Anton Bierl, Ritual and Performativity: The Chorus in Old Comedy
Foreword to the First Edition
Foreword to the English Edition
List of Abbreviations
Introduction. The Choral Dance and Song as Ritual Action: A New Perspective
Chapter 1. The Comic Chorus in the Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophanes
Chapter 2. Kômos and Comedy: The Phallic Song between Ritual and Theater
Chapter 3. Summary and Outlook
Summary and Outlook
To talk about ritual requires a great deal of understanding, reflection, and nuanced breadth in order to come even close to doing justice to the complexity of the phenomena involved. Despite the danger of falling prey to simplification after studying the details, I shall nevertheless attempt to summarize my conclusions in brief.
The Aristophanic comic chorus should in large part be understood in the context of ritual utterance and as the expression of a living choral culture that is characteristic of traditional societies based on myth and ritual. I have subjected Aristophanes to an extensive reevaluation. Regardless of all the undeniable contemporary trends pointing to the formation of an autonomous literature and art in the fifth century BCE, the theatrical chorus stands as an immediate ritual presence that also evokes past developments—in short, its own genesis. I have not concerned myself with the investigation of the ritual origins from which comedy might have arisen, but rather with demonstrating in what way these forms are still to be found in Aristophanes. The author’s dramatic art is not thereby diminished as literature, but is brought to the fore in all its fundamental Otherness. The criticism voiced in recent times of the apparent lack of literary quality in Aristophanic choral songs is also thereby resolved. The poet ultimately had no desire to create literature of a lofty nature for reading, but instead composed for the performance of a popular genre in accordance with the fixed forms of a song culture that was omnipresent. He integrated this choral tradition into a plot that for its part was based on ritual patterns.
The chorus, or kômos represents the ritual foundation of comedy, around which a comic plot that tends be episodic in nature is entwined. In accordance with the rules of the genre the unity of a so-called illusion is not intended. The chorus represents the element that connects to the real world of the here and now and that has the capacity to remove the distance between itself and the audience.
My investigations proceed from Gregory Nagy’s finding that the occasion of a performance originally determines the genre and is identical to it. The festivals of inversion involving dissolution and ridicule, which bring laughter together with the presentation of the lowly and ugly to the center, form the ritual occasion of Old Comedy. Tragedy is performed in the same context, but treats heroic myth, thereby making the supernatural and the tragic fall its theme. Tragedy, in terms of its choral utterances, therefore easily fits into the tradition of high choral lyric, which is characterized by its mythical narrative and didactic content.
Theater appears to have developed in the environment of carnivalesque celebrations out of a comic and grotesque stream that is shared by all its subforms. The tragic art represents a kind of sublimation of this substrate. When the connections to its Sitz im Leben threatened to disappear, tragedy was standardized as a serious and lofty genre. We assume that comedy and the satyr play are substantially closer to ritual forms. The comic genre was integrated into the agôn only at a much later stage, to reestablish, as it were, the connection with the Dionysiac festival. Popular traditions and customary forms of choral song were preserved for a longer time here. Furthermore, Old Comedy, like the ritual occasion that gives it its context, is based on the conscious regression to the state of man before the advent of civilization—a state from which he is believed to have subsequently emerged; from this contrast with reality arises the laughter that the genre demands.
Nevertheless, Attic comedy and its chorus are not of course identical to ritual in its pure form; rather, Aristophanes in using an intertextual mode of operating also admits the high forms of drama and choral lyric, which in turn have their own ritual Sitz im Leben and which because of their mythic narrative underwent a further development into an artistic literary genre. The authoritative nature of the gnomic style is thus influential as a pose, but is constantly undermined in order to provoke the laughter of the audience. Texts that have achieved the status of literature also receive parodic treatment.
Choruses are omnipresent in the culture of the Greek world. One worships the gods in them. In the dance, one learns through one’s body the fundamental values and cosmological content of society. In the ritual of movement, myth is translated into action. The education of youth for adulthood represents a central social function of round dancing by age groups. At the same time, the chorus is the place where the critical transition from child to man or woman is experienced in symbolic fashion as social drama. Accordingly, countless reflexes of archaic initiation rituals are found in the ancient chorus. In general most Greek festivals are accompanied by choruses. The critical transitions of the new year’s and fertility festivals represent further occasions for khoreia. These functions in the real world also cooperate with what happens on stage.
The ritual chorus is marked by a double makeup, by an ambiguity between mimetic role and cultic function that draws on the presence of the actors in the here and now. The boundaries between the fictional represented and the actual representer are consciously fluid and fashioned in such a way that they overlap each other.
The comic chorus and the genre of comedy as a whole are characterized by a transverse openness. The members of the chorus oscillate freely between a plot that is only barely sustained and their cultic task in the actuality of the real world. Through this particular communication situation very close contact with the spectators is achieved, as is also characteristic of ritual. The actors in a certain sense reach out to the bystanders and make them participants. The chorus of Old Comedy always remains in part the social institution “chorus,” which correspondingly sings and dances. Integration into the “other,” purposeful action never occurs fully. The double communicative capacity of ritual groups is thus also mirrored in the theater. Disambiguity and withdrawal from the actual world in the sense of a closed plot occurs only to a limited extent in Aristophanes. Comedy as a genre obviously needs this transgressive style of discourse in order to move the community to act and laugh together.
Ritual is above all an expressive, symbolic activity that as a synaesthetic event is transmitted between transmitters and recipients using several media. So to what extent, then, is the comic chorus ritual? While the tragic chorus, which remains largely embedded in the plot and which relates mythic events, offers advice and instruction with an authoritative voice, and comments on the events happening on stage, but only performs actions to a relatively small extent, in the comic chorus, by contrast, the narrative content recedes into the background. The chorus is almost completely participant and actor. Gnomic wisdom and commentary are present at most as a reflex to tragedy. Its activity should not, however, be conceived of exclusively in the sense of events on stage, but rather as fundamental performative action, which is central to every chorus: a ritual chorus principally sings and dances. Further, it acts mimetically in dance, while relating its mimetic play to a simple plot. Ritual dances give priority to depicting actions from everyday life. The hunt, sacrifice, military operations, and agricultural practices are the themes favored by this kind of mimesis. It is thus the actions of searching, fleeing, and guarding as well as other minor performances of cult that are at the center.
In particular, the ritual chorus continually presents its activity and its role. The actors describe their exterior and accompany their actions with performative verbs. This self-referentiality represents the transition to the real-world function of the Dionysiac citizen-chorus that worships the divinities of the polis. Thus, on the one hand, it creates the frame for the ritual play. In its self-description it repeatedly draws attention to the fact that it now depicts a bird, for example—it hops, has wings, chirps, whistles, and sings. On the other hand, these self-references fuse with its function in the here and now, in which the chorus sings and dances in honor of the gods.
I have connected these findings with the speech act theory of John L. Austin and John R. Searle, which states that there are utterances whose pronouncement coincides with an action. We have seen that performative references function as a link between the internal and external communication situations of the chorus. Furthermore, I have traced the frequent choral self-references back to the ritual nature of the chorus. In comedy, self-referentiality has not so much to do with an artistic consciousness and reflection about the author’s own abilities, but rather stems from a ritual manner of speech. The ritual group requires the illocutionary reinforcement of its current activity. It therefore accompanies the completion of its practices, set aside from the everyday world, with performative verbs. This slightly mimetic activity thus occurs through its utterance. In order that the participant or spectator may follow this behavior, the members of the chorus underscore their actions with the corresponding words of implementation in the here and now. When the chorus sings “I pray,” “I sacrifice,” “I curse,” “I ridicule,” etc., it does just that in the moment of utterance. Karl Bühler’s concept of deixis and Roman Jakobson’s linguistic theory of shifters are of great importance in this context. Using the particular speech style of the “I” or “we” and through demonstrative emphasis of place and time, the chorus achieves its characteristic position of mediator between the here and now of the orchestra and the then and there of the fiction of the plot. It functions to a certain extent, then, as a shifter itself between the events imagined on stage and the polis. And it is precisely this that connects it to its ritual models, to which it refers back. Through this exchange of perspectives the chorus becomes a particularly flexible instrument that is opposed, however, to a closed action or plot in the Aristotelian sense.
Speech act theory has shown itself to be particularly useful in the treatment of the chorus. The context can never of course be fully and completely controlled in the pragmatic sense, but it would be a mistake to assume an absolute lack of boundaries in this connection to the real world. As in the case of a ritual dance group, the stage chorus also acts performatively within a relatively limited framework that is predetermined by a concrete situation defined by orality. When the members of the chorus talk of “now” singing and dancing, it may also be assumed that the words are meant sincerely and are translated into action. The spectators become witness to the fact that the speech act is successful.
Through the mimetic dimension the context of meaning on the fictional level becomes more open, and for this reason Austin did not wish to include the theater in his treatment. Yet the occasion as Sitz im Leben and its anchoring in the social and cultural fabric act against any expansion of the conceptual horizon ad infinitum. Furthermore, the oral medium of the act of communication together with its deictic and performative markings lends it a good deal of presence. That is to say, the free, associative structure of symbolic action is channeled by being embedded in a real-world context.
The symbolic content of the transformation of the chorus through mimetic action and body language—when, for example, it is changed into an animal—can be resolved through the process of signification into a relatively broad spectrum of signifieds. It is thus possible to view such instances of animal procession as groups of primitive monsters or ancestral spirits that are brought back to life and return to the earth for a short time at festivals of inversion in the context of the renewal of fertility and the new year and that celebrate a festive primal state. The kômos of comedy can certainly be linked with festivals and interpretive paradigms of this type. Play using the role of an animal reworks in dramatic form the critical transition in status from youth to full citizen, among other things. These rituals experienced on a corporeal level are connected in a very broad sense with tribal initiation. In its comic “leap” into the totally Other and the archaic, comedy falls back on concepts of this type that barely survive and are only reactualized in ritual. But it also reflects contemporary practices in Athenian society that contain traces of these initiatory customs. The chorus is precisely the ritual place par excellence where transformative transitions of this type can be experienced in the marked form of movement and body language. In the period of marginality, initiates are imagined as being in a condition of experiencing the complete dissolution of all things that support the established cultural order, until they receive their new role identities as fully adult males or females. During this absolute interim period the young are symbolically stripped of all identity. In the dance of their age group they assume the signification practices of the Other, so that through this contrast they may celebrate in festive fashion and in front of the citizens their entry into their eventual, socially defined gender role, their self.
The kômos represents just such a group of youths who fall between all worlds. The wildly celebrating participants drink excessive quantities of wine and behave riotously like people who are free of all norms and values. They dress up as animals, barbarians, or slaves, assume characteristics of the opposite gender, or even behave as completely grotesque and hybrid beings. They caterwaul, rampage, panhandle, and solicit and ridicule the surrounding crowd. They also do not shrink from the use of violence. The Dionysiac chorus in its real-world function reenacts this uncivilized behavior and stages it in the orchestra.
There are also comastic processions before and after the actual stage performance. The boundaries between the before and after are thus likewise kept open. Here too the actual stage presentation is fused with the ritual framework, with which it is also constantly connected in the case of comedy: for the comic chorus also especially concerns itself with aiskhrologia, the ribald mockery of fellow players and fellow citizens.
Using mimesis, the chorus of Old Comedy thus enacts the kômos and the marginal condition of the “betwixt and between” in the annually reoccurring restagings. It places itself back in this interim stage immediately before the attainment of maturity and acts out this period of inversion in dance and play. The ephebic members of the chorus temporarily return to the threshold phase of late childhood. They dance like children and their fun and merriment provoke laughter in everybody. They leap and hop about like untamed animals. In its performance the troupe may also assume the role of women, slaves, barbarians, and mythical daimones, which over the course of the evolution of comedy then gives rise to a brief and simple plot.
The removal of distinctions from human existence is also translated into movement that resembles military parade and drill. Dances in armor and other exercises that train the body are also supposed to prepare young men for hoplite status. But these potential hoplites swing their weapons and equipment in a different and wild fashion, more like satyrs who swing the thyrsos. They transform themselves symbolically into effeminate soldiers and comastic horsemen, before finally being accepted into the society of men as full-fledged members.
Despite the phenomenon of license and the dissolution of all ideological and cosmological norms and values, the order of the polis is nevertheless simultaneously reflected in the performance. Within the cult of the gods who watch over the state and through the staging of their myths, the initiates on the one hand receive the necessary education, while on the other hand the performers strengthen the actual conditions of the here and now. The oscillation back and forth between these positions of reversal and consolidation is extremely complex. The ritual behavior of inversion overlaps with the stabilizing function of the official cult of the gods, who oversee and guarantee life in the community. The energy released in the Dionysiac festival creates communitas, which in turn strengthens the cohesion of the performing comasts, the onlookers, and in short the whole city.
Using the example of the Thesmophoriazusae , we have seen the interplay of, on the one hand, the unrestrained independence of a group that undertakes the typical ritual actions of the chorus—namely worshiping the gods and dancing—and, on the other hand, its connection to the progress of a simple plot. The embedding is never total: the chorus continually switches into the other communicative perspective of the here and now, giving glimpses of the pragmatic context. Here the parabatic use of language is important, and cannot simply be confined to the parabasis itself. The ritual-performative approach I have laid out here ultimately allows us, using the perspective of the chorus, to give a completely new meaning to this comedy, hitherto subjected to a rather stepmotherly neglect by scholars. While in the past scholars, relying on a plot-based mode of interpretation, viewed the song component, relatively detached from the deliberate action of the play, as a step on the path to the ultimate superfluity of the comic chorus, we have now been able to carve out a completely different connection for it to the plot. Because of certain initiation-like elements, the actors in their fictional role and in their cultic function enter into an interaction with the hero, who likewise assumes elements of puberty initiation in his activity. It should here be emphasized once more that the festival of the Thesmophoria, which represents the cultic context for the comedy, is not of course itself an initiation festival at which young maidens are received into adult status: rather, during these autumn days, in accordance with the scheme of ritual inversion, married women temporarily transport themselves back to the highly ambivalent state of their parthenia on the threshold of marriage.
In this comedy the chorus creates the fictional context of the celebration of the Thesmophoria, while its songs also implicitly advance the simple plot. The members of the chorus do not of course support the chain of events as carriers of the action, for the chorus does not act as an additional “fellow-player.” It only truly interferes in the action once, as a performative searcher in the hunt for male intruders. Otherwise it remains almost entirely in the background. Yet on another marked level, characterized by a multimedia approach, it places a world on stage that accompanies the plot in symbolic fashion and lends it a social and religious depth. The members of the chorus shape the relative in his fictional role in front of an inner audience. At first they construct the relative as enemy; later he is stylized as an initiate in the marginal phase and thus compared to their own role and their reactualized ritual function in their playful dance. By this means, compromise with the men is ultimately able be brought about, so that only then does the sudden happy ending become understandable. In this symbolic performance the hostile intruder becomes a friend and ally. The chorus thus implicitly acts in the orchestra as a secret catalyst for the ritual movement that also imitates the course of the festival of inversion that is the Thesmophoria. After complete reversal and the separation of the sexes, man and wife can once more be united, thus giving rise to prosperity and fertility for the polis. In the hymnic prayer, the gods are drawn into the complex play of oscillating levels of communication. Finally, in the labyrinth of perspectives presented by the ephebic citizen chorus, members of the audience may reflect in humorous fashion on the restrictions of the gender roles constructed by the polis and recall their own initiation.
The observations developed using the Thesmophoriazusae as an example can also be transferred to other comedies. To anticipate any misunderstanding: the fact that the comedy I have chosen as my example is set explicitly in a cultic context does not, in general, play a decisive role in my assessment of the comic chorus, for this does not always seem to be the case in the other extant works of Aristophanes. Still, the Eleusinian mystai of the Frogs represent a further cultic chorus. Furthermore, we have extended to all choral groups the popular rituality of the fictional role that lends individual comedies their names. Finally, to emphasize this point once again: all comic choruses in their pragmatic function outside the plot always represent a ritual association that worships all the gods of the polis within the context of the festival of Dionysus through the use of dance and song.
Up until the parabasis the members of the chorus in Old Comedy are, to be sure, often actively involved in the dramatic action as adversaries or helpers of the hero, but here the dramatic perspective is broken time and time again. And here too they complete minor everyday activities in the sense of the speech act. They beat and attack their opponent, they ridicule him, or they enter in the parodos: they carry out the action in the sung word. Yet the chorus seldom actually determines action in the way the actors do. It functions rather as a mediator between audience and stage. In what amounts to a synaesthetic spectacle, the singing and dancing actors intensify and lend depth to the action on stage using masks, expensive costumes, striking body language and movements, and performative song accompaniment. Comedy has less to do with the presentation of a complex plot than with a ritual process, a multimedia, aesthetic, and communicative experience that unites spectators, players, and gods. The message is hence to be taken mostly as open and not one-sidedly political. What is important here is the artistic and appellative reenactment of ritual complexes, which in comedy constantly thematize the development from a fundamental crisis and inversion in the world toward healing, fertility, and general well-being. The temporary marginality of the kômos, which refers back to critical periods of transition, is reworked in a bewildering, episodic play of laughter. The events typically culminate in a concluding wedding, which puts an end to the breakdown of order. The comastic and joyful celebration at the end of the play transitions into a victory celebration and the exuberant activity of the entire polis before and after the comedy. The presentation on stage ultimately becomes in this sense a ritual within a ritual and the chorus a link that can dynamically decrease, remove, and increase the distance to the énonciation, the cultic Dionysiac event in the here and now as well as the audience.
In our discussion of the Ithyphalloi and Phallophoroi we have seen a kômos that is not integrated into a purposeful action set “elsewhere.” Nevertheless, the performative context, the occasion of the énonciation, is transferred to the theater. The two phallic songs cited by Semos as examples of the genre and transmitted by Athenaeus have up until now generally been referred to only in passing and in connection with possible ritual origins of comedy. Since this question is based on modern assumptions and cannot ultimately be resolved, a new approach has been followed in the second chapter. Through an in-depth ritual and performative interpretation of the texts as independent products of a living choral culture, I have been able to show for the first time that the festive hymn to Dionysus, by means of redundancy and fusion, extends the synaesthetic occasion of the choral presentation to the sensual ritual experience of wine-drinking, sexuality, and sacrifice and with allusions to the chorus’ own performance merges into a “thick” discourse. The information added by Semos about the songs’ embedment in a performative context reveals the connections of ritual, theater, and Hellenistic literature, and the fluid transition between comic theater and the ceremonies surrounding it. Furthermore, the description of the visual, nonverbal semiotic dimension of performance provides evidence of the theme of the reversal of the world, which is characteristic of a kômos. In style and diction there are parallels to Aristophanes’ choral songs, in particular to the odes of the parabasis. It is unlikely that the comic playwright imitated or parodied these popular predramatic forms; rather, as khorodidaskalos he composes his songs anew in a productive fashion within a fixed traditional context. Behind this lies a society based on orality that defines itself almost exclusively using myth and ritual.
Of course the thesis advanced here, which is based on the theory of function derived from the study of the sociology of religion—namely that the comic chorus has its foundation in the real world, in the initiation of the youth, and possibly and secondarily also in the fertility cycle and the transition from the old year to the new—implies an alternative hypothesis to the question of origin that conflicts in part with earlier theories about the genesis of the genre. In the view of the ancients, upon which previous scholarship was largely based until quite recently, the origin of comedy is rooted in practices involving blame and begging that were supposed to even out social tensions between city and countryside, rich and poor, powerful and politically underprivileged. All in all, I am convinced that this much-discussed problem cannot be resolved conclusively, and accordingly have pursued other ways of uncovering ritual structures in the extant texts. It should nevertheless be emphasized that even ancient attempts to explain the genre are only hypotheses that were probably extrapolated retrospectively from the surviving comedies. Since the development of Old Comedy under the given conditions of polis democracy did in fact lead to a highly explosive political theater—especially with Aristophanes, whose comedies then gained acceptance in the tradition and were shaped by social antagonisms of this type—is it not then logical that the first literary theoreticians, for whom the dramatic forms used in ritual had already become something foreign, relied on social and political hypotheses in order to be able to explain the contents of Aristophanes’ political comedy retroactively in terms of these hypotheses? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such ideas of ancient class struggle naturally found favorable reception.
It is not my intention to deny the plausibility of these ancient theories. My suggestion has the advantage, however, of taking into account the Greek chorus’ Sitz im Leben, something that is today commonly recognized and from which the dramatic chorus among other things apparently evolved. When I associate the comic chorus in this work mainly with initiatory practices, but also with rites connected with fertility and the coming of the new year, which are the three current paradigms in the study of religion, I am also able to subsume the blame practices traditionally advanced by previous theories under these headings. In tribal initiations, but also in the two other categories of festivals, according to Arnold van Gennep’s famous tripartite structure, the existing order is repealed in a transitional stage of marginality. The members of the chorus are thus located in an interim phase in an inverted world that is also a fundamental element for comedy as a whole. Choruses in initiation rites do not just work out generational conflicts, but, like the kômoi, in their condition of marginality they bring into question all social and cosmological codes. Given this religious and sociological basis, one can thus not only explain the social and political tensions in political comedy between farmers and city dwellers, the poor and the rich, the disadvantaged and the powerful, but also understand practices involving ridicule and, in addition, all the phenomena of the comic and carnivalesque world, such as dressing up as animals, the staging of the Other and the foreign, phallus worship, and transvestism, all of which have their basis in so-called rites of inversion.
In particular, by taking into account conclusions gained from ethnological and anthropological scholarship on ritual, we have also been able in both chapters to trace rituality within the microstructure of the texts. Figures of speech such as metaphor, metonymy, alliteration, anaphora, and rhythmical and metrical structure—commonly described as aesthetic characteristics of poetic style—ultimately have their basis in song culture, out of which literature developed only as a secondary phenomenon. The synaesthetic experience processes various ritual components, unleashing physiological processes within both the actors and the spectators that pave the way for a feeling of unity and group cohesion.
In terms of the scholarship on ritual, the following conclusion emerges: ritual and literature are not complete opposites. In the field of German studies, Wolfgang Braungart, independently of my work, has also made this clear in his 1996 study. Ritual is not simply compulsive and heteronymous, just as literature does not simply mean completely free artistic play. Ritual, like literature, possesses an aesthetic and expressive dimension of theatricality. It, too, works with symbols. Literature and ritual demonstrate common denominators in their formal structure and in their form of public staging.
These inherent connections have long been recognized in the theater of the twentieth century. Modern theatrical forms draw their strength from rituality, especially when one reaches back to modes of drama other than the dominant naturalistic and Aristotelian model. Theater as anti-illusionistic staging and the aesthetic and symbolic performative form make this interdependence clear. This can be seen even more clearly in the case of the conditions of production and reception in antiquity.
The performative approach certainly cannot explain the phenomenon of ritual in its entirety, but it has shown itself to be extremely useful in the context of cultic choruses, which are performed in a form of synaesthetic spectacle in a social space with numerous references to the real world. Chorus, ritual, and theater come together in performativity and in their innate tendency, using several media and levels of expression, to present symbolic connections as spectacle, which in a broad sense connects and transforms both actor and spectator. The comic chorus in this respect, and given its anthropological and social anchoring in real life, acts in a ritual fashion. It not only developed from this stratum, but in all its new formations and contexts remains ritual. Theatricality gives rise to theater: even ancient theater, however, represents only one part of a broader ritual show in honor of Dionysus.
Here a possible misunderstanding clearly needs to be addressed, namely that the broad concept of ritual used in this work renders the latter synonymous with theatrical performance and confuses the distinction between ritualized activity in general and religious activity in particular. We are not concerned here with anchoring the chorus exclusively in festive contexts. Even though the connections to religious festivals are of great importance in the Thesmophoriazusae and in the other comedies, it has not been my intention to confine myself to the purely religious. In my investigation, which has a primarily literary orientation, I have traced in an interdisciplinary fashion the attempt to uncover the presence of popular ritual, anti-illusionist, symbolic, and expressive forms of expression in the so-called developed theater of Aristophanes, that is to say the “predramatic” element in drama. The ritual does not of course coincide with the performative, but the latter represents, as has been shown in detail, only one important aspect of explaining the particular transversal openness of the comic chorus that transcends the dramatic theory of the closed plot and illusion based on Aristotle and has its roots in general rituality.
The chorus then is ritual, but not in the sense that modern assumptions about ritual might suggest—namely, that it is something extremely rigid, proceeds in an empty, formulaic fashion, and ultimately exhausts itself in pointless repetition. This description certainly does not apply to the lively and richly expressive theater of Aristophanes. Rather, the chorus and ritual, as with Athenian drama in general, present and process situations of social crisis in a form that is spectacular and in aesthetic terms both directly appealing and powerful. This display functions as communication. In performance, which includes singing, stylized dancing, and mimetic action, the group of performers and the spectators are subjected to a process of transformation that resembles one of van Gennep’s rites de passage.
In Old Comedy, these rituals anchored in the real world are also connected to the politics of the day. In contrast to the modern world, politics does not represent a diametrically opposed area: instead the whole cosmos of the polis is imbued with rituals. The various discourses of the real world in this genre flow into one another. So, for example, ridicule, a fundamental element of the genre, is transferred to the disparaging of contemporary powerful figures and is turned into a playful and open form of plot. This manner of expression in a carnivalesque context must not, however, be identified in too one-sided a fashion with a definite statement about the politics of the day.
The precise social and cultural backgrounds of this communicative act are ultimately irrevocably lost. Cultural performance in all its dimensions was comprehensible only for the authentic participant. For the modern reader of comedy as literature, this context remains to a large extent buried. Evidence is thus only to be found in traces, because its presence can only be imagined and guessed at through its reception elsewhere and over a distance in time.
Beside all the comic tendencies toward inversion, there are numerous passages in Aristophanes where the members of the chorus strive in cultic worship to draw the gods into the performance unfolding at the moment. Many divinities, who have a function in the actual context surrounding the play while also being involved in the corresponding plot, are often summoned as chorus leaders. In this aspect too, the chorus acts as a shifter between two levels, the human and the divine. The anthropomorphic gods dance and form a chorus, which serves as model for the action proceeding on stage. In their dance, the members of the chorus reenact their divine model and identify themselves to a certain extent with this. Conversely, they also connect their performance in the here and now with the spectators. The chorus with its ritual activity becomes a link between god and human.
Wild, whirling, mimetic, and expressive body movements blend all these modes of perception and ritual concepts into a complex message. Point of departure, center, and periphery, just like the subject, object, and result of the performative act, can no longer be distinguished from each other in this spinning whirlpool. The final verses of William Butler Yeats’ Among Schoolchildren illuminate these connections:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,The dancer becomes completely absorbed as an entity into his performative activity. Performance and actor are brought into alignment. As it acts, the body becomes an object upon which the music and the rhythm, like some higher power, are inscribed. In the Greek imagination this ecstatic effect is personified in a god of dance, in Dionysus in particular. Dance delights mankind in the same way that play delights children. Joy (χάρις) is inscribed on the body and face, especially in its expression. Dance causes a glowing lustre (ἀγλαΐα) to shine out, shaping bodily attitude in such a way that the dancer as agent can no longer be separated from his activity. When the chorus leader is then finally recognized in the person of a god, ritual unity with the Olympian gods who protect the polis is created in the chorus, and this synaesthetically experienced state of happiness is transferred from the orchestra to the entire body of the polis seated in the circle of the theater of Dionysus.
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?