**Giveaway alert for Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey—see info at the end of this post! Now on with today’s topic…
If I set up a soapbox to read a politically charged excerpt of my novel in front of City Hall, one or two curiosity seekers might stop to listen. But if fifty thousand marched with me to City Hall, and we read in unison, not only would many more onlookers take notice, but the mayor himself would come to the window, the whole thing would be captured on television, and then become a YouTube #flashnovel sensation (hmm, promo note to self).
You know it to be true: the voice of a group is more powerful than the voice of an individual. Since the earliest staged tragedies, storytellers have made creative use of groups to comment with a collective voice on a story’s dramatic action. Known as a Greek chorus, its sole purpose was to amplify the effect of the action onstage through unison movement or speech.
Uses for a Greek chorus might be to:
- provide background information to help the audience follow the story
- comment on themes
- demonstrate how the audience might react emotionally to the drama
- express what the main characters cannot, such as hidden fears or secrets.
The technique is still alive and well. In her debut, The Lace Reader, author and WU Contributor Brunonia Barry bolstered the perspectives of individual characters through a variety of Greek choruses. My guess is, the rich “types” of characters you might expect to see in her setting of Salem Massachusetts—witches, the religious conservatives who hunted them, and tourists—were the jumping off point for her New York Times bestselling novel.
Story is internal conflict made external
One reason we love story is the way it brings internal conflict out into the light of day, where we can more easily examine its components. Each of Bru’s groups amplifies one of the warring influences within protagonist Towner Whitney.
The witches, to me, represent Towner’s attempt to own her power as a woman as well as her inheritance of the gift of lace reading (a form of fortune telling). They lend heft to a passage like this:
Ann’s evolution into “Town Witch” was gradual. To hear Eva tell it, you’d think that Ann woke up one day and realized that she was a witch. In fact, it wasn’t a decision; it was an evolution. But her family history was what made her famous. The witches of Salem—the locals who have taken up the practice or the ones who’ve been practicing and have come to Salem because it has been declared a safe haven for witches—have all rallied around Ann Chase. They wear their association like a badge of courage, one that proves that the Salem witches really did exist here all along, a kind of “Look how far we’ve come” thing.
The power of this paragraph, and the power of Ann as a character, can be found in the way that first her family, and then all the witches if Salem, wear their association with Ann in the same way.
The “Calvinists,” the religious cult led by Towner’s father Calvin, are the external manifestation of Towner’s inner judge and jury, made clear in a scene in which a girl, pregnant by one of the Calvinists, is beaten as a fraud after being unable to cough up the Lord’s Prayer on demand and in public.
When the Calvinists come after Towner and the pregnant girl, the tourists—outsiders trying to figure out what’s going on—evoke Towner’s own confused mental state as she tries to make sense of her own memories and perceptions. The tourists also do a great job of increasing the fever pitch:
I see them crossing the street, torches blazing. Traffic stops for them, creating a jam of onlookers. I see the looks of amusement from the tourists. They think they’re watching one of the pageants they’ve seen over and over again in this city.
“Get the witch!” they chant.
The tourists think it’s Bridget Bishop, or one of the other reenactments. They are trying to do their part as well, trying to engage the hysteria, to show they’re comfortable with it. Getting their children involved, too. “Get the witch! Get the witch!” they cry.
The track Bru lays with these groups puts Towner and the pregnant Angela at the center of this revelatory moment:
In this place the scene has become simple and universal. What we are seeing is history repeating itself, one scene superimposed over the other. We are both here and back in old Salem at the same time, with the real Calvinists, the first ones. There is a feeling of impending doom here, and when I look at Angela, for just a moment, I see her in the drab brown Puritan dress, her hair tied back and covered. And we are back in history in the days when they came to get you because you were a woman alone in the world, or because you were different, because your hair was red, or because you had no children of your own and no husband to protect you.
Talk about a Greek chorus: Bru is summoning the power of all of the witches and all of the Puritans (and most of the women) throughout history in order to extend and amplify her novel’s enduring conflict. Mad skills.
Does Bru stop there? Why would she, she was on a roll! A community of abused women, given safe haven offshore on Yellow Dog Island, are a societal representation of the novel’s personal stakes.
Another Greek chorus is formed by the wild yellow dogs themselves, who emerge snarling from caves in both dreams and in story events. The pack brings forth the fierceness with which some boundaries must be defended.
And is there a better way to evoke one’s fear than a rat for company in a dark tunnel, when your only choices are to return to a smoky inferno or continue forward into deep water? Sure there is. Make it scores of rats, heading in the same direction as the characters—until even the rats sense they have met their end.
Aristotle stated in his Poetics: “The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action.” Because Bru’s groups were integral to the plot, extended the story’s themes, and exemplified other than overtly explained inner emotions, this technique did not come across as overkill.
It came across as smart.
Can you think of novels in which a Greek chorus has been used to good advantage? Might it work to amplify the theme and spread the stakes of your own novel? Share in the comments!
GIVEAWAY! [U.S. only]
After last month’s post, in which I examined (and tweeted about!) the way Margot Livesey set the hook in her novel Banishing Verona, Margot generously sent me a box of signed hardcover copies! If you’d like to enter the giveaway click this title link—The Power of Unexpected Elements—and leave a comment as to what you like about her opening, reproduced in the post. Everyone who already left a complimentary comment about the work will be automatically entered, along with all new comments on that post only. Three winners will be chosen on Friday April 14. Good luck, and many thanks to Margot Livesey for her generosity!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!