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The Dance in Greek Tragedy

  • H. D. F. Kitto (a1)


On rhythm amd metre Aristoxenus always talks the plainest common sense—which is more than one can say about certain other ancient metricians. On Time, in its rhythmical aspect, he remarks: ‘Time is articulated by each of the three ῥυθμιƷόμενα, λέξις, μέλος and κίνησις σωματική.’ The Greek choral lyric was a triple partnership of poetry, song, and dancing, and Aristoxenus here points out that they share a common rhythm. (He goes on to develop the idea, but that need not concern us here.) We could safely infer for ourselves, even if Plato and Aristotle had not told us, that the music and the dance were far from being merely decorative or casual additions to the poetry. The poetry may have been Queen, as Pratinas maintained, but the philosophers took the other two partners very seriously as ‘imitators’ of moral ideas and the like; and there is every reason to suppose that the dramatists did the same. But writers on Greek Tragedy have had much to say about the λέξις of the odes; nothing about its two partners—for the good reason that we know nothing about them. Yet it does seem possible, here and there, to say a little about the dance. Whether it is worth saying, the reader must judge.

The audience, sitting in the theatre, saw some kind of ordered physical movement in the orchestra as it listened to the singing or chanting of an ode. If in any given case we were asked what this movement was, our only answer is that we cannot possibly tell. Nevertheless, there are moments where we can infer, with more or less probability, the sort of thing that was being done by the dancers, and occasionally—notably in the Agamemnon—this dim and doubtful picture will contribute something to our appreciation of the drama.



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1 Westphal, , Griechische Rhythmik (3rd edn., 1885), p. 74.

2 Metricians who will not believe Aristoxenus and Aristeides Quintilianus when they say that a long can be much longer than two shorts will necessarily disagree with what follows, and must continue to do their best with the dochmii and other rhythmical irrelevancies that they find in these odes.

3 Here there is a brief anacreontic interlude, discussed below.

4 Westphal, p. 226.

5 I assume that the last verse, contains six feet, not four: not I see no means of proving this; but the former, in this context, makes an appropriate and intelligible rhythm, while the latter would be nodiing but a huddled mess.

6 To judge from the verse-divisions in the Oxford text, Pearson scanned as This obliterates one of Sophocles'most vivid rhythms:

7 The other instances are: φιλόμαχοι (230), 413 (lect-dub.), and the five which occur in vv. 485–6—with an effect which is obvious.

8 In his Greek Lyric Metres (Cambridge, 1929).

9 It seems to me more probable that they took only one step, though the point is not material here. The trochee, to Aristoxenus, was thesis (i.e. strong part of the bar) and arsis (weak part). Probably therefore the Choriambus was thesis, and arsis; in either case the physical movement would divide the bar into contrary halves.

10 Westphal, p. 159.

11 My accents indicate the moves of the dancers.

12 The simplest way of explaining the variation is to shift the bar-line (which may offend some metricians, but makes no practical difference at all); etc. The bars in 3–4 time are interrupted by one in 6–8 (compound-duple). It is an effect of which Brahms was fond.

The Dance in Greek Tragedy

  • H. D. F. Kitto (a1)


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