While fifth century tragedy was made up of actors and a chorus, ancient tradition tells us that tragedy originally contained no actors, and thus arose solely out of the tragic chorus. Many classicists see this chorus as the 'ideal-spectator', representing the people in contrast to the aristocracy. This idea of the chorus as a politically motivated and democratic force is false, for tragedy's origins lie exclusively in religion.
The concept of the chorus as ideal-spectator, espoused by Schlegel, cannot be correct, "for hitherto we had always believed that the true spectator, whoever he may be, must always remain conscious that he was viewing a work of art, and not an empirical reality. But the tragic chorus of the Greeks is forced to recognize real beings in the figures of the drama." Thus, by definition, the chorus cannot be considered a body of spectators.
Rather than existing in and commenting on our reality, the chorus exists in an idealized 'natural state,' in which it observes 'natural beings.' This state of nature is created under the influence of Dionysian music, which neutralizes civilization. Thus the satyric chorus (the original Greek chorus was made up of satyrs) undoes the effects of culture on the Greek man: "and this is the most immediate effect of the Dionysian tragedy, that the state and society, and, in general, the gulfs between man and man, give way to an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature." It is under this influence, after he perceives the very nature of suffering itself, that man is in danger of despair. For, once he has perceived the true nature of things, man realizes that no action can oppose the reality of suffering. However, before man can give up on the world in frustration, art enters in with its saving grace. "[Art] alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live." Art is not an amusing pleasure, but rather a necessity for existence.
The satyr was "the archetype of man, the embodiment of his highest and intensest emotions." In beholding him, the Greek man of culture was forced to reject the pretty appearances of his own reality and accept the truth of nature as true reality. When sitting in the theater, he could imagine himself as one of the chorus and thus enter the world of Dionysian primal awareness. The dramatist brings to life those spirits which inhabit all of us, so that what the Greeks saw on stage was the embodiment of their united consciousness. The audience as a whole experienced a metamorphosis, with each spectator accepting the essence of the satyr as his own. "The dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed beings, whose civic past and social position are totally forgotten." The world of theater is a world outside of culture, or rather, within culture, revealing its true heart. It is here that the individual is dissolved into the collective.
In this conception, the actors are mere Apollonian appearances. They represent a vision that the chorus generates and then celebrates in song. The chorus is the only reality of the drama. The chorus excites the minds of the audience to Dionysian frenzy, such that they are able to see not masked actors, but gods and heroes on the stage. Thus the Dionysian madness makes the Apollonian dream-state possible.
In these sections, Nietzsche defines the relationship between the tragic chorus and tragic actors. He contends that the chorus is at the heart of the tragedy, being the embodiment of the Dionysian consciousness. It is commonly accepted that tragedy's origins lay in the ritual chorus, but Nietzsche goes further, establishing the necessity of this origin.
This is a powerful and influential book. Dealing with philsophy, geneology and anthropology. Nietzsche does a good job at combing the macro philosophies of his time, with the micro interpretations of the detail of these stories and songs. None of which this reviewer picks up upon. So then this review gets a fail from me!
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I just finished listening to an audiobook of The Birth of Tragedy, and now I found my way to SparkNotes! I'm glad to have a chance to dig deeper into this famous philosophical work, and I wouldn't have been able to do this if it weren't for SparkNotes! Many thanks, and keep up the great work! John V. Karavitis