Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.14


David R. Slavitt (ed.), Seneca, The Tragedies, Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Pp. xliv + 264. $15.95.

Includes: Dana Gioia, "Introduction" and The Madness of Hercules; Rachel Hadas, Oedipus; Stephen Sandy, A Cloak for Hercules; Kelly Cherry, Octavia; D. R. Slavitt, The Phoenician Women; each with translator's introduction.


Reviewed by Robert J. Brophy, Syracuse, NY.

On this important though uneven series and volume, I shall comment as an actor-playwright (member of the Dramatists Guild) and Classicist. Brief staged readings tested the lines. Gioia's Introduction has nice comments on verse drama, e.g., xxxv: in our "century only isolated acts of poetic genius, like Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, could temporarily resurrect the genre; even brilliant attempts like T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion or Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F-6 only succeed halfway."

Gioia's Madness of Hercules has easily-actable lines and wonderful poetry, alternating rhymed and unrhymed lines, like Milton's "Lycidas", as this example from the first Chorus:

Now the stars begin to fade,
Like an army put to flight,
Bury their scattered campfires
Routed by the morning's light.
Fading in the northern sky,
Soon the Great Bear will be gone.
One by one its seven stars
Disappear into the dawn.
In the vineyards of the Bacchae
Sunlight down the hillside bleeds (195-206, p. 56),

to Lycus' smug hypocrisy, "Dear Princess of the royal house We must be open-minded" (469-72, p. 65) to a finale by Hercules that inspired Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth:
What country shall I seek?
Where shall I hide? What land will bury me?
Can all the waters of the Nile or Don,
The raging Tigris flooding Persia's shore,
The savage Rhine, the golden Tagus roiled
With Spain's resplendent sand, wash clean these hands?
If cold Crimea poured its icy sea,
If all great Neptune's ocean rinsed my hands, The deep-set stains would cling incarnadine (1656-1663).
Gioia clearly borrowed from Shakespeare, but he borrowed from Seneca: et tota Tethys per meas currant manus,/ haerebit altum facinus (1328-29). Cherry with Octavia notes the parallel fall of the Julio-Claudian and Soviet "dynasties," citing the Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and the Roman, people's smashing of rulers' statues, and Edvard Radzinsky's 1992 play The Theater in the Time of Nero and Seneca (pp. 185-86). She well captures the Neronian court's incestuous atmosphere, which includes even the virtuous heroine Octavia and her brother Britannicus:
How often
My brother's sad shade has appeared before me
When sleep closed my tear-weary eyes!
And now, still trembling, he takes refuge with me
In my chamber. His enemy pursues him
And, even while the boy still clings to me
Thrusts his sword violently through
Both our bodies (121-3, 128-32).

Cherry uses verse only for Octavia, the chorus (of Women, of Romans), and Agrippina's Ghost, and prose for all others, to make them more earthy, more mundane. Nero combines slang and baroque images (pp. 210-11):

"fear makes all men yes-men. [Julius] Caesar, conqueror of nations, on the top rung of the ladder of success -- next to Jove himself -- was brought down by the nefarious conspiracy of citizens! What fountains of her own blood did Rome, run through by so many swords, see then. The deified Augustus, who (you say) got into heaven by being pious, how many nobles did he execute ? All on the proscription lists, all on the death-squad lists!"
At Philippi "the whole world was convulsed by these contending forces. Epileptoid empire!" And Octavia calls Poppaea, her pregnant rival, "an arrogant little something tricked out like a queen (l. 135)."

Occasionally Cherry uses "filler" phrases not in the Latin for the verse: "the face/ Of a tyrant, a face that may be said/ To be tumescent with anger toward me" (113-15, p. 197); "my brother, Whom he stole, as it were, from life?" (p. 199, both italics hers).

Slavitt, in Phoenician Women, takes a cue from Octavia, puts Seneca onstage, and turns this two-fragment piece on the Oedipus cycle, where the titular Women are "just passing through," into an Existentialist lament on meaninglessness, or a Pirandellian Six Mythic Characters in Search of an Author, where Seneca as "Author" and Choregus as "Audience Reaction" interact on-stage.

Hadas in Oedipus captures the formality of the Latin alternate blank verse and rhymed couplets. Some rhymes fail: Oedipus to Creon: "How much is best to know? I'm dubious./Brother-in-law, do you bring help to us? (208-209)." Other rhymes and alliteration are effective, and easy to deliver. Oedipus' early speech (100-122) begins and ends in fine, Senecan baroque:

Our royal nature knows no pangs or qualms.
Should bristling Mars be facing me in arms,
I'd be audacious, I would fight back
even at giants leading the attack (101-04),

The Sphinx, that riddling monster, I defied,
who wove the web where many others died.
I faced that prophet with her bloody gums
and stood my ground -- ground that was white with bones!
When from the cliff's edge she loomed over me,
already slavering for her future prey,
her wings were poised for flight, her tensile tail
a waiting whiplash. Fearful, all in all!
And yet I posed my riddle. Next, a shriek --
and her impatient claws ripped at the rock
and not my entrails. But that tangled mess,
her dark enigma, I solved nonetheless! (111-122).
Hadas interjects slang: "the sick rush to fountains, scarf down water" (192-94); "so vile that my guts congeal" (224). One moment of bathos is solely due to Seneca: Jocasta stabs herself onstage, then blinded Oedipus tells himself:
With trembling fingers, wandering through the gloom
with hands outstretched and groping, you must roam --
and quickly, too -- one foot before the other --
but careful lest you stumble on your mother! (1104-07).
The rhyme only makes slightly worse the bathetic original:
caecam tremente dextera noctem rege.
ingredere praeceps, lubricos ponens gradus,
I profuge vade -- siste, ne in matrem incidas (1049-51).
Sandy with Cloak for Hercules captures the melodramatic or operatic speeches of this "longest surviving ancient drama" (p. 107) very well. Baroque images abound: "Did you drop like a bloated tick from the Stygian dog?" (1248) -- Cerberus' fleas and ticks like Donne's The Flea. Alcmena scolds like a Victorian mother: "Control yourself! At least hold back your tears./ Show yourself unmoved even before/ such trials. Stop thinking about death/ and conquer the dead as you have done before!" (1365-68). Hercules raves like Hamlet -- as Shakespeare drew from this play:
Turn round your winded horses, bright sun; let loose the night!
Let the day I die be canceled from the world's archive,
and black clouds overcast the world -- this day I die! --
so Juno may not witness it (1134-37).

Soon now Mt. Pelion shall press
On Ossa's height, and Athos piled
On Pindar's, poke its forest tops
Among the stars (1155-58).
Finally this play and this translation show Seneca wrote for a Rome that welcomed Paul and Christianity, longing for a savior: "The man who takes from the high and mighty/ and gives to the poor in spirit," (424-27), and redemption, even in death. Hercules the Savior died (1701-54), but "entered heaven" (1957), Resurrects, and Descends from Heaven again and appears to His Mother, in lines 1956-92), inspiring "eternal belief" (1992, cf. p. 109).