The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy

The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy

by Thomas Kohn

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The first-century Roman tragedies of Seneca, like all ancient drama, do not contain the sort of external stage directions that we are accustomed to today; nevertheless, a careful reading of the plays reveals such stage business as entrances, exits, setting, sound effects, emotions of the characters, etc. The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy teases out these

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The first-century Roman tragedies of Seneca, like all ancient drama, do not contain the sort of external stage directions that we are accustomed to today; nevertheless, a careful reading of the plays reveals such stage business as entrances, exits, setting, sound effects, emotions of the characters, etc. The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy teases out these dramaturgical elements in Seneca's work and uses them both to aid in the interpretation of the plays and to show the playwright's artistry.

Thomas D. Kohn provides a detailed overview of the corpus, laying the groundwork for appreciating Seneca's techniques in the individual dramas. Each of the chapters explores an individual tragedy in detail, discussing the dramatis personae and examining how the roles would be distributed among a limited number of actors, as well as the identity of the Chorus. The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy makes a compelling argument for Seneca as an artist and a dramaturg in the true sense of the word: "a maker of drama." Regardless of whether Seneca composed his plays for full-blown theatrical staging, a fictive theater of the mind, or something in between, Kohn demonstrates that he displays a consistency and a careful attentiveness to details of performance. While other scholars have applied this type of performance criticism to individual tragedies or scenes, this is the first comprehensive study of all the plays in twenty-five years, and the first ever to consider not just stagecraft, but also metatheatrical issues such as the significant distribution of roles among a limited number of actors, in addition to the emotional states of the characters. Scholars of classics and theater, along with those looking to stage the plays, will find much of interest in this study.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Roman Studies - Emma Buckley

"This monograph should not only stimulate more attention to the interaction between stage business and the thematic/linguistic preoccupations of individual plays: it should also in turn encourage new performances of Seneca into the twenty-first century."
---Journal of Roman Studies
Classical Journal - Emily Wilson

"The major importance of this book is how clearly it shows how diverse the Senecan dramatic corpus is. This is brought out particularly well in the discussion of props and stage business."
--Classical Journal
Choice - H.M. Roisman

"Highly recommended."
Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Eric Dodson-Robinson

"Through the consideration of dramaturgical possibilities available to Seneca, this book reveals new perspectives that add meaning to the plays. ... [A]n important resource for anyone interested in the performance criticism of Senecan tragedy."
---Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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University of Michigan Press
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The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy

By Thomas D. Kohn

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 Thomas D. Kohn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11857-1


Seneca and His Dramatic Resources

Before examining the individual plays, one by one, for dramaturgical elements, it would be helpful to look in general at how Seneca exploited the resources at his disposal. By necessity, this overview of the playwright's practices in regards to the physical stage, including entrances and exits, props and effects, and his customs regarding the beginning and ending of his plays will be general, and specific discussions will be found in the chapters dealing with the individual plays. Especially useful would be a detailed examination of Seneca's methods with his most important resource: his performers, including the ramifications of the assumption that Senecan tragedy was intended for a limited number of speaking actors, as well as consideration of mute actors and the Chorus. After seeing how all of these elements work together, we will be better able to appreciate Seneca's skills and artistry in the individual dramas.

The genuine tragedies of Seneca, which all tell stories from Greek mythology, can easily fit onto the basic stage as described by Vitruvius. One set of central doors is required, often representing the palace, as in the Oedipus, the Agamemnon, the Phaedra, and the Thyestes, but not always, as in the Medea, the Hercules Furens, the Troades, and the Phoenissae. Seneca also takes advantage of the two wings, one leading, as Vitruvius tells us, from the forum, and the other from foreign parts. The Oedipus, the Agamemnon, and the Thyestes all closely follow this standard convention, while the other dramas display some slight variations. Further, Vitruvius tells us that the Roman stage is broader than the Greek, wide enough for the Chorus to perform its songs, as well as to be able to withdraw out of the way during the episodes. This would imply that the actual entrances onto the stage via the wings must be some distance from the center doors, an idea that gains some support from the fact that in several plays one character enters and then is not noticed by other onstage characters for quite a while (e.g., act 3 of the Hercules Furens and act 3 of the Thyestes). Also, there are a number of instances where it takes someone at least four lines to announce the entrance of another character (e.g., Agamemnon 778–81, Oedipus 202–5, and Oedipus 1004–9), again indicating some distance between the wing and center stage. Granted, these examples could simply be reflections of the convention of the times. The fictive behavior of dramatic space need not necessarily agree with the actual space of the stage; even if the stage is not very large, the audience will accept that certain characters cannot hear or see each other. But it is possible that the recurrence of examples shows the playwright taking advantage of a bigger stage area. Several plays (the Medea, the Phaedra, and possibly the Phoenissae) require characters to stand either on the roof or a stage building, or else on a balcony.

Of all of the tragedies, only the Medea requires a machina, which carries off the title character at the end (Medea 1022–25). Three plays do feature supernatural entities in their prologues; but Juno in the Hercules Furens seems to stand on the stage floor (Hercules Furens 1–5), as do the Ghosts of Thyestes and Tantalus in the Agamemnon (1–4) and the Thyestes (1ff. and 106–7). These last two plays require a trap door, as both of the Ghosts indicate that they have arisen from the depths of Hell; further, Tantalus s ordered to return to the Underworld (Thyestes 105) at the end of the prologue, making the use of an exit into the stage floor likely. No other gods or spirits, who in Greek tragedy customarily appear on the machina, are portrayed in Senecan drama. The ekkyklema, or rather the exostra, is used somewhat more often, appearing at Phaedra (863–902), at Hercules Furens (1036–1227), and at Thyestes (901–1112). All of these examples have the device emerging from the center doors. At Agamemnon (913–43), Strophius and his silent son, Pylades, ride in via the wing leading from foreign parts on some sort of device, possibly the exostra that has been decorated to look like a chariot.

Vitruvius (5.6.8–9) also talks about scene decoration. On either side of the doors, there is room for scenery. There are three kinds of scenery: tragic, comic, and satyric. The tragic style features columns, pediments, statues, and other royal things. Most of the Senecan dramas need nothing more than these sorts of generic decorations, although the Hercules Furens and the Troades suggest specific scenic effects. In general, the scaenae frons is a place for characters to go to when they have nothing else to do. It is quite common for the Chorus to withdraw to the back of the stage during episodes, while characters such as Oedipus and Amphitryo, in the Oedipus and the Hercules Furens respectively, often stand near the scaenae frons during choral songs.

Senecan tragedy does explicitly call for many props, which gives much dramatic value to any that are mentioned. Concerning theater in general, not restricted to any place or time period, Schechner observes that "during the performance, these objects are of extreme importance, often the focus of the whole activity." Goldhill, when describing one of the challenges for modern actors in staging ancient (by which he means Greek) tragedy, points out that modern plays contain a plethora of props, items that the actors can use to tell the story, build their characters, or just generally remain busy; ancient scripts, on the other hand, have few of these props; but those that do appear are of great significance. Seneca follows the Attic practice of keeping significant props to a minimum. Many plays specifically mention various types of weaponry, although swords are most common. Also occurring multiple times are scepters and altars. Some activities, such as the ceremonial rites in the Medea and the Oedipus, most probably were mimed, and so the physical objects mentioned would not be needed. But others, for example the onstage suicides of Jocasta and Phaedra, would require prop swords.

Blood is a special category of property, or rather of visual effect, which certainly seems to be called for in abundance in Senecan tragedy. When Jocasta kills herself in the Oedipus (1041), so much blood gushes out of the wound that the sword is also swept up in the torrent. In the extispicium of the Oedipus (293–383), much blood and gore would accompany the slaughter of the cattle. Blood drips from Clytemnestra's hands upon her entrance following the murder of her husband in the Agamemnon (949). As part of the mourning in the Troades (120ff.), the captive women beat and tear at their breasts, causing blood and scarring. When Medea reaches the climax of her magical rites (809ff.), she claims to cut herself and offer up the blood to Hecate. Finally, in the Hercules Furens, first Lycus' hands are metaphorically said to be spattered with the blood of Megara's father (372); then, Hercules himself is dripping with blood when he returns from slaying Lycus (918ff.). This is not to suggest that all of these instances would use actual stage-blood. It is likely that Medea does not actually use all of the props she mentions, and thus, the actor would similarly not use realistic blood; likewise, the extispicium is probably largely mimed, and so real liquid would not be desirable. But it would be quite effective if Clytemnestra and Hercules, each just returned from slaughter, bore visible proof.

The tragedies contain a number of cues for sound effects. Several times the center doors make a noise while opening (Medea 177, 971 and Oedipus 911, 995). A noise is heard coming from the ground when Hercules and Theseus enter at Hercules Furens 521–23. Mournful groanings are heard coming from the palace at Phaedra 850 and 1154. At Hercules Furens 1010–20, Hercules and Megara deliver their lines from offstage. Similarly, at Troades 792, the boy, Astyanax "speaks," but it is more probable that one of the speaking actors says these lines, with Hector's son portrayed by a mute actor. Two plays require the sound effects of barking dogs (Medea 840–41 and Phaedra 81–82). Two sound effects may occur in the extispicium in the Oedipus (375 and 383), as well as during the banquet in act 5 of the Thyestes (1001, 1004). Finally, at Hercules Furens 146–51, the Chorus describes the sound of birds, possibly indicating the type of music that is being played during the song.

Obviously, the Roman stage would not utilize lighting effects. Nor would there have been curtains that open and close in order to signal the beginning and ending of a play. As a result, the start of Senecan tragedy can seem a bit abrupt and unrealistic to modern readers. It is not uncommon in Greek tragedy for an actor, or even a crowd of extras, to come onstage, take their places, and then begin the play. Taplin discusses the case of the Watchman at the start of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and concludes that the fifth-century Athenian audience would not have objected to the actor entering in full view and assuming a position on the roof of the skene. The play proper would begin when he utters his first lines. But even in this situation, the character first explains why he is there: he has been on duty for a year, watching for a signal from Troy (Agamemnon 1–21). As another example, consider Sophocles' Oedipus, who says he has arrived from the palace in order to help his subjects (Oedipus Tyrannos 1–13). On the other hand, Seneca's plays simply begin. His Oedipus gives no motivation for his entrance. He could just as easily have pondered the philosophical implications of the plague and his troubled past inside the palace; but for no apparent reason, he has come outside. Similarly, Juno in the Hercules Furens could rail against Hercules and the other illegitimate children of Jupiter anywhere. The fact that she chose this location is simply a happy coincidence for the audience. It is safe to assume that the actors portraying Oedipus, Hippolytus, Juno, Hecuba, and Medea all enter from the central doors at the start of their respective plays. The exceptions would be the Ghosts of Tantalus and Thyestes in the Thyestes and the Agamemnon, who, as has been previously discussed, specifically state that they have arisen from the Underworld. The performers may already be in character upon their entrances from the trap door; but it is probable that in the other plays the actors emulate the Greek practice and take a moment to establish their presence before beginning the play.

Likewise, it is hard to know exactly how the dramas ended. Only the Troades concludes with a completely bare stage. In the Agamemnon and the Oedipus, all of the speaking characters leave, but the Chorus remains. Nobody, neither characters nor Chorus, exits at the end of the Phaedra or the Thyestes. It is likely that the Choruses of both the Medea and of the Hercules Furens exit before the end. In the former play, following Medea's final exit, Jason and the Nurse are left alone onstage. At the end of the latter, Theseus and Hercules exit, but it is difficult to determine whether Amphitryo goes with them or if he stays onstage alone. So, except for the Troades and possibly the Hercules Furens, all of Seneca's plays end with someone onstage, usually at least the Chorus, and sometimes a corpse and/or other characters. Again, there was no curtain to drop in order to let the audience know that the play was over, as well as to give the actors a chance to exit unseen. But just as the ancient audience would not have objected to seeing an actor enter in silence, take his position, and then begin the play, similarly, there would be no problem with the remaining actors taking a pause, and then exiting in silence. Or as Goffman puts it, "It is an obvious feature of stage productions that the final applause wipes the make- believe away."

This illustrates an important aspect of Senecan drama. Instead of being naturalistic, realistic, and illusionary, Roman drama is conventional. That is, the ancient audience accepts what it is told, and does not need actions to be realistically represented. One need look no farther than the plays of Plautus and Terence, where characters habitually talk to the audience, telling them their plans and even asking for their applause. Further, the ancient dramatists took advantage of audiences that would willingly suspend their disbelief. This applies not only to actions and characters, but even extends to the stage setting and props. Goffman notes that "stage style through the centuries and across cultures varies greatly in the degree of realism of the stage props and also in the degree of consistency sought in the level of realism from one prop to another. ... And certainly some items are likely to be literally realistic, such as cigarettes, and others not, such as walls and windows." And Schechner observes that "In the performance activities all objects ... have a market value much less than the value assigned to the objects within the context of the activity"; that is, a stage king wears a crown of cardboard and glass, but both he and the audience treat it as if it consisted of gold and the finest jewels. Senecan tragedy takes full advantage of that sort of acceptance. As was previously discussed, there are not many explicit mentions of props. Most of them (swords, scepters, etc.) are both important and simple enough that it would be both easy and dramatically powerful to use them in a more realistic fashion — "more realistic," but not "totally realistic," as actual swords and scepters would not be used. Others, notably the items that Medea names in her magic rites, are probably to be imagined.

But this leads to a common feature of Senecan drama: the description of actions that are probably not actually being acted out. This is different from the messenger speech, where someone talks about events that took place offstage, for example the messengers who relate Oedipus' self-blinding (Oedipus 915–79), the slaughter of the children of Thyestes (Thyestes 623–788), and the death of Hippolytus (Phaedra 991–1122). In the prologue to the Hercules Furens, Juno first gesticulates to the heavens, pointing out various constellations (HF 6–18); she goes on to describe in great detail the horrors of the Underworld (HF 54–99). And later, Hercules sees unusual astronomical phenomena (HF 939–52). It is possible that stars were painted on the scaenae frons to match Juno's descriptions. Perhaps they were on scenic panels that could then be lowered to reflect Hercules' perceptions. And maybe mute actors, or perhaps the Chorus, could portray the chthonian events. But it is more likely, especially given the play's focus on hallucinations and mistrust of the senses, that the audience would simply accept that the described occurrences are happening. Similarly in the Thyestes, when the Messenger (Thyestes 776–78), the Chorus (Thyestes 789–874), Atreus (Thyestes 896–97), and Thyestes himself (Thyestes 990–95) all see the sun return to its place of rising in the East in response to the brothers' savagery, we should not think that this was somehow portrayed on the Roman stage. When Seneca's characters talk of events in the sky, his audience would accept that they were taking place. Likewise, when Atreus talks of earthquakes and the destruction of the palace (Thyestes 260–65), the audience would take his word. For a more modern parallel, recall the request of Chorus at the start of Shakespeare's Henry V: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hoof i' the receiving earth."

It is certainly possible that when Hecuba and the captive Trojan women scratch their breasts so deeply as to draw blood (Troades 116–23), the actors employ a device that would squirt out some sort of red liquid. When Jocasta stabs herself (Oedipus 1041), the resulting torrent of blood could be realistically portrayed. And when Theseus attempts to reassemble the dismembered parts of Hippolytus (Phaedra 1247–74), the mute actors could bring on faux lumps of flesh. On the other hand, miming would be the best method for presenting Medea's magic rites (Medea 740–816), the extispiciumin act 2 of the Oedipus (291–402), and the mourning activities of the Trojan captives throughout the Troades. The mere statements that Medea is performing magic, that Manto is sacrificing and examining cattle, that Hecuba and the Trojan women are tearing at their breasts, and perhaps even that the torn flesh of Hippolytus is being carried onstage would satisfy the audience for whom Seneca was writing.


Excerpted from The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy by Thomas D. Kohn. Copyright © 2013 Thomas D. Kohn. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas D. Kohn is Associate Professor of Classics at Wayne State University.

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