize the tragic chorus’ singularity. His insights help situate the context for figures such as Schlegel and Nietzsche, who, among their many hundreds of pages written on tragedy, devoted only a mere handful to the chorus. Other important essays deviate from the Germanic sphere of influence over modern thinking on the chorus: Rutherford, for example, traces trends in anthropology on the ritual and social nature of dancing, and how this affected the interpretation of the chorus and its dancing in twentieth-century classical scholarship. It is clear from these and other accounts that the Greek chorus has been embedded in crucial discourses of national and scholarly import, which in turn created the rigid boundaries under which we operate today. These essays, which sketch the myriad ways in which the chorus and their collective performance have been thought about in the past two hundred years, provide invaluable guidance to twenty-first-century readers seeking to understand the status quo on the tragic chorus.
Other essays address modern choruses in drama, opera, ballet, Broadway, and beyond. These interventions trace the rich and varied afterlife of the tragic chorus in multiple, and predominantly, European contexts from the late sixteenth century to the present day. In many of these accounts, the authors show the manner in which these modern counterparts operated, and in particular how they were often constructed in relation to their ancient tragic forebear. In all cases, the contributors illuminate the social and political impact of the ancient chorus in a dizzying array of contexts and situations. The volume ends with a contribution by Eastman describing a recent turn in chorality in British theater of the past twenty years, one that emphasizes physicality and movement, inspired by the teachings of Jacques Lecoq. In book 2 of Plato’s Laws, the Athenian famously concludes that...