January 06, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

A chorus of old men
A Calvin classics professor argues that the old guys in the Greek chorus weren't just there for comic relief.

His long study of the choruses in Greek drama has led Umit Dhuga to the following question: “Why are so many choruses composed of men who limp and complain about their decrepitude?” he asks,

Dhuga, a Calvin professor of classical languages, has recently published a new book, Choral Identity and the Chorus of Elders in Greek Tragedy (Lexington Books) in which he rehabilitates the reputation of one particular species of Greek chorister: old men.

Old male choruses are typically described by scholars as serving a decorative, or even comic, function in Greek drama. “The older chorus is marginal by mere fact of its old age," Dhuga observed. "In other words, I think that scholars for too long have conflated the idea of social marginality with dramatic marginality—which, in some ways, I think, shows how scholars can be rather myopic,”

What is needed is a less-modern point of view, he said: “One (has) to wonder what preconceptions an ancient Athenian had when he saw a chorus of old men walk on the stage.”

Integral to the plot

What a Greek theatergoer saw in an old, male chorus was probably wiser and more central to the dramatic action than has been supposed: “As early as Homer—even earlier—old men are traditional repositories of wisdom …It would stand to reason that our choruses of old men might also play advising roles, said Dhuga who focused his study on Greek plays featuring old-man choruses, what he calls “the chorus of elders.” He examined the choruses in Sophocles’s Oedipus Coloneus and Antigone, Euripides’s Heraclidae and Hercules Furens, and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, among others, concentrating on the actual language of the texts.

In all of these plays, Dhuga finds old men driving the action. “In Oedipus Coloneus , … every political decision is made by the chorus and then ratified by the king. In Antigone, the chorus is silenced throughout the play until the king realizes his folly, then begs for advice,” Dhuga argued.

The elderly-ness of the chorus is not a factor in their influence on a play, he claimed: “The extent to which their advice is either heeded or ignored is based more on their relationship to the ruler and less on identity per se.” The old Greek guys can also be hard to predict:“There is not a typical old-man chorus,” Dhuga added.

Many choruses

Dhuga hopes his scholarship will enlarge understanding of the Greek choral tradition. The chorus was important not only to the theater of the period, but also to the ceremonies of everyday life, he said: “By the time your average male citizen was 35, he would have experienced hundreds of choruses. Greek youth were schooled in choral fundamentals such as singing, dancing, narrating, and acting.

And the choruses in Greek drama took many forms—women, foreigners, others—all of them played by young men. “If I had a lifespan of 300 years, I could do a survey of every choral identity, but I don’t,” Dhuga said. “My idea was to take the identity that interested me most.”

He thinks his interest in choruses of elders was sparked by his friendship with Peter K. Marshall, an Amherst professor of Latin and Classics and Dhuga’s thesis advisor. “He was so good,” said his former student. “There was something about age, his experience, his gravitas, his stories.” Marshall died a week before Dhuga’s thesis presentation, and Choral Identity and the Chorus of Elders in Greek Tragedy is dedicated to him. (The book also served as Dhuga’s dissertation at Columbia.)

“I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that I dedicated a book to my elderly advisor,” Dhuga said, “and through him that I became acquainted with antiquity.”

Dhuga has been teaching at Calvin for a year-and-a-half. “He is already well published, and so he raises the bar for the rest of us,” said classics department chair Mark Williams.  “He challenges his colleagues as well as his students.  He is also someone to talk English soccer with.”

Recent stories