Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.02

Thomas D. Kohn, The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2013.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 9780472118571.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Eric Dodson-Robinson, West Chester University (


This book proposes “to illuminate Seneca’s dramaturgy” (1) by building upon the pioneering scholarship of Oliver Taplin and Dana Sutton.1 Kohn’s study, although modeled after Sutton’s, expands upon and updates his work and offers well-reasoned alternatives to some of his interpretations. Kohn’s treatment is thorough, and while I do not agree with all of his dramaturgical hypotheses, most are plausible. This work, while written in an accessible tone, is best suited to an academic audience at the advanced undergraduate level and beyond.

The book includes an introduction, nine chapters, a very brief conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index. The introduction describes the author’s methodology and quickly summarizes “the performance question” (13), or the debate as to whether Seneca wrote tragedy merely for recitation, rather than for performance on stage. The first chapter offers a general description of the dramatic features of Senecan tragedy in relation to the Roman stage and performance conventions. Each of the following chapters treats one of the authentic Senecan tragedies, in the following sequence: Oedipus, Agamemnon, Phaedra, Medea, Hercules Furens, Troades, Thyestes, and the incomplete Phoenissae. The order of the chapters corresponds with “something resembling chronological order of composition” (5), according to the relative chronology posited by Fitch.

In the introduction, Kohn follows Sutton in presenting evidence supporting the performance of the plays during Seneca’s time. While the author distinguishes his study from Sutton’s by espousing performance criticism “for its own sake” (1), I would have liked a more developed rationale and differentiation from Sutton here. Kohn concludes the introduction by establishing his practical experience as a person of the theater.

Chapter One summarizes the dramatic resources available to Seneca, including the stage (15), machinery (16), props (17), actors and masks (21-24), chorus (25-31), and so on. Kohn posits that the chorus generally “withdraws to the scaenae frons” (25; 30) when not singing an ode, and that it remains onstage most of the time (29). I am particularly skeptical of the former assumption, which I feel requires more justification than it receives.

Each of the chapters that follow is devoted to a given play, and each chapter comprises: a chart listing the roles Kohn would assign to each actor, accompanied by a brief validation of the same; a rough diagram of the set; the core “dramaturgical issues”; and a comparative section entitled, somewhat misleadingly, “conclusions.” Each section devoted to dramaturgical issues proceeds act by act, dutifully noting the treatment of every exit and entrance, the movements of actors and chorus, and the staging of action units.

While this format does not lend itself to succinct summary, it is worth noting some of the highlights. Kohn gives special attention to defending the performance potentials of the extispicium in the Oedipus. Kohn’s suggestion for staging the scene with pantomime dancers, although arrived at independently, largely agrees with a slightly more detailed argument I previously have made.2 In the instances in which Kohn agrees with Sutton, he often adds nuanced justification or insight. We might consider Kohn’s distribution of roles in the Phaedra (66), for instance, and in Troades(110). While both schemes are essentially identical to those proposed by Sutton, as Kohn acknowledges, Kohn briefly explicates the consequences or rationale supporting his interpretation. In the case of Phaedra, Kohn points to specific textual ironies and pathos that result from having the same actor play both Theseus and Hippolytus: father and son, murderer and victim, respectively (67; 80). In this case, dramaturgical considerations add depth and meaning to the text. Kohn’s consideration of the distribution of roles in Troades also deserves mention. He points out that Andromache and Pyrrhus, roles he assigns to the same actor, although they would seem to have little in common, are both characters vexed by ghosts (110).

Overall, Kohn’s disagreements with Sutton are contingent rather than programmatic. One has the impression that the author has given careful consideration to each detail and judiciously weighed the potential consequences of possible alternatives. Kohn’s assignation of roles for Thyestes, for example, gives the Ghost of Tantalus and Thyestes to the same actor, and allocates the role of Fury to the same actor who plays Atreus (124). In contrast, Sutton gives the Ghost of Tantalus to the character who plays Atreus and assigns the Fury to the third actor. Kohn acknowledges that Sutton’s suggestion is viable, but prefers to pair Atreus with the Fury because of the active, instigating role each plays (124-25).

The general conclusion argues that dramaturgy is an essential and pervasive characteristic of Senecan tragedy (140-41). Kohn speculates about audience reception of the plays (142). He argues that the emotions of characters rather than storytelling were at the heart of Senecan tragedy (142-43). Seneca was an artist, Kohn holds, driven by artistic concerns (144).

Through the consideration of dramaturgical possibilities available to Seneca, this book reveals new perspectives that add meaning to the plays. Libraries, graduate and advanced undergraduate students, and specialists will buy the book. I agree with much of Kohn’s interpretation of the evidence, with a few important differences. Above all, I envision a much more active role for the Senecan chorus than Kohn does. Having the chorus hang out in front of the scaenae frons for much of any given play seems static and boring to me. While some of Kohn’s specific arguments fail to completely convince me, such as his division of roles for Thyestes (124), or his contention that the Fury in this play’s prologue enters through the center doors, these arguments are nonetheless plausible, they are sensitive to the text, and they raise questions that deserve future attention. The book succeeds in the goals it establishes in the introduction, and is an important resource for anyone interested in the performance criticism of Senecan tragedy.


1.   Sutton, Dana. Seneca on the Stage. Leiden: Brill, 1986.
2.   Dodson-Robinson, Eric. “Performing the ‘Unperformable’ Extispicy Scene in Seneca’s Oedipus.” Didaskalia 8 (2011): 179—184.

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