THE CHORUS

This article was originally published in Attic and Elizabethan Tragedy. Lauchlan Maclean Watt. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1908. pp. 13-17.

THE poet is always the voice of his age. He gives in song what his age has given him in sorrow or gladness. And yet, while he is the voice of his age, he has tones which the age does not give him--which, indeed, the age does not sometimes recognize. His message, besides, is not a phonographic reproduction of the age's voice and clamour, but is an expression of interpretations, with now warning and anon encouragement, which the age very frequently finds quite beyond its grasp. The ordinary mind saw only, beyond doubt, broken ships and pride dishonoured in Salamis and the Armada; but the soul of the poet heard whispers of doom and judgment, and saw gaunt shadows on the tide, so that the voice and message of his age, for him, meant history, and the meaning of history, the eternal thing in passing events, the philosophy of gods among men.

The mind of the Greek was not shadow-haunted, any more than the mind of the Elizabethan Englishman; yet the circumstances and the outlook of their times gave to them both a pensive tendency. The laughter of the fields and woods, the song of streams, and the charm of shepherd life in Arcadia, were all very well; but, to face a struggle for existence against powerful foes, to wade knee-deep, and often heart-deep, through State complications and home-rule jealousies, made you frequently look over your shoulder as you pushed ahead. It begets a pensive habit. It teaches your heart to remember, to anticipate, and to desire. The essence of the tragic in human life lies as we have seen, in the struggle of Freedom against Fate--Freewill against unbending Destiny. Yet all tragedies are not wrapt in inpenetrable gloom, though shadows brood above them.

Undoubtedly, of course, a greater tragic melancholy lay above the heathen outlook than above the later Christian. Wherever you moved, over the laughing water or on the sunny land, at home or in the fields of fight, that shadow, which gave back no answer, moved beside you, and the rest was silence. The surly ferryman, with veiled face, received you with no greeting, and the shore ahead was horrid with wailing shades. Hence the poet, who, in this background, set the conflicts of heroes, gods, and men, was sure of a sympathetic multitude reading his interpretation into their own. Here was something intensely human, yet superhuman. Here was a meaning given to what was beyond all meaning, a light cast over what must for ever remain dark beyond all penetration. Thus, the poet of Tragedy produces an ecstasy. He draws men out of themselves--lifts their souls up to the applauding lip and the tearful eye, which are his certificates of success. So, vindicating the loftiness of his calling as a prophetic criticism and interpretation of life, the utterance of his creation must move along in loftier majestic cadence than the huckster's cry or the utterance of the streets; and the lyrical comment of some ideal spectator may well intervene to give spaces when the pent-up feeling of actor and of audience must have relief and rest. This was the function of the Chorus--one of the must remarkable adjuncts of any literary creation.

Its origin is absolutely lost in mystery, and can only be guessed at. It's dithyrambic rapture and rhapsody, with the mystic dance weaving its captivating dreamy mazes around the Thymele, were a survival of religious symbolisms. Its sacred origin preserved for it its place until the end--was, in very truth, the real secret of its continued existence and popularity. The dialect of the Chorus which persisted was Doric--but a conventional Doric, and not the living patois; just as the Coptic prayers are embalmed in a tongue the very meaning of which is sealed even for the priests who read the liturgy.

The Chorus rejoiced in the triumph of good; it wailed aloud its grief, and sympathised with the woe of the puppets of the gods. It entered deeply into the interest of their fortunes and misfortunes, yet it stood apart, outside of triumph and failure. Only very seldom does it, as in the "Eumenides," come forward with individual remarkable effect. No gladness dragged it into the actual action on the stage, and no catastrophe overwhelmed it, except in storm of sympathetic pain. It was the ideal spectator, the soul being purged, as Aristotle expressed it, by Pity and Fear, flinging its song and its cry among the passions and the pain of others. It was the "Vox Humana" amid the storm and thunder of the gods.

In the Elizabethan Drama the feelings of the crowd are represented by nameless individuals, such as "First Gentleman," or "First Lord," and so forth, expressing emotions and opinions similar to those of which the Chorus of the Greeks was the mouthpiece.

The Chorus showed its origin, partly, also, by dressing like the chief actor. When that was a woman, the Chorus were dressed as women, except in the "Antigone," where splendid isolation sets the trials of the Protagonist against the background of stupendous grief.

The Chorus has been censured as an absurdity, inasmuch as, representing a crowd, it shows a secret transaction of the soul being carried on before the public--an objection which, of course, might be applied to the condemnation of the whole Tragic Drama, whereby the inmost agonies of contending souls are laid bare to crowded benches. The Tragic Chorus represented with wonderful truth the Greek inquisitive crowd, and was essentially Athenian in conduct and in spirit. Indeed, it was more--it was intensely human!

I question if the assertion that the chief motive of ancient Tragedy was the warning spectacle of retribution following upon some exaggeration of self is even a half truth. We humanly love to see into the lives of others, and, in a tragedy, we are not like indifferent spectators lounging on a balcony. We enter into the sorrows and the pathos all through the action; and the Drama would be more than half a failure if it only sent the onlooker away with the verdict, "Serve him right!"

The Greek Tragedy was the child direct of the Greek Epic. It made the story stand out in a sort of bas-relief. It lifted the curtain of the gods, showed the hidden cords which moved events, revealed the progress of the invisible, and always with a bias on the side of good. Hence, exhibiting on the stage the nobility of heroic endurance and courage, or the awful accumulations of difficulties and despairs which dog the trail of sin, the Tragic Drama became a school of conduct for all the State and for all classes. In Athens, under the shelter of religion, it was untrammelled and unrestrained, and it created a public morality so pure and lofty that its own morality was braced by the very atmosphere itself had made. The Greek Tragic stage was the secondary school of applied ethics, the platform of history's vindication.

Plato, though his soul moved in an atmosphere of highest poetry, felt somewhat afraid of this soul-shaking art; and, very remarkably, proposed to exclude dramatic poets from his ideal Republic, on the ground that they tended to develop sentiment at the cost of the practical side of the soul. But this is, indeed, a narrow view. The Drama is the most practical of all the poetic utterance. It is the creation of the practical Reason, and it issues in a practical life; for the sympathy with the passions, trials, conflicts, and wrongs represented on the stage, awakens mutual sympathy in an audience, and kindles humanity in the heart. Aristotle, who, in his philosophy, set before him as his quest the understanding of human nature rather than the transformation of human life, in replying to Plato's charge, defines Tragedy as "an imitation of a serious and complete action, which has magnitude . . . and it uses the agency of pity and fear to effect a purging of these, and the like emotions." The soul is purified by the power of pathos, and is ennobled in the purifying. It learns to pity others; and, taking self-pity, it diverts it outwards to the pangs of the world around, which is also under trial by the gods. At the same time, the vision of things makes us go warily, remembering our humanity. This "katharsis" steadies the circulation of the passionate constitution, gives us patience with our own lot, and sympathy with the lot of others, helping us at the same time to see life clearly, and to understand it as a whole.

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