Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 16.
George W. M. Harrison (ed.), Seneca in Performance. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. Pp. xi +260. ISBN 0-7156-2931- X. UK£40.00.
A. J. Boyle
University of Southern California
In 1998 the Theater Program of Xavier University, Cincinnati, mounted a production of Seneca's Trojan Women under the direction of Gyllian Raby 'to test the question' (as Harrison says, p. vii) 'of whether the plays were meant for performance or for recitation.' To coincide with this production a two-day conference was arranged by the Department of Classics of Xavier University, at which invited speakers were given an hour 'to develop and demonstrate his or her point of view' (p. vii). The collection under review consists of rewritten versions of the papers presented at the conference, plus two additional ones: the opening paper by John Fitch on the performance issue itself and the contribution by the editor on the physical setting of the plays. Despite almost inevitable flaws, the book in many ways succeeds. The two main blemishes of conference proceedings -- disparate focus and uneven quality -- will be apparent to the most casual reader. In fact several (all but half) of the essays have little or no bearing on issues of stage performance or production. Nevertheless the clash of ideas is both valuable and remarkable. Fantham and Goldberg ring the changes on the recitation thesis;[] Marshall, Harrison, Raby, Volk and (essentially) Fitch argue for stage production, with Marshall offering production criticism at its most nuanced and Fitch a complex hypothesis, in which he opts for Seneca as a full- scale performance dramatist who yet started his dramatic career 'for purely "literary" reasons, thinking only of recitatio' (p. 11 -- Fitch's 'problem' is the 'unstageable' scene of animal sacrifice in Oedipus, which, as Fitch notes, is not a problem for everyone).
On the issues of Senecan characterisation and the plays' manipulation of audience sympathy, similar divergence is evident. Hook seems to see 'rhetoric' and 'psychological characterisation' as disjunctive categories, and aggressively attacks the notion of the latter in Senecan tragedy; Fantham, Raby, Volk and Goldberg entertain no such disjunction and underscore Seneca's psychological subtlety and nuance (Goldberg well observes that 'Seneca's philosophic education suggested new ways to see human character and the sources of human behavior', p. 212). Most contributors draw attention to the sympathy created for the Trojan women by the movement, action and language of the Troades; Shelton boldly opposes such a view, arguing for an absence of sympathy on Seneca's part toward the victims of the arena and for the Greeks as an aspirational model for Roman respectful, morally superior viewing of justified execution (although it is left unclear how Shelton's argument is to be reconciled with the moral outrage and pity of the Greek messenger, whose account not only underscores the paradoxical conjunction of brutality and 'unSenecan' pity in the Greek army but also the evil of the spectacle itself: scelus, nefas). Ahl's discussion of Senecan wordplay brilliantly illuminates the dramatist and Chaucer, underscoring both the centrality of wordplay to poetic meaning and its continued neglect by translators. Unfortunately Ahl's own attempts to capture this wordplay in translation seem (perhaps necessarily) to neglect other constituents of meaning.
The collection is especially strong on contextualisation. Varner suggests connections between Senecan tragedy and Neronian art (particularly useful are his comments on the 'foregrounding' of observation and vision, including 'the physical act of viewing' in fourth-style wall painting, p. 127), although the claim that this is a 'new perspective' both puns badly and misleads (p. 132). Shelton focuses sharply and commendably on the arena; Goldberg underscores elite literate culture and the practice of declamation. Perhaps the most innovative and courageous claim is that of the editor himself, who proposes (alas, without argument) 'that Seneca was the first playwright, or among the first, to compose with an enclosed odeum or small theater in mind' (p. 145). Not all will agree with the conclusions drawn from the cultural analyses of this volume's contributors, but it is to those contributors' credit that they bring to the reader's notice the dynamic, semiotic interplay between the Senecan text and late Julio- Claudian Rome.
In such a diverse and energetic body of work it is easy to take issue with individual points. Let me mention two things which surprised me. It is clear from the director's own highly intelligent and rewarding essay that she made such substantial changes to the Senecan text that her production could in no sense function as a test-case for Senecan stageability (Shelton's comment to the contrary on p. 112 is gesture of xenia). Furthermore, perhaps equally as strangely, no contributor targets the innovative nature of Troades: its extraordinary plethora of characters, including two separate messengers (strangely collapsed into one in the Xavier production), the first terrified, the second (pace Shelton) compassionate and self- critical; its highly individualised chorus (Marshall has a few comments here) and that chorus' role in creating a dramatic form which plays against the five-act structure; its paradoxical employment of a disjunctive dramatic action (which extends to the male characters of the play, each of whom speaks in only one scene) within an overall concentric design, which climaxes uniquely for Seneca in a messenger scene where the play's passions are stilled in the aesthetics of language; and the extraordinary symmetry of the central act which again freezes violence with form. I do not wish to conclude on what is not said. For much is said in this generally well-edited book, in which ironically the outstanding paper on performance issues is one not performed at the conference itself, the vigorous opening chapter by Fitch with its detailed, cogent analyses of scenes in Medea and Thyestes, whose intelligibility is demonstrated to depend upon enactment before an audience. Perhaps the only essay not meriting a place in the volume is that of Roisman, who is concerned neither with Troades nor with general issues of Senecan production, language and dramaturgy, but offers a reading of Phaedra containing (despite its title) nothing 'new' except an unpersuasive simplification of the character of Phaedra herself.
The book is well produced (I noticed few misprints), and has a useful bibliography and index.
[] I append a list of the book's contents: George W. M. Harrison, 'Introduction' (pp. vii-xi); John G. Fitch, 'Playing Seneca?' (pp. 1-12); Elaine Fantham, 'Production of Seneca's Trojan Women, Ancient?, and Modern' (pp. 13-26); C. W. Marshall, 'Location! Location! Location! Choral Absence and Theatrical Space in the Troades' (pp. 27-51); Brian S. Hook, 'Nothing within which Passeth Show: Character and Color in Senecan Tragedy' (pp. 53-71); Hanna M. Roisman, 'A New Look at Seneca's Phaedra' (pp. 73-86); Jo-Ann Shelton, 'The Spectacle of Death in Seneca's Troades' (pp. 87-118); Eric R. Varner, 'Grotesque Vision: Seneca's Tragedies and Neronian Art' (pp. 119-36); George W. M. Harrison, 'Semper ego auditor tantum?: Performance and Physical Setting of Seneca's Plays' (pp. 137-49); Frederick Ahl, 'Seneca and Chaucer: Translating both Poetry and Sense' (pp. 151-71); Gyllian Raby, 'Seneca's Trojan Women: Identity and Survival in the Aftermath of War' (pp. 173-95); Katharina Volk, 'Putting Andromacha on Stage: A Performer's Perspective' (pp. 197-208); and Sander M. Goldberg, 'Going for Baroque: Seneca and the English' (pp. 209-31).