Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.26

George W.M. Harrison (ed.), Seneca in Performance.   London:  George Duckworth & Co., 2000.  Pp. xi, 260.  ISBN 0-7156-2931-X.  

Contributors: Frederick Ahl, Elaine Fantham, John G. Fitch, Sander M. Goldberg, George W.M. Harrison, Brian S. Hook, C.W. Marshall, Gyllian Raby, Hanna M. Roisman, Jo-Ann Shelton, Eric R. Varner, Katharina Volk

Reviewed by James R. Baron, The College of William and Mary (
Word count: 1882 words

This is a valuable book for anyone interested in Seneca's dramas, whether on philological, philosophical or dramaturgical grounds. It is better unified than most conference paper collections because of the tightness of the structure of the conference itself, centered on an actual (albeit a bit abridged) performance of Seneca's Troas (aka Troades), and yet the blend of philologists and theater people presents a diverse but complementary collection of viewpoints on the central issues raised. It is also quite nicely edited and produced, except for the fact that at least two of the articles have a rather grotesque shortage of commas which often forced me to stop and reread some passages several times to ascertain the structure and meaning of complex sentences.

The contemporary issue regarding Senecan performance is seen by the contributors as entirely between the proponents of recitation, perhaps only of play segments, versus full stage performance, and so the "Stoic textbook to be read in private" theory seems entirely abandoned to the history of philological aberrations. Fair enough, I believe, but a deeper awareness of the work of Marti and others might have saved some of the authors from occasional misstatements which ignore entirely Seneca's fundamental but not rigid Stoicism. Even I, however, no longer try to elicit class discussions by proposing the question of whether Oedipus might be surrounded by so much imagery of evil not because he killed his father and married his mother but because he fought against his destiny to do so; there is too much genuine depth of understanding of human nature in Seneca to reduce his writings to exotic indoctrination tracts in that fashion, and many of the chapters in this book make excellent cases for that quality.

John G. Fitch presents, clearly and evenhandedly, the problems of defending a rigid stance for either the recitation or staging approaches, especially without careful attention to the real situation of theater in Seneca's time and its lack of concern about naturalism. He demonstrates that, on the one hand, a mere recitation of the received text of some scenes in Thyestes, Medea, and Hercules furens does not convey enough information to an audience, even one familiar with the myths and the Greek tragic tradition, to follow the words if there are no dramatic interactions beyond mere gestures for them to see, and yet in at least one play (Oedipus), the text's description of the behavior of sacrificial animals (and their entrails) goes far beyond anything likely to be achieved even by the best trainers. He concludes that the Senecan corpus should not be viewed as monolithic, but as a collection including some passages, perhaps the earliest written, intended for recitation and others, perhaps later plays and parts of plays, intended for performance.

Elaine Fantham defers from any complete recantation of her well know recitation drama viewpoint, but presents, nevertheless, several important insights into the problems of any attempt to stage Seneca in the present. If the intention is any form of authenticity, then the problems of the choruses need to be seen more in the context of Roman comedy's performance traditions than those of Greek tragedy. Secondly, she calls upon her experience in the performance of operas based on classical themes to argue that a complex text such as those of Seneca's plays requires the simplest and least distracting sort of performance context to be effective. Both are excellent points to contemplate.

C. W. Marshall analyzes the dramatic space needed to effectively perform Troades with a sophisticated methodology of production criticism. The conclusion is that if one charts out the dramatic geography of a three-sided performance space (rather than the Roman proscenium generally assumed) around three "iconic character anchors," the objections to the play's performability vanish, for the most part, and the result seems like the product of a highly skilled dramatic talent. Anyone at all interested in Senecan staging questions needs to study (not just read) this chapter.

Brian S. Hook examines Seneca's depiction of ethos and persona in comparison and contrast to Shakespeare's Hamlet, Sophocles' Oedipus, and various characters of David Mamet's works. He provides a very insightful analysis of the importance of understanding how Seneca's Stoicism and highly figured rhetorical style function to construct a character through the addition or accretion of descriptive material rather than to reveal it through the stripping away of masking layers.

Hanna S. Roisman departs from the Troades focus of most of the papers to discuss Phaedra. She advances convincing arguments that Seneca's title character, unlike the "not virtuous...but rather a shrewd and manipulative woman..." of Euripides' surviving play (in spite of the words of Aphrodite in Euripides' prologue), is basically a decent woman and more a victim than Euripides' character. She also reads the character of Hippolytus as flawed by his inability to deal with his struggle with his passions, a more modern and much subtler tragic flaw than that which I argued for many decades ago in my dissertation on nature imagery in Seneca's tragedies: that the youth is flawed and doomed to failure as a Stoic because he nurtures one bit of cherished unstoic irrational passion within his soul, his misogyny. Whether or not this is the way a Roman of Nero's time might have seen it, Roisman's is a reading which deserves the highest consideration by anyone attempting to stage this play for a modern audience.

Jo-Ann Shelton's chapter, on the other hand, left me totally unconvinced. The first part of the paper presents a paradigmatic vision of the place of public death in Roman culture from a Marxist class-struggle perspective, ignoring the evidence for similar patterns of ritual killing in the relatively homogeneous cultures of the far north of Europe from the era predating settled agriculture even to the second millennium after Christ. She attempts to refute the evidence often brought forth from his prose writings that Seneca, as a member of a family of recent immigrants from Spain and a devoted Stoic, might be able to do or think anything other than to give robotic assent to the Roman love of blood. She then takes up Troades, with special attention to the behavior of Ulysses. After a carefully detailed series of arguments closely drawn from the text of the play, which, nevertheless, often seem to me to prove just the opposite, she concludes that the Trojan women and children demonstrate that death can be "both liberating and enobling," certainly a Stoic viewpoint, and, in regard to the Greek soldiers: "Having been placed by fate in the position of victors, and having been required to buy their security with the lives of the children, they act appropriately." What about all the sea storm imagery in Hecuba's words which seems to me to indicate that the Greeks have not bought security, but the vengeance of Nature itself, which they have upturned by their crimes? For an effective refutation, the reader need only turn to p. 173 and examine Gyllian Raby's reading of the play, especially pp. 183ff., on the humanity of Ulysses; Sander Goldberg's chapter also has some corrective relevance.

Eric R. Varner delivers an interesting and insightful study of Senecan drama in the context of the styles of the visual arts of the era. I was, however, puzzled to distraction by his use of the term 'anachronism' in reference to the presentation of characters from myth and heroic legend in contemporary dress and hairstyles. Myths are timeless, and Varner recognizes the varied impacts the Julio-Claudian coiffures may have had on viewers of works representing Dido or Phaedra or Pasiphae, but what else could the Neronian artists have done? Fifth century Greek equivalents or archaic Roman styles would have been equally anachronistic and the Romans surely had no way of reconstructing any real fashions for what remains, even to us, an overwhelmingly imaginary heroic era. I fail to see how the Romans could have been expected to have any special response to these anachronisms qua anachronisms unless they recognized actual persons in the portraits, which seems to me a separate issue. Other aspects of the chapter, in particular the Neronian era's love of the grotesque in the visual arts, are worthy of close attention, however.

George W.M. Harrison presents a hypothesis regarding the use of performance space which suggests that the plays of Seneca were best suited for a small odeum setting rather than a large theater and that Seneca may have been the first playwright to compose with such a space in mind, perhaps because of his pedagogical roots. Interesting. Speculative, but interesting, nevertheless.

Frederick Ahl's paper discusses the difficulties of translating both poetry and sense in Seneca and Chaucer, and I certainly agree with his bottom line: Seneca is an accomplished poet, skilled in all the subtleties of wordplay and Vergilian/Ovidian poetic dynamics, and not a mere poetaster or casual versifier satisfied just to have managed to squeeze his words into the chosen meter. He expresses concern that some scholars may object to the prevalence of wordplay in his readings of Seneca and other authors--I don't believe that what is objected to in responses to this and Ahl's previous publications is the method itself so much as many of the specific examples, which can sometimes only be termed "neo-Isidorian."

Every item in the volume deserves reading, even if only to incite oneself to review and refresh one's arguments for the opposite view, but Gillian Raby's paper is the clear masterpiece of the collection, a brilliant explication of how Seneca's text can be used to represent the realities of human behavior for both victors and vanquished under the stress of military occupation, now or 3200 years before the present. Ethical paradigms learned in the abstract become unrecognizable in concrete, and every issue seems to possess two wrong answers but never a right one. By posing a series of questions which she and her cast had to consider at the beginning of the planning for the 1998 Cincinnati production of Trojan Women and then providing us with their answers, Raby shows with admirable clarity and power how the great potential for depicting the human condition in Seneca's plays can be realized on stage. I also found food for thought in her characterization of our author as an "ironic humanist."

Katharina Volk then presents a performer's perspective, based upon her performance--in Latin--of the role of Andromacha in Munich in 1993. Especially revealing: in the scene of confrontation with Ulysses in front of Hector's tomb, in which Astyanax is hidden, Volk envisioned Andromacha as becoming, first an actress, then a stage director, in her maneuvers to deceive Ulysses. It is a brief paper, but almost as revealing of Seneca's true dramatic potential as Raby's chapter.

Sander Goldberg completes the volume with a chapter which raises several important questions about our misconceptions of the relationships between Seneca's plays and his Roman predecessors and between Seneca's plays and Renaissance tragedy, especially in regard to the degree of violence and bloodshed actually to be seen on stage. This is a useful counterweight to some commonplace assumptions.

The volume also contains a useful basic bibliography, especially of relevant monographs; a number of essential items from the periodical literature about Senecan tragedy, however, are missing, perhaps because the bibliography seems limited primarily but not exclusively to works actually mentioned in the articles.

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