In Greek drama, the Chorus, though considered one character, is actually a group of people performing odes from the very edge of the stage (or what would today look like the orchestra section in an opera house). The Choragos is one actor who often speaks alone, and is meant to represent the entire chorus on stage.
One of the best ways to understand (and remember) the function of the chorus in Greek drama, is to remember that originally, these stories were actual plays, first experienced by audiences by a performance on a stage, rather than words in a book.
As such the chorus had many important roles:
- Structure/Flow: The chorus, which speaks during choral odes at the beginning or end of scenes, acts like a "narrator" to open and close scenes, providing background information where necessary, summing up the action of a scene at the end, setting a sense of visual scenery (of which there was very little in the way of actual props), and, providing a break in the flow of the action. Additionally, the structure of a Greek play was very strict and playwrights understood the audience would expect this. Again, this is similar to film makers today. Imagine a typical romantic comedy or horror film. The audience knows who will end up with whom at the end, who will live and who will die, and we do expect a climax until a certain number of complications have taken place.
- Explanation/Opinion: in many ways, drama for ancient Greece was just like the media or television shows are for a modern audience. In addition to providing entertainment, they were a commentary things which were socially, politically, and culturally relevant to the actual audience. The chorus often voiced the opposing positions of popular debates. Rather than serving as the voice of the poet himself, the chorus was most often written to reflect the feelings of the audience. When commenting directly to the action on stage, the chorus provides summary and explanation. When commenting more toward the actual audience in the play, the chorus demonstrates a shift in tone or mood (much like music and lighting in modern film).
- Lyrical/Poetic: the Chorus' interludes are called "odes" for a reason. Though they may not have been sung, the language itself was written with a specific rhythm, often included rhyme, and flowed like poetry. In addition to every other function, the choral odes most clearly establish and drive home the meaningful themes of the drama. Religion played a major part of the ancient Greek's life, and the chorus demonstrates both the worship and the fear of the gods and their power. It also portrays the sacred importance of tradition in both life and death.