Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.37

Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 0-521-81801-X.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by George W.M. Harrison, University of Crete (
Word count: 2647 words

The last two decades have seen something of a Senecan renaissance with an explosion of conferences, books, and performances of his plays. Schiesaro has been one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking of the scholars engaged in retrieving Seneca's reputation from the short-sighted disdain of those who dismissed his work as suitable only for recitation. To his task, Schiesaro brings a rich background supported by publications and lectures on Ovid and Vergil, the touchstones of Senecan composition; on Seneca's essays, which give insight into his mind; and on Lucan and Apuleius, two authors whose writing was so deeply informed by Seneca that their works are of value in approaching the nuances of Seneca's thought.

To start with what this book is not and does not pretend to be: readers of BMCR will have noticed another recent review of a book on the Thyestes by P.J. Davis (BMCR 2004.05.16). The Duckworth series of "Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy" has as its aim to provide "accessible introductions to ancient tragedies" which "discuss the main themes of a play and the central developments in modern criticism", while the Aris & Philips series on ancient drama is a full commentary, but a school commentary which distinguishes it from the fuller Cambridge "green and yellow" series, and also from Tarrant's 1985 edition for the American Philological Association, which remains the standard against which any book on Seneca's Thyestes must be judged.

Schiesaro instead set himself to write a book, and here I quote his own words, which "analyses the complex structure of the play, its main themes, the relationship between Seneca's vibrant style and his obsession with dark issues of revenge and regression." Not surprisingly his goals are mirrored in his chapters: (1) poetry, passions, and knowledge, (2) staging Thyestes, (3) a craftier Tereus, (4) Atreus rex, (5) fata se vertunt retro, and (6) the poetics of passions. Parts of several of these chapters have appeared as articles in journals and publications between 1992 and 2000, all of which are mentioned in his acknowledgements, and none of which is listed in his bibliography. The question which offers itself in such circumstances is how far the book shows development beyond the earlier, shorter publications. In this case, each of the articles forms only part of the chapter in which they appear and comes at the beginning of the chapter so that effectively they introduce the fuller treatment of the point under consideration. It is also clear that Schiesaro consulted bibliography newly in print almost up to the instant the manuscript went to the printer, such as Marshall in Seneca in Performance, and it is apparent that his thinking on Seneca continues to develop, as was shown by his contribution to a one-day conference on Senecan tragedy at the University of Crete at Rethymnon in late May of this year.

Three essential points should be made before considering the contents in some detail. First, Schiesaro has little time and no print for those who wish to belabour the false question of performance of Seneca's plays either within his lifetime or in antiquity. It was a question which should never have been raised and no longer deserves consideration. Second, he eschews jargon whenever possible, preferring to lead the reader to his conclusions by the force of his arguments and the elegance of his language, with the exception of a fondness for compound nouns in "meta-". Schiesaro is clearly aware of psychological and other approaches to the text of the Thyestes and to Seneca in general, but he refuses to let these approaches cloud his thinking or obfuscate his language. This is not to say that he is not aware of the value of different approaches to the plays or that he does not take advantage of the insights they have unlocked; rather, he does so with justice and temperance. Third, he is part of a refreshing trend evidenced by his paper and those of Barchiesi, Harrison, Littlewood, and Paschalis at Rethymnon, which look to Lucan, Seneca's nephew and most intuitive imitator, for help in plumbing the nuances and subtleties of Seneca's thought and language. As part of this trend, this same group of scholars distances itself from considering the plays in some way a poetic rendering of the Moral Essays, much as current Plutarchan scholarship has demonstrated much of the Moralia to be either later than or independent of the Lives. Increasingly, the inclination is to look primarily to the other plays and to the Epistulae (even though they rarely mention drama and never his own plays) and, if to authors other than Seneca, then to Lucan, ps.-Seneca Hercules Oetaeus, and ps.-Seneca Octavia.

Most people would consider it unusual to begin a book on the Thyestes with an exploration of the dialogue between Creon and Oedipus after the extispicy by Teiresias and Manto in Seneca's Oedipus (chapter 1: Poetry, passions and knowledge). But I suspect that Seneca himself would be sympathetic to such an approach, and Schiesaro is attempting, by deliberately choosing a difficult example, to convince readers of his twin tenets that "passion leads to poetry, and poetry is the revelation of truths carefully hidden from the upper world of reason and power" (12) and that "the character who controls the dramatic actions and displays superior knowledge and power on stage can often be seen as embodying the playwright" (16). Where this leads is to an assertion of Senecan tragedy as a "self-conscious literary project", something that Hinds has done admirably for Ovid and Slater for Petronius. For Schiesaro this tension between passion and poetry becomes even more pronounced when the playwright who has elsewhere denied the existence of forces such as the underworld and its denizens then tries to animate them convincingly in his plays, such as the many appearances of furies in Seneca's plays.

Staging Thyestes is perhaps the chapter most closely modeled on a prior publication and so it is the appropriate place to laud his further, and painstaking, research. Even the translations of passages from the 1994 contribution to Elsner and Masters' Reflections of Nero have been changed from the less successful ones by Hadas (1965) in favour of his own. Schiesaro resists the temptation to use Fitch's new Loeb translation for all of Seneca, but instead chooses among Fitch (Hercules furens), Fantham (Troades), and Hine (Medea). He rarely changes his mind, but rather amplifies and adds to the proofs and adds further observations. Very rarely do two successive paragraphs in the article appear as two successive paragraphs in the book, and to my reading no single paragraph in the article is reproduced verbatim in the book. The "staging" of the title does not make reference to production by a director but rather to how the characters within the play stage, or "position" themselves vis-à-vis what they intend to do or are compelled to do. The detailed comparison of the prologue to the opening of Aeneid 7 and to the prologue of the Hercules furens (less so to the Herakles mainomenos) is very instructive in this regard and of considerable importance to Schiesaro in building a case where silence (whether actual silence or moments in which keeping silence would have been nobler) tugs at and against speech. This leads to Schiesaro's view of framing within the Thyestes. His point is that there are three characters who prod the action forward and three who resist to some degree. The forces that do so are again triple, and the prologue because of its position at the beginning of the play in some way affects the imaging of the other two. But in this instance the triptych is also mirrored, an image from Kavafy not in Schiesaro, so that each of the three reflects each other and thus interact in interesting ways with one another. Framing does not do justice to what is suggested since the relationships are more kinetic (or to use the word in his title "dynamic") than the way framing is understood in Ovidian and Vergilian scholarship.

A craftier Tereus (chap. 3) looks to the three analogues for this play: Ovid, Metamorphoses 6. 412-74, Sophocles' Tereus and Accius' Atreus and also forward to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare's play is grounded in the "theatre of blood" of his contemporaries, such as Kidd and French contemporaries (so Goldberg in Seneca in Performance) and also is removed from Seneca's Thyestes in that it was one of his first plays, while the Thyestes was Seneca's crowning achievement. Sophocles and Accius are known only from fragments and notices; Schiesaro wisely avoids the ire of Housman's famous pronouncement. This leaves Ovid. The chapter, nearly doubling the length of the second longest chapter, is a spirited exegesis of the relation of the Tereus myth to that of Thyestes. Verbal parallels, or near parallels, abound but more important is the thematic importance of what is called the "ur-myth" of the sexual victim who plots a heinous revenge. In this the reader is invited to envision an Atreus whose mythic responsion is to Procne and Philomela. Victimization and revenge are seen as essentially feminine, centering Atreus against the implicitly more masculine Thyestes, which makes it difficult for Thyestes to 'read' and thus defend against his brother. Atreus brings also to his task superior skills in logic, language, and understanding of human nature which enable him to outmaneuver someone so willing to be duped. Language is key, and Schiesaro deftly demonstrates the subtle use of Vergilian reminiscences, which Atreus uses to mask double entendres but which Thyestes uses inappropriately or gets wrong.

Since the eponymous character of the play, Thyestes, is clearly dominated in all aspects by his brother, it should not surprise that chapter 4, Atreus rex, is less about Atreus than about how the other characters interact with him. Central to Schiesaro's reading, and the matter on which he spends the most print, is that Atreus and Thyestes are not opposites in any sense at all, but rather that, had circumstances been reversed, Thyestes was capable of doing precisely what Atreus was doing. This makes the brothers compatible and brings even more to the forefront the essential need for Atreus to test the legitimacy of Agamemnon and Menelaus (their paternity had been called into question by Thyestes' affair with the mother at the time of their conception) by forcing them to take an active role in the slaughter of their cousins, presuming they could not do so if they were brothers. This central theme in turns places all of the other characters in their proper position within the play. The chapter concludes with the typification of the chorus as bumbling and willfully blind, tenaciously holding onto a false belief of reconciliation even as the enormity of the carnage is about to be revealed. Earlier the courtier, or satelles, was examined brilliantly as being most strongly paralleled by the nurse in Seneca's Phaedra as someone who (like Tantalos himself) was unwilling and unbelieving, then was talked into quiet complicity and quickly came to embrace the totality of the measures proposed. Almost lost in the midst of this are Schiesaro's take on the relationship of the Thyestes to de Clementia, and the extent to which the Thyestes represents Neronian court politics. In brief, Schiesaro does not see that the essay and the play, particularly the central choral ode, need to have to anything to do with one another, and this is in line with current thinking by other scholars about the extreme compartmentalization of periods of Seneca's career. As to equating characters in the play with central figures in Neronian politics, Schiesaro hedges: he is not willing to dismiss possible responsion but finds it limiting, privileging one line of interpretation of the play to the almost certain exclusion of all others. In a political reading, Atreus would be Nero and the satelles Seneca. Schiesaro declines to test the case by comparing the satelles in the Thyestes with Seneca in the Octavia. Such a comparison, I think, proves Schiesaro's point.

One of the persistent debates in Senecan tragedy is his use of dramatic time, dealt with in chapter 5 (Fata se vertunt retro). To encapsulate the argument, dramatic time in Seneca is not so much temporal as it is dramatic. Most of his plays are revenge dramas, which by their very nature live in the past in preference to any other time frame. Related to this, most of his plays hinge on some form of compelled divination which shows vertical dislocation between the upper and lower worlds. In such a cosmos, horizontal dislocation of time makes sense. This would seem especially apt since there is little sense of closure in Seneca's plays. At the end of the play the cycle of violence presumes a continuation in the future by characters in the drama or their descendants. Since there is thus no advance in knowledge or self-knowledge in any meaningful way, movement of the play from point A to point B is meaningless, and so too the temporal framework within which such a revelation would occur.

The poetics of passions (chap. 6) looks at three inter-related themes: Stoic theories on style, the relation of Senecan drama to epic and how the audience was meant to re-act to a play (or, perhaps, the degree in which an attempt was made to guide its reception). The lack of a coherent Stoic essay on style has long been noted, and one must be extremely cautious in citing the Platonist Plutarch, as he is hardly an unbiased witness. Evidence for Seneca is therefore best culled from Seneca's essays and letters, which Schiesaro does admirably. This leads into the audience reception, where there are hardly any surprises, but the discussion which needs to be addressed is not how Seneca wished the audience to react and how he managed to do it, but rather who he envisioned his audience to be. For the classical Athenian stage this audience has long been identified. For Seneca, the answer is more complex as he apparently recognized the probable general audience yet clearly had in mind a "philosophical" audience of proficientes -- letter 86 makes it clear that he considered the proper audience of drama to be philosophers. As for epic, Schiesaro finds Seneca to be in "continuous, even obsessive, confrontation" (223) with his models. He then sets up, and partially tears down, a Brechtian polarity between epic and drama. A fascinating synthesis with much to recommend it. Horace Ars poetica and Quintilian might suggest the walls between genres were extremely porous, with the primary distinction between genres being metrical rather than stylistic or content. From that source then proceed the distinctions in Longinus and other authors, which Schiesaro integrates into his discussion.

In summary, Schiesaro argues persuasively, and I believe correctly, that Seneca was interested in how passions work and not in advocating or refuting any particular Stoic doctrines through his plays. This leaves plays which in moral terms must be ambiguous and ambivalent and which ask the audience on its own and at its leisure to examine its own feelings and assumptions. Seeking psychagogic revelation in Seneca's plays is asking more than the plays can deliver, or wished to. As a negative example of behaviour to avoid, the Thyestes is pointless as few, if any of us, has seriously contemplated serving an incestuous cannibalistic banquet; this is one way in which Seneca's plays are very distinct from the comprehensive plan of Plutarch's Lives. It is observable that in Seneca's plays evil does win, and, when evil is conquered, it is generally defeated by one even worse. Tacitus was aware of this lesson when meditating on how to remove Tigellinus. Seneca got there first by devising drama which was first and foremost human and thus rang more true, or, to put it better in Seneca's own words (Epistle 29.1), quoted by Schiesaro (252): verum ... nulli ... nisi audituro dicendum est.

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