Euripides and His Age/Chapter 9



And lastly there is the Chorus, at once the strangest and the most beautiful of all these ancient and remote conventions. If we can understand the Chorus we have got to the very heart of Greek tragedy.

The objections to the Chorus are plain to any infant. These dozen homogeneous persons, old men or young women, eternally present and almost never doing anything, intruded on action that often demands the utmost privacy: their absurdity, on any plane of realism, is manifest. We need waste no more words upon it. Verisimilitude is simply thrown to the winds. That is, no doubt, a great sacrifice, and fine artists do not as a rule incur a sacrifice without making sure of some compensating gain. Let us try to find out what that gain was, or at least what the great Greek artists were aiming at. And let us begin by forgetting the modern stage altogether and thinking ourselves back to the very origins of drama.

The word "chorus" means, "dance" or "dancing-ground." There were such dancing floors on Greek soil before ever the Greeks came there. They have been found in prehistoric Crete and in the islands. We hear in Homer of the "houses and dancing-grounds" of the Morning Star. The dance was as old as mankind; only it was a kind of dance that we have almost forgotten. The ancient dance was not, like our ballets, rooted in sexual emotion. It was religious: it was a form of prayer. It consisted in the use of the whole body, every limb and every muscle, to express somehow that overflow of emotion for which a man has no words. And primitive man had less command of words than we have. When the men were away on the war-path, the women prayed for them with all their bodies. They danced for the men's safe return. When the tribe's land was parching for lack of rain the tribesmen danced for the rain to come. The dance did not necessarily imply movement. It might consist in simply maintaining the same rigid attitude, as when Moses held out his arms during the battle with the Amalekites or Ahure in the Egyptian story waited kneeling and fasting for Nefrekepta's return.

Now if we consider what kind of emotion will specially call for this form of expression it is easy to see that it will be the sort that tends quickly to get beyond words: religious emotions of all kinds, helpless desire, ineffectual regret and all feelings about the past. When we think of the kind of ritual from which tragedy emerged, the lament for a dead god, we can see how well a dance was fitted, in primitive times, to express the emotions that we call tragic.

This dance gradually grew into drama; how it did so is an old story. Into the inarticulate mass of emotion and dumb show which is the Dance there comes some more articulate element. There comes some one who relates, or definitely enacts, the actual death or "pathos" of the hero, while the Chorus goes on as before expressing emotion about it. This emotion, it is easy to see, may be quite different from that felt by the Hero. There is implied in the contemplation of any great deed this ultimate emotion, which is not as a rule felt by the actual doers of it, and is not, at its highest power, to be expressed by the ordinary language of dialogue. The dramatist may make his characters express all that they can properly feel; he may put into articulate dialogue all that it will bear. But there still remains some residue which no one on the stage can personally feel and which can only express itself as music or yearning of the body. This residue finds its one instrument in the Chorus.

Imagine the death of some modern hero, of Lincoln or of Nelson, treated in the Greek form. We should have first a Messenger bringing news of the battle of Trafalgar or the pistol-shot in the Washington Theatre. The hero would be borne in dying; his friends would weep over him; we should hear his last words. But there would always remain some essential emotion or reflection—sadness, triumph, pathos, thoughts of the future from which this man will be lacking or of the meaning of this death in human history: neither Lincoln nor Nelson can express this, nor without falsity any of their human companions. In a novel the author can express it; in a modern play or a severely realistic novel it is generally not expressed except by a significant silence or some symbol. For realistic work demands extreme quickness in its audience, and can only make its effect on imaginations already trained by romance and idealism. On the Greek stage the Chorus will be there just for this purpose, to express in music and movement this ultimate emotion and, as Mr. Haigh puts it, to "shed a lyrical splendour over the whole." It will translate the particular act into something universal. It will make a change in all that it touches, increasing the elements of beauty and significance and leaving out or reducing the element of crude pain. This is nothing extraordinary: it is the normal business of poetry, at least of great tragic poetry. An actual bereavement is an experience consisting of almost nothing but crude pain; when it is translated into religion or poetry, into "Rachel weeping for her children," or into "Break, break, break," it has somehow become a thing of beauty and even of comfort.

The important thing to observe is what Mr. F. M. Cornford has explained in his Thucydides Mythistoricus (pp. 144 ff.), that a Greek tragedy normally proceeds in two planes or two worlds. When the actors are on the stage we are following the deeds and fates of so many particular individuals, lovers, plotters, enemies, or whatever they are, at a particular point of time and space. When the stage is empty and the Choral Odes begin, we have no longer the particular acts and places and persons but something universal and eternal. The body, as it were, is gone and the essence remains. We have the greatness of love, the vanity of revenge, the law of eternal retribution, or perhaps the eternal doubt whether in any sense the world is governed by righteousness.

Thus the talk about improbability with which we started falls into its proper insignificance. The Chorus in Euripides is frequently blamed by modern scholars on the ground that "it does not further the action," that its presence is "improbable," or its odes "irrelevant." The answer is that none of these things constitute the business of the Chorus; its business is something considerably higher and more important.

Of action and relevancy we will speak later. They are both closely connected with the question of verisimilitude. And as for verisimilitude, we simply do not think of it. We are not imitating the outside of life. We are expressing its soul, not depicting its body. And if we did attempt verisimilitude we should find that in a Chorus it is simply unattainable. In Nelson's case a Chorus of Sailors would be every bit as improbable as a Chorus of Mermaids or Angels, and on the whole rather more strikingly so. If we try to think of the most effective Choruses in modern tragedies, I do not think we shall hit on any bands of Strolling Players or Flower Girls or Church Choirs or other Choruses that aim at "naturalness"; we shall probably go straight to the Choruses of Spirits in Prometheus Unbound or those of The Ages and The Pities in Mr. Hardy's Dynasts. The Chorus belongs not to the plane of ordinary experience, where people are real and act and make apposite remarks, but to that higher world where in Mr. Cornford's words "metaphor, as we call it, is the very stuff of life."

With very few exceptions, Greek Choruses are composed of beings who are naturally the denizens or near neighbours of such a world. Sometimes they are frankly supernatural, as in the Eumenides, or half supernatural, as in the Bacchae; sometimes they are human beings seen through the mist of a great emotion, like the weeping Rachels of the Suppliant Women; the captives of the Trojan Women or the Iphigenîa; the old men who dream dreams in the Heracles. Even if they start as common men or women, sooner or later they become transformed.

The problem of the Chorus to Euripides was not how to make it as little objectionable as possible; it was how to get the greatest and highest value out of it. And that resolves itself largely into the problem of handling these two planes of action, using now the lower and now the upper, now keeping them separate, now mingling them, and at times letting one forcibly invade the other. I cannot here go into details of the various effects obtained from the Chorus by Euripides; but I will take a few typical ones, selecting in each case scenes that have been loudly condemned by critics.

The first and most normal effect is to use the Chorus for "relief"; to bring in, as it were, the ideal world to heal the wounds of the real. It is not, of course, "comic relief," as indulged in so freely by the Elizabethans. It is a transition from horror or pain to mere beauty or music, with hardly any change of tension. I mean, that if the pain has brought tears to your eyes, the beauty will be such as to keep them there, while of course changing their character. It is this use of lyrics that enables the Greek playwright to treat freely scenes of horror and yet never lose the prevailing atmosphere of high beauty. Look at the Salamis Chorus in the Trojan Women immediately following the child's death; the lyrics between Oedipus and the Chorus when he has just entered with his bleeding eyes; or, in particular, the song sung by the Chorus in Hippolytus just after Phaedra has rushed off to kill herself. We have had a scene of high tension and almost intolerable pain, and the Chorus, left alone, make certainly no relevant remarks. I can think of no relevant remark that would not be an absurd bathos. They simply break out (732 ff.):

Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
In the hill-tops, where the sun scarce hath trod,
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding,
As a bird among the bird-droves of God. . . .

It is just the emotion that was in our own hearts; the cry for escape to some place, however sad, that is still beautiful: to the poplar grove by the Adriatic where his sisters weep for Phaethon; or, at last, as the song continues and grows bolder, to some place that has happiness as well as beauty; to that "strand of the Daughters of the Sunset,"

Where a sound of living waters never ceaseth
In God's quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient Life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree.

And the wish for escape brings an actual escape, on some wind of beauty, as it were, from the Chorus's own world. This is, on the whole, the most normal use of the Choric odes, though occasionally they may also be used for helping on the action. For instance, in the ode immediately following that just quoted the Chorus gives a sort of prophetic or clairvoyant description of Phaedra's suicide.

But the Greek Chorus does not only sing its great odes on an empty stage; it also carries on, by the mouth of its Leader, a certain amount of ordinary dialogue with the actors. Its work here is generally kept unobtrusive, neutral and low-toned. When a traveller wants to ask his way; when the hero or heroine announces some resolve, or gives some direction, the Leader is there to make the necessary response. But only within certain carefully guarded limits. The Leader must never become a definite full-blooded character with strongly personal views. He must never take really effective or violent action. He never, I think, gives information which we do not already possess or expresses views which could seem paradoxical or original. He is an echo, a sort of music in the air. This comes out clearly in another fine scene of the Hippolytus, where Phaedra is listening at the door and the Leader of the Chorus listens with her, echoing and making more vibrant Phaedra's own emotion (565-600).

At times, in these dialogue scenes, an effect is obtained by allowing the Chorus to turn for a moment into ordinary flesh and blood. In the Iphigenîa in Tauris (1055 ff.) the safe escape of Iphigenîa and Orestes depends on the secrecy of the Chorus of Greek captives. Iphigenîa implores them to be silent, and, after a moment of hesitation, because of the danger, they consent. Iphigenîa, with one word of radiant gratitude, forgets all about them and leaves the stage to arrange things with her brother. And the captives left alone watch a sea-bird winging its way towards Argos, whither Iphigenîa is now going and they shall never go, and break into a beautiful home-sick song. Similarly in the splendid finale of Aeschylus' Prometheus the Daughters of Ocean, who have been mostly on the unearthly plane throughout the play, are suddenly warned to stand aside and leave Prometheus before his doom falls: in a rush of human passion they refuse to desert him and are hurled with him into Hell.

At other times the effect is reached by emphasizing just the other side, the unearthliness of the Chorus. In the Heracles, for instance, when the tyrant Lycus is about to make some suppliants leave the protection of an altar by burning them—a kind of atrocity which just avoided the technical religious offence of violating sanctuary—the Chorus of old men tries for a moment to raise its hand against the tyrant's soldiers. It is like the figures of a dream trying to fight—"words and a hidden-featured thing seen in a dream of the night," as the poet himself says, trying to battle against flesh and blood; a helpless visionary transient struggle which is beautiful for a moment but would be grotesque if it lasted. Again, in the lost Antiope there is a scene where the tyrant is inveigled into a hut by murderers; he manages to dash out and appeals to the Chorus of old men for help. But they are not really old men; they are only ancient echoes or voices of Justice, who speak his doom upon him, standing moveless while the slayers come.

These examples enable us to understand a still stronger effect of the same kind which occurs in the Medea and has, until very lately, been utterly condemned and misunderstood. It is an effect rather reminding one of the Greek fable of a human wrong so terrible that it shook the very Sun out of his course. It is like the human cry in the Electra (p. 157), which shook the eternal peace of the gods in heaven. There is something delirious about it, an impossible invasion of the higher world by the lower, a shattering of unapproachable bars.

Medea has gone to murder her children inside the house. The Chorus is left chanting its own, and our, anguish outside. "Why do they not rush in and save the children?" asked the critics. In the first place, because that is not the kind of action that a Chorus can ever perform. That needs flesh and blood. "Well," the critic continues, "if they cannot act effectively, why does Euripides put them in a position in which we instinctively clamour for effective action and they are absurd if they do not act?" The answer to that is given in the play itself. They do not rush in; there is no question of their rushing in: because the door is barred. When Jason in the next scene tries to enter the house he has to use soldiers with crowbars. The only action they can possibly perform is the sort that specially belongs to the Chorus, the action of baffled desire.

Medea is in the house; the Chorus is chanting its sublimated impersonal emotion about the Love that has turned to Hate in Medea, and its dread of things to come (1267 ff.):

For fierce are the smitings back of blood once shed
Where Love hath been: God's wrath upon them that kill,
And an anguished Earth, and the wonder of the dead
Haunting as music still. . . .

when a sudden cry is heard within. The song breaks short, and one woman speaks:

Hark! Did ye hear? Heard ye the children's cry?
O miserable woman! O abhorred!
Voice of a Child within.
What shall I do? What is it? Keep me fast
From Mother!
The Other Child.
I know nothing. Brother! Oh,
I think she means to kill us.
One of the Chorus.
Let me go!
I will!—Help, help! And save them at the last!
Yes, in God's name. Help quickly or we die!
The Other Child.
She has almost caught me now: she has a sword.

One sees the Women of the Chorus listening for the Children's words; then they break, as it were, from the spell of their own super-mortal atmosphere, and fling themselves on the barred door. They beat in vain against the bars and the Children's voices cry for help from the other side.

But the inrush of violent horror is only tolerated for a moment. Even in the next words we are moving back to the realm of formal poetry:

Women Beating at the Door.
Thou stone, thou thing of iron! Wilt verily
Spill with thine hand that life, the vintage stored
Of thine own agony?
A woman slew her babes in days of yore,
One, only one, from dawn to eventide. . . .

and in a moment we are away in a beautiful remote song about far-off children who have been slain in legend. That death-cry is no longer a shriek heard in the next room. It is the echo of many cries of children from the beginning of the world, children who are now at peace and whose ancient pain has become part mystery and part music. Memory—that Memory who was mother of the Muses—has done her work upon it.

We see here the justification of the high formalism and convention of Greek tragedy. It can touch without flinching any horror of tragic life, without failing in sincerity and without marring its normal atmosphere of beauty. It brings things under the great magic of something which is hard to name, but which I have tried in these pages to indicate; something that we can think of as eternity or the universal or perhaps even as Memory. For Memory, used in this way, has a magical power. As Mr. Bertrand Russell has finely put it in one of his Essays, "The Past does not change or strive. Like Duncan in Macbeth 'After life's fitful fever it sleeps well.' What was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away. The things that were beautiful and eternal shine out like stars in the night."

This power of transfiguration belongs in varying degrees to all poetry, but it belongs in special force to Greek Tragedy; and Greek Tragedy attains it in part by all its high religious traditions and severities of form, but most fully by means of its strangest convention, the Chorus; the band of half-embodied emotions and memories, the lyric song and the dance expressing things beyond speech. It is through this power that tragedy attains its peculiar quality of encouragement and triumph. We must not forget that Aristotle, a judge whose dicta should seldom be dismissed without careful reflection, distinguishes tragedy from other forms of drama not as the form that represents human misery but as that which represents human goodness or nobleness. If his MSS. are to be trusted he even goes so far as to say that tragedy is "the representation of Eudaimonia," or the higher kind of happiness. Of course he fully recognizes the place of death and disaster in it, and he prefers the so-called "unhappy ending." The powers of evil and horror must be granted their full scope; it is only thus that we can triumph over them. Only when they have worked their uttermost will do we realize that there remains something in man's soul which is forever beyond their grasp and has power in its own right to make life beautiful. That is the great revelation, or the great illusion, of tragedy.

It is achieved, apparently, by a combination of two extremes; in matter a full facing of tragic facts, and in form a resolute transfiguration of them by poetry. The weak artist shirks the truth by a feeble idealism; the prosaic artist fails to transfigure it. Euripides seems to me to have gone further than any other writer in the attempt to combine in one unity these separate poles. In this lies, for good or evil, his unique quality as a poet. To many readers it seems that his powers failed him; his mixture of real life and supernatural atmosphere, of wakeful thought and dreaming legend, remains a discord, a mere jar of overwrought conventions and violent realism. To others it is because of this very quality that he has earned the tremendous rank accorded him by Goethe, and in a more limited sense by Aristotle, and still stands out, as he stood over two thousand years ago, "even if faulty in various ways, at any rate clearly the most tragic of the poets."