Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.22

David R. Slavitt (trans.), Seneca: The Tragedies, vol. I. Trojan Women Thyestes Phaedra Medea Agamemnon. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Pp. xvi + 207. $30.50 (hb). ISBN 0-8018-4308-1 (hb). $12.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8018-4309-X (pb).

Reviewed by William Levitan, Bryn Mawr College.

It's old news now, the critical rehabilitation of Senecan drama. T. S. Eliot, Otto Regenbogen, and Antonin Artaud first began the process some sixty years ago. In 1966 John Herington's masterful essay hurried it along, and in 1968 the Ted Hughes-Peter Brook production of Seneca's Oedipus gave it the indisputable sanction of theatrical plausibility. Since then, Senecan drama has been riding a wave of serious critical attention, and, if it is too soon to talk about a Senecan revival in full swing, there are still no signs that the wave has crested.

We have been watching, I think, the growing realization of a match between Seneca and the century. The plays have emerged from the last hundred years' experience of violence with a grim authority that could not have been predicted from the oscillation of taste alone or from the simple fact that academic bibliographies everywhere loathe a vacuum. At the end of the century, we can note something subtler, the deep rapport between Seneca (and all Latin literature, for that matter) and what are shaping up as some of the central concerns of contemporary literary discussion -- rhetoric, theatricality, and power; extremity and the contingent authority of canons and norms; and the recasting of history in radical, even apocalyptic, terms.

The freakishness of Senecan drama, once the cause of its censure, has become the source of its greatest power. The careful Aristotelian net of time, space, and cause will not easily contain this dramatic universe: time and space will implode, cause and effect will collapse in on each other, the distinction between actor and action will disappear. What escapes from the net is theater unassimilated to the decorum of narrative, and theater in a very stark form. No matter the original conditions of the plays' performance or non-performance, there is in them a saturation of the present moment, an intense concentration on what is immediately at hand that is the essence of the theatrical and the antithesis of narrative. At root, Senecan theatricality is the imposition of will on time, and it collaborates with its own heroic monsters -- Atreus, Medea, the mad Hercules -- to stage the impossible requirements of their desires: to stop time if necessary, turn it back upon itself if necessary, and make the world watch. We do watch, and we are stunned.

What most supports the theatrical structure of Senecan drama is just what has most needled its critics, its language -- its notorious, hyperbolic, clotted, and thoroughly insistent language, language less of sheer velocity than of momentum, overwhelming virtuoso language that will not take "No more" for an answer. Seneca doesn't use language, he over-uses it, leaving decorum and plausibility behind, moving toward an extreme of expression as a way of bringing to the present moment as much as it will possibly bear. "Bombast" we call it when it offends our sensibilities, and we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the term as only for the faint of heart. Seneca's is language that no longer pretends to innocence but is wholly entailed by its own history and physical presence, much like the evil that broods over his plays. For his characters, the same language is a vehicle of hybris, a tool of their outrageous will by which they would stuff themselves into the world for as long as it takes to realize apocalyptic horror. We need to preserve this sense of violation and risk, of language itself on the brink -- brilliant, yes, but potentially loathsome, at the same time intoxicating and repugnant, the monster at the heart of the plays which the plays cannot do without. Without this sense of language-at-the-peak, any translation of Seneca, no matter how well intentioned, will fail.

After years of official dedication to plain talk, English is again getting used to the kind of language that can do Seneca justice. We can point, for example, to the grim and giddy sentences of Stanley Elkin (think of the apocalypse-to-end-all-apocalypses in his novel The Living End) to indicate one possible direction a contemporary translation might take in prose. But it is only one direction, and prose is hardly the ideal medium for representing the seams Senecan language is always threatening to burst. Verse does better, and twentieth-century verse has, in fact, produced some extraordinary versions of Senecan drama. One of these, the Oedipus of Ted Hughes (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972), is also among the finest classical translations English of any period has to offer. Take this passage from early in the play; Oedipus speaks:

have I turned back    whatever there is that frightens
men in this world      whatever shape terror pain and
death can come in     it cannot turn me back     not
even Fate frightens me      not even the sphynx
twisting me up in her twisted words she did not
frighten me      she straddled her rock     her nest of
smashed skulls and bones      her face was a gulf her
gaze paralyzed her victims      she jerked her wings up
that tail whipping and writhing      she lashed herself
bunched herself     convulsed     started to tremble
jaws clashing together biting the air      yet I stood
there     and I asked for the riddle     I was calm
her talons gouged splinters up off the rock      saliva
poured from her fangs      she screamed      her whole
body shuddering      the words came slowly      the
riddle      the monster's justice      which was a death
sentence      a trap of forked meanings a noose of
knotted words      yet I took it      I undid it      I
solved it
that was the time to die      all this frenzy now     this
praying for death it's too late     Oedipus
One would like to go on quoting here, compelled both by a macabre fascination and by the very rhythm of this verse. Pounding against the discipline of the five-beat line is Hughes's outsized stress, often coming down on adjacent syllables: "jaws clashing," "gouged splinters," "smashed skull and bones." It is a willful rhythm, and this is scarcely self-effacing language. But there is no flamboyance of diction or syntax here (conventional signs of "rhetoric"), nothing puffed at all to carry Seneca's stark power, only the most direct of phrases: "I was calm," "she screamed," "I solved it." Hughes's Seneca is a supremely concentrated poet, boiled down to the essentials of syllable and image. What is extraneous in the verse evaporates, and the result seems to press straight to the center of things with its own unremitting weight.

Very different, but no less persuasive, is the Seneca of the play of argument and epigram, the Seneca of la maniera, presented in Douglass Parker's Thyestes (The Tenth Muse: Classical Drama in Translation, ed. C. Doria, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1980). Parker is especially good in rendering the heady love affair Senecan characters have with their own language. Here is his Atreus, briefly enjoying one of the great moments in the history of satisfaction:

One stretch, and I match the stars; I tread humanity;
away aloft I feel my head's pride knock
against heaven's peak. Now that I own the trappings
of power and my father's throne, I'll allow the gods
to go about their business; I've struck upon
the apogee of all my desires. Ah, this is excellence
in abundance, swelling into sufficiency. Even for me,
this is enough.
And not enough. The simple
gorging of a father on his sons' cadavers demands
an encore. And the time is right: The coward daylight,
for fear its finer feelings might be offended,
has gone to bed too early. It's clearly my office
to fill the void in the unemployed sky.
It would
be nice, of course, to grab the craven gods
and force the pantheon to sit in attendance on all
these courses of edible vengeance... but the father himself
is audience enough for me.
-- See here, brother:
Since natural light is reluctant, I shall shatter
and disperse the murk that masks your anguish in such
obscurity. Too long have you played the happy guest
and toyed at your food with a worriless face. An end
to dawdling over dinner, an end to sopping up wine --
ruin of this rank requires Thyestes sober.
-- You slaves, undo the doors, and let the scene
of cozy domestic cheer lie open. What
a feast of visual delight awaits me now:
The subtle shifts of complexion when he beholds
his sons' heads, the sudden expulsion of words impelled
by the shock of recognition, the stiffening, stupefied sigh
that heralds corporeal rigor. This is the rich
reward for all my efforts:
Not to see
a destroyed Thyestes; to see Thyestes destroyed.
This verse is for pleasure. One savors the consonant clusters and rich vowel assonance like clumps of nougat, the ambitious mix of diction like high-proof hooch -- Atreus on a grand tear, a sublime sugar-rush of speech. Few contemporary writers of any stripe can match Douglass Parker's linguistic virtuosity, and no translator comes near his sense of useful literary history. (The language of this translation owes as much to the great -- and some not so great -- over-reachers of renaissance drama as they originally owed to Seneca.) Precisely because of these gifts, though, his translation rubs up against a difficulty not of its own making. The modern curve of response to language like this tends to be flat: mannerism, wit, every species of high verbal self-consciousness is collapsed in our sensibility into the single category of humor. Can we then avoid a comic Seneca? Parker accepts this difficulty and uses it to steer his Seneca along the uneasy edge of what used to be called "black humor." That it is an uneasy edge is important: "When do we laugh?" "How dare we laugh?" become versions of the fundamental question all audiences have to ask of Senecan drama, "How in the world do we take this in?" "Black humor" is this translation's means of keeping the question open, an authentic twentieth-century strategy for preserving horror, even while displacing its effect. It is as successful a strategy as has been devised.

The translations of Hughes and Parker are the best modern versions of Seneca to be found, and this is in no small part because they take the pitch of Senecan language so seriously and have found means -- different means, to be sure -- to make an audience take it seriously as well. Other successful translators have cleared their own paths to the same end. Frederick Ahl, for example, has been producing a notably intelligent translation of the complete plays that is especially alert to the theatricality of Seneca's speech and the nervous energy of his pointed style -- Trojan Women, Medea, and Phaedra have been published so far (Seneca: Three Tragedies, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986); others are to come. But the lesson of Senecan language seems to have been lost on the author of the latest addition to the slowly growing list of Senecan translations, David R. Slavitt. In this work, Slavitt has so stubbornly refused to grapple with the texture, cadence, import, and effects of Senecan language (and often enough with even a rough lexical equivalent of what Seneca actually wrote) that the result is a highly compromised work of limited usefulness at best.

To be fair, Slavitt's interest as a translator has never been in the verbal surface of what he is translating. In the preface to his Seneca, he again makes this clear, equating such an interest with "word-for-word" fidelity and relegating that to the Loeb: "What I have tried to do, instead, is to be faithful to the dramatic moments. I attempt to find emotional or rhetorical cruces and to connect these in as graceful a way as I can manage in roughly the same number of lines as Seneca used." This approach offers Slavitt some measure of discipline. But by attaching himself to these "moments," he has also given himself the widest possible latitude to add to, subtract from, and otherwise amend Seneca. The translator has now become the ultimate arbiter of the text. In some form and to some extent this is inevitable, and even when it is especially pronounced, it is not uncommon. Ted Hughes, for example, significantly increased the role of Jocasta, in part to accommodate the talents of the actress Irene Worth, and replaced the dramatically awkward Bacchic chorus with a stunning coup of his own devising. Few translators, though, have put themselves so squarely in the foreground of their endeavor as Slavitt has done: wholesale transformations of the text assert themselves on every page. By this practice Slavitt has taken on an enormous responsibility and an enormous risk. Every move of the text is now the translator's, every decision is his, nothing can be shunted off on an "original." The question is not, "Should Slavitt do this?" but, "Is he up to it?" As with his earlier translations of Virgil and Ovid, Slavitt demonstrates here that he is not.

A first example, the parodos of his Thyestes. As Slavitt describes it, "CHORUS enters, a mixed group, some male, some female, some of them wearing togas, others dressed in modern clothes as if at an opening night at the theater." After some preliminary chitchat, they get down to business:

FIRST CHORISTER: These old Greek
stories have helped us imagine terrible deeds.
SECOND CHORISTER: Or allow us now to allude to current events
and speak, albeit in code, of the actions of people
in power here in Rome....
Some in the audience may
find that their thoughts wander away from the horrors
before them on the stage to others they have not seen
but know about, as one knows of a dead body
malodorous, rotting somewhere nearby. Who doubts
that Nero arranged to have his adoptive brother
killed, or that he and his mother Agrippina
arranged for Claudius Caesar's murder -- his father
at least by adoption? To entertain such thoughts
even in silence is dangerous; to pronounce
aloud what everyone thinks would be sheer madness.
FIRST CHORISTER: It crosses our minds, nevertheless, that Nero's
childhood tutor and then confidential adviser
was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, this evening's
THIRD CHORISTER: One cannot ignore the coincidences.
What is fundamentally wrong with this passage is not its anachronisms (neither the tuxedos nor Nero's imperial crimes, which, so far as anyone can be sure, were perpetrated after the play was written), nor its adolescent archness, nor even the way it recasts the fictional status of the entire drama (something, after all, has to be done with the Senecan chorus on the modern stage). What is wrong is its presumptuous banality. ("Oh, so that's what the play's about! Paranoid reportage of the Silver Age. Glad you told me.") This kind of glib reductionism is not a momentary lapse: it is the characteristic strategy of these translations. Slavitt likes to tell us what to think, prefers the penciled gloss of the undergraduate lecture to Seneca's own, more difficult words, enjoys having it all wrapped up even when the package itself is beyond ken. The Nurse Slavitt supplies would explain even Medea to us, as she speaks directly to the Chorus:

You don't believe in these things? Civilized, Greeks,
you dismiss these primitive practices, superstitions
from far away.... It can't happen here, you say?
It's not that simple. The question she faces is whether
it feels worse to be evil in a good
and orderly universe, or admit the darker
and likelier choice -- that there is no order. That chaos
whirls our meaningless lives this way and that way,
to make a pattern perhaps, as the soot that swirls
from the fire makes a smudge on the ceiling, but meaning
nothing at all, nothing, teasing, but nothing.
It is to that void she appeals, giving up what you,
and you, and you rely on.

The impulse to banality is at the core of Slavitt's conception and execution. He continually backs away from Seneca as if he were intimidated by his subject's intractability. Instead of loosing the poet on an English-speaking world, these translations do what they can to tame him, present him already bound on a leash of decorous intelligibility. In the main, Slavitt's verse is itself tame and decorous -- formal verse, not without its own character but with an eye peeled for the unobjectionable. "My recommendation," the Chorus of Slavitt's Agamemnon says, "is to try for what's simple and unassuming," and at times Slavitt seems to have taken the advice to heart. The result is that he consistently writes Seneca down instead of writing him up. Because of his method of translation, it is difficult to compare Slavitt and Seneca line by line, but a few instances can serve to make the point. From the Trojan Women:

aliquis (nefas)
tumulo ferus spectator Hectoreo sedet (1086-87)
... Greeks, swarming, chatting among themselves,
eating and drinking, sitting on Hector's tomb

terror attonitos tenet
ultrosque populos (1136-37)
There is a certain respect
with which the people look, scarcely believing....
If the violence of nefas, ferus, terror, and attonitos -- Senecan staples all -- must be toned down like this, there is little hope of finding Seneca anywhere in this translation. Slavitt's Hecuba says somewhere near the end of the prologue (the words translate no Latin), "Do you not feel distress at the lack of respect,/ the violation?" Note the tone of surprise at the affront, the raised eyebrows of "distress" and "lack of respect" -- all when Hecuba should be howling.

In general, Slavitt stands with characters who are "surprised" and "distressed" when the world does not turn out the way they think it should, with those whose allegiance is to decorum. Again, his Hecuba, later in the play:

This is the world,
brutal and cruel, that Troy tried to withstand.
Cruelty wins in the end. Our little clearings
of civilization may seem real, but mindless
wilderness always lurks, may take its time,
but in the end overwhelms all our pretensions
to decency. We revert to beastliness
and feel, for a moment perhaps ... regret? Chagrin?
And again, Seneca himself says nothing even this comforting, nothing even of this sort: it is Slavitt's own cliché. When it becomes impossible to ignore that the world is not simply indecent at times but seriously and fundamentally out of whack, Slavitt, like the characters he imagines, can only become inarticulate. Listen to his Jason stammer at the very end of the Medea:
What in the name of hell ...? A winged car?
But there are no gods. No gods! There are no gods.
That Slavitt has missed both the tone and the sense of Seneca's lines is not the point here. The point is that, having so thoroughly resisted the flood of Senecan speech, he has limited his own capacity as a translator to respond in a credible way to what is happening in the text. But stuck in his position of dogged linguistic plainness, what else can he do? When he tries to go down, he becomes vulgar and smug, as when he makes his Phaedra complain, "What to wear? I've got nothing to wear!" When he would go for a high style, he becomes Loebish, as when his Fury commands Tantalus:
Go back
to your accustomed caves in the underworld
lest the waters here also retreat and the fruits
of generous trees wither.
It is a fatal quandary.

Slavitt stands apart from the texture of Seneca's sentences and the sequence of his sentences, as if he were hearing the language only through some filter. Whenever there is a charged moment in the Latin that calls for a specifically linguistic response, Slavitt dissipates it or passes it by. Theseus' powerful "Quod interemi, non quod amisi, fleo" dissolves into the cliché of

I weep that I had to kill the son I loved.
I weep for myself and perhaps weep for a world
in which such vile and unspeakable things can happen.
The tension of Tantalus' problematic "Me pati poenas decet, non esse poenam" is unstrung by "I have learned to be torture's victim, not its henchman." Although Slavitt preserves the pathos and closure of Hecuba's magnificent finale, "Quam prope a Priamo steti," he destroys its epigrammatic strength by over-explanation:
I stood near Priam,
and not an arrow, not a firebrand
but whizzed by harmlessly, and every miss
now seems a mortal wound.
One would think it impossible to ruin the monumental "Medea nunc sum," but Slavitt does with a trivializing and thoroughly unnecessary addition:
Now I am an angry woman,
I am Medea.
When he encounters one of the serious rhetorical problems Seneca presents a translator, such as the famous Star Chorus of the Thyestes with its twelve distinct zodiacal signs tumbling from the heavens one by one, he just skips it; after a mention of the Gigantomachy, we read instead:
One need not look so far to find
parallel cases. At home, in Rome,
someone has his own half-brother
poisoned at dinner. Everyone sees
but says nothing and does nothing.
Then he murders his own mother,
and nothing happens, nothing at all.
Well, of course "nothing happens," if you treat the end of the world as nothing. Every time there is a real challenge, Slavitt retreats -- from Seneca's images, from his aphorisms, from the peaks and troughs of his rhetoric, from his intensity, from his lightening horror. What is left is, for the most part, tepid paraphrase masquerading as more.

This is not to say that the translation fails at every step. Mostly it is clear, often it is vivid, sometimes it is eloquent, and always it is readable. One last passage can put these virtues in perspective, inviting comparison with Parker's translation quoted above. Atreus' speech, Thyestes 885-907:

I know now how the gods must feel. Their power
sings along my nerves. I thrill to their giddy
altitude, as if I peered down from heaven
to watch as the tiny figures of men scurry
on what they take to be paths of important purpose.
I have accomplished all that I prayed to the gods
to let me achieve. What I had longed for and dreamt,
I saw in the waking world, the father feasting
on the flesh of his sons. The gods granted my plea
and then, as if astonished by what they had done,
fled. No god remains, but only myself,
my pure will imposing itself on the world
in all the detail they wanted not to witness.
It doesn't matter, so long as Thyestes sees,
and, pleased as I am, my last delight remains
that perfect consummation of my scheme --
I wait now for the sun of his understanding
to rise at last in a crimson drawn from the blood
of his three sons.
Throw open the temple doors
and let my remarkable banqueting hall be shown.
I still have the heads to display, to prove the truth
of words he won't believe from my mouth. Theirs,
mute now, will incontrovertibly speak.
And then will his well-fed cheeks turn ashen, pale
as the blood flees. But I have prepared him drink,
to restore his strength.
It is lovely to be a man,
even better to be a king, but a god,
immortal, invincible, limitless in the power
to turn thought to event, that's best of all.
To see him wretched is gratifying, but still
it is even better to watch as the wretchedness happens.
Slavitt begins beautifully. Atreus' tense exhilaration is almost palpable in the phonetic play of "feel," "thrill," and "peer." "Sing" is the perfect word here, and the trisyllabic "altitude" placed just right. But from the fourth line, the passage starts to unravel and sink into platitude. The verse becomes padded, the diction arbitrary or flat. What kind of adjective is "remarkable" for the banqueting hall of Atreus? Slavitt's one stretch toward Shakespearean loft -- "I wait now for the sun of his understanding to rise..." -- fails dismally, tripping from one bad phrase to another until it lands with a thud on a terrible pun and the inescapable cadence of a sit-com. Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of Slavitt's inability to keep up what he began than the way he undoes Atreus' aphorism, "miserum videre nolo, sed dum fit miser." Even Watling's Penguin (not to mention Parker's own great clinch) does better: "I must not only see him broken, but watch the breaking when it comes." Throughout this passage, Slavitt continually whittles the subtle contours of Seneca's argument down to a single point: that Atreus' ambition is indeed godlike. It is a point worth making -- once. But, having carved away Seneca's real verbal substance and still intent on "roughly the same number of lines," Slavitt has no choice but to make the point again and again and again.

In the end, Slavitt's translation has energy, imagination, and some verbal skill. But for those who take Seneca seriously and take translation seriously, it is not enough. For any translation to present Seneca, reveal Seneca, or stand for Seneca in any persuasive way, it first has to engage what is irreducibly Senecan, and that is his language. This Slavitt's translation will not do. It may, in fact, be unreasonable nowadays to expect of any individual the stamina necessary to sustain this engagement over the course of the corpus: Seneca is demanding and difficult work, and the best of poets have other things to do. It certainly is not unreasonable, though, to spread the work around, at least to imagine what brilliant possibilities there are in a complete new Seneca by divers hands -- a late twentieth-century version of the epoch-making Tenne Tragedies of 1581, but rigorously devoted to the highest standards of contemporary writing. Any publisher with the will and the resources can collect the superb translations that already exist and commission new ones to fill the many gaps. A pipe dream, maybe. But Seneca's time has come again, and again it is time to try.