The Dream Chorus

A classical Greek Chorus

Each life has its own mythology, its own grand journey and its own universe of symbols and constellation of meaning. Dreams, according to Joseph Campbell and others, provide a personal mythology for each individual, just as mythology offers a broad dream for the culture.

I’ve questioned again and again if  dreams are precognitive, if they are prescriptive, if they are random, or if they are emotional barometers. One image that works well for me in defining the role of my dreams, is that of the ancient Greek Chorus.

Using this image of the Greek Chorus, I looked at one year of my dreams to see what role they played in shaping and guiding the personal mythology of my life.

Definition

The Greek chorus (choros) is a group of twelve or fifteen minor actors in tragic and twenty-four in comic plays of classical Athens. They can portray any characters, for instance, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the chorus comprises the elderly men of Argos, whereas in Euripides’ The Bacchae, they are a group of eastern bacchants, and in Sophocles’ Electra, the chorus is made up of the women of Argos.

In a sense, dreams are like one’s own personal Greek chorus. The dream figures that populate my nighttime dramas portray different parts of my Self. In my case the chorus consists of both people and animals, loved ones both living and dead, colleagues and acquaintances. Some of the members of my personal chorus, those dream characters who have been populating my dreams of late include:

  • Sensei: My first karate teacher, someone who started me on my spiritual path, who taught me to be humble and to be a student. By her presence, Sensei taught me the importance of having a teacher I could trust and being willing to put my faith in that teacher. She represents the wisdom of teachers and the teacher in me. She showed up in my dreams doling out wisdom and heralding significant dreams.
  • The Father: My relationship with my father has been one that started with naïve love in childhood, moved into being one of disappointment and abandonment in pre-teen years, and then to anger and raw fury in adolescence and young adulthood. From there my father and I both used the foundation of love underneath our deep disagreements and hurts to slowly build a relationship of trust, respect and healing. He entered my dreams during the period I studied alternately as the Loving Father, The Abusive Father, and the Father as Friend and Companion. My father is so deeply a part of me, awake and asleep, that the connections are fairly transparent. In this year’s dreams he carried messages about money, resources and providing.
  • The Dog: The dog has been part of my dream chorus since I was a young woman. At first the dog was always large and black and would enter baring his teeth, snarling and growling at me, threatening and menacing. Over the years, as I’ve worked with my dreams and through my process of self-growth and awareness, the dog has begun to appear as companion, guide, guardian and friend. The black dog represents and converses with my sense of inner protection, loyalty and companionship. In this cycle of dreams the dog has appeared to warn me away from certain decisions.
  • The Androgynous Teacher: This woman made her debut in a “big” dream I had in March of the year I studied, in which she appeared first as a man in uniform, then as a woman glittering with jewels. She has reappeared again and again, as an androgynous woman sitting in the stands and observing the action, as a pair of twins (boy and girl) and as a fully realized feminine personage bedecked with spangles and sparkles. She represents the indiviudated/fully realized Me, and guides me toward my most confident and embodied Self.

There are many more members of the chorus, but these are some of the key players.

Dramatic function

Plays of the ancient Greek theatre always included a chorus that offered a variety of background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance. In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they need.

Dreams as a whole, as well as the characters within them, represent emotions, fears, hopes, anxieties and possibilities that the dreamer may not yet be able to articulate or even access. For example, in one dream I had this year, after battling through a difficult decision making process, I dreamed that I was looking for a lost bicycle. I knew that that dream was my chorus telling me what I did not yet know – that I had lost my balance, but that I was on my way to regaining it. During my waking drama I dared not acknowledge fears and doubts that the chorus of my dreams sang out loudly. The dream chorus has also been generous with their offers of insight. Through my dreams I have been given simple wisdom: “Temporary is good,” one character told me — and seen the possibilities for sparkling self-expression that lie within me, as in the shape-shifting bus driver in the “bid dream” referenced above, and a spinning sequined vision of myself in a later dream, as waking events began to resolve themselves.

Stage management

Before the introduction of multiple, interacting actors by Aeschylus, the Greek chorus was the main performer in relation to a solitary actor. The Greek chorus usually communicated in song form, but sometimes spoke their lines in unison. The chorus had to work in unison to help explain the play as there were only one to three actors on stage who were already playing several parts each. As the Greek theatres were so large, the chorus’ actions had to be exaggerated and their voices clear so that everyone could see and hear them.

The dream chorus has an audience of One – but it is not always easy to capture that single viewer’s attention.While the Greek chorus uses exaggerated gestures and loud voices, song and synchronized movement, the dream chorus uses surprising juxtapositions (expensive sunglasses in a toilet full of waste), dramatic action (a package on the floor containing Jesus Christ’s hands), or emotionally-packed images: (home invaders). The masks of the dream chorus come in all varieties: aspects of the dreamer’s Self are masked as various characters from her waking life, each meant to awaken another aspect of the dreamers personality or story.

The chorus leader

The training of the chorus was the responsibility of a chorus leader, or choregus … The choregus provided all the equipment, costumes, props, and trainers for the chorus members. This preparation might last for 6 months. At the end, if the choregus was lucky, he would then have to fund a celebratory feast for winning the prize.

Who is the leader of the dream chorus? Who choreographs, directs, costumes, casts and produces the nightly dramas that provide such rich commentary on our lives? Is it God? The dreamer’s own deep sense of intuition and wisdom? Is the process more mechanistic and biologically based in the dreamer’s brain?

Relationship between chorus and actor

To modern readers of Greek tragedy, the chorus may seem a quaint device to gloss over. The ancient actor (hypokrites, literally the one who answers the chorus’ questions), likewise, might ignore the advice of the chorus. Yet Aristotle said the chorus should be regarded as one of the actors. The chorus had a personality and could be important in the action, depending on the play, … but even so, they couldn’t prevent the 1,2, or 3 actors from doing what they would.

Despite the elaborate scenarios created and delivered by the dream chorus, the actor, or in this case the dreamer, may not take the chorus’s advice. The dreamer might wake and decide to disregard the warnings of the snarling dog, the careening out of control cars or stinking landscapes. Perhaps that is why the dreaming never ends, the chorus continues to try to have its say. The drama continues as actor and chorus interact with one another, ignore one another, tease, taunt, advise and amuse.

Conclusion

Nietzsche suggests that it was the rhythmic dance and chants of the chorus, positioned always to mediate the physical space separating audience and actor, that evoked the visionary experience that was the very essence of tragedy.

The dream chorus mediates between the individual’s wake and sleeping states, between one day and the next, and between the conscious and subconscious mind. The dream chorus is positioned between above and beyond all the various parts of our selves, bringing them together with nocturnal performances that offer us visions and possibilities for our daily lives. For me, the dream chorus helps define the essence of my experience; awake and asleep.

©Tzivia Gover 2011

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Works cited:

The dreams referenced in this text are dreams I had during 2009, as recorded in my dream journals. The italicized text throughout this article are quotes (edited and paraphrased at times) taken from the following web sites:

1.  “The Greek Chorus,” By N.S. Gill, About.com Guide; http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/greekliterature/a/GreekTheater_4.htm; May 7, 2010

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_chorus 3. http://www2.selu.edu/Academics/Faculty/jwiemelt/classes/engl230/chorus.htm

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