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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 15: Roman Tragedy and Later Roman Drama

I. Republican Roman Tragedy

Tragedy entered Rome soon after 240 BCE, at much the same moment as comedy. However, because the only Roman tragedies to survive whole belong to Seneca, an author living in the days of the early Empire (the first century CE), it seems today as if Latin tragedy appeared fairly late. The all-but-complete devastation of tragedies written in Rome prior to Seneca underscores not only the decimations of later antiquity and the Middle Ages but also the difficulties facing theatre historians in trying to assemble a full picture of ancient drama in general.

Historical reality is very different. Some of the most famous and respected names in ancient drama have nothing but shreds of text and anecdotal data to speak for them—Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius—all of them artistic pioneers whose work, we are told, grounded the later triumphs of Vergil, Horace and Ovid. But without even one complete work by any of these men to go on, we have little choice but to take that statement on credit. Comparable to the loss of Sappho, these are some of the most tragic lapses in literary history.

Quintus Ennius, for instance, was a contemporary of Plautus and, like him, stood near the dawn of Roman drama. His tragedies were still read and produced to some acclaim in the first century BCE, and copies of his works were available in libraries until late antiquity. From the remnants of his work, we gather that Ennius preferred Euripides as a model, at least to judge from the titles of his works and the tone of the fragments preserved. And like Plautus, Ennius adapted his Greek models freely, inserting many Romanisms. In particular, it appears he amplified the musical element in his drama, sensible during those brief moments when history allows direct comparison between his play and the Greek original he was adapting. For instance, in his Medea Ennius converted into song what Euripides had cast as a spoken passage.

Though Ennius also wrote comedies, none are preserved, nor do they seem to have been well respected—comparison to his coeval Plautus cannot have helped his reputation—thus as a dramatist he was best remembered for his tragedies, though his oeuvre was hardly restricted to stage works. Ennius wrote all sorts of literature: satires, histories in prose and verse, and theological treatises. He is also responsible for codifying the equations of Greek and Roman gods: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Aphrodite/Venus, and so on. (click here for more about the Roman Pantheon) Thus, a formative figure in not only Roman drama but literature too, Ennius' reduction to mere quotes and scraps opens up a serious gap in our understanding of Western history and literature alike.

Roman Fresco depicting a scene from tragedy (click to see larger image)Ennius' somewhat older peer, Gnaeus Naevius whom we noted earlier as a comic playwright was another early Roman tragedian. He, too, appears to have added Roman melodies when Latinizing Greek speeches, though the evidence for his tragedy is much scantier than that of Ennius. Nevertheless, he is associated with a remarkable breakthrough, the invention of a new form of tragic performance called fabulae praetextae, meaning "toga-wearing plays," that is, tragedies in Roman dress. (note)

A few of the play titles recorded under Naevius' name belong to dramas of this sort (Clastidium, Romulus/Lupus), but unfortunately not much else. The fabulae praetextae were, evidently, not a resounding success and may even have played some role in landing Naevius in jail after he incurred the wrath of powerful men in Rome (see Chapter 14). Propaganda and social commentary in such a public arena as the theatre is dangerous turf to tread, nor one, it seems, Naevius tiptoed across.

We hear of few fabulae praetextae after his day, a situation that echoes eerily both the disappearance of historical tragedies from the Greek stage after Aeschylus' The Persians and the demise of Old Comedy in the early fourth century BCE. Conversely, fabulae praetextae do, in fact, resurface in Latin literature later during—of all periods in Roman history!—the days when Nero reigned (54-68 CE). To write tragedies based on Roman life, not set in some remote locale like Greece or the mythological universe, and to stage them in front of a despot like Nero seems positively suicidal, but then many Romans were committing suicide in those days. From this brief revival of interest in the fabulae praetextae comes the sole surviving example of this genre, Octavia, a play attributed to but almost certainly not written by Seneca. (note) Thus, Naevius' heritage was felt in more ways than one across Roman history.

The great names associated with Roman tragedy come, in fact, in the centuries-long intermission between Naevius and Seneca, especially during the second century BCE, the same age when Plautus and Terence were writing. A contemporary of both, Marcus Pacuvius (ca. 220-130 BCE) was no less than the nephew of Ennius, but a far better and more widely acclaimed tragedian, at least according to later Romans.

In harmony with his times, Pacuvius was said to have mixed material from different Greek originals, in particular, spicing up Sophocles with Euripidean sentiment—thus, Terence was apparently not the only playwright in his day dabbling in contaminatio—and also, unlike his tragic predecessors but in accordance with his comic coevals, Pacuvius limited his work to one genre of drama, in his case, tragedy. (note) We are told his use of Latin was grave and serious, though the examples we have show much playfulness. For instance, the infamous line Nerei repandirostrum incurvicervicum genus ("Nereus' bent-beaked convex-necked brood," a reference to dolphins), is reminiscent of Plautus' delight in wordplay. Pacuvius' plays were produced on the Roman stage well past his long lifetime and, if not his ostensible delight in alliteration, his general impact on subsequent Latin literature is patent.

Statuette of a tragic actor (click to see larger image)Later in the same century, the Romans produced their last great tragedian of the Republican period, Lucius Accius (ca. 170-86 BCE), a much younger contemporary of Pacuvius. His reputation stood high throughout his life and remained that way until the end of Roman history. Indeed, until very late in antiquity, Roman scholars had access to and cited his works, a testament to both his endurance and popularity as a playwright. Even the scant glimpse of his drama provided in the surviving fragments shows that Accius' tragedies have a dignity reminiscent of Greek tragedy, in the words of one modern classicist, "vigorous, elevated, solemn and sonorous." Like Pacuvius, Accius also engaged in tragic contaminatio and wrote fabulae praetextae.

Most important of all, however, the fact that more than a century later Seneca is said to have read Accius' works ties him to the only Roman tragedian whose work survives intact and makes his influence all the greater in Latin—and thus Western—literature. From all this and the many extant fragments of his work, we can see that much was lost when Accius' tragedies failed to survive to our day, though arguably more lamentable is that fact that no later writer of Roman tragedy rose to match or surpass his repute.

That last failure speaks volumes about both the skill of early Latin tragedians and also the changing times in which they lived. But even when the Romans' tastes evolved away from Greek-style drama, Accius' plays still tasted good enough that people who lived long after his heyday eagerly consumed them on stage and in libraries. If the last of a dying breed, he went out with as much style and dignity as any of his predecessors and did not cater to the crowd and the more vulgar vogue returning into power.

II. The Age of Popular Entertainment (100's BCE - 400's CE)

After the waning of literary theatre in Rome, nothing like it rose to meet the challenge—as noted in Chapter 4, species can die out—and the reasons for the extinction of Roman drama are not hard to reconstruct. Roman Comedy, for instance, no matter to what degree adapted or seemingly independent of its Hellenistic models, was still inextricably tied to its forebears, those so-called "Greek originals." When they began to run out, the Roman love for fabulae palliatae apparently started withering, too.

It is interesting to note, then, that the ancient "biography" of Terence claims he died on a trip back to Greece to find more Menandrean originals. (note) Probably, a piece of invented history, this factoid about Terence's death may, however, hint at a greater truth. No one wants a good show to end, but all authors—even prolific masters like Menander and Sophocles!—write only so much.

Inherent in this historical tidbit, be it fiction or not, is a wish that Menander, and thus Terence, too, had never stopped writing, but the sad fact is they did. It must have seemed appropriate to some later "biographer" for Terence's journey to end with him sailing off into the East in search of more Menander, like Homer's Odysseus who, according to Greek legend, ends his days not at home but off on yet another adventure in some distant land. Is one Odyssey ever enough?

But one is all we get here. Roman literary drama passed from the center of public attention, if it had ever really been there, and replacing it was what theatre historians called "popular entertainment," that is, lavish and, to judge from the evidence, mostly vapid spectacles, the ancient counterpart of television or YouTube. For the most part, it indulged the baser tastes of the indigent masses—the creation of a super-rich aristocracy had simultaneously spawned an utterly impoverished mob—and ambitious politicians fed this unwashed but voting lower class a daily dole of "bread and circuses," according to the writer Pliny who laments the lack of cultural nutrition in their diet. Indeed, a Roman graffito from the day reads, "Hunting, bathing, gaming: that's living!" So maybe some were washed a little.

But the changing times did not cultivate lengthy attention spans nor elevated thinking. By the first century BCE it became increasingly difficult to mount whole plays; the crowds were simply too restless. At the same time, some drama seems to have done reasonably well. Revivals of Plautus, in particular, found a sizeable fanbase among audiences and performers. Accordingly, Atellan farces made a comeback—or, to put it evolutionarily, a redient species briefly filled a niche left empty by the demise of a dominant art form—and then in relatively quick succession, fell back again into oblivion just like its original incarnation.

Vase depicting a series of scene from a tragedy about Medea (click to see larger image)Though literary drama did not die altogether, new works existed only as antiquarian exercises, toy swords wielded by bored aristocrats brandishing their schoolbook erudition for the enjoyment of their country clubs. For example, the brother of the great Roman orator Cicero is said to have written four tragedies in sixteen days. History does not say whether Cicero or anyone else ever read any of them. Politicians and the rest of the Roman world were simply too busy looking in other directions to pay much attention to drama.

By Augustus' day, the dilettante had inherited Euripides' mantle. Though great artists in this age tried their hands at play-making—the renowned poet Ovid wrote a much heralded closet-drama, Medea, now lost—other forms of literature and entertainment held sway. Pantomime, in particular, a form of narrative dance and the precursor of modern ballet, was very popular (see Chapter 16). But still gladiatorial combat and animal shows are what the Romans in that era speak most about. At this well-documented "high noon" in Roman history—one of the greatest ages of literature ever, just not dramatic literature!—historical records rarely even mention drama. In other words, during the Augustan Age theatres went up all over the place, just not plays.

A. Ars Poetica

The closest thing to drama that survives from this time is a treatise on playwriting composed by the celebrated Roman poet of the Augustan Age Horace. Called Ars Poetica ("The Art of Playwriting"), it is essentially a metrical meditation on Aristotle's Poetics, with a focus on what constitutes good drama. Merely because this poem survived the Middle Ages, it made a great impact on early modern dramatists, especially those working in and after the Renaissance, in particular, the French neo-classical playwrights Racine and Corneille.

The nature of the Ars Poetica is largely prescriptive, citing "rules" for constructing sound plots and characters. It contains with much useful advice, at least by ancient standards, like restricting oneself to only including three speaking characters in the same scene and disposing the action of a play into five acts. The influence of Greek drama is obvious, putting it in line with the rest of Horace's work that draws heavily on Hellenic forebears. Thus Greek in just about everything but language, Ars Poetica advertises a sad truth—whether the author meant to say it or not—that by this day drama had become a reflection of the past, a thing more suited to libraries than theatres.

In form, the Ars Poetica is an epistle addressed to two young poets both named Piso, but it is like no conventional letter. For one, its form and content are at odds. A curious combination of science and poetry, it is a sort of academic monograph written in verse. Strange as that may sound to us, versified scholarship was not uncommon in antiquity. In the 30's BCE, a decade or so earlier, Vergil had published a very popular, four-book poem on agriculture, The Georgics, a sort of almanac in verse proffering advice to farmers about crops and herds. Next to that, a poetical epistle on playwriting seems almost sane.

In any case, the organization of the poem definitely defies reason. Instead of following in the footsteps of its Aristotelian namesake, Horace's Ars Poetica leaps with seeming abandon from subject to subject. If the poet were cross-examined about this, his excuse would be, no doubt, that he was writing in a conversational genre—a "satire" (satura) as the Romans called it—a type of literature that avoided formal clarity and the professional style at which scholars in general aim.

For instance, it seems not to have mattered to Horace at all that in one paragraph he discusses characterization and how to depict different types naturalistically in drama—for example, how to be effective in engineering old and young characters—and in the next paragraph turns directly to a discussion of which type of actions are appropriate to put on stage. If there is any reason guiding the sequence of Horace's topics, no one as yet has demonstrated it convincingly. But in all fairness to the Roman, it's not that much easier to follow the thread of logic informing his Greek prototype.

So, let us leap then, as Horace himself advises the beginning writer, in medias res ("into the middle of things") and start at the beginning of Ars Poetica (excerpted):


A human head attached to a horse's neck! If a painter
Ever wanted to join them, and then add colored feathers
With body parts from all over the animal world, so that the hideous
End was a black fish with a beautiful woman on top,
If he showed that to you, could you keep from laughing, my friends?
Believe me, Piso and Piso, most similar to that painting would be
The book of the man who, like in a fevered patient's dream,
Out of air shapes forms where neither foot nor head respond to
A single conception. "But painters and poets alike
Have always had an equal right to dare what they please."
Yes, I know. It's a mercy we give and take in turn,
But not so that gentles mix with immoderates, or
Serpents graft onto birds, tigers onto lambs. . .

. . . It was supposed to enter
As a wine-jar but, as the wheel turned, why did a pitcher exit?
Well, let it be your choice, as long as you choose one thing!
Either follow a well-known story or make up one that makes sense.
If, for instance, you write of that time-honored Achilles—
A man not slow to act, who's angry, stubborn and bitter—
Let him say laws weren't made for him, settle quarrels with force.
Let Medea go wild, be uncontrollable. Let Ino be tearful,
Ixion treacherous, Io dazed, and downcast Orestes.
If you commit anything untried to the stage and dare
To invent a character, a new one, make it stay until the end
The sort it started out as. Make it consistent! . . .

And please don't start as that epic poet once did:
"The perils of Priam intend I to sing, the gentleman's war!"
What could this promise bring worthy of such an opening?
Mountains will gestate and heave—and deliver a ridiculous rat.
How much better did the one who did not exceed the bounds!
"Tell me, Muse, about the man after the days when Troy was taken
Who saw the ways of many men and many cities."
Not smoke from flames, but firelight is his
Intention, . . .

Now you, hear what I and the people around me want!
If you hope for a listener rapt, awaiting the final curtain,
Who sits until the stage manager says "Please applaud!,"
Of every age group you must observe the ways,
Give a suitable finish to evolving nature, their years.
A child is one who knows how to copy words, loves to run
On his own feet, wants to frisk with other kids, quick
To anger and forgive—he changes by the hour.
A beardless youth, his guardian thrown off track,
Dabbles in horses and dogs, the grass of a summery field,
Wax to be molded to wrong—warn him and he curses you!—
Of his needs a slow provider, but swift at spending money,
His head in the clouds, he's as quick to embrace as abandon a love.
As passions turn, age comes and the human heart
Seeks wealth and friendships, the service of honor—
A man thinks twice before heading down a path he'll soon retrace.
A multitude of inconveniences plague old men: either he
Scrounges and won't touch what the miser made, fears using it,
Or treats everything with a cold and trembling hand,
Delays, clinging to hope, stiff and greedy of future, . . .

So, do not give old men's
Roles to boys or boys the parts of men.
We always linger over things that suit the age, that fit.
A thing is either done on stage or, if already done, narrated.
Slow to stir the soul are things related to the ear;
Faster come what's shown our eyes—eyes we trust!—and what
We hear through seeing. Still, you shouldn't bring on stage
Things meant to be done inside. Steal many things
From our eyes which eloquence can readily relate.
Don't let Medea kill her children openly out in public,
Or Atreus, the criminal, cook human parts for everyone to see,
Or Procne turn into a bird, or Cadmus to a snake!
What you show me so, I don't believe—I scorn it.
Neither shorter nor longer than the fifth act should your play
Run, if it wishes to be popular and recalled on stage.
Keep the gods out, unless something happens worthy of their vengeance,
Some hopeless knot. And don't let a fourth character talk!
The chorus should put up the front that it's a player, take
A human part, and not sing between acts anything
That doesn't suit the situation or fill the gap accordingly.
Let it champion good men and counsel as friends,
Temper those angry and favor those fearing to sin,
Praise a moderate table, salubrious
Justice and law and peace and closing the gates of war.
It should keep secrets, invoke gods and make prayers
To restore fortune to victims, and strip it from tyrants.
The flute, not like today's bound in bronze and
Trumpet-like, but thin with one reed and an opening or two
To blow on, was helpful with choruses. . .

Now Pisos, turn over your Greek models
At night in your hands! Turn them by daylight, too!
Your ancestors lauded the verses of Plautus—
And his jokes, too—perhaps a bit too patiently,
I might add, stood there astonished, insofar as we know,
You and I, how to separate crude from true wit
And comprehend a legitimate rhythm by finger and ear.
The story goes that Thespis invented the form as yet unknown
Of the tragic Muse and carted his creations about in wagons,
And they sang and acted having smeared their faces with wine lees.
After him came the man who invented the mask and costume,
Aeschylus. He built a stage of medium-sized boards
And taught how to speak nobly and wear the lofty boot.
Following these entered Old Comedy, not without applause,
But beyond what is right it exceeded, into a libel
That deserved to be censored. Law interceded, and wrongly
The chorus was silenced, its right to offend shackled.
Our own poets have left no stone unturned,
And none have deserved the slightest honor who dared to desert
Their Greek heritage and celebrate deeds done at home,
Either the writers of praetextae or togatae.
The Roman land would not excel in courage and shining arms
More than language, if even one of her poets were not offended
By the effort and time necessary for revision. So you, the
Children of old Rome, let go of no poem which many a
Day and many erasures do not constrain or you haven't
Retraced at least ten times with a newly trimmed fingernail.

It's well to bear in mind that for all his advice not one word from antiquity survives to suggest Horace ever put the Ars Poetica into effect and actually wrote a play, or even produced one. Thus, the critic of theatre comes of age in Horace, prescriptive and judgmental—and powerful in his regulation of the medium—without ever having consigned a play of his own to the very scrutiny he details and demands.

It's also well to remember that there is not a single extant drama surviving from Horace's time, few at all even known to have been written, much less one hint of even a monologue inked by the Piso boys. In fact, the only thing relating to drama extant from this age is Horace's criticism. It seems clear: dramatic art is all but dead and, even if they didn't do the murder, critics like Horace stand over the corpse holding in their hands that razor-sharp instrument called a stylus ("writing instrument"), their ink dripping like blood from its tip. Indeed, after Horace there will be no more Roman playwrights—except one!—and so I would like to make an accusation: it was the professor in the library with the pen.

III. Later Roman Tragedy and Seneca

A succession of five members of the Julio-Claudian gens ("family, clan") make up the first dynasty of emperors to rule Rome. During their reign, Roman aristocrats, including Seneca, thrived along with their state in a way the Romans before them never had. At the same time, the early imperial denizens felt very much debased and often lamented the passing of their personal liberties. Wealth and luxuries spread across their world unbounded and became a sort of honeyed muzzle at which many growled but few actually balked.

Among those humiliating splendors were grand-scale entertainments—mainly circuses, chariot races, and gruesome "sporting events"—and also a little theatre but not of the sort their predecessors thought of as "drama." The heart of dramatic theatre in that day was the "show-piece," a speech or aria that gave a virtuoso performer the chance to display his talent—Nero, no less, was famous for performing these!—such soliloquies, often removed entirely from their dramatic context, were performed independently with other such bravuras.

A. Senecan Drama

It is remarkable, then, to find a dramatist bucking this trend, as Seneca did, who composed whole dramas, not just isolated speeches, though his plays have been accused of being merely a string of set pieces loosely held in place by a weak plot. But that's not the central issue here. The hub of modern inquiry about Senecan drama centers around whether or not his plays were ever even intended for performance.

Indeed, there is no record of their ever having been performed in ancient Rome, and the question of their performability has dominated modern scholarship. Especially the academic community in the first half of the twentieth century, nursed as it was on Shavian realism, thought these plays could not have been intended for theatre production because they are simply unfit for the stage—and by Ibsen's standards they certainly are—but whether that says anything about Seneca's Rome is another matter. Not every age since Roman times has doubted the performability of these tragedies, for instance, the Elizabethan public who clearly enjoyed long soliloquies and formal debates of the sort seen in Seneca. To them it was a given these plays were playable.

Both judgments, however, say more about their own era than the text in question. It is vital, then, to note that, if Seneca's tragedies were composed for full theatrical performance in their day, they constitute our only surviving instance of Roman drama that was designed to be presented in a theatre building preserved from the period in which the play was written, the sole occasion upon which we can imagine a Latin script meeting a Roman stage. Sadly, of course, much the same can be said of Greek drama, so if for no other reason than this unique possibility careful examination is warranted as to whether or not Senecan tragedy was—or was meant to be—performed.

Such an exploration must begin with Seneca himself (4 BCE - 65 CE), the man under whose name the nine surviving tragedies and one fabula praetexta have come down. With the failure of earlier Roman tragedy to survive the Middle Ages, Seneca's drama constitutes the entire corpus of intact Roman tragic drama. But because it seems highly unlikely that Seneca wrote Octavia even though it is attributed to him—this sole surviving praetexta alludes to historical events after his life and he himself appears as a character in the play which raises the unlikely absurdity that he put words into his own mouth via drama—our suspicions must be raised that these tragedies may have been mistakenly ascribed to him as well.

Moreover, Seneca the man is well documented in the Roman historical records. He was a commanding literary figure in his day, the author of many letters and treatises meant for general consumption, and he even helped to run Rome in the early years of Nero's reign (54-59 CE). For that reason we know a great deal about him, yet not one word in all his personal and public records mentions his having composed or produced tragedies. On top of that, it is hard to find much historical basis for supposing he had any abiding interest in theatre of any sort.

Besides that, these dramas accord poorly with the tenor of his attested lifestyle and other writings. Seneca subscribed to Stoicism, a philosophical system embracing a non-violent, rationalistic approach to life. The popular spectacles and games of the day interested him little, at least to judge from his public and personal correspondence, and in fact their brutality revolted him as it did most Stoics. The tragedies, however, that come down under his name entail some of the most violence-ridden and gruesome drama ever created by any ancient playwright. To align these with stoic principles presents a formidable challenge, though not insurmountable.

For one, the public façade an author projects in his literary works need not harmonize with the rest of his life. Seneca's letters, even his "private" ones—indeed his whole life!—were open to general scrutiny, inasmuch as he was one of the most famous and wealthiest men of his time. It is, of course, always possible that this minister of moderation espoused and preached dispassionate rationalism by day but then went home at night and in the solitude of his quiet den vented some very unstoic rage. Such hypocrisy would hardly be unprecedented in literary history. (note)

If there is any real objection to his authorship of these tragedies, it stems not from his personal convictions or philosophy, but the chronology of his life. Seneca was a very busy man. It's hard to imagine he found the time, much less the inclination, to write drama. That the plays are highly derivative of Greek tragedy goes some distance toward countering such objections, but there's enough that's original in them for it to be clear some artistic effort was expended in their composition. All in all, they certainly don't look like they were dashed off in the few spare moments a cabinet secretary can find in his daily agenda of appointments and meetings. Thus, when—and, more important, why—Seneca found the inspiration for writing plays is a more daunting and ultimately unanswerable question, the real puzzle that lurks behind these sole-surviving Roman tragedies.

Moreover, there are other important clues about the authorship of these plays. For example, they are replete with sententiae ("opinions"), pithy sayings conveying nuggets of wisdoms pertinent beyond the dramatic action itself. Seneca's drama seems to float on a sea of such notable quotables—"No good deed goes unpunished" is a modern example—leaving the impression that these, and not the characters or action, are the author's real inspiration for writing the play.

In that regard, at least, the tragedies conform with the rest of the Senecan corpus which swims in such aphorisms. But this stylistic device alone cannot stand as proof of his authorship since a plethora of sententiae is hardly a defining characteristic of any author in this day. The entire age, in fact, reveled in them—it is hard to find any early Imperial Roman author who does not render them in plenty—therefore, to confirm that Seneca wrote these tragedies, one must produce better evidence.

It's notable also that the tone of these tragedies is generally consistent, which suggests at least that a single author wrote them, but that person does not have to be Seneca. They're uniform also in having been drawn from Greek myth and drama, all in direct imitation of classical tragedies, often particular ones. Because of this, they can be seen as unoriginal, but clearly they are not. Resembling their Greek models in plot alone, the style of these Senecan reproductions is Hellenistic, almost baroque, insofar as they tend to focus on seemingly unnecessary detail, often at the expense of the general coherence and force of the drama.

Moreover, their pacing is slow, even more so than that of Aeschylean tragedy, and thus they have—intentionally it seems—neither the emotional drive nor the compassion for humanity that defines the classical works of the Greek stage. This is not to say that Seneca's plays lack intensity—indeed, they have too much intensity, one might argue—but their obsession with extreme characters and perverse motivations is so far beyond normal everyday experience that they come off as "hypertragic," that is to say, exceeding the average person's ability to connect with and project into the feelings driving the drama.

Depiction of a tragic mask (click to see larger image)For instance, Atreus, the protagonist of Seneca's Thyestes, is a character who, according to classical myth, murdered and cooked his brother's sons and then fed him their flesh. Granted, Greek tradition handed Seneca a fairly perverted character—the story calls for a figure whose lust for power leads him to extremes that make it all but impossible to sympathize with him—the Atreus seen in the Roman play is so caught up with turning his nephews into chowder he seems not to care in the slightest about winning the audience's favor and doesn't even bother to rationalize most of his actions. For all her explosive fury, Euripides' Medea at least tries not to sound totally insane.

At one point, for instance, as Atreus is watching his brother Thyestes unwittingly consume the boys, he notes icily that his brother has belched, a sign to Romans that the meal was over, but in this context a grizzly reminder of what exactly is being regurgitated. The moment is so tragic, so horrific, so over-the-top it's hard not to laugh. It's also not impossible Seneca designed this and many other such scenes to create precisely that effect.

If so, his plays become strange theatrical experiments, "comitragedies" of a sort—the dark and twisted counterparts of tragicomedies—and when presented that way, can make highly effective, though quite unusual theatre fare. Perhaps, however, they only seem unusual to us because we expect tragedy not to embrace this sort of viewpoint and we don't live in Seneca's time. It's important to remember that the world surely looked very different from under the shadow of the Julio-Claudian emperors, especially Nero.

The Pax Romana is, in fact, one of the most troubled periods of "peace and universal harmony" ever known. As one critic notes:

The themes of Seneca's tragedies—vengeance, madness, power-lust, passion, irrational hatred, self-contempt, murder, incest, hideous death, fortune's vicissitudes and savagery—were the stuff of his life. Those who think them merely rhetorical commonplaces have never stared into the face of a Caligula. (note)

With that, it seems fairer to say these plays might have looked quite reasonable in early imperial times, perfectly apt extensions of the reality around them. In the end, the theatre historian's role is not to judge but to assess a dramatic corpus as a vehicle of artistic expression suitable to its day. Amidst sadistic "games" and court intrigue that more than once ended in gruesome public executions, the cultural climate that dominated Nero's Rome produced a form of tragedy commensurate and compatible with its moment in the sun. If the product it created seems wasteful and extreme and far too tragic to face head on, so was the age.

B. Senecan Theatre

Indeed, Senecan drama confronts the audience with terrifying scenes and characters who seem to fill the air with outrage, a type of persona that also fits well inside the enormous arenas where Roman drama played. While we know that Menander was still being read and performed in this day, it was all too easy for a subtle piece of quiet character-driven comedy like The Litigants to drown in the din and fray of a restless mob packed into a busy theatre in downtown Rome.

Furthermore, the grandiose monstrosity of Seneca's creations suits not only the times but the majestic entrances such a showcase provides. The sprawling, shallow stage also well befits the two-dimensional presentation typical of Senecan characters—we'll see just that when we read Phaedra (Reading 8)—which still leaves open the question if they actually were performed in this context, but they certainly could have been, and to good purpose indeed. In the end, our objections are just that, ours.

The ease with which other ages closer to our own, such as Shakespeare's, have adopted Senecan tragedy as a model of performable drama should warn us not to slam closed the theatre doors too quickly. If these plays don't conform easily to our standards of good or even stageable pieces, perhaps they are not trying to. The writer may not even be aiming at producing tragedy, in our conventional sense of "serious drama." To the contrary, it's entirely possible that Senecan drama reflects the less limited meaning of tragoidia in its classical City-Dionysia sense, a genre that included plays written in all sorts of modes, not just Aristotle's restrictive sense of what makes a drama tragic. A man as well-read and insightful as Seneca—and many of his peers as well—could certainly have constructed tragedies of this sort, in full awareness that he was playing on the breadth of what constituted tragic drama in the ancient world, not some limited and limiting vision like ours of what fit the classical stage.

And this brings us back to the question of Seneca's authorship of these plays. All in all, it's impossible to confirm or deny that Seneca wrote these plays—only Octavia can be absolutely ruled out—nor does the question matter in the long run as much as what the survival of these dramas says about the macroscopic picture of ancient Italian drama and theatre. A playground of extreme behaviors, as all Rome was in Seneca's day, there can be no doubt such plays were written in and for the age of Caligula and Nero.

But their impact was much greater. As the only Latin tragedies to survive antiquity, they assumed a central position in the reformulation of tragic drama during the Renaissance. The extent to which they influenced Shakespeare and his Jacobean successors is enormous, giving shape to their taste for gore and the shock tactics their audiences loved to witness on stage. To watch Titus Andronicus or 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is to see where Senecan theatre leads, or can lead.

In the end, however, what we are left with is the same set of questions we had at the start: did Seneca write these plays? were they performed? do they constitute practicable theatre in their or any day? Little is clear except this: Senecan drama stands, as it has often stood, at the heart of important debates and discussions, and it's easy to see why. For all its antiquity, it's remarkably modern. Angry, absurdist, counter-traditional, gender-bending, genre-breaking, it seems intentionally problematical in tone and temper—and, of course, content. It clearly means to raise serious, troubling questions and leave them unresolved, issues that have no clear or easy answers.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Quintus Ennius
Fabulae Praetextae [FAH-bull-lie pry-TEXT-tie]
Marcus Pacuvius [pah-COO-vee-yuss]
Lucius Accius [ACK-key-yuss]
Popular Entertainment
Bread and Circuses
Ars Poetica

In Medias Res [inn MED-dee-yass RACE]
Sententiae [senn-TENN-tee-eye]
Atreus [EIGHT-tree-yus]
Thyestes [thigh-YES-teez]
Phaedra [FIE-drah]


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