01 April 2022

Let's Hear it for the Chorus

Possibly our remote ancestors put on little skits in the clammy caves of northern Europe. Or spawned dramas out of the dance and ceremony of Southern Africa. The urge to imitate may be as old as the species, but, at least in the West, honors as the first to take the stage go to the Greeks. They had tragedy and comedy, protagonists and antagonists, deus ex machina, satire and slapstick and the chorus.

In Greek plays, the latter is of vital importance, serving most often as the voice of the ordinary populace, the shifting and uncertain, deeply conservative, and anxiously pious folk who witness the fall of kings and the revenge of queens.

We've retained a lot from the Greek theater, including its termanology, but the chorus has been neglected item of late, except in certain grand operas. This is why I found Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty especially interesting. Ms. Moriarty (wonderful name for a mystery writer) has resurrected the chorus and made interesting use of it in her 2014 novel about an upscale Australian seaside community with a first rate elementary school.

The children of Pirriwee Public School are the expected mixed bag of talents and temperaments. The adults, sad to say, are a competitive and cliquey bunch, divided between professionals and stay-at-home moms. But whether super homemaker or corporate honcho, they are all almost pathologically protective and involved, hyper-sensitive to any slight or injury to their offspring, and possess the attack instincts of a mama bear.

As a result, Pirriwee Public School is a real snakepit of parental anxiety, social jockeying, and one upmanship. Still, it is a real shame that something deadly serious had to happen at their annual Trivia Night fundraiser.

Just what constituted this calamity, Moriarty cleverly delays until the concluding chapters, although we know from the chorus, a selection of school parents and one put upon police investigator, that it was serious. But do not expect to gain very much information from these gossipy folks, because their attention is seriously divided. There's that episode of bullying in the kindergarten class and the definitely not-our-type youngest mother with the boy who needs watching. There's gossip about a new au pair and early morning drinking and speculation about just who introduced head lice into the lower grades.

Meanwhile, the three main protagonists, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, get on with their increasingly complicated lives, providing fodder for the chorus as the chapters move inexorably toward the fatal Trivia Night (Elvis and Audrey Hepburn costumes mandatory!).

What is clever about this structure is the way suspense builds on ignorance; we don't even know the identity of the victim until the last few dozen pages. And it would be a foolish reader who trusts any of the intel from the chorus. Moriarty has found an ingenius way of strewing red herrings in her plot. Forget subtly working in casual remarks when you have a chorus: just let someone blurt out whatever you need to muddy the narrative waters.

Big Little Lies eventually morphed into a 14 episode HBO drama. Perhaps the chorus isn't as obsolete as we thought.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post-Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle, The Complete Madame Selina Stories. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books.

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is also available at Apple Books.


  1. Interesting, Janice. Thanks!

  2. Good review, Janice. Yet another library visit!

    And congratulations on your new books. I've enjoyed the Bacon and the Madame Selina tales.


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