Use of the Chorus in the Inner Stage Production of MacEwen's The Trojan Women

By Claire Humphrey
Department of Drama
University of Guelph

In the winter semester of 1994, I was involved in the Inner Stage production of The Trojan Women, directed by Catherine Marrion. The English translation used was not a direct rendering of Euripides' original, but an adaptation by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen. Because MacEwen took certain liberties with the text, her version was not a traditional Greek tragedy, but it retained many elements of the original. The plot remained constant, but the characters were somewhat modernized. Both plays could be considered feminist tracts, at least when one compares Euripides' treatment of the Trojan women with Aristotle's assertion in the Poetics that 'a woman... is a weaker being... and it is not appropriate for a woman to be manly or a clever speaker.' (1) In MacEwen's Trojan Women, the women are allowed more freedom than in Euripides' original.

The most traditional element remaining in MacEwen's script was the chorus, but Marrion's interpretation for the Inner Stage production was not always with the grain of the text. Marrion told the chorus at the beginning of rehearsals that her aim was not to produce a traditional tragedy, so the play's history was examined more as a matter of interest than as actual background. I was cast as Chorus Member #4, so I have an actor's view.

The text of MacEwen's chorus was divided up into nine individual parts, each of which had different image motifs and speech patterns (frequent questions, wailing, always initiating a line run, always ending a line run, speaking without following or being followed by other chorus members). As part of character development, each chorus member in the Inner Stage production picked out the particulars of her number. For example, as #4 I had a recurring theme of fire in my lines. Marrion encouraged the chorus to be individual women, rather than a group voice.

This individuality was most evident in the earlier part of the play, during the scene of Cassandra's madness. During rehearsals, Marrion gradually developed the subtext of the scene to discover motives for the chorus's antagonism toward Cassandra. My own lines, in particular, were unusually rude considering Cassandra's social position:

CASSANDRA: Am I not as sexy as Helen, As desirable as the sunrise?
CHORUS #4: What is as short-lived as the sunrise? (2)

Eventually Marrion chose to individualize the chorus to such an extent that my rudeness was a result of personal jealousy: during Cassandra's previous speech I had been flirting with a soldier, whose attention Cassandra diverted with her sexual antics. In this case I, as a chorus member, functioned as an actor in my own right.

The group function developed later in the play, during the scene with Helen of Sparta. The directorial reasoning was that the women of Troy would band together against a common enemy, rather than continuing to disagree among themselves, thus allowing the chorus to act in unison without destroying the earlier illusion of separate characters. In this scene the script included several unison lines and Marrion blocked the scene accordingly, instructing the chorus to be a pack of hunting dogs eager to rip Helen to shreds. Although this choice reflects the traditional tragic chorus role, it was based on Marrion's modern concept of Stanislavskian character objectives rather than on Aristotelian theory.

Only one scene in the Inner Stage production was basically true to Euripides' vision of the chorus. This interlude was a chorus-only flashback to the invasion and fall of Troy, told through poetry, music and dance. The music was Marrion's addition, consisting of an eleven-beat percussion cycle which was held between a drummer (myself) and a vocalist while the rest of the chorus danced and spoke MacEwen's poetic rendition of the Trojan Horse story. Aristotle might have condemned Euripides for such an interlude but its dramatic purpose was obvious: it served both as a transition between the Cassandra scene and the Andromache scene, and as background information for audience members who might not know the whole story.

Aristotle thought the voice of the chorus should be the voice of the common people, whereas the main characters of a tragedy were superior humans, kings or heroes. The chorus in MacEwen's version is certainly made up of commoners, but is not denied the status of tragic figures:

CHORUS #7: They'll take me to Argos, or maybe
Some naked lonely island far far away...
CHORUS #8: I will continue to weave,
But on somebody else's loom...
CHORUS #9: I will carry pitchers of water, pitchers of water,
I will carry pitchers of water
From one end of the earth to the other
Forever and ever...(3)

The compassionate treatment of commoners by MacEwen in allowing them to speak intelligently and have real emotions contributed hugely to the play's modern relevance. In terms of plot elements, however, both versions of The Trojan Women followed the form of traditional Greek tragedies, containing such elements as anagnorisis, peripeteia and catharsis. In this case the anagnorisis is Andromache's recognition of the fact that her young son is not to be allowed to live. Euripides' script excluded the chorus from the revelation of the death order:

TALTHYBIUS: The council has decreed for your son - how can I say this?
ANDROMACHE: That he shall serve some other master than I serve?
TALTHYBIUS: No man of Achaea shall ever make this boy his slave.
ANDROMACHE: Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?
TALTHYBIUS: Worse; horrible. There is no easy way to tell it.
ANDROMACHE: I thank your courtesy - unless your news be really good.
TALTHYBIUS: They will kill your son. It is monstrous. Now you know the truth. (4)

The death of the child was the tragic event which spurred catharsis, followed by a lengthy burial and mourning scene. MacEwen's version of the anagnorisis included the chorus as foreshadowers of the terrible news. They recognized upon Talthybius' entrance that the soldier would order the death of Andromache's son:

CHORUS #6: Sing for the great city that falls like a shadow
CHORUS #7: On the threshold of Nowhere...
CHORUS #8: Your son will not go with you.
CHORUS #9: Your son is not going... anywhere. (5)

Marrion's interpretation left Andromache in the dark for as long as the script allowed, to increase the sense of inevitability of the child's death, in turn intensifying the pity and fear felt by the audience.

The judicious mixture of traditional Greek techniques with twentieth-century scripting and theory created a number of possibilities for chorus work, many of which were explored in rehearsal. Marrion chose a more individualistic path of character development, but her choice was based on and supported by MacEwen's division of the chorus speeches into solo lines. The final production contained a more vital and human chorus than Euripides' original, while also bringing some of the issues of The Trojan Women from ancient Greece into modern Canada.


  1. Aristotle: Poetics, chapter 15. Sources of Dramatic Theory 1: Plato to Congreve. Ed. Michael J. Sidnell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

  2. MacEwen, Gwendolyn: The Trojan Women. Toronto: Exile Editions Limited, 1981, p.48.

  3. MacEwen, p.41.

  4. Grene, David and Richard Lattimore: Euripides, The Trojan Women; Greek Tragedies Volume II. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958, p.273.

  5. MacEwen, p.62.

Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey is in the second year of her undergraduate studies in the Drama Department at the University of Guelph, and President of the College of Arts Students Union.