Ritual and Performativity: The Chorus in Old Comedy

  Bierl, Anton. 2009. Ritual and Performativity: The Chorus in Old Comedy. Hellenic Studies Series 20. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Bierl.Ritual_and_Performativity.2009.

Foreword to the English Edition

It is a special pleasure for me, almost ten years after finishing the manuscript of the first edition, to present this book in the English language and in lightly revised form. I have made a special attempt in my references to the scholarly literature both in the body of the text and in the footnotes to take into account the most important works in this area published before the end of 2006. In particular I have tried to include the editions of and commentaries to the Thesmophoriazusae that have appeared since 2000/1, together with any textual changes suggested therein. The fundamental argument of the main text remains unaltered.

The book seems as fresh and relevant to me now as it did in 2000/1. Interest in the chorus and the choral has increased substantially since then. There continue to be new conferences on this topic. In Urbino, at a conference organized by Franca Perusino and entitled Dalla lirica corale alla poesia drammatica: Forme e funzioni del canto corale nella tragedia e nella commedia greca (21–23 September 2005), I gave a presentation of my thesis as applied to the Lysistrata in which I connected the exodos with the Partheneia of Alcman. [1] More recently in Verona, at the symposium “. . . un enorme individuo, dotato di polmoni soprannaturali”: Funzioni, interpretazioni e rinascite del coro drammatico greco (14–16 June 2007) I gave a presentation on the same theme, this time with the focus on Pratinas’ satyr play (cf. already Bierl 2006).

At the core of drama lies the chorus. Its central activity, dance, is pure ritual. The chorus is in turn placed in an original, ritual context, namely, in the performances of adolescent youth on the threshold of adulthood. In these choral groups the performance of song and dance serves as the ritual demarcation of change of status, in particular as the foundation of an education in, and introduction to, the megatext of a traditional society, myth, and ritual practice. This megatext reflects social order, it affirms the social and theological cosmos, but it also undermines it and calls it into question. The chorus of drama is brought back to these functions diachronically in its development via choral lyric and the choruses of cultic practice. Because these ideas are so fundamental for the understanding of Greek khoreia, I have made the original subtitle of the German edition the main title here: Ritual and Performativity.

The present monograph is the first modern study to consider in an interdisciplinary and comprehensive fashion the phenomenon of the Greek chorus in the case of Attic Old Comedy, using more recent literary and cultural approaches (among others, speech act theory, performative self-referentiality, semiotic narratology, performance studies, gender studies, theater anthropology, the study of ritual, neurobiology, and the sociology of religion). In contrast to previous investigations, the relationship between ritual and Old Comedy is accordingly not understood here as a result of its historical evolution, but as a productive parallel relationship. The central thesis of my work is that the ritual and initiatory function of the chorus in Old Comedy is preserved in remnants and that the genre builds its plots upon this.

In the extensive introductory chapter the Greek choral culture of the archaic and classical periods as a whole is treated with a new set of hermeneutic tools. Here the attempt to grasp the chorus in its performativity as a cultural phenomenon using the concept of the performative turn is of course important. In addition, because of this historic and diachronic derivation the chorus becomes understandable in its diverse locations. The choral voice is {x|xi} contemporaneous with several locations and connected with various functions: it oscillates between the here and now of the citizens of the polis and the there of the dramatic role. Performative self-references have a hinge function and as shifters enable this oscillation. Among other things, the choral voice praises and worships, is fictional, ridicules, is political, comic, and purely performative. Using speech act theory, I show that self-referentiality, reference to the chorus’ own singing and dancing in the orchestra, can also be connected with ritual. Further, I compare the comic chorus to the choruses of the other dramatic genres, tragedy and satyr play—an approach that has become prominent since my book was first published.

It can be shown how Aristophanes does not—as has been traditionally assumed—parody simple ritual songs that are based on a performative model and that strengthen the action in the orchestra in an illocutionary fashion by means of speech. Rather, as the representative of a living, performative choral culture, he reproduces them. Even embedded in a dramatic action that is diametrically opposed to an Aristotelian and naturalistic concept of illusion, the members of the chorus with their twofold nature continue to refer to the performance and the pragmatic connection with the real world, while symbolically reworking rites relating to transition in status on an intra- and extra-discursive level.

Rituality is explored in depth in a detailed commentary on micro- and macrostructure. The philological investigation in the central part of the book represents perhaps the most intensive treatment to date both of the Thesmophoriazusae, somewhat neglected both then and now by scholarship, and of Semos’ songs of the Ithyphalloi and Phallophoroi, which have up until now been treated only incidentally in connection with the question of the origin of comedy.

Apart from this illustrative interpretation of the Thesmophoriazusae the book in general presents a comprehensive interpretation of the Greek chorus as well as of the genre of Old Comedy, using an anthropological and ritual foundation. Archaic and classical literature in its interdependent relationship with religion and with myth and ritual becomes thereby understandable in a completely new way. Scholarship in this area too is making definite advances. I myself organized a conference entitled “Literatur und Religion: Die Griechen, vorher, nachher und heute. Mythisch-rituelle Strukturen im Text” [“Literature and Religion: The Greeks before, after, and today. Mythic and ritual structures in the text”] in Basel with distinguished scholars in the field. The aim was to extend this approach to other genres. The conference papers in expanded form have recently been published in two volumes (Bierl, Lämmle, {xi|xii} and Wesselmann 2007). In order to circulate these perspectives further I have founded a new series, MythosEikonPoiesis. In Basel two doctoral dissertations on this theme are under way: Rebecca Lämmle is writing on the satyr play from a ritual perspective, and Katharina Wesselmann is working on mythical structures in Herodotus. It also plays an important role in the newly formed graduate program there, Pro*Doc Intermediale Ästhetik: Spiel–Ritual–Performanz [“Intermedial Aesthetics: Play-Ritual-Performance”].

It was also he who had the brilliant idea of entrusting the translation to Alex Hollmann, a graduate of the Harvard program in classical philology. As one brought up in this atmosphere of a new, anthropologically oriented approach to Greek studies with teachers such as Greg Nagy and Albert Henrichs, he was in an ideal position to translate the complex construction of arguments from German into elegant English prose. I thank him for his tireless work on the translation, which he completed in addition to his own work and faculty responsibilities in Seattle over the course of many late-night sessions. He will, I hope, receive due academic recognition for this work. Finally, I owe thanks to Leonard Muellner, who directed the publication process from behind the scenes in a remarkably calm fashion, as well as to the whole team at the Center for Hellenic Studies and those at Harvard University Press involved in its production.

May the book in its new form find many new readers!

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli!

Basel, September 2007 {xii|}


[ back ] 1. A. Bierl, “L’uso intertestuale di Alcmane nel finale della Lisistrata di Aristofane: Coro e rito nel contesto performativo,” in F. Perusino and M. Colantonio, eds., Dalla lirica corale alla poesia drammatica: Forme e funzioni del canto corale nella tragedia e nella commedia greca (Pisa 2007), 259–290. I read an English version in Rethymno, Crete, at the International Conference on Archaic and Classical Choral Song (May 24–27 2007); it appears under the title “Alcman at the End of Lysistrata: Intertextuality, Chorality, and Ritual.”

[ back ] 2. A critical evaluation is now to be found in M. Dorati, QUCC 81.3 (2005):143–149.

[ back ] 3. See, for example, Yatromanolakis/Roilos 2004.