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Classics Teaching Resources


The Chorus



The chorus in a Greek play

Many people believe that the first Greek plays, which were the first plays in the world, started something like this:

At harvest time the villagers used a round flat space called a threshing floor to beat the grains and separate the good grain from the husks. When the work was finished, the young men used to dance on the round threshing floor, as they sang a song called a 'dithyramb.' The dithyramb told one of the stories or 'myths' about the god of harvest, Dionysus.

The group of young men were a 'chorus.' The Greek word 'choros' means a dance, and also means the group that danced in a ring as they sang.

The round flat space was called an 'orchestra' which is Greek for 'dancing floor.'

When actors were added to the chorus, the first play was made. Greek plays had several dances with singing, called 'choral odes', and in between the odes the actors made speeches and talked to each other; these scenes are called 'episodes.'

In the earliest plays the chorus were the most important; later the actors became more and more important, and in the end the chorus were little more than a decoration to separate the episodes.

In the very earliest plays there may have been up to 50 men in the chorus, but soon the chorus in a tragedy had just twelve. They usually sang their words together like a choir. One man was the Chorus Leader, and he often spoke to the actors. In one play each member of the chorus speaks on his own. Click here to read the scene.

In comedies there were 24 in the chorus and the chorus members might be dressed as frogs, birds, wasps or even clouds. In both tragedies and comedies the chorus might represent either men or women. In one comedy the chorus was divided, half men and half women, and the two halves fought each other. Click here to read the scene.

The chorus, just like the actors, wore masks. In a comedy there was usually one scene when the chorus members took off their masks and stepped forward to speak directly to the audience.

The audience looked forward to seeing the wonderful costumes worn by the chorus, particularly in comedies. If the rich man who paid for the chorus of a particular play, the 'choregos,' was mean, and did not pay for splendid costumes, the audience might boo and hiss, and that play might not win the competition. For a picture of chorus costumes and a musician click here.

Ancient pipes
Pipes from the ancient world, in the British Museum
A musician accompanied the singing on a wind instrument called an 'aulos.' This is often called a flute, but it had a reed, and was more like an oboe. Two of them were played at once.
Winged aulos player The player wore a bandage round his cheeks to save him from injuring himself when he blew hard. This fanciful picture from a vase in the Keramicos Museum in Athens shows a winged boy playing the aulos.




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