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The Chorus Leaves the Stage

An ancient tragedy was concluded by the exit march of the chorus from the stage: this exit marked the end of the action of the play and was a most fundamental element in ancient drama; the entire last part of the play was a preparation for it, and hence was known as the exode. Since in the Greek stage there was no curtain, the end of a tragedy was indicated by the departure of the chorus from the stage. The chorus could exit silently or reciting a few parting lines. In his Heracles, Euripides reduced the final chorus to only two lines which are rather prosaic:

We depart lamenting and full of tears,
Having lost the greatest of friends.

The most effective ending is that of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, in four lines:

You have seen astounding deaths,
innumerable sufferings,
never suffered before:
All this is the will of Zeus.

In the tragedies of Seneca the chorus usually exits silently, but in Hercules on Oeta, after the last words of Hercules’ mother, the chorus concludes the tragedy by reciting fourteen lines which express two thoughts, both of which could also have applied to Jesus. The first is that Hades cannot hold Hercules. In his analysis of the play Frank Justus Miller observes: The chorus strikes a fitting final note that the truly brave are not destined for the world below:

But when life’s days are all consumed
And comes the final hour,
for them a pathway to the gods is spread by glory.

The second is that the peace brought to the world by Hercules will come again to the earth. But from the gospels it can be inferred that in Seneca’s Nazarenus the chorus of Daughters of Jerusalem exited without any song. In Seneca’s play Mary and the chorus of her companions twice were about to leave the stage for good when they were called back, but they left in the third scene. Hence, the final exit was well prepared. In Hercules on Oeta the last words of Hercules are it is time for me to ascend to the celestial region, whereupon Alcmene (before the mentioned chorus lines) utters her last thought:

I shall go to the kingdom of Thebes
and there proclaim the new god added to their temples.

In terms of a stage presentation, this meant that the women exited on the right side of the stage, the direction of the city. The end of Luke’s gospel is very similar. Jesus blessed his followers and started ascending to heaven, while they

worshipped him and went back into Jerusalem, filled with great joy
and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God.

The three final verses of Luke’s gospel originally referred only to the women. In the third scene of the last act the women had bowed down to the ground and, having followed with their gaze the white cloud in which Jesus was understood to have ascended, left the stage in the direction of the right. Luke’s gospel, like that of Mark, ends where Seneca’s play ended, but Luke interrupted his narrative by inserting a series of appearances of the risen Jesus. These appearances, which Luke felt compelled to include in order to prove the reality of the resurrection, required some far-reaching changes, which Luke was unable to carry out consistentlythe result being that the ascension of Jesus was described twice (Lk 24:51, Acts 1:9) as was of the exit of the women (Lk 24:10, 24:52). Such flaws, however, throw into even sharper relief the original scheme of Seneca’s play.


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