Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.27

Andreas Heil, Die dramatische Zeit in Senecas Tragödien. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 357.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. vii, 250.  ISBN 9789004244535.  $136.00.  

Reviewed by Theodor Heinze, Wiesbaden (

Table of Contents

Contributions on Senecan tragedy frequently treat the issue of staging, a topic with a long and well-known genealogy: Are Seneca’s tragedies meant for staging, recitation or reading? A few names may suffice to remind the reader of the history of the prevailing negative answer still found in some quarters: "tragoedia rhetorica" (Friedrich Leo), "dissolution of the dramatic body in favour of a presentation of affects" (Otto Regenbogen), "recitation drama" (Otto Zwierlein), "dissociation of the dramatic body" (Ulrich Schindel). To put it in the words of its latest advocate, Christoph Kugelmeier, "Seneca’s tragedies cannot have been real stage dramas." 1 Positive answers have been given by scholars such as Ludwig Braun, Ernst A. Schmidt and Dana F. Sutton, whom Heil less often adduces. Last but not least, an impressive line of successful productions has demonstrated the adaptability of Senecan tragedy to the modern stage.

In line with the development of a positive stance, Heil 2 adresses in this book (which is a revised Habilitationsschrift) the management of time in four of Seneca’s tragedies: Thyestes, Hercules Furens, Troas, and Medea. His declared aim is to show that "many of the asserted temporal anomalies do not stand critical examination" (p. 8). The thrust of the book, thus, is dramaturgical alias performance or production criticism as stipulated by Sutton and Schmidt. How the action is actually staged is not important for Heil; what is important is that the text intends a certain stage action (although he forgoes a discussion of intentionality as a term). Even if he has manifold observations on the chronodramatic structure of single tragedies and the corpus as a whole, Heil does not aspire to present a temporal aesthetics as such.

In the introduction (1-12), Heil presents his research program and reviews the current research. He has chosen the four tragedies for the particular temporal problems they pose, which have been the object of several articles by William H. Owen and Jo-Ann Shelton. These scholars affirm that these plays display an unorthodox handling of dramatic time; Shelton even qualifies the dislocation of space and time as an element of Senecan mannerism. Amongst others, Heil also refers to Alessandro Schiesaro, who maintains that Seneca, by the disruption of tragic time, achieves Verfremdung and that temporal anomalies are signals for the fictionality of the plays.

Heil’s method consists of a close reading of the text. He specifies two conditions for a correct reconstruction of the time structure: first, one has to take into account the accompanying stage action; second, one has to pay attention to the perspective of the individual characters, as perception of time is subjective. Finally, he shows how Seneca makes considerable use of the dramatic function of this reconstructed temporal structure. For terminology of dramaturgy, he relies entirely on Manfred Pfister’s magisterial treatment of the subject. 3 It is difficult to do justice to all of Heil’s painstaking interpretations within the limited space of this review. Therefore, I shall set forth the main line of argument on each of the four tragedies and present a few chosen examples of passages discussed.

The first chapter (pp. 13-70) is given to the temporal problem in Thyestes constituted by the way the flight of the sun, i.e. its "reverse run," is read. Earlier interpreters supposed it to be dissolved into single scenes by every new focalizer (messenger, chorus, Atreus, Thyestes); the characters do not appear to follow a temporal succession, but look at the same phenomenon from different perspectives, thus giving the impression of a repetition of the event. Heil convincingly shows, with astronomical detail at hand, that Seneca makes intentional use of it, as the ensuing time window allows him to present the different reactions of the stage characters to different phases of the cosmic event one after the other. Thus, the dramatic action develops successively within the time span of a single "dying day" (periturus dies, l. 121). In his section on the character Thyestes (pp. 41-55), Heil plausibly suggests that the flight of the stars does not repeat itself for Thyestes, but that he lives through a hallucination which is a déjà vu only for the audience; at the same time, the troubled perceptions of Thyestes constitute a psychologically nuanced portrait of character.

In his chapter on Hercules Furens (pp. 71-122), Heil shows that the apparent contradiction in act two marked by Shelton—i.e., that Amphitruo, Megara and Lycus know nothing of Hercules’ return from the underworld, although it is mentioned by Juno in the prologue—disappears when one recognizes that they have not overheard her. Elaborating an earlier contribution, 4 Heil also refutes the idea maintained by earlier scholars that the chronological contradiction implied by Amphitryon’s assumption of Hercules’ return from the underworld at ll. 520-523 is an indication of an experimental use of dramatic time. He shows that it is rather a subjective illusion of Amphitryon triggered by his emotional state at the end of act two.

In the chapter on Troas (pp. 123-162), Heil reinterprets the first two acts and choruses. Against Owen, he demonstrates that there are no intertwinements in the temporal structure and reconstructs a linear progression of the action. Regarding the first and second scene of the second act, Heil attacks the circularity of an argument advanced by Joachim Dingel in favour of the dissolution of the dramatic body. Developing a lead given by Willy Schetter, he convincingly shows that both scenes are exposed independently of each other in the prologue, the appearance of Achilles reported by Talthybius and the dispute of Pyrrhus and Agamemnon being reactions to one and the same event, i.e., the allotment of the Trojan women. A further point Heil makes is that Calchas was able to overhear Pyrrhus and Agamemnon in the second act, because he was on stage during their dispute, and that it is only because Agamemnon fails to notice him, that he delegates to Calchas his problem of doing justice both to the Trojan women, in particular Polyxena, and to his Greek subordinates, in particular Pyrrhus, and that Calchas, taking advantage of Agamemnon’s indecision, demands not only the death of Polyxena, but also that of Astyanax. The qualification, however, of the dispute between Pyrrhus and Agamemnon as an "intermezzo" or a "play within the play" (p. 161) does not seem lucky, particularly because this dispute, as Heil himself notes, is important for the continuing action.

In his interpretation of the temporal structure of Medea (pp. 163-212), Heil considers that what is important for Seneca is the parallel development of the off-stage wedding ceremonies and the on-stage revenge action, with the final scene having to be read as a perverted domum deductio. Therefore, the first chorus, Heil assumes, does not accompany the domum deductio, but simply expresses the wish for the ceremonies to begin; this chorus is not a mimetic song, but the exposition of an ideal wedding procedure motivated by Medea’s perversion of such a procedure in the prologue. Following Anthony J. Boyle in finding the absent presence of the wedding a crucial point in the praetexta Octavia, Heil suggests a dumb show for the wedding procession both in Octavia and in Medea, the latter taking place "on stage or in the space beyond the stage" (p. 174). 5 Heil also assumes that the lunar eclipse which occurs before the setting of the sun on this wedding day (ll. 28f., 874-876), is the rare selenelion (a lunar eclipse in combination with a visible sun), to which Seneca alludes in l. 794 horrore novo terre populos, a phrase fulfilling Medea’s menace at l. 27f.

Heil summarizes the following points in the conclusion to his study (pp. 213-226): first, attention to the subjective perception of time by characters allows the reinterpretation of a number of passages; second, Seneca makes sophisticated use of the concentration of the action on one day to intensify suspense; third, Seneca achieves concentration of the action by flexible handling of time through compression or dilatation; fourth, the chorus and the nameless characters are sufficiently defined by its function within its context, so that it stops serving as a warrant for temporal succession; fifth, dramatic rhythm is used to portray characters. Finally, Heil stresses that his research on the temporal structure of Senecan tragedy does not replace but enhances other structural principles and literary phenomena of the plays.

This is a densely argued and convincing contribution to the dramaturgical criticism of the four tragedies discussed, with a positive result regarding their intended performance. The book is not an easy read, despite helpful summaries in the middle and end, but more of a running commentary. Still, it will be an education to disagree with the many fine observations. For dramatic conventions and handling of plot, Heil adduces fitting parallels from the corpus Senecanum as well as from Latin and Greek New Comedy. He is particularly strong in applying astronomical expertise to relevant passages. Occasionally, he even notes reception (93-94, in Shakespeare, Richard III). There also are critical suggestions: p. 18 defence of the Etruscus reading nox alia at Thy. 51; p. 20, Thy. 105 abunde. i gradere ad infernos specus, a metrically doubtful elision; at p. 138 n. 56, Tro. 245 petam instead of petat; at p. 52, attribution of ll. 1035-1036a to Atreus, so as to arrive at a successively developing action; at p. 47 n. 113, re- interpretation of the solar eclipse in Od. 20, 356f. in terms of a vision of the seer Theoclymenus. Harry M. Hine once wrote 6: "In the debate about staging neither side can deliver a knock-out blow to the other." Although Heil’s aim was but to reconstruct the temporal structure as intended by the text (and although he disagrees with the sharp-edged putting of the alternative), he has added considerably to the argument concerning the stageability of these plays.

The book is equipped with a bibliography and an index locorum and rerum (227-250). Its overall production is excellent. There are few typos and maladjustments, which do not impede understanding.


1.   Chr. Kugelmeier, Die innere Vergegenwärtigung des Bühnenspiels in Senecas Tragödien. C. H. Beck, Munich 2007 (Zetemata, Heft 129), 233.
2.   Heil is co-editor, with Gregor Damschen, of Brill’s Companion to Seneca. Philosopher and Dramatist. Brill, Leiden 2013 (Google preview), to which he himself has contributed a section on Vision, Sound, and Silence in the ‘Drama of the Word’ (543-556), while the relevant chapter on the present subject, used by Heil, is by E. A. Schmidt, Space and Time in Senecan Drama, 527-542. Heil does not, however, mention Th. D. Kohn, The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2013, reviewed by Eric Dodson-Robinson, in: BMCR 2013.11.02.
3.   Manfred Pfister, Das Drama. Theorie und Analyse. 11th edition, Wilhelm Fink, Munich 2001 (1st ed. 1977); English translation of 5th ed. 1982: The Theory and Analysis of Drama. Transl. from the German by John Halliday. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988.
4.   A. Heil, Die Illusion des Amphitryon (Seneca, Hercules Furens 520-523), in: Mnemosyne 60, 2007, 253-268; see also his Die Waffen des Hercules. Zu Seneca, Hercules Furens 1229-1236, in: Philologus 144, 2000, 146-149.
5.   Heil does not expressly mention Wilfried Stroh’s suggestion to realize the first chorus back stage; see W. Stroh, Heroides Ovidianae cur epistulas scribant, in: Ovidio poeta della memoria. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi. Sulmona, 19-21 ottobre 1989. A cura di G. Papponetti, Rome 1991, 201-244, at 234 n. 174.
6.   Seneca, Medea. With an Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary by H. M. Hine. Warminster 2000, 42.

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