Welcome to Thiasos-Ancient Greek theatre




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