The chorus of the elderly in classic Greek drama is a common trope in the theater of that period. Out of the thirty or so plays that are extant from the classical period seven have choruses that consist of elderly people. Choruses in ancient drama often provided some moralizing lesson to the protagonist, especially in tragedy. However, the figures of the elderly chorus often seem to imply a traditional way of thinking that has become outdated with time, or, in some cases, provide a model of inefficacy. As history progressed from the early stages of Greek drama (with Aeschylus) the chorus became more integrated with the happenings on stage, rendering the chorus a messenger between the world of the audience and that of the actors. Some have argued that the inefficacy of old age is somehow linked to the inefficacy of the chorus to act upon the main actors within some of the playwright's works; however, although some dramas toy with the common practices within Greek theater, creating choruses that are prominent within the story and often do not associate with the audience—an example being the Furies of The Euminides. Moreoever, in comedy the elderly often served both as comic relief and political stand-ins. For instance, within Aristophanes' The Wasps the father and son's generation gap is not only physical but political and civil; the son rarely attends law courts and prefers a more cosmpolitan life style, shunning the conservative regime of Cleon (hence his name Bdelycleon Cleon hater) while the father is addicted to government and refuses to slow down as age catches up to him (Philocleon, Cleon lover is his name). While the elderly are often presented as laughable, it is also presented as a dire period of life as in The Suppliants in which the aging mothers of children massacred in war bemoan the pain of old age without children.
The chorus of the elderly within tragedy is often used as an exemplar of old social mores, but at the same time are often ineffectual at admonishing main actors or interfering with the main plot. Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus uses the chorus to relate to the aging and decrepit protagonist, who has wandered to the town for safety. A common trope is that the elderly chorus provides sympathy and empathy for those in need as they too are in a deteriorating state, nearing their doom. The chorus of elders not only attempt to protect Oedipus but fail miserably; while the chorus speaks aggressively it is well known that they are too frail to attempt any sort of defense of the protagonist from physical harm. Similar outcomes of choral interference with onstage happenings occur in many other plays, including Agamemnon. Falkner also notes that in tragedy the elderly are presented as quixotic and obsessed with the prospect of doom inherent in old age; he also notes that often the elderly are presented as mourners within plays, perhaps relating to the number of sorrows old age allows one to accrue in mind.
Aristophanes uses the chorus of the elderly for varying reason within his comedies. On one level the chorus of the elderly within The Wasps plays the role of comedic stooge. However, on a deeper, more significant level it serves as a political counterfoil to the young, cosmopolitans of Athens. Considering the arrangement of the chorus near the audience, it is understood that the audience was find comical traits of the elderly caricatured in the chorus, meant to resemble the elderly within society. The elderly chorus is portrayed as cheap:
“And oil’s scarce. But you don’t feel the pinch when it comes to paying, do you?”
Nostalgic for war:
“In many a battle when the barbarians invaded us, Infesting the city and pouring in smoke and fire upon us, Intent upon root out our nests by force, not likely! Seizing up spears and shields we made sally after sally…”
Ill tempered in life and politics:
“He’s so ill-tempered he convicts every time!”
However, at the same time one is meant to feel sympathy for the elderly as Aristophanes declares through the chorus, “Isn’t old age the worst of evils?” Aristophanes visits similar tropes of old when he uses a chorus of women to counter a chorus of elderly men, representing reform and tradition respectively.