Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Alessandra Zanobi, Seneca's Tragedies and the Aesthetics of Pantomime. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Pp. xi, 282. ISBN 9781472511881. $112.00.

Reviewed by Karin Schlapbach, University of Ottawa (karin.schlapbach@uottawa.ca)

Version at BMCR home site


This monograph, first published in virtually identical form as an e-thesis in 2008, makes a valuable contribution to the study of Senecan drama in light of the recent revaluation of pantomime as a prominent component of imperial performance culture.

The peculiar outlook of Seneca's tragedies has always raised questions, and the intended form of production has occasioned scholarly controversies which have by no means subsided. In 1966, O. Zwierlein, who followed Schlegel in making a case for recitation only, perhaps unwittingly dropped the key word "pantomime" in an otherwise disparaging account of the tendency of Senecan drama to narrate actions in great detail, including actions that are shown onstage (58; he also uses the term "stummes Spiel" or "dumb show", 56).1 Later on, B. Zimmermann proposed that this feature betrays in fact the influence of imperial pantomime, which in its standard form was characterised by a mute performer and a voiceover spoken by a chorus or an actor.2 This suggestion can also account for the focus on strong emotions and the extensive naming of body parts and facial expressions in Seneca's tragedies (ibid. 165-167).

Zanobi expands on these findings by offering a systematic analysis of four elements of Senecan drama that differ considerably from the Greek tragedies of the fifth century BCE, namely the loose dramatic structure (ch. 2), the 'running commentaries' just mentioned (ch. 3), self-analysis in monologues (ch. 4), and narrative set-pieces (ch. 5).

A short Introduction briefly situates Seneca's tragedies in the context of contemporary literary tastes and the plurality of tragic styles en vogue in the first century CE. Using Harrison's terminology, Zanobi characterises tragedy as 'host' genre and pantomime as 'guest' genre (ix), leaving open the question which aspects of pantomime are the most influential ones – the dancing as such, or the types of plot, or the poetry of the libretti, or (as the expression "the aesthetics of pantomime" perhaps suggests) some combination of these.

Chapter 1 offers further context by discussing the influence of mime and pantomime on writers preceding Seneca. The reason for including mime in this discussion is that there is no clear borderline between mime and pantomime. The former included dancing, and the latter could involve a considerable number of performers. Zanobi writes that the greatest difference between mime and pantomime is thematic, and that even in this regard the two genres partly overlap, e.g. in their mutual interest in the reversal of fortune. I would add that the presence or absence of dialogue is perhaps a more reliable criterion to keep the two genres somewhat distinct. If one accepts this criterion, the consideration of mime elements in this chapter appears perhaps slightly less relevant for the following discussion of Seneca, where the main feature in need of explanation is the relation – or disjunction – of words and (silent) action.

The chapter gives a balanced and reliable account of the origins and nature of pantomime. It then proceeds to a useful survey of literary texts that plausibly illustrate the influence of the (at least partly) "sub-literary" genres of pantomime as well as mime (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 10.2-12 and 30-34; Catullus 63; Cicero, Pro Caelio; Ovid; Seneca, Apocolocynthosis; Petronius). Vice-versa, we know from Lucian, De saltatione 61 that pantomime builds on tragedy and epic. The contribution of tragedy seems clear – the dramatic mode and the mythic subject matter – whereas epic, in Zanobi's words, "provided ... the descriptive mode of narration" (14).

Chapter 2 examines the loose dramatic construction of Seneca's plays. The chapter opens with a table expounding the structure of each of the eight plays (the spurious Hercules Oetaeus is not included here but is adduced elsewhere as representative of Senecan drama: 118-120). Among the features that contribute to the impression of dramatic incoherence are the succession of detached episodes, the neglect of plot development, the doubling of themes, and uncued transitions, entrances and exits. Particularly noteworthy is the extensive use of monologues, which serve to portray the inner life of the characters, although it is typical of Senecan drama that the latter do not emerge as individuals but rather as types (80-82).

A closer look at Seneca's notorious 'running commentaries' follows in Chapter 3. As mentioned above, they often focus on extreme emotional states and in particular their visible manifestation through the body. It is clear that a physical medium like pantomime must have been especially interested in exploring and exploiting the connection between the emotions and the body, and it is thus highly plausible that Seneca was inspired by pantomime performances in this regard. Zanobi goes beyond previous scholarship in identifying an influence of pantomime in three aspects of running commentaries, namely content, style and metre. Seneca elaborates on topics to do with strong emotions, which were also the subjects of pantomime performances. The choice of the madness of Hercules as a plot subject , for instance, may be influenced by pantomime performances (103). In terms of style, the paratactic structure and the use of monosyllables and asyndeta, especially of verbs, contribute to a "staccato mode" which favours the presentation of characters and actions "in clipped segments" rather than in a continuous flow (97-102). Regarding the metre, Zanobi notes the use of galliambi in Medea 849-878, a metre with 'oriental' connotations, and relates it to Catullus 63, discussed also in ch. 1 (99f.). A wide range of metres may have conveyed different "attitudes" and accommodated different dance figures (103); the use of stichic metres helps to structure and slow down the pace (108).

It is plausible that the recurring vocabulary for body parts and actions we encounter in the 'running commentaries' mirrors the presumably highly standardised formal means – gestures and dance figures – by which emotions were expressed in pantomime (94). We may also infer that in pantomime, actions that took place indoors were performed in front of the audience, and that Seneca adapted this technique for his plays (114). It is perhaps a corollary of this technique that Seneca organises scenes that take place in the imagination of a character in a similar way, as in Cassandra's vision of the killing of Agamemnon at Agamemnon 867-909 (123). Likewise, the strong interest in the supernatural may be due to new performative experiments in pantomime. In terms of options for a production this entails the transgression of any physical limitations which traditional stage conventions focusing on theatrical illusion posed (125f.).

The interest in showing what is invisible is intertwined with the topic of the next chapter, self-analysis in monologues (Ch. 4). This element is often elaborated through a combination of running commentary on a character followed by a monologue by that same character, which allows for a variation of voices and metre.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to narrative set-pieces, which differ from traditional messenger speeches in that they usually do not narrate necessary plot elements or violent deeds, but instead expand on imaginary landscapes, which sometimes appear to be animated, or on supernatural or horrific events. Again, it is fair to suppose that this element is influenced by pantomime libretti.

A very short Conclusion, a bibliography and indexes conclude the book.

Zanobi is able to draw extensively on observations made by previous scholars but assembles them for the first time with an eye to her main question, the influence of pantomime on Seneca, so that many already familiar observations appear under a new light.

The study convincingly demonstrates the influence of pantomime on Seneca. But what are the conclusions we are to draw from this insight? How does it affect our understanding and evaluation of Senecan drama? Among the results that emerge from Zanobi's study is a yet stronger case in favour of performance versus recitation (109, 114, 123). But this is not the major purpose of this study, which rather aims to show that the plays make sense for a variety of production styles (similarly agnostic in this respect is a recent monograph by A. Heil, see BMCR 2014.07.27). More importantly, Zanobi's enquiry does advance the understanding of certain scenes, e.g. Hercules furens 895-1053, Amphitryon's running commentary on Hercules' fit of madness (103-5). Last but not least, the consideration of Senecan dramatic technique with pantomime in mind allows us to form a clearer idea as to what actual pantomime libretti looked like, which in the absence of ancient specimens of this genre is very precious.

The book's real identity as a thesis is obvious. On the positive side, this translates into a clear structure of an introduction and five chapters, which are easy to navigate thanks to plentiful subsections. On the negative side, there are no translations of Latin passages, which are quoted at length in the original only. In view of the clearly scholarly audience which this implies, the choice of providing endnotes instead of footnotes seems a bit incoherent. The systematic and exhaustive analyses which the book offers are of course a merit in terms of scholarly method but pose a limit to readability. With little further work this thesis could have been transformed into a book that reaches a wider audience, and given its quality, it is a shame that this path was not taken. Also, it is regrettable that no attempt was made to update the bibliography since 2008.3 That said, Zanobi's study no doubt is of great interest to scholars of Roman performance culture and in particular specialists of Senecan drama, who will use it as a welcome aid especially when working closely on certain controversial passages.


1.   O. Zwierlein, Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas. Meisenheim am Glan, 1966.
2.   B. Zimmermann, "Seneca und der Pantomimus", in: G. Vogt-Spira (Hg.), Strukturen der Mündlichkeit in der römischen Literatur. Tübingen, 1990: 161-167 = "Seneca and pantomime", in: E. Hall, R. Wyles (eds), New Directions in Ancient Pantomime. Oxford, 2008: 218-226.
3.   The English translation of Zimmermann (note 2) would have been worth including in the bibliography; its absence may well be due to the fact that the 2008 thesis has undergone very little revision. The same holds probably for the surprising omissions of R. Webb, Demons and Dancers. Cambridge MA, 2008 and R. Wyles, "The Symbolism of Costume in Ancient Pantomime" in: E. Hall, R. Wyles (eds), New Directions in Ancient Pantomime. Oxford, 2008: 61-86, to name but two.

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