The chorus was the central feature of Greek drama. Composed of similarly costumed men, they performed on the dancing floor ("orchestra"), located beneath the stage.
The chorus stayed in the orchestra for the duration of the performance from which vantage point they observed and commented on the action of the actors. Dialogue consisted of long, formal speeches in verse. Choral training was the responsibility of a chorus leader [technical term to learn: choregus], selected by an archon, one of the top officials in Athens.
This responsibility to train the chorus was like a tax on the wealthy citizens. The choregus provided all the equipment, costumes, props, and trainers for the roughly, dozen chorus members (choreutai). This preparation might last for 6 months. At the end, if the choregus was lucky, he would then have to fund a celebratory feast for winning the prize.
To modern readers of Greek tragedy, the chorus may seem an interlude between the main action -- a section to gloss over. The ancient actor (hypokrites, literally the one who answers the chorus' questions), likewise, might ignore the advice of the chorus. Yet the chorus was crucial to winning the competition for best set of tragedies. Aristotle says the chorus should be regarded as one of the actors. The chorus had a personality and could be important in the action, depending on the play, according to Rabinowutz in Greek Tragedy, but even so, they couldn't prevent the 1,2, or 3 actors from doing what they would. Being a member of a chorus was also part of the Greek civic education process.
The chorus enters the orchestra during the parados, from the two ramps known as paradoi on either side of the orchestra. Once there the leader, coryphaeus, speaks the choral dialogue. Scenes of dialogue [technical term to learn: episode] alternate with choral song, which is called stasimon. In this way the stasimon is like the darkening of the theater or curtains down between acts. The final scene [technical term to learn: exodus] of Greek tragedy is one of dialogue.
For more on the Chorus, see "The Dramatic Role of the Chorus in Sophocles," by G. M. Kirkwood. Phoenix, Vol. 8, No. 1. (Spring, 1954), pp. 1-22.
Greek Theater Study Guide
- Overview of Greek Theater
- The Physical Theater
- Important Facts About Greek Theater and Greek Drama
- Select Greek Theater Bibliography
- Greek Chorus
- Tragedy - Setting the Stage