Oedipus Rex and the Greek Chorus
Do you ever think of yourself as a character in a story or a play? If you did, you would be the protagonist in your own life, but who would you be in the lives of others? You might be an important supporting character in the lives of your closest friends or family members. What about your acquaintances? Your Facebook friends? Your Instagram or TikTok followers or the accounts that you follow? What are you doing when you engage with these friends online, reading their stories and commenting on their posts or videos? You are understanding their story from your own perspective and responding: encouraging, arguing, and/or elaborating. If you read all of the comments on a single post together, you will find a collection of these types of interactions. You might think of this group of voices responding to a story as a modern phenomenon if you mostly encounter it in an online setting, but, if you take away the technology, you will find that it is very similar to an ancient dramatic device: the Greek chorus!
A Greek chorus is a group of voices that, together, comment on a story. These voices are usually right on the edge of the divide between observer and participant. Just like when you comment on the social media pages of an acquaintance, the voices in an Ancient Greek chorus are familiar with the story and maybe even play a small role in it, but they are also removed enough from it that they can reflect on it and have their own opinions about it. Think of the Oompah Loompahs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example! These little green-haired people are an integral part of the story: they help make the chocolate that is such a big part of the story! However, they are also separate from the story – they aren’t being introduced to the wonders of the chocolate factory by Willie Wonka along with Charlie and the other prizewinners. This allows them to comment on what is happening from a unique perspective. In fact, they seem to be judging the actions of the other characters!
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Or maybe you’ve seen or heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. There is a large chorus in that play that changes identities as the story changes: they are soldiers during the scenes at war, for example, and they are members of New York society during the party scenes with the Schuyler sisters. However, they can also step back from the story and offer a broader commentary, echoing important questions that the characters in Hamilton ask themselves, like “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?" You can see the chorus shape-shifting in this medley from Hamilton that the cast performed at the Tony Awards in 2016.
Turning to Stravinsky and Cocteau’s Oedipus Rex, we see that it only has a small cast of characters: Oedipus himself, his wife Jocasta (spoiler alert: she is also his mother!), Jocasta’s brother Creon, Tiresias (a prophet of Apollo), a Shepherd, and a Messenger (the Shepherd and the Messenger both know who Oedipus really is). There is also a Narrator, someone who is outside the story, looking in, and explaining to us, the audience, what is happening to the characters. Stravinsky and Cocteau could have stopped there. All of the necessary characters were given roles onstage, and the Narrator helped to explain the story. However, they also chose to include another character, or rather a group of characters. This group is the chorus. In fact, Stravinsky recalled that the chorus was not an afterthought at all, but an important and central element of Oedipus Rex. He writes, “I saw the chorus first, seated in a single row across the stage and reaching from end to end of the proscenium rainbow.” (This is more often called the “proscenium arch” and is the curved part of the stage closest to the audience.) He goes on to say, “My first and strongest conviction was that the chorus should not have a face.” What does it mean for the chorus to be spread out between the characters on stage and the audience, and what does it mean for them to be faceless? To answer these questions, we need to figure out what the chorus’s purpose is in Oedipus Rex. A good starting place is the history of the “Greek chorus,” the chorus in Ancient Greek theater.
Theater was very important in Ancient Greece life and society. And a chorus was an important element in most, if not all, pieces of ancient Greek theater. Aristotle, who wrote a whole book called Poetics about how plays could most effectively move audience members, advised people writing plays to “handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance….” In other words, the chorus should not just be there to entertain or amuse or distract the audience. Instead, the chorus should contribute to the plot and enhance the drama.
Choruses in Ancient Greek theater are made up of a certain kind of people, depending on the play. For example, in Euripedes’ tragedy Medea, the chorus is made up of the women of Corinth (the city where the story takes place). In Aristophenes’ comedy The Frogs, the chorus alternately plays people who live in Hades (the underworld, or the Ancient Greek version of Hell), initiates of Bacchus, and frogs! In Oedipus Rex, the Ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles which is the source material for Stravinsky and Cocteau’s musical adaptation also called Oedipus Rex, the chorus is of the older men (elders) of the city of Thebes. In all of these cases, the chorus represents a certain community that is relevant to the drama. In Oedipus Rex, the old and wise men who have long memories of what has happened in the city, and who hold positions of power within the community, are interesting people for us to watch. These elders can show us what is normal in Thebes and what is surprising, and they can therefore show us how we should be reacting to the story.
We first meet the chorus as they are crying out for help. There is a plague in the city, and the elders of Thebes call on Oedipus, their king, to save them. The chorus begins homophonically, meaning that everyone in the chorus sings the same words at the same time, creating the illusion of a single voice even when many people are singing together. This shows us that the community of the elders of Thebes are all in agreement—everyone is suffering, and they think that only Oedipus can save them. They try different musical tactics, singing strong rhythms accompanied by loud brass to demand help, and singing sweetly with string accompaniment to beg for help. As the chorus continues, different sections of the group break off and sing separately, creating a polyphonic texture and ensuring that we (and Oedipus) understand that the chorus is made up of individuals. This emphasizes the personal suffering of each member of the group, in addition to the collective suffering of the entire population of Thebes.
The chorus continues to show us how to respond to the action by introducing us to other characters. The group of elders welcomes Tiresias, and then at the end of Act I, they even more emphatically welcome Jocasta.
Accompanied by triumphant trumpets and crashing cymbals, the chorus repeats the word “Gloria,” “Glory,” demonstrating the pride and joy the population feels in welcoming the Queen. We learn from this that Jocasta is well-loved by her people, and this makes us sympathize with her even before we see her or hear her sing.
Jocasta explains that oracles must lie since an oracle had predicted that her husband would be killed by her son, but her husband was actually killed by a thief at a crossroads. Here, the chorus repeats the word “trivium” or crossroads, over and over again.
In this case, they serve not only as the population of Thebes listening to their Queen, but as an audience, mulling over the significance of the crossroads. In fact, the crossroads are quite significant, since Oedipus had also killed someone at the crossroads: that someone turned out to be Laius, his father. This means that the oracle was correct! The fact that the chorus seems to know that the “trivium” or “crossroads” is important even though they, as citizens of Thebes, don’t have this information about Oedipus’s past, shows how easily the Greek chorus can switch between participants in the drama and commentators.
In fact, the chorus’s role in Oedipus Rex expands even further! By the end of the opera, the chorus’s role is to narrate, along with the Messenger, the action that ends the opera: Jocasta has hanged herself and Oedipus has blinded himself in the aftermath of the terrible news that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother, just as the oracle had predicted. The musical setting for this narration is full of dissonance (harmonies that might sound surprising or even unpleasant to our ears) and sounds frantic, with lots of fast notes being sung one after another and even faster notes being played in the orchestra. These elders of Thebes are telling the audience what has happened in a factual way, but we can feel their upset through the music. If we return to Aristotle’s Poetics, we find the advice for dramatists that “The plot should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, anyone who hears the events which occur shudders and feels pity at what happens.” This is what the chorus helps with at the end of Oedipus Rex. We don’t see Jocasta die or Oedipus find her and blind himself with her pin. We hear it. The chorus helps us “shudder and feel pity,” or in other words, it helps us emotionally process and react to these horrific events.
About Lily Kass, PhD
Lily Kass is an interdisciplinary scholar, educator, and artist. She teaches music history courses on topics such as “Powerful Women in Opera,” “Mozart Operas,” and “Exoticism on the Musical Stage” across the Mid-Atlantic Region, at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She earned an A.B. in Literature from Harvard University in 2010, and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. Lily’s research focuses on how operas are reimagined, adapted, and translated to meet the needs of new audiences.
Lily shares Opera Philadelphia’s passion for making opera accessible and inclusive, and she has been a frequent collaborator with Opera Philadelphia’s Community Initiatives department since 2014. She has also lectured for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. In 2011, Lily served as a Lectures and Community Programs Fellow at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, promoting and developing lecture series and facilitating backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera House.
Lily is a trained coloratura soprano, and she co-founded the opera scenes program at the University of Pennsylvania, which she directed from 2014-2018. She is currently honored to serve as a Marian Anderson Scholar Artist with the National Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society.
Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb