Essay, Research Paper: Life In Dithyrambic Chorus


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Upon the setting sun I, Hecubus, fondly recall the days of pride and honor I
felt in my tribe, as a member of a dramatic, dithyrambic chorus. Acting was not
simply my occupation, but a lifestyle highly revered and respected by my fellow
Athenian citizens. We entertained, taught moral lessons of the past, illustrated
human flaw, but most importantly, we gave the audience a release. During the
time I preformed with my chorus, drama was closely tied to the polis, joining
the people, the government, and the Gods through public festivals. I felt
immense pride to have played and active role in the community bond that was
created. The most important of these festivals was, and remains, the City
Dionysia. The exhausting four-day competition was held every spring, in honor of
the god Dionysos (Amos and Lang 129). The festival opened with a formal and
elaborate processional, where I and my chorus of fifty men would perform
ceremonial dances at numerous alters, and ended with sacrifices of wine and
sweet meat at the sacred precinct of Dionysus. This was a most glorious event
surrounded in the beauty and rebirth of the land! A statue of Dionysos, guided
by the intense glow of torchlight, was then carried into the theatre and a
reenactment of Dionysos' initial entry into Athens was preformed. This statue
was a constant presence in the theatre. City Dionysia was highly attended and
drew visitors and men of political power from all of Greece. The crowd was not
afraid to get into the performances…many times they would cheer and boo, and
occasionally throw things at us. Three of the four days were reserved for
tragedies, and the fourth day was for satyr and comedies (Cameron and Gillespie
74). Between the great plays, the dithyrambic contests would be held, where the
choruses, including my dynamic troupe, would battle each other for the prize.
Wine was abundant, and the all day plays and hard stone benches seemed to effect
men's attitudes. Many times I found myself trying to sing passages over the
liveliness of the audience, but it was because of this festival that I became
commonly known in Athens. The origin of theatre dates back to religious choral
dances that were preformed in simple grain threshing circles. One member of the
chorus recited his verse or monologue with the other chorus members (Amos and
Lang 130). These primitive religious choruses resembled the organization of the
tragic chorus found in the festival. The tragic chorus served as a main part of
the tragedies, but were not central. Through lyrical chant they served to move
plot along, or recount the action in the performance. These thirteen men shared
the orchestra with the three actors. The tragic chorus's main form of expression
was dance and song, accompanied by a flute-player (Amos and Lang 130). The
dithyrambic choruses, which I was a member of, worked as a dramatic team and was
the only action on stage (
Unlike the organization of the tragic choruses, we were not limited by any genre
of theatre and could participate in the dark tragedies, as well as comedies if
needed. But primarily, always arranged in a circle, our impressive dance
entertained between contests at the festivals (Cameron and Gillespie 85). We
were fifty men strong and competed specifically for the dithyrambic chorus. Five
Greek tribes consisted of choruses of men; the other five were primarily made up
of boys. Not only did we have to be tribal members, but also citizens by birth.
During the time that we trained or preformed, all dithyrambic chorus members
were exempt from military service. A typical training session would last about
eleven months, consisting of vocal, strength, and gesture training (Cameron and
Gillespie 73). The vocal training was the most intense exercise, and would leave
my voice harsh, and rough. The intent was to articulate and pronounce everything
perfectly, be it in song or slow verse. Voice and diction were the most
important aspects to the choral odes, and our training consisted of many hours
in full costume to perfect the art. Many days I thought that the military
service would have been easier! Gestures were expected to be very rigid and
distinct, but most importantly they had to be large. During performance we were
required to be in top physical shape due to the stamina required to beat the
intense heat and dry air. For all performers, not just chorus members, costume
limited our tools of expression to voice and gesture. No women were allowed to
perform, so men had to play women's roles. All performers, except the flute
player, wore bulky masks that covered the entire head, carried hairstyles and
decorations, and allowed very little opening for sight lines and air. It was not
uncommon, yet still humiliating, to pass out from the heat (Cameron and Gillesie
86). In the Dithyrambic contests at the City Dionysia we would be provided with
magnificent costumes in honor of the God, complete with shining crowns,
elaborate masks and hairstyles, and lively embroidered robes (
This attire was a great change from my everyday simple tunic, and sandals. As
Athenian citizens, we are expected to contribute to the public good, and this is
where the support and funding for the City Dionysia came from. The supervisor of
all dramatic festivals and contests was the responsibility of the archon
eponymos, a high civic official (Cameron and Gillespie 73). It was his duty to
appoint the financial supporters, or the choregoi. These were wealthy citizens,
who served the polis with their money and not a specific trade. The financial
burden on these men was high, for they supplied the means for our training,
costumes, and or pay. As a member of the dithyrambic chorus, I charged between
thirty-five and fifty minae, dependant upon the festival. In contrast, a member
of a tragic chorus charged only twenty to thirty minae (Cameron and Gillespie
73). This is why my ancestry dates to the chorus! The role that the choregoi
served was very important and I felt a deep respect towards them, for without
their participation there would be no festivals or greatness of City Dionysos.
Tradition is very important, and as I am too old to perform with my chorus, I
intend to pass my knowledge and experience down to my young son. My father was a
great participant in the religious choral odes, and began my vocal training at a
very young age. It is so the gods look upon us; we must honor their
significance. I have grown upon knowing the importance of sacrifice, and have
seen the theatre develop throughout the years. My son, Parlius, also has learned
the importance of our interaction with the Gods. One day he will participate in
either my Dithyrambic robes, or become a great actor, performing the plays of
Sophocles and Aeschylus. He will grow up with the respect that his father had,
and learn the lessons of what it takes to be an esteemed Athenian citizen.BibliographyAmos, H.D., and A.G.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Pennsylvania: Dufour
Editions, Inc, 1979. Cameron, Kenneth, and Patti Gillespie. Western Theatre:
Revolution and Revival. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.
"Dionysian Meditations: The City Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei)"
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