Seneca was the first great Latin writer to spend his adult life in a totalitarian state. He had no personal memories of the Republic. The “Golden Age” of Augustus had ended during his adolescence. His Rome was the autocracy of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, where political power superseded law, morality, and tradition. Seneca’s character was rooted in the austere, rural disciplines of the early Republic, but he lived mostly in a decadent, imperial capital. Beyond the familiar spectacles of gladiatorial butchery and official corruption, Seneca’s Rome saw a racehorse proclaimed senator, pimps serve as state counselors, and a mad emperor deify himself. Political succession consisted of assassination and military coup d’état. Public reformers who were not skilled opportunists were mostly killed or exiled. “If only the Roman people had a single neck,” lamented Caligula. Roman artists and intellectuals still assiduously emulated the Greeks, but the capital’s ruling class mostly behaved like army officers in a Latin American police state. This polluted milieu colored Seneca’s artistic vision as decisively as Athenian democracy shaped Aeschylus’s dramaturgy. If, as David Slavitt has suggested, Seneca’s tragedies concern “the limits of the cruelty men and women can visit upon one another,” his Rome gave an honest author few other topics.
Seneca’s Rome saw a racehorse proclaimed senator, pimps serve as state counselors, and a mad emperor deify himself.
Since the little attention Seneca receives today comes from classicists, he is habitually examined in relation to the Greeks. But these conventional comparisons obscure his true character—as indeed they distort the understanding of most Roman literature. It is more illuminating to compare Seneca to twentieth-century writers, not only to dramatists like Antonin Artaud but to the poets of the modern totalitarian state like Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Gottfried Benn, and Miklos Radnoti. His artistic life has more in common with the careers of Mikhail Bulgakov and Dmitri Shostakovich than with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The central theme of Seneca’s tragedies is how to endure a world in which there is no justice, no safety from tyrants, no guarantees—political or divine—of human dignity. These questions were not theoretical in Nero’s Rome. Seneca’s tragedies have frequently been censured for their obsession with terror and violence; yet any ten pages of Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars contain greater horrors than Seneca ever mounted on the stage. To criticize Seneca’s tragedies for their violence is like dismissing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward because it is gloomy.
Our knowledge of Roman tragedy is haphazard and incomplete. Seneca is the only tragedian whose work has survived except in fragments. A considerable amount of information, however, exists about pre-Senecan Latin tragedy, including at least a hundred play titles and many tempting fragments from highly regarded dramatists like Gnaeus Nevius, Quintus Ennius, Lucius Accius, and Marcus Pacuvius (whom Cicero, who died before Seneca’s birth, considered Rome’s foremost tragic poet). “Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats dying in Rome, “but those unheard are sweeter.” Studying Latin tragedy, one is always painfully conscious of how much has been lost, how little one knows for sure, how much else depends on speculation. Only two lines remain from Ovid’s celebrated Medea and nothing at all from Julius Caesar’s version of Oedipus. And yet we know the relevant fact about Roman drama for studying Seneca: while Latin tragedy originally grew out of translation and imitation of the Greek repertory, it gradually developed its own style and character. By the time Seneca came to the theater, the Roman tragic tradition had already flourished for two and a half centuries— longer, that is, than the history of American literature. While Romans held the Greeks supreme in the genre (as Elizabethan poets later considered the Romans their superiors), they also boasted a huge dramatic literature full of acknowledged masterpieces. Seneca’s relation to Greek drama is, therefore, more complex than his detractors usually allow. Four centuries of continuous dramatic activity stood between him and Euripides, including a rich and diverse theatrical tradition in Latin.
Aeschylus wrote over ninety plays; Sophocles produced at least 110. Only seven tragedies by each dramatist have survived. No one knows how many plays Seneca wrote, but posterity possesses ten tragedies linked to his name: Hercules Furens (“The Madness of Hercules”), Troades (“Trojan Women”), Phoenissae (“Phoenician Women”), Medea, Phaedra (also titled “Hippolytus”), Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus (“Hercules on Oeta”), and Octavia. Some of these plays present textual problems. The text of Phoenissae is incomplete, whereas the Hercules Oetaeus, the longest surviving classical tragedy, seems to have been greatly expanded by a later author. The compelling Octavia, the only extant fabula praetexta or Roman history play, was probably written by one of Seneca’s followers, since the tragedian himself appears as a character. (Its unusual structure and dangerous political subject, however, may suggest that the tragedian wrote it for private performance.) If we place these three problem texts to one side, Seneca, like Aeschylus and Sophocles, survives with seven complete tragedies of undisputed authorship. This is not many plays from which to understand the entire tradition of Roman tragedy, but it does provide enough depth and diversity to judge the merits of an individual author.
If Seneca’s plays survived the sack of Rome, the burning of libraries, the leaky roofs of monasteries, the appetites of beetle larvae, and the slow erosions of rot and mildew, they have not had a conspicuously easier time among modern critics, who dismiss them both for too closely resembling Greek models and for too freely departing from them. As Frederick Ahl has observed, “No field of literary study rivals that of Latin poetry in so systematically belittling the quality of its works and authors.” And no genre has suffered more consistent disparagement than Roman tragedy. The critical challenge in assessing Seneca is quite simple—to see his plays as works of art in their own right, and to understand how they fit into the tradition of European tragedy. To begin this task, however, one must be willing to see the changes he made in dramatic style and structure as conscious innovations, not as unintentional failings. For all his learned borrowing from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, Seneca’s aesthetic has little in common with Periclean tragedy. His dramaturgy marks not only a deliberate departure from the Greek tradition but a radical reconception of the genre from narrative to lyric terms.
From Aristotle to the Enlightenment, influential theories of tragedy have emphasized the connection between the genre’s emotional force and its characteristic narrative concentration and coherence. Sophocles was the first playwright to understand the power tragic theater gains by carefully arranging the story line. The tragic mode, he realized—unlike epic, comedy, or romance —cannot easily assimilate episodic material. Sophocles’ innovation was not lost on Aristotle, who called plotting “the first principle … the soul of tragedy.” Two and a half millennia before Edgar Allan Poe explained that the short story must integrate every element of the work to create a single pattern of effect, the Athenians had applied this aesthetic to tragedy. Italian Renaissance commentators, reading the Poetics through the lens of Seneca, mistakenly extrapolated Aristotle’s practical observations on Sophoclean compression into a general theory of the dramatic unities of time, place, and action. Though it is now mandatory to mock the Italian aestheticians and their Enlightenment disciples, surely these cognoscenti understood something essential about the poetic integrity of tragic drama, even if they expressed it too schematically.
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Classical tragedy achieves its harrowing impact through extreme compression and integration—of plotting, language, character, imagery, and ideas. The Greek tragedians carefully foreshadow and foreshorten the central dramatic action to create a single narrative line that moves in measured steps to a fateful and usually dire conclusion while also ironically underpinning key events along the way. The Italians were correct in observing that such plotting works most naturally when a play unfolds in a single setting during a short period of time and focuses on the actions of a single character. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for instance, Oedipus rarely leaves the stage except during the choral dances; even during his few exits the onstage action still focuses mostly on him. No one can dispute the dramatic effectiveness of the Sophoclean method. Playwrights from Euripides to Agatha Christie have employed it to create theatrical intensity and suspense. There is, however, no reason to believe that linear narrative is the only method suitable for tragedy.
Seneca’s plots focus less narrowly on a single protagonist or the unfolding of a single narrative line. In Hercules Furens, for instance, the title character does not even appear until the third act, and no sooner does Hercules enter than he rushes away to his next battle. Euripides’ Herakles, which served as Seneca’s chief source, also delays the hero’s entry until midway, but the radical difference between the Athenian and Senecan aesthetics becomes obvious when one studies what both dramatists do when Hercules is offstage.
Euripides presents the plot of Herakles in straightforward, narrative terms. As the play opens, Amphitryon (Herakles’ stepfather) and Megara (Herakles’ wife) bemoan the hero’s absence. While Herakles has gone into the underworld to complete his last labor, the capture of Cerberus, Lycus has usurped the throne of Thebes. He has also slaughtered all the royal family except Megara and her children. Impoverished and unprotected, Amphitryon and Megara wait for Lycus to kill them. Soon the tyrant, who believes Herakles will never return from Hades, arrives and orders their deaths. Herakles’ family prepares for their execution by going into their house to dress the children in burial garments. When they return to face execution, they witness Herakles’ arrival. After a long exchange with his family, the hero leads them to safety in their house. Ignorant of Herakles’ return, Lycus returns with his henchmen. He goes into the house to kill the family, where Herakles kills him. The first half of the play is now complete. Herakles has rescued his family, but the audience understands the bitter irony of his deed. Soon the hero will go mad and kill his wife and children.
Compared to Euripides’ linear exposition, the first three acts of Seneca’s Hercules Furens initially seem diffuse and indirect. Most of the Euripidean story is present. Indeed, Seneca even added a striking plot twist with Lycus offering to spare Megara and her family if she marries him to give legitimacy to his rule. But despite his reputation for peroration, Seneca has compressed the traditional plot into a fraction of Euripides’ length. He handles the narrative scenes expertly, and his new material on Lycus and Megara is dramatically arresting. Seneca’s provocative originality, however, comes from what he adds. The first act of Hercules Furens is a single, extended soliloquy by the goddess Juno. Her tense and angry scene, which lasts 204 lines in the Latin, begins at a high emotional pitch and modulates ever higher to an almost unbearable level of passion. Standing beneath the night sky of Thebes, Juno starts by venting her anger at her notoriously unfaithful husband (and brother), Jupiter:
Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to his mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a
Seneca’s characters usually view nature subjectively. They amplify their emotions until their passions color the world around them. While his Juno would never condescend to mere fairness, she has good reason for finding the constellations infuriating; most of them commemorate the deification of Jupiter’s paramours and illegitimate offspring.
Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Argive fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europa’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades—those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s
Watch young Orion swaggering with his
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.
Gape at the constellations Jove awarded
Castor and Pollux, his twin bastard sons.
And now not only Bacchus and his mother
Parade their ill-begotten rank in heaven,
But my great husband, lord of lechery,
Discarding his last shred of decency,
Has crowned his drunken bastard’s slut with
Juno’s tirade is quintessential Seneca—simultaneously learned, theatrical, and emotional. He piles one example of Jove’s infidelity on another until Juno’s language and emotions reach an exploding point. Senecan tragedy is not for those who delight in economy and understatement. The goddess soon moves on to the real object of her hatred, Hercules, whom she has tried to destroy since infancy. Now that he has completed his final labor by capturing Cerberus, she fears Jove will deify him. She recounts his exploits derisively and then rehearses all the possibilities for vengeance. Only one method, she realizes, can overcome the hero’s unconquerable strength—madness. She then summons up the hellish furies who will carry out her plan:
. . . There is
A cavern buried deep in Tartarus
Where guilty souls are tortured through
By unappeasable guardians of pain.
I summon up those primal deities.
Come to me, Discord, goddess of destruction.
Bring up the secret horrors of the damned
That even Hercules has never seen.
Come to me goddesses of Violence
And rash Impiety whose filthy hands
Are stained with family blood. Come to me,
And come to me, you whom I most desire,
Goddess of Madness, who turns men on
You who will be the spur of my revenge.
Juno’s speech must rank among drama’s most extravagant and ardent expressions of female anger—a poetic equivalent of an operatic diva’s grandest scene. It is a dazzling mix of poetry, rhetoric, and theater—written in Seneca’s characteristically flamboyant and allusive style. But once finished, Juno walks offstage never to reappear. Hercules arrives at the opening of the third act, dragging Cerberus in chains and accompanied by Theseus, whom he has freed from the underworld. Learning of Lycus’s audacious crimes, Hercules immediately leaves to seek revenge. Theseus is now alone with Megara and Amphitryon, and Seneca adds another series of speeches unlike anything in Euripides.
Seneca devotes most of the third act of Hercules Furens to a sequence of poetic set pieces describing the underworld. Amphitryon is eager to know about the afterlife and his stepson’s adventures in Hades. He asks Theseus a series of brief questions to each of which Theseus replies at length. Theseus’s speeches constitute a remarkable narrative poem (Seneca’s dark and revisionary response to the catabasis—the descent in- to the underworld—in Virgil’s Aeneid) that presents a horrifying vision of the afterlife:
There are no grassy meadows bright with
No fields of ripened corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye, or groves
Where branches bend with slowly sweetening
No breezes spiced with odors of the plum.
But only wasteland everywhere, the fields
Unwatered and untilled, the soil exhausted
And nothing moving on the silent land.
And this is how life ends—
This barren place, this country of despair,
Where no wind blows and darkness never lifts,
With hopeless sorrow twisting every shadow.
Dying is bitter, but eternity
Confined in this black place is worse.
While Theseus’s speeches tell of Hercules’ exploits, they—like Juno’s tirade—seem to exist independently as poems in their own right. Largely narrative in structure, they are primarily lyric in effect; they vividly convey the private anger, terror, and agony of their speakers. One finds similar episodes in all of the other plays—Creon’s description of Tiresias’s sacrifice in Oedipus, the messenger’s account of Hippolytus’s death in Phaedra, the soliloquy of Aggripina’s ghost in Oc- tavia, and perhaps the most powerful, the messenger’s chilling depiction of Atreus butchering his nephews in Thyestes. It is always dangerous to guess an author’s intention, but one suspects that Seneca conceived of these speeches as daring coups de théâtre, show-stopping recitations that push the genre of tragic drama to the furthest limit of the form. The scenes contain some of Seneca’s finest poetry because if they do not imaginatively overpower the audience, the dramatic fabric of the play would disintegrate. These moments must be magnificent, or they are nothing. Surely a major reason for Seneca’s current obscurity in this Latinless age has been the inadequacy of most translations in conveying the essentially poetic quality of his dramatic language.
Juno’s tirade and Theseus’s narration are so much longer and more ostentatious than the play’s narrative requirements demand that the reader is left with only two possible explanations. First is the conventional view that the playwright is dramatically incompetent. (This is Herbert J. Muller’s charge that Seneca is “indifferent to form” and lacks “economy, purity, symmetry, appropriateness of any sort.”) The second interpretation is that Seneca knows exactly what he is doing here (and in similar places throughout his other plays) but that his artistic aims differ radically from those of his Greek predecessors.
This observation leads to the central issue in assessing Seneca’s tragedies—in what context shall they be judged? Works of art are always evaluated—explicitly or implicitly —against a tradition. The concept of genre —be it revenge tragedy, bedroom farce, or Hollywood western—assumes a set of shared expectations between artist and audience concerning subject, form, and style. Tradition is necessarily a dynamic concept; only dead traditions do not change. Significant new works alter or enlarge the genres in which they work, just as mediocre or derivative works exhaust or debase a tradition. The death of verse tragedy came at the hands of a thousand uninspired neo-classical playwrights whose sober imitations slowly strangled the tradition. By the twentieth century, only isolated acts of poetic genius—like García Lorca’s Blood Wedding— could temporarily resurrect the genre; even brilliant attempts like Eliot’s The Family Reunion or W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Ascent of F-6 only charmed the corpse halfway out of the grave.
Seneca’s plays, however, do not fit comfortably into either the dominant ancient or modern traditions of European tragedy. Classical scholars, who are trained to compare ancient texts with their sources and parallels, habitually evaluate Seneca retrospectively in relation to earlier Greek drama. This method implicitly overemphasizes the conservative elements in Seneca’s dramas and ignores the revisionary nature of his aesthetic. As Moses Hadas observed, “If we choose to call Seneca’s plays Greek tragedies, we must pronounce them debased.” Judged by the Aristotelian aesthetic of tragedy as a public, narrative genre, Seneca’s plays hardly make sense. His asymmetrical expositions, lyric digressions, subjective psychology, scene-stealing ancillary characters, and spectacular violence mock Athenian taste and decorum. Likewise Seneca’s plays make little dramatic sense judged by the assumptions of realist drama, especially the works of Henrik Ibsen, who invented the most influential form of modern prose tragedy. Judged as realist drama, Seneca’s plays appear bombastic, lurid, schematic, and dramatically inert. They rely too exclusively on the power of speech to portray human action, rather than presenting the action itself. Their characteristic eloquence often misses the elusive truths that slip between and behind words. His sensational plots explore emotional extremes at the expense of understanding the pathos of the ordinary. Seneca is no more satisfactory as Eugene O’Neill than as Euripides.
Our knowledge of Roman tragedy is haphazard and incomplete.
Neither aesthetic, however, seems intrinsically appropriate to the author of Hercules Furens, Phaedra, and Thyestes. Seneca’s concept of tragedy is neither narrative nor sociological; it is lyric and poetic. If he is to be understood as a dramatist, he must be seen as an innovator, the creator of a new theatrical genre—lyric tragedy. While the new genre was historically rooted in the Athenian tradition, by selectively emphasizing and exploring certain features of the original form, it developed into a distinctive type of tragic theater. Seneca’s highly allusive style, which incorporates a myriad of elements large and small from earlier Greek and Roman writers, has blinded many critics to the sheer novelty of his artistic aims. In this sense Seneca resembled modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, Montale, Radnoti, and Mandelstam; he was meticulously attentive to the tradition he had transformed.
Lyric poetry presents the sensibilities of a speaker at a particular moment often in a specific place and time. It seeks to capture with compelling exactitude a single, intensely unified experience. The lyric mode is subjective, heightened, and emotional. Originally sung, lyric poetry still aspires to the conditions of music. One might characterize lyric tragedy, therefore, as a form of spoken drama that aspires to the conditions of opera. While it presents a story (because lyric tragedy no less than opera needs narrative structure to provide cohesion), the plot is primarily a means to the genre’s real artistic end—the vivid depiction and amplification of its characters’ subjective experience. The purpose of plotting, therefore, is not to create narrative suspense but to lead the spectator through a sequence of extended lyric moments that combine into a powerfully expressive total design.
Seneca builds his tragedies around a series of arresting, emotional, lyric moments— verbal arias, duets, and choruses—designed to move the audience to a heightened emotional state. If one reads Seneca looking primarily for the story, one will inevitably be disappointed. His tragedies are well-plotted, but Seneca rarely explores the expressive possibilities of narrative. His central artistic concern is to convey the most extreme states of human suffering. Eliot was correct, therefore, in asserting that “‘plot’ in the sense in which we find plot in The Spanish Tragedy does not exist for Seneca.” Slyly, Eliot went on to observe:
He took a story perfectly well known to everybody, and interested his auditors entirely by his embellishments of description and narrative and by smartness and pungency of dialogue; suspense and surprise attached solely to verbal effect.
One might push Eliot’s insight even further to reach the essence of Senecan tragedy. Perhaps Seneca’s particular genius lay in understanding that the only way he could charge the familiar tragic plots with their original cathartic intensity—especially to a Roman audience inured to violence and injustice whether in the Coliseum or the imperial court—was by putting his auditors inside his character’s sensibility. Seneca was not concerned with creating “suspense or surprise”; he wanted pity and terror. He willingly traded narrative complexity, symmetry, and momentum for the opportunity to achieve imaginative force and immediacy. Seneca has been rightly praised for the psychological complexity of his protagonists. His Hercules, Phaedra, Thyestes, Medea, and Oedipus are not flat stereotypes; their personalities contain the virtues, weaknesses, and contradictory impulses that Aristotle demanded for the complex character of the tragic protagonist. Seneca, however, puts this deep psychology to unusual ends; he is less interested in how his characters act in tragic circumstances than in how they feel. What inspires him both as dramatist and as poet is imagining what it is like to experience unbearable levels of pain and passion.
The subjectivity of Senecan lyric tragedy leads to a structural idiosyncrasy in the plays. The most important connections between scenes are not always logical or narrative but imagistic and emotional. Lyric poetry often works most effectively by talking around a subject rather than addressing it directly. Seneca’s originality as a dramatist was to incorporate elaborately crafted scenes that are tangential to a play’s plot but central to its subtext. Juno’s dazzling soliloquy in Hercules Furens is largely superfluous to the narrative. Likewise Theseus’s extensive descriptions of the underworld could have been compressed into a single speech. What Seneca accomplishes by expanding these episodes is to submerge his audience in the psychic environment of the play. Juno’s uncontrollable rage sets the tense emotional tone of the story; her fear of Hercules ironically prefigures the terror others will feel during his murderous rampage. When she describes his vainglorious conquest of the underworld, her palpable horror suggests the terrible consequences of his profanation of death’s mysteries. Theseus’s own obsession with the darkness and emptiness of Hell implies Hercules’ unrecognized vulnerability to its destructive effects. No one can escape the primal forces he has unleashed by opening the gates of Hell. Juno’s and Theseus’s powerful set pieces saturate the audience with the images, ideas, and sensations needed to understand the play’s horrifying climax. As Seneca demonstrates, there are other ways than narrative to foreshadow tragic events and establish dramatic irony.
One also sees the essentially lyric nature of Seneca’s tragedy in his use of the chorus. Greek tragedy began as a series of choral songs and dances. Thespis reportedly created drama by introducing a single actor impersonating a mythic or legendary character who conversed with the chorus. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides added more actors and elaborated the narrative elements, but the role of the chorus remained primary to Greek tragedy. Even in Euripides, it remained onstage during the entire drama and represented the public nature of the genre. Seneca has frequently been criticized for denying his chorus any meaningful role in the action. If Seneca’s plays were fully staged—and there is much debate on the issue of how they were performed—then the chorus appears frequently to disappear into the wings. It rarely speaks except during the elaborate choral odes between each act. While Seneca denies the chorus a dramatic role, he gives it a central function in the lyric structure of his plays. His long choral odes explore, amplify, and supplement the mood of the plays. They frame the dramatic scenes around them in poetic terms. These odes show Seneca’s largely unrecognized gift as a lyric poet. The final chorus from Oedipus, to choose one example out of many, opens with rare elegance and power:
Fatis agimur; cedite fatis.
non sollicitae possunt curae
mutare rati stamina fusi.
quidquid patimur mortale genus,
quidquid facimus venit ex alto,
servatque suae decreta colus
Lachesis nulla revoluta manu.
omnia secto tramite vadunt
primusque dies dedit extremum.
One need not know Latin to appreciate the overt musicality of these lines. Sounds echo across and between lines. The language is stately and epigrammatically exact (most lines have only four carefully chosen and arranged words). To catch the flavor of the passage a Latinless reader might profit from looking at more than one translation. E. F. Watling conveys the majestic tone of the original, while Rachel Hadas emulates its lapidary compression:
Fate guides us; let Fate have her way.
No anxious thought of ours can change
The pattern of the web of destiny.
All that we do, all that is done to us,
Mortals on earth, comes from a power above.
Lachesis measures out the portions
Spun from her distaff, and no other hand
Can turn the spindle back.
All creatures move on their appointed paths;
In their beginning is their end.
(Watling) By fate propelled, to fate we yield.
No fussy gestures set us free.
It is decreed, our human doom,
all from above. Lachesis’ laws
(tightly she grasps them) point one way.
Through narrow channels our lives move:
our first day singles out our last.
Seneca’s transformation of the chorus into an entirely lyric and meditative device also highlights a fundamental difference between his conception of drama and the modern ideal. Despite his occasional employment of spectacle—Hercules’ entry dragging Cerberus, Medea’s exit in a chariot drawn by the flying dragons, or Atreus uncovering a platter to reveal the heads of Thyestes’ sons—the dramatic action in Seneca’s plays is overwhelmingly located in the language. Just as the bel canto tragedies of Donizetti and Bellini assumed the human voice’s ability to convey everything essential to the drama, lyric tragedy rests on the assumption that poetic speech can articulate everything necessary to create tragic theater. Needless to say, contemporary theater no longer assumes the clarifying power of speech—whether in poetry or prose—as the central dynamic of drama. If anything unites the divergent aesthetics of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Joe Orton, David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, and Harold Pinter, it is a belief in the deceptions of speech and the expressive power of the inarticulate.
Can it be sheer coincidence, however, that it was those ages that understood and appreciated Seneca’s aesthetic that produced the most enduring verse tragedies since the Greeks? When Seneca’s reputation stood at its highest in England, France, Spain, and Italy, those traditions created the finest poetic drama in their histories. Can it also be mere chance that, as Seneca fell out of favor in Western Europe, poetic tragedy became a marginal theatrical genre? (Eastern Europe, never entirely part of Latin culture, followed a different course of development.) This is not the same as saying that Seneca’s presence or absence had these effects on drama, only that a culture’s ability to hear and understand how Seneca’s plays worked reflected a broader faculty to marry poetry and serious drama. An unqualified conviction that tragedy requires the intensification of poetic speech is not only the tenet that separates Seneca from contemporary drama; it is also the belief that divides Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Racine from Büchner, Ibsen, and O’Neill.
Seneca’s tragedies represent the ultimate development of poetic drama. While they outwardly fulfill the narrative requirements of theater, the effects they pursue are intrinsically poetic. Lyric tragedy balances on the border between what Aristotle called the “imitated human action” of drama and the purely verbal representation of poetry. If one were to push Seneca’s aesthetic one step farther, the dramatic structure would disintegrate, and one would be left with the dramatic poetic sequence, like Tennyson’s Maud, Hardy’s The Dynasts, or Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius.
Judged by their proper standards, the lyric tragedies of Seneca are considerable achievements. His much abused Thyestes, the most violent and gruesome play in the Western canon, is a dark and disturbing masterpiece. It was not only for its sensational plot that this play became one of the most influential tragedies ever written. Its feverish emotion and poetic energy make it an overwhelming experience to read. The sexually charged Phaedra and razor-edged Medea, which Eliot considered Seneca’s best plays, are equally compelling. Hercules Furens, which Eliot raided for both “Marina” and The Waste Land, is Seneca’s most innovative tragedy. Alternately violent, visionary, phantasmagoric, and poetic, it demonstrates the imaginative possibilities of lyric tragedy. The often splendid Hercules Oetaeus is less successful in dramatic terms, but with its great length, large cast, and double chorus, it shows the Senecan lyric form pushing beyond the limits of theatrical tragedy. Hercules Oetaeus is an unacknowledged ancestor of both dramatic poems like Goethe’s Faust and romantic grand operas like Berlioz’s Virgilian Les Troyens. Seneca’s Oedipus will always suffer in comparison to Sophocles’ masterpiece, but read on its own terms, it is a potent poetic drama and may illustrate most vividly the existential bleakness of Seneca’s vision.
In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the final scenes lay the groundwork for a new social order. Although Oedipus’s individual suffering remains primary, it is depicted in a civic context. Creon is already implicitly in charge. As he leads the blinded Oedipus away, the promise of health and prosperity returns to Thebes. In Seneca’s Oedipus, however, the dramatic focus remains mercilessly on the suffering king; he has no comforters. In Sophocles, Oedipus blinds himself out of shame; he cannot bear to see his children or face his father in the underworld. Seneca’s Oedipus puts out his eyes because death would be too easy; he wants to protract his agony and make his suffering commensurate with his sins. When Seneca’s Oedipus staggers out of Thebes, alone and unconsoled, he may grimly take his curse with him, but the author offers no hint that his suffering will redeem the city.
Seneca’s tragic vision admits no escape from evil, no defense against the mindless brutality of fate. The gods may witness human suffering, but they do nothing to prevent or amelioriate it. There is no welcome deus ex machina. When divinities intervene, they come like raging Juno in Hercules Furens or avenging Venus and Neptune in Phaedra. The supernatural world is represented by vindictive spirits and hellish demigods, as in the opening of Thyestes, where a demonic Fury drives the ghost of Tantalus out of Hell to provoke his grandson Atreus to unspeakable revenge. The eternal realm is less likely to endow the mortal world with grace than to pollute it with madness and evil. Hercules may have escaped physically from the underworld in Hercules Furens, but its forbidden knowledge has infected his spirit in ways he will not understand until too late. The end of Thyestes may be the bleakest conclusion in all tragedy. Atreus has killed and dismembered his nephews and tricked his brother Thyestes into publicly eating his own children at a banquet. Evil is joyfully triumphant. The innocent have been viciously destroyed. The hero has no shred of dignity left, only shame, horror, and defeat. And yet Seneca has kept the reader fixed and fascinated during the terrifying spectacle. He has managed the difficult but essential feat of magic theater—to lure the audience to the edge of the abyss to watch a fellow human’s sudden fall to destruction, to make them feel the injustice and agony of the doomed without ever wanting to turn away.
A genius for tragic drama is the rarest literary talent. In the history of European theater from the beginning of Athenian drama in 535 B.C. (when Pisistratus established the first public competition in tragedy) to the advent of Realism, only a few writers have managed to create enduring bodies of work in the genre. After naming the supreme masters of tragedy— Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Corneille, and Racine—whom else can we list without sensing a significant falling-off in ambition, intensity, or quality? Goethe’s Faust may be a masterpiece but it is no tragedy, and his other plays lack the dark intensity that characterizes the tragic mode. The once influential tragedies of Alfieri, Voltaire, Hugo, and Grillparzer now seem like elegant but dusty museum pieces. The best plays of Marlowe, Ford, and Webster remain vivid but also remind one of how uneven the rest of their work is. There are individual tragedies that stand on the higher levels of the genre—Schiller’s Maria Stuart, Büchner’s Woyzeck, Marlowe’s EdwardII, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, Musset’s Lorenzaccio, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes—but their authors (with the possible exception of Schiller) did not create total dramatic oeuvres equal to these isolated masterpieces. Perhaps a few tragedians like Büchner and Marlowe possessed a commensurate, native genius for the form, but they had no time to develop. Sophocles lived to be ninety and wrote until the end; Büchner died of typhus at twenty-three, and Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl at twenty-nine, an age at which Shakespeare was still a journeyman dramatist. Had they lived they might have immensely enriched the canon of tragedy, but such is the difficulty of the genre that even their truncated careers stand out.
Seneca’s tragic vision admits no escape from evil, no defense against the mindless brutality of fate.
The tradition of tragedy is a jagged, discontinuous line. The gaps and failures represent its problematic character more truthfully than its rare and often isolated triumphs. An extraordinary number of Europe’s greatest writers struggled unsuccessfully with the form. In nineteenth-century England alone Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Landor, Hunt, Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, and Swinburne attempted to revive tragic theater. But the genre not only requires a double genius in poetry and theater, it also demands a fierce dialectical imagination that can face the unjust and irrational mockery of fate without flinching. If few authors possess the mandatory gifts, fewer ages permit the necessary vision.
It is against this small and fitful tradition that Seneca’s work must ultimately be judged. He does not stand with the handful of tragedy’s supreme masters. He lacks the genius for dramatic narrative of Shakespeare and Sophocles. He rarely achieves the perfect imaginative balance and compression of Racine. He lacks the innate theatricality of Euripides. And yet, once his plays are understood on their own terms, his dark, lyric tragedies can hold their own against the rest of the tradition. Seneca’s plays display poetic integrity, psychological depth, linguistic force, and unsurpassed emotional intensity. The sheer originality of Seneca’s concept of tragedy and the frenetic energy of his dramatic execution give his plays extraordinary impact. No dramatist has ever portrayed a darker vision of human existence. No tragedians except Shakespeare and Sophocles exerted a stronger influence on posterity. Seneca’s plays were the matrix from which the Renaissance gave birth to modern tragedy. If his reputation has long been in decline, it is time to ask how much of that falling off reflected not only a general disparagement of all Latin literature but also a distrust of poetry itself as a dramatic medium. Readers willing to approach Seneca without preconceptions will find a profound and original tragic poet. “Time discovers truth,” he once wrote. Perhaps our time will rediscover him.
(This is PartIIof a two-part essay. PartIappeared in our December issue.)
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 29
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