Monday, May 16, 2011


2. 1.    Collective encounters with the unknown

The notion I have about the ‘liminal’ in Greek Culture is proving to be quite challenging to flesh out. So, before I try to articulate that in an intelligible manner—next installment—I’d like to preface it with a few remarks, and a basic outline of what I’ve referred to as ‘structural dimensions’ to the artistic use of the chorus in Greek Tragedy.

Although I’ve framed this analysis of the chorus in terms of structural dimensions, which is amply accommodated thanks to the dynamism the presence of the chorus affords to the artist, the perilous undertaking of proposing a theory of art, particularly an ancient art, compels me to make a disclamatory statement of sorts.

In attempting to postulate the basics of a theory of artistic mechanisms of an art form, the pitfall of discounting the agency of the individual beholding the artwork is ever present. In the case of Greek Tragedy, which has resonance more in a social as opposed to aesthetic sphere, and can even be participatory as opposed to simply a passive reception, I am reasonably confident that my efforts to avoid pigeonholing the agency of the subject are on track and will suffice. The crux of such efforts inheres in that fact that I will endeavor to sketch the theory on the basis of relationships that I perceive between the intentions of the artist against a background of specific yet multidimensional social context. Of course, such contextual aspects are open to interpretation, on plural horizons; at the same time, that it part and parcel to the collective undertaking of the festivals.

On that note, I should take a step back to reiterate a point that precedes any discussion of artistic intent. And that again relates to the feature regarding the staging of the dramaturgical reenactments at the festivals in the form of a competition. In short, the organizers of the festivals—the cult of Dionysus—introduced a dimension of the unknown into the festival by causing the competing playwrights, actors and chorus members to not disclose details relating to their performance in advance. I would imagine that it is in part owing to the dynamic effect of sparking the imagination of the members of the audience by introducing such a dimension of the unknown that enabled the festivals to thrive, and gave rise to an art form seminal to the cultural heritage of Western Civilization.

What I hope to accomplish with this discussion is to reintroduce aspects of the genius of Greek Tragedy which appear in a somewhat cogent manner to me, yet seem to be overlooked in the admittedly small number of modern studies I’ve accessed thus far. I feel that the notion of the liminal can serve as a vehicle for expounding a theoretical grounding of such aspects. This was not the original purpose of undertaking this study, but has taken on a significance on which I will have to focus more attention at some point in the future. So please excuse the inadequacy of this cursory presentation.

As this section represents the most theoretical—as well as the most difficult—part of my look at the culture of Ancient Greece thus far, I will follow it with an examination of Aeschylus’ “The Persians”, which I find to address themes that relate to the central questions of “modernity” I have been contemplating for quite some time now.

In fact, due to my limited knowledge of Greek Tragedy, I’ve also been concerned that I might be putting too much emphasis on what I’ve found in my recent reading of the Persians, extrapolating those observations to a general theory of Greek Tragedy. So, I’ve tried to limit the scope of the following discussion and keep it concise, with the intention of revisiting it after I’ve had the chance to reread Sophocles, for example, read Euripides for the first time, etc, and survey a wider selection modern scholarly works on those texts.

The Chorus
The first dimension with regard to the presence of the chorus is physical, and relates to the location of the area where the chorus performed, with respect to both the actors on the stage and the audience. The reenactment of the tragedies took place in amphitheaters, which were generally built into hillsides.

The chorus was situated in an area interposed between the stage and the audience, called the orchestra. The physical place occupied by the chorus within the amphitheater facilitated the ready juxtaposition, via the members of the chorus, of diverse groups with the figures acting out the main narrative on the stage. For example, the chorus could represent groups of people involved in the story but too large to be accommodated on a stage, or people peripherally affected by the action of the narrative.

Situating the chorus in a space between the audience and the stage enabled it to be used to good effect as an intermediary, in diverse capacities, offering the audience various types of perspective with respect to the story, in a manner limited only by the imagination of the playwright.

The second dimension is temporal, and twofold: on the one hand, the chorus moved around in the orchestra, dancing or marching, in a cyclical manner; and on the other hand, they sang or chanted their parts. Each of these features of the actions of the chorus offer modalities with which a contrast can be brought into relief with respect to the acting out of the historical or mythological narrative being carried out on the stage.

The main narrative of a tale will generally segue from one event to another, with the action following a recognizable, basically linear trajectory from a starting point to a concluding point. The chorus, on the other hand, circling around in the orchestra may appear to be simply repeating a series of acts without progressing from a starting point to a concluding point.

The use of singing or chanting, as opposed to spoken (or intoned) dialogs or monologs, might also serve as a medium for highlighting a contrast related to a propensity to use reason, or a propensity to rely on emotion, for example.

In this case, too, the contrast could be between a linear progression and cyclical phenomena, recursive patterns, etc. And again, the artistic use of such contrasts would be limited only by the artist’s imagination.

The third dimension is social, and relates to the fact that the members of the chorus would, on occasion, interact with the actors on stage, and/or members of the audience. Such an interaction might serve to open up a new horizon for understanding or further exploring the events being reenacted.

It should be noted that the playwright himself was usually acting on stage or in the chorus during the festivals, so there can be little doubt of his being fully capable of responding in a dynamic manner to any such interjection regarding the content he intended to present in the course of the reenactment. 

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