the chorus


I’m still trying to answer the question of why I care about the chorus, which was asked of me by a 13 WAYS/TDIA audience member in Los Angeles. To this end, I’ve been trying to answer a larger question, of why I care about the many aesthetic sub-groups of things that I like. What connects our interests? What is the spider’s saliva on the web of belief, of practice, of obsession?

Yesterday. I meet with an actress. I ask her to graph herself, not in so many words, or maybe in many more. She does. She does so in relation to style, and picks these axes: mime, puppetry, physical theatre, children’s theatre, spectacle, awe-ful moments that make you lose your breath. What connects them, for her, is a sense of openness. Accessibility. She is interested in the branches of our profession that welcome rather than exclude.

The exercise makes me think about my own list: rhyme, the chorus, and so on. But I think what connects all of them for me is the sense of pattern. Connection through repetition. There was a moment when we were working on the verse structure for a chorus in 13Ways/TDIA and worked a mathematical pattern, one based on an additive triangle, into the poetry of it. I have rarely been happier.

One of the poem-things I picked up last evening at the Printer’s Ball was called “Verses Without Choruses” (collected within SAY IT WITH SILENCE, by Zebulun, published by Seven Ten Bishop) – which is all poetry since the Greeks, I suppose – but an interesting exercise, isolated sad verses, four lines on a page. So very individual. The verse, like the cheese in the nursery rhyme, stands alone. The chorus stands together.

Here is one of Zebulun‘s isolate verses::


How come everyone knows how
feel about each other except for

I love his work, but the solitary sadness in its form is exactly why I want to write choruses without verses. For the sake of the pattern.

It represents a pattern which our lives do not have, but which we seek. Hope for that pattern is what makes it beautiful, and also what makes it dangerous. My parents were watching the Olympic opening ceremonies, and they thought of choruses, but they also thought of the Nazi rallies. This is not the first time this comparison has been made to me. Chorus-mob.

Before I worked on 13/TDIA I think I would have been more sickened by that thought, and considered that perhaps, aesthetically, I yearn for totalitarianism on some level. But in the hands of the Greek playwrights the Chorus is the voice of something more than that. It is a voice of reason, of dissent, of logic – also of emotion and passion. It is not merely the tool of the political leaders. It is, of course, as fragmented, momentary, and complex as people are. It’s a group.

It is, I suppose, also my father’s field of study. “Sociology – the study of how people act in groups” – I’ve been rattling that off to friends since I could rattle.

People are all part of temporary, transient groups, formed from connection or for convenience. The chorus of Democrats or Republicans, for example. The chorus of the citizens of Athens. The chorus of women. The chorus of bloggers, if you like. And yet, we are all alone. We are born alone, we live (mostly) alone, and none of us dies with anyone else, either. We spend a lot of time trying to deny that fact, because the less alone we can be, the happier we are.

The chorus, like friendship, marriage, family, and other such forms of art, lets us believe that we are not alone. I think that loneliness is more terrible to me than death. I am less concerned with art making us immortal than I am with art bringing us together. The chorus is the formal representation of the idea that, simply, we are not alone.

Closer? My new thesis of the moment: the chorus is important to me because it means that we are not alone, and that there is a pattern to our lives. Neither of these things is true, but both are beautiful – and the more we believe and practice them, the more true they become. I think that I am also reacting against a pendulum swing in artistic taste towards things like three-character plays, one-person shows, and the theatrical celebration of the individual as opposed to the group.

Entropy is a fact. Chaos is a fact. Order is a lost cause. But we still find meaning and beauty when we learn that the structure of some biological or chemical thing has symmetry to it, or follows a mathematical sequence. It is the same meaning and beauty that we find in the chorus.

Oedipus’s sadness is from being alone. So is Medea’s. “Alone and without a city.” There is nothing more terrible. More, if you will, anti-social. Anti-society.