Friday, January 27, 2012


Seneca and Tragedy

That’s Lucius Annaeus Seneca as portrayed by Rubens up above.

When the Elizabethans wrote tragedy they didn’t look to Euripides or Sophocles or Aexchylus for their models of what a tragedy should be. They looked to Seneca. They didn’t look to Aristophanes or Menander for comeduy. They looked to Plautus and Terence. Roman and Greek drama differ in a number of ways.

  1. Roman drama is more violent. My recollection from the last time that I read Senecan tragedy was that the violence took place on stage. That recollection, however, dates back to my college days, and in the four, out of six, plays that I’ve read so far, the violent action takes place off stage, as it does in Greek tragedy. It is more vividly described though. This vivid description raises the question whether or not Seneca actually enjoyed the scenes of torture and dismemberment that he describes. In other words, was Seneca a sadist?

  2. The gods are not as present in Seneca. In Euripides Hippolytus, for instance, my recollection is that Aphrodite and Artemis each appear in the Euripidean version. They do not appear in the Senecan tragedy. 

  3. The emphases are different in the Greek originals and in the Senecan versions. While Euripides has a more psychological interest in the chaste young man Hippolytus and the randy Phaedra, the interest of Seneca seems to veer towards the moral, or at least the moralizing. His characters are fond of delivering pithy sentences that make good quotes for schoolboys to memorize.

  4. The chorus is reduced in importance. In Greek drama it functions as almost a separate character within the drama. In Seneca it largely functions as a device for delivering long speeches that serve to break the plays into distinct acts. (It may well be that the act division is a later thing, and that the plays were performed continuously. At 1,000–1,200 lines the plays are about half the length of an Elizabethan play, and can probably be read/performed in about an hour. There may be no need for act breaks, except to sell the Roman equivalent of popcorn and peanuts.)
I don’t recall reading that Roman actors wore masks, or that they were exclusively male, although the latter is probably the case.

Ancient drama did not have very elaborate sets, and that seems to be true of Seneca as well. Throughout my reading of the plays I kept on imagining how I would stage them today. I would have the verbal portion, the actors speaking and interacting, stage left, i.e., on the audience’s right, in a pool of light. When a violent action is described, the light on the right side of the stage would come up so that there are two pools of light. The actors would be describing the bloody event, and the actors in the second pool would be doing the nasty deeds.

It’s been several weeks now since I read the plays, and the impression they made is starting to fade, but I want to mention one point that struck me very strongly in The Trojan Women.

I read the Euripidean version as a teenager, and it was instrumental in forming a world view that was strongly pacifistic at the time. Obviously, things, including myself, have changed since then. While not so much a tragedy as a tragic pageant, which I believe is how the editors of my then favorite volume of translations described it, it still moved me to pity. The Senecan version doesn’t. Maybe I’m old and callous and psychopathic, but it doesn’t move me. On the other hand, Seneca seems to call into question the whole idea that morality is emotion based.

People are often described as psychopathic if they are lacking in empathy. One acquaintance was enamored of the empath episode in Star Trek; TOS. Yet at the same time it has to be kept in mind that people can exhibit high degrees of emotional responsiveness, and still be evil, and do evil things. There is a film clip that shows the Nazi high command, Goebbels, Himmler, et al., sitting through a performance of Beethoven’s 9th, and crying at the Ode to Joy. Now that emotion could be faked, or it could be real. I’ve got no way of judging, but whatever the case may be they did their level best to kill off millions of people. I think I remarked in an earlier post that Nazi guards cried even as they shoveled women and children into the gas chambers.

Talthybius, at the beginning of Act Ii, describes himself as being shaken by the horrors he has seen. While his speech describes the demand made of the ghost of Achilles that Polyzena be swacrificed, it is not just the horros of the ghost, but the horrors of the sack of Troy, and the vision of the sacrifice to come that excites him to horror. Ulysses, at line 524, or thereabouts, comes on and says “I represent a cruel lot.” He then goes on to explain why Astyanax, the son of Hector and Andromache, has to be killed for political reasons. Helen in Act IV reports the sacrifice of Polyxena, and it is clear that Helen co-operated with the Greeks against her will, and that she felt pity and compassion for the poor girl, but still helped with the deed.

Seneca in effect warns against putting the roots of morality in transient emotions and in feelings, and suggests that morality must be rooted in the Stoic ideal of reason.

Next up, a discussion of the Kindle I got for Christmas, and some eBooks that I read on it.

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