Thursday, February 19, 2015


Jean-Pierre Aygon (ed.), Sénèque, un philosophe homme de théâtre? Actes de la table ronde de Paris des 30-31 mars 2012 (Musée d'art et d'histoire de Saint-Denis). Pallas, 95. Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2014. Pp. 208. ISBN 9782810703203. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Trinacty, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Senecan tragedy continues to beguile scholars far and wide. This issue of Pallas collects papers given at a round-table in Paris in 2012 by some of the leading lights in the study of Senecan tragedy. While the title may lead one to believe that this volume will concentrate exclusively on the intersections between philosophy and theater, it turns out that Stoicism per se appears infrequently in these essays, and that they offer a broader sample of current trends in Senecan scholarship, whether the question of performance (Kugelmeier), modern staging (Klees), intertextuality and genre (Schiesaro), the relationship between his prose and poetic words (Mazzoli), and the psychology of the characters (Aygon, Mader). Seneca the Stoic does lurk behind a couple of these essays, but more often than not it is Seneca the poet/playwright whom these scholars contemplate and critique.

Aygon opens the collection by considering a vexed moment from the Agamemnon, namely Clytemnestra's apparent change of heart in the second act from prospective murderous wife to an apologetic adherent of amor iugalis (239). Is this bad dramaturgy, faulty character depiction, weak poetry, or something else entirely? For Aygon, this moment is emblematic of Seneca's use of silence, the terminology and physiognomy of the emotions (especially metus, dolor, pudor, and verecundia), and his characters' duplicitous or contradictory impulses. Aygon examines similar scenes in other Senecan tragedies and relies on Seneca's description of how actors try to represent the emotions in Ep. 11 to prove that Clytemnestra's characterization actually is coherent in Seneca's tragic environment and even illustrative of "passionate" scenarios found in Seneca's prose work.

Paré-Rey muses on the "spectaculaire" quality of Senecan tragedy, and how such a notion helps the critic understand Seneca's dramatic goals. He begins by offering a rather broad interpretation of what makes Senecan tragedy "spectacular", that is, moments in which the visual, auditory, or structural make-up of the plays would remind the audience that they are attending a show, and thus establish a rapport with the audience. Such meta-theatrical tendencies have been well-examined previously by Boyle and Littlewood,1 but Paré-Rey expands this to moments that are, honestly, less obviously meta-dramatic. This results in an essay that offers intriguing close readings of certain lines and scenes of the Medea and Phaedra in particular, but I found myself often questioning what made these moments especially "spectacular".

Kugelmeier's essay reevaluates some of the findings from his strong monograph, Die innere Vergegenwärtigung des Bühnenspiels in Senecas Tragödien (Munich, 2007), by reflecting on the architectural and archaeological evidence of imperial theaters. This information is of fundamental importance when one contemplates whether Seneca thought seriously about the stagecraft of his tragedies. Kugelmeier finds moments such as the final scenes of Phaedra and Medea to be virtually inconceivable on the imperial Roman stage and, thus, believes that Seneca ultimately wrote for readers and not a theatrical audience, and that his poetic descriptions encouraged their "inner visualization" of difficult scenes. This is the key to understanding such scenes, and the listener's imagination will not be "bound to problematical technical elements and spacial conditions of the stage" (sic, 74). This quotation points out the only problem of this essay, a somewhat awkward translation containing misspellings ("spacial" for "spatial"), which distracts the reader from Kugelmeier's findings.

Klees appraises his discoveries in adapting and staging Seneca's Phaedra. This essay does a good job of pointing out the nitty-gritty of staging Seneca to a general audience and demonstrates how certain mythological, rhetorical, or dramatic features need to be modified for the play to make sense and to evoke tragic pathos today. This piece pairs nicely with Kugelmeier's in bringing out the differences between ancient staging and modern as well as querying the preconceptions one brings to what a scene or speech should look like. For those interested in staging this play, this essay is a must-read.

Mazzoli's piece eschews issues of staging to muse on connections between Seneca's philosophical works and his tragedies. He begins by honing in on moments where Seneca brings up the stage and tragedy itself in his prose works and the Apocolocyntosis. This is a two-way street and Mazzoli surveys with sensitivity passages in which Seneca's conception of tragedy, especially its eidos, informs his philosophical treatises, before turning his attention to nefas and scelus in Senecan tragedy. Ovidian allusions as well as connections with Seneca's Naturales Quaestiones and de Beneficiis inform Seneca's construction of a tragic universe of "organized chaos" (106) that teeters on the brink of catastrophe.

Staley asks what makes Seneca's Oedipus "Roman", and answers his question with a series of observations that range from the differences between Sophocles and Seneca to Sir Philip Sidney and Freud. For Staley, Seneca's belated position vis à vis Sophocles and Vergil leads to many of his dramatic innovations and his philosophical interest in issues such as anger and introspection causes his tragic Oedipus to exemplify the "human potential not for godlike wisdom but for animalistic rage" (122). While sections of this essay may not convince everyone – his reading of Seneca's plague as "a mark of the failure of Greek tragedy" (115) seems problematic to me – there are many fascinating pathways into the Oedipus to be discovered in this paper.

How characters approach decision-making and how these decisions ultimately reify one's character are the primary topics of Mader's essay. Seneca knows that "zooming-in" on moments of self-doubt, conflict, and emotional fluctuation make for good theater and his characters often give voice to the various psychological and passionate forces affecting them. Mader investigates scenes of counter-volition in particular (i.e. when characters consciously act against their will/inclinations) with an eye for the way these moments help to define the characters and connect "with overarching philosophical and psychological concerns" (127). Representative moments from Herc. F., Phoen., Phd., Med., and Thy. indicate how such counter-volitional conflicts often center around self-identity and reputation (think of Medea's Medea nunc sum, 910) and are presented with philosophical precision that approximates moments in Seneca's prose works. His remarks on the velle/nolle tension in the Phaedra are particularly important for our understanding of Phaedra's identity crisis.

Phaedra's counter-volitional crises, however, often have their foundation in her self-conception, which derives, in part, from her family line. Mignacca's subsequent essay explores the importance of parentage in this play, focusing primarily on Phaedra and Hippolytus, but hinting also at its importance for Seneca's tragedies as a whole. Incest and adultery pepper the myths that Seneca dramatizes, but Phaedra seems most self-aware of the problematic results of passion in her family tree (Pasiphae, Ariadne) and the nefas involved in her incestuous passion for Hippolytus.2

Schiesaro's contribution takes the reader back to the Agamemnon, stressing the play's experimental structure as a response to epic narrative models. The contradictory points of view, possible character inconsistency, and structural imperfections become, for Schiesaro, the strength of this tragedy, which "lies precisely in its reluctance to provide a unified view of events, a comforting internal structure, the usual, implicit assurance that the artist's absolute craftsmanship can ultimately contain the most upsetting contents" (181). Schiesaro considers the long messenger speech essentially a prologue for Cassandra's tragedy, and finds thematic and dramaturgical relevance for the disruptive Hercules' ode. Such clarifications encourage the reader to find ways in which Seneca weaves the acts, characters, and motifs of the play into a more coherent whole. Allusions to epic sources, Greek and Latin, ultimately are downplayed or even resisted within the tragic world of the play: "Taking on epic on its own terms Seneca shows the illusory nature of teleology and its poetic counterpart, poetic linearity" (189). This essay acts as a fine summation for many of the themes of the collection as a whole and provides an elegant synthesis of the way that Senecan tragedy really is its own genre: an enticing blend of poetry, rhetoric, political theory, ethical philosophy, and cultural criticism. That being said, a short conclusion from Garelli ties together some of the primary themes of this volume in succinct fashion.

All of these essays are worthwhile and, as a collection, they provide a provocative snapshot of current trends in Senecan scholarship. With the forthcoming special volume of Ramus dedicated to the topic of Senecan poetics, the Cambridge Companion to Seneca hot off the presses, and last year's Brill's Companion to Seneca, it is clear that Seneca's writings continue to pose challenging questions for this generation of scholars, and that there is still work to be done on this remarkable author.


1.   Cf. Boyle, A.J. (1997) Tragic Seneca (Routledge) 112-37; Littlewood, C.A.J. (2004) Self-Representation and Illusion in Senecan Tragedy (Oxford University Press) 172-240.
2.   R. Armstrong's Cretan Women: Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin Poetry (2006, Oxford University Press) is a notable omission from this article's bibliography.

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