PROFESSOR (British, Female): To us, a choir is a group of people singing together at a church, or a school, or…or at some kind of formal musical performance. If we go to a choir performance, we are there solely to appreciate the group’s vocal talents. But interestingly, the Greek roots of the word point to an all-together different concept.
The origins of the choir go back to antiquity with the Ancient Greek koros. Uh, chorus is the modern English spelling. The earliest known chorus dates back to the 2nd century BC Delphic hymns. Somewhat similar to contemporary choirs, a chorus was a group of performers whose talent was singing. But their function was very different than what we see today. The Greek chorus was part of Ancient Greek theatre, and the chorus’s job was to comment on the play being performed. So, the chorus would comment on the action, but, um, but also on what the characters were feeling or thinking. This was done by giving the audience background information and summaries during the performance. You know, giving them insight into why a character would be making certain decisions or acting in a certain way.
Another sort of distinctive characteristic of the Greek chorus was how much unity was emphasised. The chorus was supposed to be a homogeneous, unified organism with no one person standing out, even though there would be between, oh, 12 and 50 chorus members. Uh, to prevent individualisation of the chorus members, each of them wore identical masks. They also spoke in unison. This helped the audience to identify the chorus as a distinguishable actor in the play.
But why was all of this necessary? Why couldn’t the actual actors convey all of this information? Well, you have to know a bit about Ancient Greek theatre to understand the necessity of the chorus. Um, back then, there would only be two or three actors in a play, each would play several different roles by changing masks. As you can guess, this could get confusing for the audience. So the chorus could help distinguish the characters by singing about them while they were on stage. And dancing…they did liven up the performances with dancing as well. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention…before the 5th century BC, there was only one actor per performance and then the chorus. So the chorus had a more central role prior to the introduction of several actors by the Greek writer Aeschylus in about 500 BC.
Right. Back to the, uh, question of why the chorus had to fill in so many blanks… Aside from the small number of actors, there was also the fact that the actors all wore masks. When someone is wearing a mask, you can’t see their facial expressions, which is how we know what someone is feeling. That’s why the insights provided by the chorus were so important for the audience to emotionally connect with the play.
But sometime after 5th century BC, there was a shift in Ancient Greek theatre. The chorus was more often being separated from the dramatic action, and the actors started to take on more prominent roles. Still, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of the Ancient Greek chorus even as late as the 2nd century AD, suggesting that the traditional chorus’s place in Greek theatre remained intact.