Reception of Senecan Tragedy

Helen Slaney (Oxford)

The staging of Seneca’s plays in antiquity remains controversial. His extant corpus of seven complete tragedies and one substantial fragment (Phoenissae), written somewhere between 40 CE and 65 CE, gives a densely poetic treatment to some of the most harrowing episodes in classical mythology: Oedipus, Medea, Phaedra, the madness of Hercules, Thyestes’ cannibalism. Scholarly consensus used to consign these works to the category of “recitation-drama”, as it was argued that some scenes could not be staged according to the normal conventions of ancient drama; more recent research suggests a connection to the popular performance medium of Roman pantomime, a form of solo ballet accompanied by a sung libretto. That Seneca’s plays were in circulation shortly after his death is attested by two spurious tragedies, Octavia and Hercules Oetaeus, at one time attributed to Seneca but more likely to be Flavian imitations.

The performance reception of Seneca in the modern period began in 1485 when a group of students in Rome staged the Phaedra. Seneca became the pre-eminent stylistic model for neo-Latin tragedy, regularly performed in universities across Europe. Rhetorical training was an important part of the humanist curriculum, and Seneca’s verbal density made his style particularly useful for teaching the basic principles of delivery, or actio. Playwrights such as Thomas Legge (Richardus Tertius), George Buchanan (Baptistes, Jephtha) and William Gager (Meleager, Hippolytus) used Senecan diction to create new works. Seneca also provided a vocabulary of rage and excess to playwrights composing neo-Latin tragedies using Biblical episodes.

The first complete English edition of Seneca’s plays appeared in 1581, but these were poetic translations rather than scripts for the stage. Seneca’s influence entered vernacular drama with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587), whose Sencan “rant” – that is, extended monologues steeped in heightened emotion – became an object of derision for the next generation. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (also late 1580s) established the Senecan paradigm for the popular genre of revenge tragedy, which went over the top in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (c. 1592) and found its most sophisticated expression in Hamlet, spawning a number of bloody Jacobean offspring – The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Tragedy of Hoffmann, The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois – finally ending up hysterically parodied in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, performed by the Blackfriars boy players.

In France, the performance of plays with classical plots had begun as early as La Péruse’s Médée (1553), essentially a translation of Seneca. Robert Garnier’s gory masterpieces included a Hippolyte [Phaedra] and one of the few Phoenissae ever staged, increasing the body count and the bloodthirstiness while remaining faithful to the verbal amplitude of his source-texts. The French Baroque produced Rotrou’s Hercule Mourant (1634) and Corneille’s Médée (1635), both of which exploited the spectacular effects afforded by scenes of sorcery and apotheosis. Corneille later repudiated these as not conducive to vraisemblance (verisimilitude), one of the so-called Règles – the Rules – governing the neo-classical aesthetic of containment. This was the aesthetic which provided Jean Racine with the stifling huis-clos explosiveness that makes his 1677 Phèdre one of the most powerful turning points in Senecan reception.

Back in England, the Restoration had reopened the playhouses, and Seneca’s stamp on tragic drama was still palpable. In particular, Nathaniel Lee reworked numerous Senecan passages in his anti-Catholic Caesar Borgia and The Massacre of Paris. Lee also collaborated with John Dryden on a version of Oedipus which incorporates aspects of Seneca’s play of the same name such as the necromantic ritual that raises Laius’ ghost. The first Senecan tragedy to be fully staged in an English translation was John Crowne’s Thyestes (1678). As the eighteenth-century theatre became more commercial, however, more regulated and more genteel, sensibility supplanted horror, and Seneca virtually disappeared from the repertoire. By the early nineteenth century, it was possible for the German critic A.W. Schlegel to deny Seneca any role whatsoever in the historical development of Western theatre. Ironically, at the very moment when these hostile opinions were being consolidated, Senecan influence was re-emerging. In Germany, mime artist Henriette Hendel-Schütz was performing scenes from Kleist’s Penthesilea, a vicious subversion of Weimar philhellenism whose ending resembles Phaedra; in England, meanwhile, Shelley was composing what would become another pivotal text in the performance reception of Seneca, a gothic revenge tragedy entitled The Cenci.

The Cenci became Seneca’s entry-point into the twentieth century, when Antonin Artaud produced it in 1935 as a demonstration of his Theatre of Cruelty, a form with which Artaud himself perceived strong Senecan affiliations. Artaud’s cult status among later directors, especially Jean-Louis Barrault (Phèdre, 1943; Médée, 1967) and Peter Brook (Oedipus, a verse translation by Ted Hughes, 1968) encouraged them to appropriate Senecan tragedy as a fertile avant-garde resource. The late twentieth century recognised in Seneca a tragedian who spoke to conditions of hyperreality, conspicuous consumption and spectacular violence. Tony Harrison’s sultry Phaedra Britannica (1975), Sarah Kane’s savage Phaedra’s Love (1996) and Ted Hughes’ stately translation of Racine’s Phèdre (1999) all claim descent from Seneca. Thyestes has also stimulated recent interest, translated by Caryl Churchill in 1994 and by Simon Stone in 2010. In 2011, the Comédie Française production of Florence Dupont’s Agamemnon combined neoclassical minimalism with intense stylization. Seneca infiltrates contemporary theatre from multiple angles; although not always acknowledged, his work remains a touchstone for creative practitioners seeking to represent the unrepresentable.