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For whom do the Chorus weep? A response to the Greek-Barbarian polarity in Aeschylus’ Persians by Thiasos Theatre Company.

Aeschylus’ Persians, set in the court at Sousa, represents the reaction of the Persians to the destruction of their fleet by the Greeks at the battle of Salamis. It was first produced at Athens in 472 BCE, eight years after the battle and while Xerxes still ruled the Persian Empire.

The play is charged with political significance and has a performance history which reflects the multitude of perspectives from which it can be viewed: as an expression of the David and Goliath theme—a small nation defeating a large aggressor, as an illustration of independence, or as a victory of civilization over barbarism.
Thiasos Theatre Company produced the play during 2006 and 2007 in St. Stephen’s Church in London, at the ancient theatres of Cyprus and in the gardens of New College in Oxford. Extracts were also performed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2007.

As famously elaborated by Edith Hall in her ‘Inventing the Barbarian’ (1989), Aeschylus constructs a picture of the Persians which, though partly based on the Athenians’ direct knowledge of their enemy, is also designed to express the radical difference between the Persians (as the inferior ‘other’) and the Athenians. Central to this otherness is the unrestrained emotion of the Persians’ collective lament and the portrayal of the Persians as effeminate, excessively luxury-loving and despotic—an antithesis to the characteristics of manliness, moderateness and equality valued by a so called ‘democratic’ Athens where, to quote from the messenger’s speech in Persians ...”each man is king of his own oar”. (379)

Then again the lament, so close to the Greek way of lamenting and so poignant, points to the possibility that patriotic feelings did not preclude sympathy for the enemy. To quote Casey Dué, “the Athenians had a particular appreciation...of the universality of wartime suffering to the extent that they could explore their own sorrows by experiencing that of their enemies.”

Thus, on the stage, the effete and despotic enemy was represented by a citizen chorus clad in Persian costume performing familiarly Greek heartbreaking songs of sorrow.

This apparent inconsistency has occasioned much discussion in the literature on the relationships of Greeks to the ‘other’. Helena Foley, for example, writes that while women, slaves and barbarians portrayed in Greek documents serve to “define less fully human alternatives” to the rational self-controlled males..., “at the same time, tragedy offers a dialogue in which women, slaves and barbarians ... are represented in a complex and powerful public performance”.

Froma Zeitlin, in Playing the Other (1996), famously argues that Greek tragedy explores masculine and civic structures through the feminine ‘interior’ worlds, and, more generally, through ‘otherness’, and that this exploration constitutes the essence of impersonation and therefore of theatricality.

Moreover, theatre productions have often resolved the inconsistency between patriotism and sympathy by inventing analogies to the Graeco-Persian conflict which invite the spectator to take sides. This has been achieved by emphasizing whichever characteristics accorded with the director’s sympathies and with the political climate of their times. For example, the Berliner Ensemble’s 1983 production portrayed Xerxes as a fascist Junta commander ruling over a court of western decadence, while Peter Sellars emphasized the lament of ancient Persia to express the suffering of modern Iraq when it was bombed by the west in 1993.

While one would not wish to limit the interpretative wealth of Greek tragedy, one feels that discussion of the Greek-Barbarian polarity has paid insufficient attention to the following:

1. The unique ability of the Greek chorus to represent its audience - the citizen body - while at the same time eschewing rigid characterization.

It should be remembered that the chorus of effeminate Persian elders in exotic dress is played by youths representative of the citizen body performing laments, songs and dances that, despite their oriental elements, are also characteristically Greek.

2. The inheritance from epic of sympathy for the enemy
For example, the same internal contradiction between celebrating and lamenting the destruction of the enemy in Aeschylus’ Persians, may also be found in Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad, a poem extolling the Greek hero, Achilles, ends with the lamenting of his Trojan enemy, Hector.

3. The evocation in tragedy of extra-theatrical death ritual both in (i) themes and imagery and also (ii) through the performance of gestures and music.

(i) Themes and Imagery.
Although no funeral as such takes place in Persians, the play strikingly embodies many thematic and structural features of extra-theatrical mourning in both the play’s imagery and its performance.

The imagery in Persians of the lamenting maternal earth, Asia , the cutting down of the flower of youth, the flower of the Persian land echoes images of fertility frequently also found in myths surrounding the death and resurrection of youths such as Hyakinthos and Adonis.

The conflated themes of the land of Persia emptied of its men, women longing for their absent husbands, and parents grieving for their children, find expression in erotically charged song combining themes of love, loss and longing (pothos). Communication between the living and the dead, a central feature of death ritual, occurs frequently in Persians in many guises: in the tomb offerings by the Queen to Darius, in the summoning (anakaleisthai) and raising of his ghost, and in the direct addresses by the chorus to the dead commanders of the Persian army.

(ii) Performance of gestures and music.
There are many literary and iconographic references to characteristic gestures of lamentation. Persians is a rich source of clues regarding the various gestures that might have been part of a choreography of grief.

Below, for example, are the following sung instructions shouted by Xerxes acting as the exarchos (leader) of the threnos (lament) at the end of the play:

1052-3: CHORUS: Ototototoi.
My groans will mix (oi) with blows that blacken flesh.
1054 And beat your breast and shout the Mysian lament
1056 And tear for me the white hair of your beards
1060 Now tear your clothing with your fingernails
1062 And pluck your hair and show your pity for the army.

Solid evidence for the existence of these practices outside the theatre is provided by Plutarch’s account of Solon’s sixth-century legislation which forbade laceration of the cheeks, singing of set dirges and lamentation at other people’s tombs. The ban was in force during Plutarch’s time and heated disapproval of the very gestures in Persians described above - the blows, the breast-beating and the rending of hair and garments - continued to be expressed five centuries later by the Church Fathers. Basil of Caesarea for instance, in the fourth century after the Christian Era, writes:

...neither men nor women should be permitted too much lamentation and mourning. They should show moderate distress... without moaning, wailing, tearing of clothes and grovelling in the dust...

Although little is known about the ancient Greek music of lamentation, sources are consistent in associating it with the East - with the shrill, high-pitched tone of the aulos and with the a minore metre known as the Ionic. Unsurprisingly in Persians there is an abundance of such ‘eastern’ characteristics, as also several explicit references to eastern laments such as the Mysian and the Mariandynian lament, and to harsh cries and shrill songs.
On the other hand, the antiphonal lament often has an eastern character independently of who performs it. In Homer, for example, it is performed by the Greek Ocean Nymphs and by the Muses and in several tragedies it is performed by choruses composed of Greeks.

Though somewhat far-fetched, one can see how ‘eastern’ attributes of ‘real life’ lamentation in Greece might have mutated through the ages into a dramatic chorus of Persians ready to weep for their historical defeat at Salamis.

4. Tragedy’s re-appropriation of forms from which it has emerged—for example, the antiphonal singing and refrain performed by two distinct groups of family and outsiders.

Margaret Alexiou, in her seminal work The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974 and 2002), suggests that in Homeric and pre-Homeric times there is a distinction in the performance of the lament between performance by kin and performance by outsiders. The relatively ordered threnos is sung by outsiders while the wilder goos is sung by closer kin. Alexiou then suggests that the professional threnos was the kind developed by lyric poets while the goos was reestablished as the kommos of tragedy (described by Aristotle as a tragic lament between chorus and actors).

The metrical symmetry between strophe and antistrophe that is typical of the choral odes, not just of Persians but of all classical tragedy, also shows a marked correspondence with the antiphonal singing of the lament.

Death ritual is tenaciously traditional and changes little over time. We can therefore assume that the lamenting choral songs, reinforced by familiar gestures, would have had strong emotional associations for the spectators even in the classical age. However, in our sources it is the insiders—the female kith and kin—and not the outsiders who are given to unrestrained lamentation. We might therefore ask how a (male) Athenian audience would respond to such relatively unrestrained lamentation: would the fifth-century Athenians have associated the Persians’ lament with the grief of their own wives and mothers, or would they have constructed it as alienatingly ‘barbarian’ and ‘effeminate’?

The unattainable answer, one suspects, is concealed in the fluidity of choral identity and in the versatility of the performance.

The following passage from Persians illustrates how the cohesion of the chorus as representatives of the polis often over-rides the Greek-Barbarian polarity:

Not for long now will the inhabitants of Asia
abide under Persian rule,
nor pay further tribute
under compulsion to the King,
nor shall they be his subjects,
prostrating themselves on the ground;
for the kingly power is destroyed.

Men will no longer curb their tongues;
for people are released to talk freely
when a strong yoke has been removed
And the soil of Ajax’s sea-washed island,
stained with gore, holds the remains of the Persians
. (584-595).

This pair of verses (strophe and antistrophe) is sung almost immediately after the chorus have heard of the catastrophic defeat of their army and the deaths of their comrades. Actors today might be perplexed (as were the Thiasos actors) as to how the emotions expressed should be interpreted: are the Persian chorus bewailing this fate of impending freedom (as many commentators suggest) or are they as jubilant as an Athenian chorus of citizens might be at the removal of a ‘strong yoke’?

Attributing a consistent political outlook to the chorus of a fifth-century classical play as if they were real-life characters of the modern world would have been anachronistic. Our production therefore sought to preserve rather than to resolve ambiguities in Persians through a number of directorial choices:

a. the creation of a flexible choral identity which cuts across various polarities such as those between luxury and moderation and between democracy and despotism.

b. the setting of certain choral passages at the peak of the Persians’ despair to the falak singing of Tajikistan—a penetratingly powerful genre of singing which expresses separation and loss. The grief of separation from beloved comrades, husbands, sons and country and fighting and dying away from home was, I felt, the core emotion of the play and at the centre of our performance.

c. the performance by the chorus of Shi’a mourning gestures –violent expressions of grief.
Recurrent mourning gestures, themes and imagery may be identified not just in ancient literary and iconograpic sources but also in living traditions such as those of the Muslim Shi’a. As noted above, Greek funerary iconography depicts self-laceration, pulling hair, beating the breast and tearing garments. These gestures of grief are also widely performed throughout Shi’a Muslim cultures at Ashura ceremonies that commemorate Ali’s martyrdom at Karbala. Breast-beating, for example, is known as matam.

Furthermore, Solon’s and other condemnations of uncontrollable behaviour at funerals recalls frequent bans and condemnations by members of the Islamic clergy of extreme gestures of grief that involve cutting the scalp with razor blades or rhythmical self-beating with chains (zanjir zani).

During the preparation of our production we studied and observed these gestures during Ashura celebrations in Tehran and in several documentary films and photographs of Karbala ceremonies in Iraq, at Hezbollah parades in the Lebanon, and at funerals of young men killed during the violence in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

These gestures of violent grief were deliberately used by the actors when required by the text. It was thought they might evoke something of the ‘pity and terror’ of images familiar to modern television viewers.

The Thiasos chorus was played by both males and females, dressed in luxurious costumes from various parts of what was once the Persian Empire - such as present-day Uzbekistan.

The chorus hear of the destruction of the Persian fleet.

At the moment of the most intense grief—when they hear of the catastrophic defeat of the Persian army—the chorus shed their ornate outer layers of costume to reveal simple white garments. They remain in this unadorned attire for the rest of the play which consists mainly of a series of heartbreaking laments.

Tragedy’s re-appropriation of forms from which it has emerged—for example, the antiphonal singing and refrain performed by two distinct groups of family and outsiders.

Margaret Alexiou, in The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974 and 2002), suggests that in Homeric and pre-Homeric times there is a distinction in the performance of the lament between performance by kin and performance by outsiders. The relatively ordered threnos is sung by outsiders while the wilder goos is sung by closer kin. Alexiou then suggests that the professional threnos was the kind developed by lyric poets while the goos was reestablished as the kommos of tragedy (described by Aristotle as a tragic lament between chorus and actors).

The metrical symmetry between strophe and antistrophe that is typical of the choral odes, not just of Persians but of all classical tragedy, also shows a marked correspondence with the antiphonal singing of the lament.

Death ritual is tenaciously traditional and changes little over time.  We can therefore assume that the lamenting choral songs, reinforced by familiar gestures, would have had strong emotional associations for the spectators even in the classical age.  However, in our sources it is the insiders—the female kith and kin—and not the outsiders who are given to unrestrained lamentation. We might therefore ask how a (male) Athenian audience would respond to such relatively unrestrained lamentation: would the fifth-century Athenians have associated the Persians’ lament with the grief of their own wives and mothers, or would they have constructed it as alienatingly ‘barbarian’ and ‘effeminate’?

The unattainable answer, one suspects, is concealed in the fluidity of choral identity and in the versatility of the performance.

The wealth of the vocal effects of the lament was rendered in Tajik falak song which is redolent of cries and sounds of intense emotion and suffering. These vocal effects are singularly well suited to give voice to a series of extra-syntactical cries uttered by the defeated Persians. Choral passages were sung in Persian (the native language of Tajikistan), ancient Greek and English by both male and female voices. This allowed us to explore male and female contrasts in the interplay of the so-called Greek and barbarian antithesis in Aeschylus’ tragedy - especially in relation to the effeminisation of the Persians. Thus, while the use of costume, voice, and language maintains the distinctions between ornate and simple, male and female, native and foreign, it also cuts across them.

There is no way to re-create the identification that a Greek citizen might have felt with a tragic chorus in the religious civic space of the theatre regardless of their ethnicity or allegiance. Our production however, though far removed from the ‘original’, serves as an example of the power of a choral presence to generate feelings in an audience that are mutually exclusive and compatible at one and the same time. Once the chorus is understood to be representative of the polis and the central driving force of the performance, to classify them as either Greek or Persian becomes redundant.

Taking the structure of extra-theatrical death ritual and the chorus as points of departure, Thiasos’ Persians eschews simple analogies and shows that what appears as a polarity is in fact a unity. I tried to create a picture in which the choice between good Greeks and bad Barbarians on the one hand, and bad Greeks and good Barbarians on the other, would simply not present itself. Thus, the unity I refer to is not created simply by what Simone Weil so eloquently terms the ‘equalizing power of grief’. It is created by the antecedents of tragedy in the collective human response to the pain of death and by the blending of features of epic and lamentation outside the theatre which gave tragedy its characteristic shape.

Let us then ask not how the lament serves the Greek or the Persian cause in the battle of Salamis, but how Aeschylus set the battle of Salamis to a lament.

Yana Zarifi
The above is a revised version of the paper delivered at the XIV International Meeting on Ancient Drama XENOS/METIC at Delphi 3 to 11 July 2009.


This essay begins with a brief introduction to Gardzienice, the Polish theatre company led by Wlodzimierz Staniewski and founded in 1977. The essay ends with the suggestion that Staniewski has created a corporeal language that resonates across a multitude of cultures and political climates and situations.

This would be for the following four reasons:
1. The emphasis laid in the training on mutuality—that is on a dialogic language between actors’ bodies which links text music, audience and surroundings.
2. The centrality and remarkable fluidity of the chorus.
3. The engagement, throughout Gardzienice’s history, with the customs, and performance traditions of communities from all over the world—remotely rural communities as well as urban ones.
4. The fact that Gardzienice is rooted in a Polish theatrical tradition where theatre is inextricable from other artistic expressions, such as music and painting, and where artistic expression is in turn inextricable from the political and philosophical striving for freedom (regardless of how this freedom is conceived at different times).

Focusing on what Staniewski calls cheironomy—an alphabet of gestures derived from ancient Greek iconography and from reconstructed fragments of surviving Greek musical notation—I hope to provide some clues as to how these—‘units of language’ multiply and mutate into the rich theatre performances and films such as the Iphigenia at Aulis at Delphi (2008).

Reanimating Antiquity
Gardzienice, the name of the theatre company is also the name of the village in south eastern Poland near the Ukranian border where the theatre is located.

Central to Gardzienice’s work are explorations and close mutual exchanges of performances known as 'expeditions' and 'gatherings',. These have involved communities from Gardzienice's neighbouring Euro-Asian cultures –Jewish, ethnic Roma, Ukrainian, Lemo, Bielorussian ethnicities –and from places as remote as Lappland, Brazil, South Korea and Sierra Madre. The company also receive visiting performers from a variety of cultures and traditions on home territory.

This process of sowing and gathering is structured around the themes of Gardzienice’s performances which have very long gestation periods—sometimes as long as 7 years. Movement, music and scenarios are permeated by indigenous rituals, community songs and dances and involve painstaking research.

In Gardzienice’s creations, philosophical and literary ideas are often actualised in physical movement. When life and history present Staniewski with a new theme and a new aesthetic, the basic physical language changes accordingly and each new project generates its characteristic ‘gestus’ : so for instance in The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum (1983), (excerpts from the priest’s biography combine with Orthodox religious imagery, antiphonal singing from Mount Athos and alternating wild and calm pagan rituals) a low bowing ‘gestus’, expressing both submission and defiance, was retrieved from the religious icons and based on viewing the body as an allegorical cross.

For the last 13 years, Staniewski has been exploring classical Antiquity and has so far produced Metamorphoses (1997) based on Apuleius’ Golden Ass , an adaptation of Euripides’ Elektra 2002, Iphigeneia at Aulis 2007 and is currently preparing Iphigeneia in Tauris. The basic ‘gestus’ is cheironomy.

Though there are significant differences between the three pieces in its use (the use of cheironomy), Greek vase iconography is the defining source for the creation of the movement language in all three.

Here are some examples of these sources from Gardzienice’s CD Rom – A Theatrical Essay


The Elektra opens with an upstage screen projection of a second-century BC papyrus from Euripides’ music for the Orestes. An actor points to the screen reading out the words and, as the reconstructed music is played, the company sing and relate arm movements to the sound heights depicted graphically on the inscribed music.


Subsequently the chorus leader cries out words  relating to poses that constitute the alphabet:  ’beautiful!’, and the chorus members cup their breasts; ‘muscles!’, and they flex their muscles —each move mirroring gestures from a Greek vase- painting projected onto the screen. And the still movements pick up speed and develop into a vigorous dance.


The Elektra’s semiotic lecture and Gardzienice’s training exercises based on Greek iconography (of which I will show you an example] suggest a deceptively simple correspondence between image, sound and gesture. The correspondence is infinitely more complicated.

To quote Staniewski:
‘ the postures on the vases came from a forgotten line of life within ourselves - the desire to dance. They are not frozen, static postures: these figures are running, spinning dancing flying”

the process of setting ‘antiquity dancing’ involves of course also music. An alchemy is created between the iconography the ancient musical fragments through multifaceted engagement with living performers and performance traditions from several cultures.
'Music’, says Staniewski, is 'at the core of everything I generate…a vital energy and life-force…[it is] my co-director'. Before entering the world of antiquity with Metamorphoses, Elektra and Iphigeneia, Gardzienice had generated their performances in close association with indigenous musics, rituals and dances of communities from all over the world.   In every instance the music had been live—it could be heard and felt—and the organic link between gesture and sound could be directly experienced.

The music of antiquity offers no such immediate access. With the disappearance of the ancient performers, the only surviving remnants are the rhythms contained by the song-words of lyric poetry and drama, images of musicians and dancers, and fragments of an elusive musical notation on papyri and stone.  So, departing fromapproximately half of the fifty surviving musical fragments, Staniewski and the composer Maciej Rychły set about 'making the stones sing'. The musical fragments included the First and Second Delphic Paeans inscribed on the outer marble wall of the Athenian Treasury at Delphi and musical notation thought to belong to Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis.
Rychły assigned melody lines to the musical signs and built on rhythms of ancient Greek poetry through chanting what seemed like meaningless syllables until, together with the emotional impulses generated together with the Gardzienice performers, they built a musical draft. Balkan and Peloponnesian rhythms and songs from the Carpathian and Bulgarian mountains were gradually blended with the Greek paeans, hymns and dramatic fragments to create the treasure trove of Metamorphoses' songs. The ethnic songs used to release the energy in the ancient Greek reconstruction had been chosen on the basis of their function — for instance, lamentation, invocation, wedding celebration. In Staniewski's words: this was in order ‘to pour the still fermenting wine into the dry jugs of ancient relics
’. Actors responded to sound heights and lengths of the music with their arms, hands and entire bodies and audible and visible rhythmic breathing was woven into the overall texture.  (An extraordinary coherence developed as surrounding sounds of birds and barking dogs were incorporated into the music.)The whole company always rehearsed in unison, constantly integrating the composer's material and thus creating a collective experience that was more than its individual parts - as Tomas Rodowicz, (then part of the Metamorphoses musical project) remarked: ‘there was no room for private breathing.’



Iphigeneia in Delphi

In the summer of 2008 Gardzienice took Iph at A… and Metamorphoses to Delphi in Greece.
Iphigeneia’s journey to Delphi forged the Company’s intimate correspondence with Greek tragedy For the Iphigeneia penetrates even deeper into ancient Greek territory than the previous two productions. For the first time, Staniewski uses the entire Euripidean text and a unifying score by the composer Zygmunt Konieczny. The music is pervaded by a Slavic lyricism with a rich emotional texture.  

The cheironomiae in the Iphigeneia have by now become thoroughly incorporated into Gardzienice’s body language through refined training and several years of re-performances.



 (from the end of the play as Agamemnon -played by Mariusz Golaj- prepares to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia played by Karolina Cicha)

      Identifiable gestures emerge time and again, either in flowing movement or with an avowedly semiotic purpose to underline, parenthesise or contrast with the prevailing dramatic mood.  For example, the harrowing sorrow of Clytaemnestra (Joanna Holcgreber) is expressed almost entirely in gestures of lamentation culled from Greek vases but with a depth of feeling and fluidity which cannot be attributed to simple imitation. Conversely, as Agamemnon is sharpening his knives to sacrifice his daughter, male members of the chorus standing firm at one side of the Corycian cave perform a fast narrative sequence in almost pantomimic sign language while the chorus sing to a different and more melodious tempo. This sinister side show, has a distancing effect which, paradoxically, only serves to bring the violence closer. As so often in Staniewski, the grotesque, rather than undermining or lightening the        

In the next clip, the chorus use cheironomy to perform a war between the sexes to the accompaniment of a choral song sung partly in ancient Greek.
The song's theme is the destruction of Troy following Helen's forsaking of her husband and comes after a marital argument between Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra.

AGAMEMNON: “a wise man should keep his wife at home”.  
CHORUS: "Pergamus with walls of stone, Phrygia's town,
He [Ares, the god of war] will encircle in bloody battle,
Cutting the defenders' throats."

The chorus splits to perform a war of the sexes as the female half side with Clytaemnestra and the male half with Agamemnon over the issue of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice.  Parts of the choral ode are also distributed to Iphigeneia and to a messenger figure played by a well known Polish actor Krzystof Globisz.
You might recognize the  cheironomia designating ‘towers’ and ‘temple’:“Then from the citadel’s top peak to earth/He will sack all the dwellings in Troy city…”


I would like to end by reintroducing the question of an ‘original’ source or performance text:
Staniewski’s productions are informed by a huge amount of scholarly research and by a ceaseless striving to excavate, to come close to the very real, but ever-elusive spirit of antiquity. How do we assess the value of any insights gained by the audience and actors in the course of this researching and performing? If they are of value, how necessary is this illusion of antiquity being within what Staniewski calls a ‘touching distance’? And why is it that so often, the engagement with ancient material is at the same time an engagement with our present and our future political questions and ideals?

Yana Zarifi for the Open University International Research Conference—Classics in the Modern World—a Democratic Turn?’ held at Milton Keynes 18-20th June, 2010.


In the field of ancient Greek theatre re-performance, Aristotle is often held responsible for centuries of neglect of the chorus, of music and dance, and of spectacle. He is also held responsible for discounting everything that is mysterious, religious and irrational in Greek tragedy. According to the Poetics, these elements have to be sacrificed for the sake of a unified plot, structured around intelligible action and consistency of character.

"..there should be nothing irrational in the events; if there is, it should lie outside the play..."
Poetics Chapter XV 1454b 6-7.

"the material [of the plot] should be constructed “as much as possible in the mind’s eye"
Chapter XVII 1455a 21-2.

"…spectacle is emotionally potent but falls quite outside the art and is not integral to poetry…"
Chapter VI 1450b.

"spectacle has little to do with the poet's art…"
Chapter XIV 1453 b 6.

While “plot”, and I quote, “is the first principle—the soul—of tragedy” and “character is secondary...”
1450a .38-39.

character can contribute to the unity of plot in so far as it conforms to certain criteria—(goodness, appropriateness, likeness) the fourth and last of which is consistency—sometimes translated as ‘coherence’ - In Greek ‘to omalon
1454 a 25-27.

An inconsistent character distracts us from the smooth unfolding of the plot as also do choruses when they sing irrelevant songs.

The same criteria that apply to render a character appropriate for tragedy apply also to the chorus. Choruses should be relevant and consistent (more like those of Sophocles than those of Euripides)-

“The chorus should be treated as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should participate [in the action].” 1456a.25-7

Today, using extracts from Euripides’ Hippolytos (2001), Bacchae (2004) and Aeschylus’ Persians (2006- 7)
- productions I have directed here at the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama in Paphos, Kourion and Leukosia—I will show you the contrast between a non Aristotelian ‘eastern’ style of production (in the Hippolytos) and a more Aristotelian ‘naturalistic style (in Bacchae and Persians).

The Hippolytos is set as a masked Indonesian dance drama. The choruses are sung in ancient Greek in their entirety and, apart from a narration in English, the song and movement languages are determined by the formal codified traditions of Javanese dance and Balinese Topeng drama. The characters of Hippolytos, Phaidra,Theseus and Nurse are expressed not through their thoughts and deeds but by their masks, movement and costume—all external signifiers of their status—male/female, god/mortal refined/lessrefined and so on. While the apparent irrelevance of the choral songs and the emphasis on spectacle (as opposed to ‘inner’ character) flout Aristotelian criteria they have another form of inner consistency which solves two important problems faced by directors and actors of Greek tragedy:
a. for the director-- the problem of what to do with the chorus on the stage
b. For the actor-- how to interpret inconsistencies of character

Here is the Eastern style:

From Thiasos’ production of Euripides’ Hippolytos at the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama Festival
at the Paphos Ancient Theatre (Cyprus 2001). Director: Yana Zarifi

Eros, Eros, you who drips desire into the eyes,
as you lead sweet delight into the souls of those whom you war against
may you never appear to me with harm,
nor come to me in distorted measure,
for neither the arrow of fire nor the arrow of the stars is more powerful than the arrow of Aphrodite,
which is shot by the hands of Eros, the son of Zeus.
And now for a sample of the episodes of the Hippolytos as Balinese Topeng

From Thiasos’ production of Euripides’ Hippolytos at Bentley Theatre, Lincoln Arts Centre (Dartmouth,USA, 2004).
Director: Yana Zarifi and M.J. Coldiron. Music by Jamie Masters.

Issues of character are on a different plane and the movements of the chorus are dictated by the particular dance language I used.

By contrast, the more ‘naturalistic; productions of Bacchae and Persians do expose aspects of the protagonists and of the chorus’s character which would be considered inconsistent both by Aristotle and by the Thiasos actors. These plays were performed mainly in English where the translator, especially commissioned for both productions was the classical scholar - Richard Seaford, an expert on the Bacchae and on the Dionysian mysteries. Glen Snowden, the choreographer for Bacchae has a strong background in ballet while the movement in Persians was devised by the company, through improvisation based on trance and lamentation rituals of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Apart from lament songs from Tajikistan,the language and movement of these two productions-as you will see- are readily intelligible to most audiences.


Here are some of the ‘consistency’ problems that presented themselves in the course of producing Aeschylus Persians:

Since Edith Hall’s ‘Inventing the Barbarian’ it has been well established that the chorus of lamenting Persian are depicted as despotic effeminate luxurious kowtowing courtiers to promote the antithetical democratic values of moderateness, manliness and independence-- the cornerstone of Athenian ideology.
However, certain inconsistencies in the ‘text’ may have encouraged the (original) audience to identify with the enemy. For instance:

• the beauty of the poetry and the poignancy of the extended lament
• and the fact that amidst their obsequious eastern wails and servile prostrations these barbarians pray to Greek gods and perform Greek rituals.

In our production it was reasonably straightforward to contain the first inconsistency without resolving it and to convey the equalizing power of grief through the singing and by having the chorus of courtiers removing the outer layers of luxurious gowns and hats (made with rich fabrics from Uzbekistan)

Joseph McNab as Chorus
Gemma Robinson as Chorus

Messenger: ..the whole barbarian force has perished.
Chorus: Agonising, agonising, without precedent
and dire! Aim, Persians

weep...   (256-8)                                                             translation Edith Hall

From Thiasos’ production of Aeschylus’ Persae at New College Gardens (Oxford 2007). Directed by Yana Zarifi

But other discrepancies were not so easy to accommodate. Take for example the following passage sung by the chorus in response to the news of the total destruction of their army,of their comrades, of the flowers of Persian youth:

Not for long now will the inhabitants of Asia
Abide under Persian rule,
Nor pay further tribute
Under compulsion to the King,
Nor shall they be his subjects,
Prostrating themselves on the ground;
For the kingly power is destroyed
Men will no longer curb their tongues;
For people are released to talk freely
When a strong yoke
Has been removed. (584-590)

In a naturalistic production such as ours, the actors playing the chorus need to know who they are, what they feel, and how to be.

Another problem was the relatively quick change in Xerxes from his abject robe-tearing state to his despotic leadership of a ‘crushed’ chorus in a funereal like procession at the end of the play.

The following 3 clips show the ‘creative solutions’ we found to what - according to Aristotle - are flaws in a tragic work.

All three clips are from Thiasos’ production of Aeschylus’ Persae at New College Gardens (Oxford 2007) directed by Yana Zarifi-Sistovari. The translation is by Richard Seaford, and the design by AbdelKader Farrah and Nina Ayres. Music by Tolib Shahidi and Andrea Rocca.

The first clip is of Xerxes’ entrance in a state of despair.

In the second clip you will observe that in the beginning, the chorus at first respond with outrage and a sense of rebellion to Xerxes’ self-pitying display of despair.

Between the second and third clips is a dream-like sequence which we invented (not shown in this document) where the Queen, Xerxes' mother, dresses Xerxes in his father’s - in Dareios’ - robes and gives him the imperial sceptre. As Xerxes becomes re-empowered the chorus revert to their cringing kowtowing responses and follow him off the stage.

Xerxes’ Entrance:

From Thiasos’ production of Aeschylus’ Persae at New College Gardens (Oxford 2007). Directed by Yana Zarifi

What unexpected agony!
How cruelly has god come down on us, the Persian race!
What will become of me?
I see these old men, and my body loses all its strength.
O Zeus, would I had died in battle with my men.CHORUS: Ototoi, alas, my king!
Cry for the Persian empire, and the men cut down by god!
Great Earth laments her children,
killed in their youth by Xerxes, crammed into the underworld.
The flower of Hamadan is dead.
Ten thousands are destroyed.
Their strength is gone. Asia has fallen to the ground.XERXES: Look at me and lament!
I have become a plague to my own fatherland.
The Accusing Chorus:

New College Gardens (Oxford 2007). Directed by Yana Zarifi

XERXES: I left them there, where from Phoenician ships
they fell into the sea, and now are tossed
against the rocks of Salamis.

CHORUS: But where is Farah-Nour, and Ari-mard?
Where is great Siwa-lakh? Where is the noble general Lilash?
And where is Mashistra? And mighty Artabash?
Where is Houstiq? We ask you, where are they?

XERXES: They went to ancient Athens, and they died, all gasping on the shore.

CHORUS: And where is he, the best of all the Persians, who
Is called the king’s most faithful eye, the son of Batanoch?
And where is Parthos, and great Oibares?
Did you leave them behind?

XERXES: You move me to long for my noble comrades.
I cannot forget, cannot forget, the horrors.
They have gone, the leaders of the army.

CHORUS: Gone into namelessness.

XERXES: Ie, Ie, Io, Io

CHORUS: Io, Io, gods, gods,
How unexpected is the pain you made for us.
How the disaster stands and stares at us.

XERXES: We are struck down from life-long happiness.

CHORUS: We are struck down. Its plain to see.

XERXES: By new agony, new agony.

CHORUS: Destroyed by Ionian sailors,
The Persians are destroyed in war.

XERXES: Destroyed. How great the army is that I have lost.

CHORUS: What of the Persians has not been destroyed?

XERXES: You see what is left of my clothes?

CHORUS: It is rags that I see.

XERXES: And this quiver, my storehouse of arrows?

CHORUS: So little is left from so much?

XERXES: We have no-one left to defend us.

CHORUS: The Ionian people do not run away from the spear.

XERXES: They are too warlike. I did not expect catastrophe.

CHORUS: You mean the defeat of our navy?

XERXES: I have torn my robe in horror. (962-1030)

Xerxes is dressed into regal garb-the regal symbols formerly worn by Dareios. Breast beating lamentation

Endsong with Persian Lament:
New College Gardens (Oxford 2007). Directed by Yana Zarifi
CHORUS: Gone into namelessness.

XERXES: Ie, Ie, Io, IoCHORUS: Io, Io, gods, gods,
How unexpected is the pain you made for us.
How the disaster stands and stares at us.

XERXES: We are struck down from life-long happiness.

CHORUS: We are struck down. Its plain to see.

CHORUS: Io, Io, the Persian earth is hard to tread. 1070

XERXES: Cry Eeooaa throughout the city.

CHORUS: I will. Eeoooaa.

XERXES: Tread delicately as you wail.

CHORUS: Io, Io, the Persian earth is hard to tread.

XERXES: Now form an escort for me to my royal house.

CHORUS: I will escort you home with harsh lament.

Chorus leader (Rustam Duloev) sings:

(e) In modari khush dilòn kamzayad (e)
(e) harlahza shamorino kassòn afzoyad (e)
(e) e az jumlai Firdausì kam oyad kazamir X 2
(e) e az jumlai Mahmud hazoròn oyad (e) X 2


In Bacchae, at the apex of the play, Pentheus’ ‘character’ undergoes a drastic shift when, having been on the point of mounting a military assault against the Theban maenads on Mount Kithairon, he unexpectedly assents to Dionysos’ suggestion to wear female dress in order to spy on the women unobserved.

Here he is just before the ‘change’.

From Euripides’ Bacchae: Thiasos at Cockpit Theatre (London 2003).
Directed by Yana Zarifi, translation by Richard Seaford, design by Farrah and music by John White.
There must be no delay. Let someone go
At once to the Elektran gates,

Order every man who bears a shield

1.Just as the Shah Name draws on pre-existing myths for its subject matter so it is now also used in Shi’ite rituals, ceremonies and performances which commemorate the doings of Ali, Huseyn and Hassan. The text is by the Tajik poet, Loikh Sherali, and is about the evil in human beings. He illustrates the difference between good and evil by contrasting the poet Firdausi, a virtuous and talented man, with Rhasnavi, his king, who took advantage of Firdausi and treated him badly. The rubayat explains that only a very limited number of children will grow up to be talented and good like Firdausi while most of them will become cruel like Rhasnavi.

Or rides a horse to gather there,
And all who pluck the strings of bows.
We will attack the maenads. How can we

Allow ourselves to be humiliated by
Mere women?!]

He then calls for his soldiers:
That’s it, enough! Soldiers bring out the arms!



This is the middle of the play.
Simon Goldhill in’Character and Action, Representation and Reading Greek Tragedy and its Critics’ in the volume edited by Chris Pelling:

“For Dodds, this transformation is the key to Pentheus’ true nature: “the question has touched a hidden spring in Pentheus’ mind, and his self-mastery vanishes” (Dodds comm. Oxford 1944)

Winnington-Ingram, ...sees this as a demonstration of Dionysiac power: the god “begins to exert some kind of psychic power over his victim” Euripides and Dionysus: an Interpretation of the Bacchae, Cambridge 1948.

Then follows a much discussed line from Dionysos at the very apex of he play. An extra-metrical ‘Ah!

Ah! And then.... D’you want to see them lying on the mountainside?
Oh yes! For that I’d give a pile of gold!

Pentheus is then dressed as a maenad. In our production he is dressed onstage by the maenads before being led out by Dionysos to meet his fate—to be dismembered and decapitated his own mother, Agave. All that we see of him after this will be his head, carried as a trophy by his hallucinating mother surrounded by rejoicing maenads.

What are we to make of this character inconsistency ON THE STAGE? How do we express this volte-face? According to Dodds,

“the question has touched a hidden spring in Pentheus’ mind, and his self-mastery vanishes”

–can this be conveyed convincingly by the actor playing Pentheus? Or do we bring on mysterious religious powers to disturb Aristotle’s unity of plot and force Pentheus to give up his military sortie against the maenads?

And what about the transformation of the chorus of gentle maenads who  have so far been singing and dancing hymns and prayers invoking religious observance and moderation? When and how do they change into justice-seeking Furies singing their song of vengeance?

On you go, you Dogs of Frenzy,
Goad them on, drive them crazy
With aggressive hate against the
Man who’s wearing female dress,
He who spies on them, the maenads

And shortly after rejoicing in the gruesome scene of Agave displaying her son’s head?

The Bacchae fails to meet Aristotelian criteria for a good tragedy on many counts. Not merely on the characters’ inconsistencies but even more on the all pervasive presence of the supernatural - the presence of Dionysos - and all those elements considered ‘extraneous’ by Aristotle.

However, the Bacchae has an extraordinary coherence and that coherence emanates from the chorus.
The maenads change from gentleness to vengefulness follows the rhythm and flow of mousike and spectacle and is in accordance with the unfolding of a ritual rather than of a story in Aristotle’s sense. In our production the turning point for the maenads’ change is precisely at the moment when Pentheus says ‘women’. From that moment on, they become agents of his destruction. As Pentheus is dressed on stage the maenads also paint the area around their eyes with vivid red lipstick and then sing their vengeance song. At the end of the song—during the epode—they move into the shape of a bull, evoking Dionysos. It is notionally in the course of that song that the Theban maenads are tearing Pentheus to pieces as the messenger will report:
London 2003
[1000] .
CHORUS: In our relationships with the gods
What comes to teach us sense is death.
[Tha-na-tos, tha-natos….]
To lead a painless life you must
Know your mortality.
The clever—they can have their cleverness:
A life that has a greatness of its own—
By day and night, continually,
To lead a life of reverence and holiness,

[1010] Rejecting all injustice, honouring the gods.

Let Justice go,
Be seen by all.
And with a sword
Cut through the throat
Of Pentheus,
The godless man
The unjust man,
Echion’s child,
Born from the earth.Epode (conclusion)
[1117] Come Dionysos, as a bull,
Or as a many-headed snake,
Or as a lion blazing fire,
Go, Bakchos, with a smiling face
And throw a deadly noose
Around the maenad-hunter as he’s trodden by the herd of maenads down.

[1024] O house that once was fortunate throughout the land
I am slave, yet I lament for you!

What is it? Do you bring news from Mt. Kithairon?

Echion’s son, Pentheus, is dead.

O surely Dionysos is a mighty god!

Di-o-nys-sos, the-os, faï-nê me-ghas!

What’s that you said?[What are you saying?] Woman, do you rejoice
At my poor master’s suffering?

Yes, and I cry with joy,
Yes, with ecstatic song,
[1035] Free from the fear of chains.

(H)o Dionyssos, (h)o Dionyssos, oo Thē-vaï
Kra-toss ē-chou-ss’ ē-mon!

The city, Thebes, will have revenge on you.

Dionysos has power over me, not Thebes.


[1040] I understand your mood. And yet it is
Not good to pleasure in another’s pain.

Tell us, how did the wicked tyrant die?

The Poetics is remarkably useful.
The attempt to impose the coherence of plot and character on ancient Greek tragedy and the fact that most of the extant Greek tragedies fall short of Aristotle’s strictures only serves to reveal deeper coherences such as that of Lamentation ritual in Aeschylus Persians and the rituals of mystic initiation in the Bacchae. It is only through performance that explores as many possibilities of opsis and mousike that we can get a glimmer of the shape of these ancient and ultimately inaccessible works.

All visual material is from the following Thiasos productions :
Euripides’ Hippolytos: Thiasos at International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama Festival at the Paphos Ancient Theatre (Cyprus 2001).
Euripides’ Hippolytos: Bentley Theatre, Lincoln Arts Centre (Dartmouth,USA, 2004).
Aeschylus’ Persae: Thiasos at New College Gardens (Oxford 2007).
Euripides’ Bacchae: Thiasos at Cockpit Theatre (London 2003).
The above is an extended version of a paper presented at the Eleventh InternationalSymposium on Ancient Greek Drama
in Nicosia 2-4 July, 2010 by Yana Zarif

Wisdom, Prophecy and Divine Inspiration: Staniewski's Delphic Journey.
for Mantic Perspectives Symposium at the European Centre of Theatre Practices in Gardzienice, 26-29 September, 2013.
Read/Download a PDF of this Talk wisdom and prophecy - (500kb)

Ode to Eros from Euripides’ Medea in Bharatanatyam dance with Ash Mukherjee.
for the APGRD and CSSD Symposium on Hierarchy/ies in the Theory and Practice of Greek and Roman Dramahttp://www.apgrd.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/spacer.png, June 19th 2012.
Read/Download a PDF of this TalkMedea and Bharatanatyam (166kb)

Coincidence or Convergence? Staniewski’s adaptation of the Iphigenia in Tauris.
Posted on www.gardzienice.org in October 2011.
Read/Download a PDF of this TalkCoincidence?(175kb)