Theatre Scene and Trends

The Chorus at the Theater – A Revival

Einar Schleef, „Sportstück“ (A Sports Play) by Elfriede Jelinek (Vienna Burgtheater, 1998); © Burgtheater WienThe chorus used to be out on the German stage. In recent years it is enjoying a glorious comeback in many productions. Who would have thought?

After the political misuse of mass rallies to seduce the people, for demonstrations of power and the glorification of the Third Reich, a chorus on stage fell under suspicion of fascism. And in psychological empathy theatre, choruses were totally out of place. But now that performative theatre is widely popular, the fourth wall has fallen and the audience is directly addressed, flirted with and screamed at, the chorus is back again.

First the chorus, then the theater

In the beginning was the chorus – dances and singing by the choreutae, or chorus members, in honor of the god Dionysus. The ancient theatre developed out of the religious cult. At the spring Dionysia in Athens, instituted in 534 B.C. by Thespis, an individual stepped forth from the chorus for the first time; then, with Aeschylus, there came a second actor; and with Sophocles, a third. Three actors it remained, in changing roles, dressed up larger than life in masks and on buskins. In huge amphitheatres, before more than ten thousand spectators, the chorus danced and sang with grand gestures, alternating with the protagonists, with Agamemnon, Oedipus, Electra. The chorus was commentator, warning voice, conscience; it accompanied or intervened in the action.

To this day we don’t know what it really looked like within the wide circle of the Greek amphitheatre. In the course of time, the chorus changed its face, swelled, then shrunk to only one actor. But after mistrust and mistakes, the renaissance of the chorus finally came in the 1990s.

The chorus – a scandal

Einar Schleef, „Sportstück“ (A Sports Play) by Elfriede Jelinek (Vienna Burgtheater, 1998); © Burgtheater WienThe man who brought the chorus back to the German stage with main force was the stage designer, director and writer Einar Schleef. With his liking for booted and uniformed stage choruses, he was repeatedly mistaken for a theater maker who allegedly gave a forum to fascism. His production of Rolf Hochhuth’s Wessies in Weimar. (Berliner Ensemble, 1993) was a scandal. A chorus consisting of young men, naked under military coats, ran, screamed and stomped until the tumult became unbearable. Schleef’s theater was always exorbitant; with his perfectly drilled chorus groups, these tremendous body and voice installations, he sought for the true theater, for the ancient tragedy in which nothing was small and relative and everything was great and true and absolute. For Schleef, the chorus was the truth. He took his credo from Kafka: “Only the chorus is true; the individual lies”. Schleef reached his peak in the treatment of the linguistic surfaces of Elfriede Jelinek’s Ein Sportstück (A Sports Play) (Vienna Burgtheater, 1998), which he, even when contrary to the author, incorporated into the chorus and then had it powerfully spew out. After Schleef’s early death in 2001, so radical a turn to the ancient theater, so intense an obsession and absoluteness, was never again achieved. But the art form of the chorus and its archaic force had been revived and again made palpable.

VVolker Lösch, „Die Weber“ (The Weavers) by Gerhard Hauptmann (Dresden State Theater, 2004); © Matthias CreutzigerAnother scandal was caused by Volker Lösch’s production of Gerhard Hauptmann’s Die Weber (The Weavers) (Dresden State Theater, 2004), with its angry chorus of unemployed. No one was ready for this: direct accusations, targeted anger and hate from the stage. To have unemployed Dresdeners from 2004 take the place of the rebellious Silesian weavers of 1844 – that was a brilliant coup and the beginning of the triumphal march of the authentic chorus, the chorus of the involved, through the German theater world. On the heels of the Dresden unemployed followed overfed residents of Stuttgart, Hamburg homeless people, Berlin prostitutes, and so on. Lösch takes an explosive subject, finds a corresponding play and then chooses for the chorus people that are ready to share their own story: “The chorus consists in social and cultural identity. Each individual chorus is a different world”.

It is not by chance that Lösch’s chorus director, Bernd Freytag, once worked with Einar Schleef and trained his choruses. “Schleef’s work with the chorus is decisive; we’ve only modified it, taken it further.” But Lösch and Freytag have done so with a surprising volte-face: individuals converge in the chorus, yet remain audible and visible as individuals. These choruses are not about depersonalization, but rather about introducing the individual way of speaking into the chorus. The common language of the chorus brings about an elevation to the level of abstraction. And by means of this abstraction, it succeeds in directing the viewer’s attention more intensely on the content of the play.

Chorus variations

The deconstructive chorus: In a virtuoso performance at the beginning of Schiller’s Robbers (Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2008), Nicolas Stemann has four actors exchange two roles, from father to son and from line to line, in every conceivable numerical combination – in a chorus of two, of three, of four. Who is here the father, who the son? Are they indistinguishable? Dependent on one another? Do their identities blur? Artfully, Stemann plays with polyphony and solo voice so as to express, to intensify, the enmeshment of family ties, the search for self, for individuality.

Karin Beier, „Das Werk. Im Bus. Ein Sturz“ (The Works. On the Bus. A Fall) by Elfriede Jelinek (Cologne Theater, 2010); © Klaus LefebvreThe grounding or echo chorus: For Elfriede Jelinek’s Das Werk. Im Bus. Ein Sturz (The Works. On the Bus. A Fall) (Cologne Theater, 2010), Karin Beier engaged a real choir, the Cologne Magic Flutes, and arranged them like a classical chorus, staggered in a block. The men, wearing exercise shirts (an allusion to Schleef), breathe, pant, gasp, produce an atonal musical piece, function like an echo chamber for the alternately speaking actors arrayed before them. This gives depth, breadth; it suggests the unconscious, opens other dimensions.

Sebastian Nübling „Ödipus und seine Kinder“, tragedy by Sophokles, Aischylos and Euripides (Schauspielhaus Zürich 2011); © Matthias HornThe eclectic chorus: For his trilogy Ödipus und seine Kinder (Oedipus and His Children) (Zurich Theater, 2011), Sebastian Nübling, together with the musician Lars Wittershagen, sought to create an ancient chorus for today – a chorus that both danced and sang at the same time. The 28 chorus members stomped, clapped, chanted, sometimes threw shoes; queried, in strong rhythms, the ancient protagonists again and again. This chorus drove on the action, brought momentum into the production, was its engine and soul.

The chorus has arrived at the center of the theater world. A chorus brings added value. Choral language always needs a score, needs a meter, a caesura. Energy is the magic word, power the motto. A chorus can charge spaces, swell beyond them, become a resonance body, can generate the magic moment.

Ulrike Kahle-Steinweh
The author is a freelance film writer and works for various broadcasters, including SWR, NDR and BR. She is also a freelance theatre critic for Theater heute and Der Tagespiegel. From 1999 to 2001 she was a jury member of the Berlin Theatre Meeting, and in both 2001 and 2002 of the Federal Competition of German-Language Drama Students. In 2011 she was again appointed a member of the jury of the Berlin Theatre Meeting.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
March 2012

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