In answering this question, I will look at the question in two ways. Firstly, I will look at the role of the chorus objectively, examining the basic role of the chorus in the play, and looking at the role of the Chorus as Sophocles would have intended the role of the Chorus to be understood. However, I will then look at how I think the Greek audience would have perceived the role of the Chorus and then how the role of the Chorus is perceived today by a 20th century and examine the key differences in the two different sets of perceptions. Finally, I will look at the importance of the role of the Chorus to a 20th century audience and a Greek audience respectively.
The Chorus in the play Oedipus has three basic functions. Firstly, to act as bystanders throughout the play, observing what goes on, reacting and offering opinions at regular intervals throughout the play (e.g. when Oedipus accuses Croon irrationally of conspiring against him, the Chorus says "To one who fears fall, his words seem good; O king, swift counsels are not always safe") In this role they are important to the play as they often offer the voice of reason during moments of heated debate, the voice of fear and confusion during Oedipus' downfall, which seems to mirror the audience's reaction and emotion in many situations throughout the play. The Chorus are also used as a sort of receptive audience for passages of description over what has gone on behind closed doors (e.g. after Jocasta has realised the truth the second messenger describes the scene inside the palace to the Chorus: "Within the porch, straight to the couch she rushed, her bridal bed, and tore her hair")
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... happens. Also they maintain the continuity as their being present removes any need for scene or act changes.
In the Greek theatre they take on a significant role of emphasising the storyline by groups speaking in unison rather than one single actor trying to reach the ears of around 17,000 listeners. They were after-all a very natural part of Greek theatre and their absence would certainly reflect an unorthodox presentation. They also keep the emotion running as any scene changing can be done during their narrative sections.
In a 20th Century production the chorus perform a seemingly less essential role. As there would be ample amplification of sound the chorus could be projected to the role of town folk who would fit into the structure of the play neatly.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.
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