Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.05.16

P. J. Davis, Seneca: Thyestes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy.   London:  Duckworth, 2003.  Pp. 172.  ISBN 0-7156-3222-1.  $16.95.  

Reviewed by Christopher Star, Temple University (
Word count: 2159 words

For centuries a maligned play of a much maligned dramatic corpus, Seneca's Thyestes is currently experiencing its second rebirth in popularity. An increasing number of readers today appreciate Thyestes for its hyperbolic rhetoric and violence, the very reasons for which the play has been disparaged after the Renaissance. Its searing portrayal of the limits of human cruelty and tyranny is coming to be seen as a challenging counterpoise to Seneca's political and moral philosophy. For several years study and teaching of Thyestes has been greatly aided by R. J. Tarrant's excellent commentary.1 Yet until now a book-length introduction to this play in English has been lacking.

In the latest addition to the new Duckworth Companions, P. J. Davis (D.) brings a wealth of information and learning to his Seneca: Thyestes. While it is faithful to the design of the series, this is a rare "introductory" book that has something to offer students, specialists, and also scholars of modern languages and drama. D. has managed to digest, synthesize and discuss a staggering amount of opinions, controversies and plays. This admirable and well executed book should find a wide audience both inside and outside the discipline of Classics. It will prove particularly useful to all who are interested in questions of performance and reception. In terms of content this book does take risks, especially when compared to the other Companions. Unlike several of his predecessors in the series, D. does not provide a synopsis or running commentary on the play. D. presumes that his readers will have already a level of familiarity with the myth and the drama; he prefers to focus the majority of his time on questions of reception and modern performances of the play. Seneca: Thyestes consists of four chapters of increasing length: 1. Contexts; 2. Performance History; 3. Themes and Issues; 4. Reception. D addresses three main concerns throughout. He argues passionately for the "playability" of Thyestes and indeed all of Senecan drama; he is vehemently opposed to the idea that Seneca's tragedies are "recitation dramas". D. sees Thyestes as a thoroughly political drama and believes that the play is a "meditation" on tyranny. In the final chapter he elaborately traces the play's reception, focusing primarily on its presence in English Renaissance drama.

D.'s book is not a simple introduction to Thyestes. D. does not shy away from taking a well defined stance on controversial issues, especially with regards to performance and politics. While this approach may not win the favor of those who would prefer a more conservative companion to the play, it is on the whole successful and, especially in chapters 2 and 4, makes for an informative and engaging read. D.'s arguments for performance are well documented and convincing. His enthusiasm for Senecan tragedy as real, workable drama takes hold of the reader and should steer those who are new to Senecan tragedy towards the performance camp. D. may even win a few converts and make believers out of those who doubt Thyestes' "playability". My only major criticism is directed at D.'s method for addressing other problems and controversies in Senecan scholarship. His investigation of Thyestes' connection to Stoicism and contemporary Roman politics is not as impressive as the case he makes for performance. The discussions which conclude chapter 3 could more fully acknowledge the critical debates that surround the question of the relation of Seneca's drama to his prose works and recent Roman history.

From the start of the opening chapter ("Contexts") it is clear that D. wishes to connect Thyestes to Nero. He begins with a brief biography of the Emperor even before his treatment of Seneca. Although admitting that it remains impossible to be entirely certain when to date Seneca's tragedies, D. follows the increasingly accepted critical opinion that Thyestes belongs to the last years of Seneca's life. D. places its composition sometime after Seneca's "retirement" from the service of Nero (62-65 CE). While any dating must remain tentative, 62 CE is an attractive terminus post quem for D.'s overall reading of the play as containing "Seneca's reflections upon his experiences during the first decade of Nero's reign" (16).

When dealing with the eternal question of whether Seneca wrote with performance or recitation in mind, D. prefers to treat Thyestes in terms of "playability", citing T. S. Eliot's statement that a playwright's own intentions are "irrelevant" (19). D. states that over the past 35-40 years Senecan scholars have moved away from accepting without question that the tragedies are "recitation dramas". In recent years the "sea-change" (24) that has occurred in critical opinion is exemplified by G. W. M. Harrison's Seneca in Performance (London 2000). Yet not all scholars are convinced. In his Duckworth companion to Phaedra, for example, R. Mayer is quick to point out the dramatic difficulties that Phaedra's aside (599ff.) would present to a director.2 D. argues that certain scenes in Thyestes, such as the Chorus' (ironically wrong) reactions to Atreus' plotting in Act 2 and the "reconciliation" that concludes Act 3, only "make sense if they are performed before an audience of spectators" (23). On the whole, however, D. is not concerned to go through the entire play in a similar manner and demonstrate how each scene would work on stage. D. prefers to counter skeptics by documenting the play's recent performance history. In this D. has performed a service of lasting value. Not only has he assembled a list of performances, but D. also provides a brief summary of the critiques and published reviews of these productions. The sources of these reviews from Italian, British, and French newspapers are dutifully recorded in the bibliography. Thus while D. presents and counters arguments against performance, by the end of his analysis he moves beyond the simple question of "playability" and takes a radical position declaring boldly, "Seneca's tragedies are not merely playable: they demand performance upon the stage" (27).

D. only very briefly discusses the various contexts of performance in the early empire and Seneca's own possible dramatic intentions (a paragraph on p. 27). He believes that Seneca wrote with performance, either public or private, in mind. D. prefers not to dwell on the question, which he takes to be insoluble, of whether Seneca's tragedies were performed during his lifetime. The revival of Seneca for the modern stage is the ultimate trump card and best argument that Seneca wrote paying attention to dramatic convention and necessity. Since, in D.'s eyes, the tragedies of Seneca have been successfully adapted for the stage, Seneca must have written with an eye toward performance. It must be noted, however, that outside of productions in France (35-36), the reviews of 20th century productions of Thyestes have been mixed at best. Yet D. makes a significant observation on the range of reviews that followed a 1994 British production. The reactions were split down professional lines: the classicists panned it, while journalists "responded positively" (35). Thus, D. takes a subtle, but well placed jab at the aesthetic prejudices and sensibilities within the discipline. There is no doubt that the 19th and early 20th century condemnations of Seneca still are with us. In D.'s writing, however, there is not the slightest tinge of distaste for Senecan tragedy. For D. the ghost of Friedrich Leo has been laid to rest, and he makes sure that his analysis of Thyestes will in no way resurrect it. Indeed, Leo's name does not even appear in D.'s bibliography.

After the wealth of evidence that D. presents in making his case for performance, one of the most intriguing questions about the play remains unanswered, and for the most part unasked. Why does the Stoic moral philosopher Seneca write such an "unpleasantly sanguinary" (the phrase is Eliot's, 37) play that depicts unpunished tyrannical cruelty? In chapter 3 D. ultimately argues that Thyestes is a response to the times. Before he attempts to situate the play in its imperial context, however, D. first provides a thematic analysis of the characters in the play and investigates, by means of an excellent close reading, Act 1, Thyestes, Atreus and the Chorus. In all D. presents an engaging reading of the play, which reveals clearly how certain themes, such as hunger, thirst and problems of heredity, are repeated and inverted throughout the play. Yet he stumbles when he tries to move away from the play and situate it in its Roman context.

D.'s treatment of "Thyestes and Stoicism" (69-74) reads the play only against De Clementia. By comparing certain passages, D. argues that Atreus is a point for point antithesis of the "good king" ideal set down in Seneca's prose treatise. He concludes that "in Thyestes it is not the ideal king who achieves apotheosis [cf. De Clementia 1.19.9]; it is the tyrant" (74). D. outlines the problematic relationship between these two texts, but he does not offer any insight into the nature and significance of this relationship. What, then, is the outcome of this "meditation" on tyranny? Is Thyestes a cautionary tale about the dangers of power and revenge, or is it an outright "negation" of Stoic principles? D. leaves it to the reader to formulate and answer these questions and others, and offers little guidance on the topic. This bald conclusion is even more striking when compared to D.'s earlier elaborate discussion of the debate concerning performance. D. does not properly situate Thyestes in terms of the scholarly debate about the play's relevance to Stoicism and politics. This remains a hotly contested issue, arguably more so than questions of performance, with a long critical history and bibliography.3 Although D. has such a strong desire to date this play to the 60s CE, the only prose texts of Seneca that he treats are likely from the late 40s to mid 50s: De Clementia, and a few brief quotes from De Ira, brought in at the end of the chapter to compare Atreus to Caligula (78-9). Since D. places Thyestes in the context of Seneca's retirement, why not consider the Epistles, which Seneca would have perhaps been working on simultaneously? Readers looking for an introduction to the non-political aspects of Seneca's philosophy, such as his theory of the passions, will be disappointed.

Those interested in the history of the play's reception will be duly rewarded. The final and longest chapter traces the Nachleben of Thyestes. Throughout this remarkable and fascinating investigation D. maintains the critical rigor and acumen which characterized chapter 2. Thus D. seems to be most interested in discussing Thyestes in more modern and performance contexts. And it is indeed here in these discussions where the real value of this book lies. Starting with Octavia and the Thebaid and ending with Hugo Claus' 1966 adaptive reworking of the play, D. investigates a long list of works for which Thyestes is a significant thematic and intertextual influence. D. does not see this chapter as a unilateral interpretive project. For him Thyestes is not simply to be used as a key to understanding subsequent texts; it is D.'s goal to demonstrate that reading the play in tandem with works it has influenced will prove mutually illuminating. Thus, for example, while a knowledge of Senecan tragedy is essential for the interpretation of our one surviving tragoedia praetexta, Statius and Renaissance drama, D. suggests that reading these later texts will help better understand Thyestes itself (86). D. most successfully achieves his goal in his discussion of Thyestes and the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage (86-115). D.'s analysis of Marston's Antonio's Revenge may even help us to answer the questions posed earlier about why the avenging tyrant triumphs over the Stoic king. In Antonio's Revenge the Senecan corpus is literally set against itself as characters quote at length both Seneca's philosophy (e.g. De Providentia 6.6) and tragedy (especially Thyestes) to justify their actions. Stoic moralizing and "godlike" apatheia break down in the face of human tragedy. As Pandulfo, who was an advocate of Seneca's philosophy throughout the play, admits as he looks upon his son's corpse: "man will break out, despite philosophy" (4.5.46).4 This chapter encourages the reader to return again to Seneca's play and to investigate several lesser known works in modern languages.

The presentation throughout is clear. There is a full bibliography with an annotated selection of recommended reading. There are only a few innocuous omissions of words (e.g. p. 10, towards the end of the passage from Suetonius; and at the bottom of p. 108: "he" must be supplied to the phrase, "has become Atreus"). It is also unfortunate that all other Latin texts besides Thyestes appear only in English translation. D. is using G. K. Hunter's edition (London 1966) which divides the acts differently from W.R. Gair's Revels edition (Manchester 1978). Readers should be aware of this difference to avoid confusion.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing number of texts devoted to Senecan tragedy. It provides an important and concise introduction to Thyestes that focuses on the play as an influential and living dramatic force.


1.   R. J. Tarrant, ed. Seneca's Thyestes. APA Textbook Series No. 11. Atlanta 1985.
2.   R. Mayer. Seneca: Phaedra. London: Duckworth 2002: 24-5. Compared with D., Mayer generally downplays performance.
3.   Thus, for example, in a series of articles Schiesaro argues vehemently against both political and moralistic, Stoic readings of Thyestes (e.g. "Passion, Reason and Knowledge in Seneca's Tragedies", in The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature. S. M. Braund and C. Gill edd. Cambridge 1997: 89-111). Schiesaro's new monograph on the play, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama Cambridge 2003, takes positions on the play that are often diametrically opposed to those of D. (cf. for example cautions against seeing Atreus as Nero, p. 153).
4.   D. discusses this passage on p. 109. It should be noted that D. cites this scene as 4.2.69.

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