October 10, 2009

Seneca: Tragedies

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) (c.4 BC—AD 65)

136 is the line in my spreadsheet for Seneca’s name. Here’s what Harold Bloom says to read by Seneca:

Tragedies, particularly Medea; and Hercules furens, as translated by Thomas Heywood”

There are some problems here. First of all, the word “particularly,” in combination with that confusing semi-colon, makes unclear what’s mandatory and what’s optional — not a big deal to anyone else, but a huge issue for me! Second of all, Thomas Heywood never translated any of Seneca. Jasper Heywood did. Fine, simple mistake. Anyone could have made it. Sure. But wait a minute, is he serious? I have to read a translation done in 1561? Just because it’s the version Shakespeare read? Bloom can’t actually care that much about it, since he got the translator’s name wrong. Has he ever actually looked at it? Seriously, take a look at what he’s asking of me, here. That there is the edition I’d have to read, too, because this is not a translation that’s been kept in print; there is no modern edition of the Heywood translation. Okay, fine, there’s also this one. But all that does is remove the blackletter issue. There’s still this to deal with:

“I muste goe dwell beneathe on grounde,
for hoores doo holde the skye.”

Sorry, Harold, I’m drawing a line in the sand here. You can tell me that I have to read some obscure thing, and I’ll go dig it up, and you can tell me that I have to read something difficult, and I’ll suffer through it. But if you tell me that I need to read an entire body of work, Tragedies, and then that I should read one of them “particularly,” and then casually toss off that in your opinion, I ought to read it in an unmodernized 16th century translation… but you get the translator’s name wrong… then I reserve the right to tell you “no.” No, I say, I’m not reading that. I’m calling your bluff. I don’t think you mean it the way you owe it to me to mean it. I’m putting myself in your hands here, Harold, and you need to take that responsibility seriously.

Tell you what, HB, I’ll make you a deal: I’ll read whatever tragedies are in the Penguin edition, which is the only edition of Seneca currently in print from a major publisher… and then I’ll supplement that with Medea and Hercules furens from the Loeb Classical Library edition. That’s a generous offer, considering how you botched this one up. If I were you, I’d take it.

Well, he took it.

I read:

Thyestes (brother tricks him into eating his own children)
Phaedra (fails to seduce her stepson, saves face by claiming he raped her, his father has him killed by the gods)
The Trojan Women (are unable to prevent the Greeks from killing their children)
Oedipus (you know this one)
Hercules Furens [= “Hercules Goes Crazy” = “The Shining”] (kills wife and children in a fit of madness induced by jealous god)
Medea (you know this one too. You don’t? Okay, fine: she kills her own children to spite her husband for leaving her. You really should have known that one.)

The first four were translated by E.F. Watling, 1966. The latter two were translated by Frank Justus Miller, 1917. Both translators seemed very capable to me; the 1966 translations were, as you’d expect, easier going.

You may have noticed a running theme of children being killed, usually by their own parents. A-yup. Apart from Oedipus, that’s what they were all about; and Oedipus, of course, is also about horrific betrayals of the loving parent-child relationship, so it really fit in quite comfortably.

The style was tasteless comic book horror. The intensity was constantly pushed well over the top, shamelessly savoring exactly the most sordid aspects. Seneca wants us to wonder: what WOULD someone do after being tricked into eating his own children’s flesh and then being shown their severed faces and told what he’d done? If that really happened? No, seriously, just… what would he do? As the moment approaches, you can’t deny that you’re getting uncomfortable. And excited.

This is the artistic equivalent of my sister’s question to my mother, at some tender age: “If you pulled up your skin like this [pinching a fold on her forearm] and then cut it with scissors, would you scream?” “Yes.” “A lot?” “Yes.”

These plays set out to depict situations in which the answer to the question “would you scream?” is “yes,” and the answer to “a lot?” is “yes.”

Perhaps “sordid” is a silly, needlessly judgmental word to use here. It gives me a warm feeling to know that we share exactly this kind of curiosity with our friends from 2000 years ago. Would this make for good theater? I feel certain that it would. I was pretty riveted as I paced around reading/performing it aloud to myself. With real actors, lights, and sets, it could easily be a goosebumpy indulgence. Look, they did it in London just a couple months ago and it sounds like it was just that. They did Caryl Churchill’s translation, which looks not just less faithful, but also more affected and less clear than the one I read, albeit more colloquial. But probably good delivery can clean that up.

Also like comic books, the text was full of gnomic attempts to seem deep, wise, and oh-so-heavy. The combination of facile aphorisms and exploitative morbidness really felt exactly like Batman. And yet these not-particularly-profound one-liners (“Death’s terrors are for him who, too well known / Will die a stranger to himself alone” — Thyestes, 50; “With great power / Comes great responsibility” — Spider-Man, 1962) are also, oddly enough, the link to the Shakespeareans, who quoted Seneca right and left and took all sorts of inspiration from what they apparently felt were sublimely classical texts. Strange and somehow delightful to be able to take in Shakespeare and Batman in the same glance.

Not to mention ancient Rome — and, beyond it, ancient Greece, the authentic classicism that Seneca was striving affectedly to emulate. The subjects of these plays, just so you know, are all borrowed directly from (and in homage to) famous Greek plays of five hundred years earlier. Seneca’s Oedipus is to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (the one you know about) as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Just to keep that in perspective.

The backdrop for these plays is that Seneca was actually intimately tied up in the disastrous reign of Nero, whose tutor and advisor he was. He was a politician who happened to write. Ultimately, Nero accused him of being involved in a conspiracy (which he probably wasn’t) and condemned him to die by suicide, which he did. So in these plays, whenever the Chorus steps aside to chide the power-hungry for tempting fate, and advocate for simple, humble living — which happened at least once in every play I read — I had to imagine that the dead ears on which those words were falling were Nero’s.

My image as I read these was of Nero (played in my mind more or less by Biff from Back to the Future) slouching in a throne, sulky and distracted, leering at nearby grape-bearing slave girls during the parts without blood and guts, while Seneca watches him sidelong, grimly. Whenever someone starts talking about torn and devoured flesh or whatever, Nero perks up a bit, and then when they bring on the actual staged gore at the end, he guffaws with approval.

You can overlay a little Dick Cheney and George Bush onto that image too, if you like; for what it’s worth, Seneca seems to have looked a bit like Cheney.

When these plays go for the goods, they really go for it. Instead of killing her two children offstage, chillingly unseen, this Medea slays the first one onstage (in the presence of the other) then takes the surviving one up on to a roof with her and waits for Jason to come out and plead desperately with her not to do it. “Enjoy a slow revenge, hasten not, my grief,” she says to herself, drawing out the scene unbearably through several pages. As though a mother killing her children for spite wasn’t awful enough, Seneca turns it into a sick hostage standoff. Doesn’t this sort of thing happen on 24? Anyway, she eventually kills the second child too.

Oedipus’s eye-gouging, which preoccupies teenagers but isn’t actually the point of the play, here becomes a hilariously over-detailed account by a messenger, including stuff like: “… and still the fingers probed the open holes, / The nails scratched in the empty cavities / Which now gaped hollow where the eyes had been. …”

But my favorite outlandish, indefensible grotesquerie is the final tableau of Phaedra, in which Theseus, having learned that oops! his son never actually deserved to be dragged across sharp rocks and torn completely to shreds, mourns for him by trying to puzzle the many fragments of the corpse back into a person-shape. Yes, really. On stage. This is your excerpt:

CHORUS: You sir, shall set in order these remains
Of your son’s broken body, and restore
The mingled fragments to their place. Put here
His strong right hand … and here the left,
Which used to hold the reins so skilfully….
I recognize the shape of this left side.
Alas, how much of him is lost, and lies
Far from our weeping!

THESEUS: Trembling hands, be firm
For this sad service; cheeks, dry up your tears!
Here is a father building, limb by limb,
A body for his son…. Here is a piece,
Misshapen, horrible, each side of it
Injured and torn. What part of you it is
I cannot tell, but it is part of you.
So … put it there … not where it ought to be,
But where there is a place for it. Was this
The face that shone as brightly as a star,
The face that turned all enemies’ eyes aside?
Has so much cruelty come to this? O cruelty
Of Fate! O kindness, ill-bestowed, of gods!

That kind of eyebrow-raising stuff, the stuff that made me grin at those crazy Romans and their creepy, decadent tastes — the real meat of these tragedies — was always good reading and I enjoyed it. The downside to this assignment was that to varying degrees, these plays were all padded out with incredibly dull and protracted displays of mythological learnedness, unconnected to the matter at hand. The first few scenes of every play, before the swords came out, were always pretty bad, though I think the lowest point came between acts two and three of Oedipus, when Tiresias, exiting, tells the Chorus, essentially, “during the scene change, why don’t you tell the nice people about Bacchus,” which incites a four-page long oral report about Bacchus, apparently cribbed from some encyclopedia of Greek mythology and of absolutely no relevance to the story. That was a drag. I think Thyestes was my favorite, in part because it was the least padded. And the thing about the guy eating his kids didn’t hurt.


  1. I would and will never read this, but your review has provided enough information for me to feel semi-literate about it. Thank you. Next time this comes up at a party I am all set to impress.

    You can tell by that bust that Seneca was a nicer, wiser guy than Dick Cheney.

    Posted by Beth on |
  2. I, too, am grateful for being able to feel even slightly “exposed” to this body of work without having to actually go near it.

    I appreciate the whole effort here, as a matter of fact.

    Posted by mrb on |
  3. Several times I wanted to stop reading this, but I couldn’t. I was riveted. I found it so interesting. Now I wish I didn’t. Now I need to forget all that gore. Luckily my memory is so weak now, that it will not take long before all will be forgotten. I hope.

    Posted by H. on |
  4. I had to go back and read it again.
    This will not help me forget, that which I would rather not remember. On the contrary. But I couldn’t resist.

    Posted by H. on |

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