Sunday, September 11, 2016


Helen Slaney, The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 320. ISBN 9780198736769. $120.00.

Reviewed by Christopher V. Trinacty, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site


The horror, rhetoric, and delirium of Senecan tragedy offered a blueprint for later writers in their conception of tragedy and the aesthetics of tragic drama. Slaney's fine monograph investigates how certain exemplary Senecan features (excess, metatheatre, etc.) resonate in theatrical performances from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. This is a book bursting with smart ideas, rendered in sophisticated prose. Slaney scrutinizes the performance history of senecan tragedy and finds the various ways in which the interplay between dramatic texts and auditors/spectators has been influenced by the senecan aesthetic. Her conclusion to the third chapter may be seen as a précis for the book as a whole: "The senecan aesthetic is most powerfully apparent in moments at which the verbal and vocal vectors of theatrical experience collide, where the body of the performer is at once producer and referent of language, vocal source, and visual target" (p. 132).

Slaney's introduction encapsulates what she means by "the senecan aesthetic" and how to identify its features in later plays. Her nine points provide a clear idea of "What's Senecan about Seneca?" (the title of this subsection). Much like Boyle's famous "Senecan Tragedy: Twelve Propositions"1, these "factors" (p. 38) provide succinct and stimulating illustrations of Seneca's aesthetic predilections and their theoretical implications (ranging from Artaud to Kristeva to Scarry). Not only will this be of use to scholars, but I can imagine assigning it to undergraduates in my drama surveys as well.

That neo-Latin tragedies of the sixteenth century engaged with Seneca is well-known, but Slaney's focus on the bodily nature of such pedagogical performances yields rich results. Her first chapter looks into ways that ancient advice about actio and declamatio influenced academic ludi scaenici as well as the hoped-for benefits of participating in student theatre. This acts as the backdrop for her discussion of neo-Latin performance practices, especially the dissonance that often arises when Senecan characters describe their own emotional pain or when a character/scene is described by another party. Slaney utilizes William Gager's Meleager (1582) as evidence for the poetic representation of pain, in this case being burned alive, and shows how "this discrepancy between verbal and visual content constitutes a theatrical modus operandi that became indispensable to the Renaissance stage" (p. 54). Titus Andronicus puts this to the test and Slaney adumbrates how Seneca's Thyestes can be seen behind certain elements of Shakespeare's text through the medium of performance and Calfhill's and Carraro's neo-Latin Progne dramas. The details of Senecan influence come thick and fast in these pages and could benefit from further elaboration and interpretation, especially as to the ways such intertextuality (in Slaney's terms "intertheatricality") could help us to understand the contrast between language and theatrical "reality". Seneca's position as a model text for classroom exercises of elocutio and the penchant for stylized acting impacts the children's theatrical companies of the times (St Paul's and Blackfriars). Slaney's discussion of their performance of Antonio's Revenge (1600) hinges on a long direct quotation of Thyestes in the play. Slaney reads this as "a prime instance of Senecan text taken up as impetus for action, teaching the ideology of vengeance as it takes over the young avenger, and as such a reminder of the dangers as well as the pleasure and utility of lending one's body to ancient words" (p. 67). Drama may be dangerous, but it can also inculcate humanist principles: this chapter does a fine job of showing how Seneca was the exemplar of the perils and the pleasures of the theatre.

The overwrought English translations of Seneca used in the late sixteenth century were responsible in part for the dissonance between spectacle and speech that would be detrimental to Seneca's reputation in the centuries to come. Slaney's second chapter demonstrates how Newton's Tenne Tragedies (1581) became the "default for English playwrights seeking a classical idiom" (p. 74-5) and introduced him to a wider audience, for better or worse. The frothy fourteeners and added scenes of ghostly intervention explain how Seneca came to signify rabid revenge and feverish frenzy. Slaney traces these characteristics in Thomas Hughes' The Misfortunes of Arthur (1588), Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587) and Peele's Locrine (mid-1580s) before showing the response in works of the Jacobean period. Possibly because these periods have been well-studied, 2 Slaney only briefly outlines the examples provided, but focuses on the ways "verse drama might be animated by the voice" (p. 93). This provides an intriguing way of considering how Senecan hyperbole and rhetoric might have "worked" in the Elizabethan playhouse. If Newton's compilation was a watershed moment for Senecan reception in England, in France Seneca was regularly translated throughout the sixteenth century. The third chapter, "Nourished on Blood", shows how the emotional extremes and rhetorical flair of Seneca were the bread and butter of French Renaissance tragedy. Slaney's reading of La Taille's Saul le furieux (1572) is especially persuasive in its focus on the eruption of the Underworld onstage and haunting: "The image of an absence, the afterburn of a loss, the substitute of endless repetitions for a non-existent object of desire, it gives the fundamentally unreal a tangible, audible form" (p. 107). Slaney wants to keep performance on the reader's mind, even if there are few records for this period, and stresses that these plays were conveyed, in part, through performance: "Bodies transmitted it, functioning as sounding boards against which the language of anguish and compulsion could beat repeatedly" (p. 110). Garnier's La Troade and Antigone use contaminatio of Greek and Senecan tragedy to expand and exaggerate his violence, horror, and réalisme sénéquien.

Slaney sketches the development of French drama into the first decades of the seventeenth century and how the baroque theater of that time exchanges demonstrative rhetoric for self-conscious metatheatricality. The very concept of mimesis was undergoing change at this period in France, and the "affective" qualities of senecan tragedy needed to adapt to the new realism "in which the actor was isomorphic with the character he or she portrayed" (p. 135). Character was more important than passion, dialogue topped rhetorical monologues. At this point, the visual components of drama started to dominate the aural experience and Seneca's popularity necessarily suffered. The neoclassical Règles ("rules") of dramatic criticism now looked back to Aristotle and Horace with more insistence; Slaney shows how figures such as Chapelain (1630), the Abbé d'Aubignac (1657) and Corneille (1660) developed and reacted to neoclassical strictures. Her reading of Racine's Phèdre points out how Racine claims his work to be distant from Senecan affiliations but actually includes numerous Senecan touches. This section, which considers the logistics of the neoclassical stage, linguistic and spatial confinement, and vocal techniques of the time, is a tour de force of reception scholarship.

Moving back to England, Slaney tackles the work of Nathaniel Lee as representative of the interest of the Restoration stage in exploring the hypertragic nature of senecan drama. By "hypertragedy" Slaney "seeks more to isolate a specific mode of dramaturgical expression," which "focuses attention on the penchant for exaggeration that becomes its stylistic hallmark" (p. 166). This definition is rather weak (especially after the excess of Garnier and other earlier writers), but her readings of Lee's Nero (1674), The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (1677), Oedipus (1678, with John Dryden), and Massacre of Paris (1679) amply display how Lee creatively reapplies qualities of senecan dramaturgy in novel situations and, at times, with an eye to a poetics of excess.

The eighteenth century embraced the mimetic theater at the expense of the affective, senecan elements were downplayed, and philhellenic critics denounced Seneca. Slaney's chapter on the eighteenth century highlights how the tastes of the bourgeoisie influenced the social and literary role of the theatre. Domestic and private sorrows proliferate, the passions of Hercules or Phaedra are derided, and cruelty is trumped by compassion. Plays within the Senecan tradition, such as Thomason's Agamemnon (1738) or Glover's Medea (1761), transform Clytemnestra and Medea into the sympathetic figures expected in the subgenre of "she-tragedy" (pp. 195-8). It is no surprise, then, that Schlegel denounces Seneca as decadent, unnatural, and impossible to perform in his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808). As Slaney writes, "Every narrative needs a villain, and Schlegel's is Seneca" (p. 202). Her analysis encapsulates how philhellenist figures such as Schlegel, Goethe, and Schiller influenced the reception of Seneca's works. Kleist's Penthesilea (1811) acts as a counterpoint to such Hellenic principles. Slaney discusses how an early performance of this reactionary play imitated pantomime practices, which "shows senecan text as nevertheless persistent in its appeal to the impulse to divide the speaking voice from the spoken body" (p. 216). Kleist's drama, much like Shelley's contemporaneous The Cenci, was censured from performance until the twentieth century.

Slaney's penultimate chapter takes up Shelley's gothic melodrama and Artaud's 1935 production of it in order to explore how the Theater of Cruelty ideally foregrounds integral elements of the senecan aesthetic. The Cenci, which revolves around an act of incestuous rape, flaunts senecan features such as a locus horridus, verbal descriptions of physical suffering, sympathetic natural responses to crime, and radical subjectivity. Artaud himself sees Seneca as "the greatest tragedian of history" (letter to Jean Paulhan, quoted p. 230), and his aesthetic ideals seem to have been based in part on his reading of Seneca's Oedipus and Thyestes. In Artaud's hands, however, The Cenci was a performance debacle and critical failure, which Slaney attributes primarily to the script: "Artaud extracted a pageant of dissonant elements from Shelley's play, but did not altogether dispense with the text, clinging instead to an unnecessarily watered-down version representative neither of Shelley nor of Cruelty" (p. 241). The senecan aesthetic is first and foremost about language, but Artaud's mistrust of language led to the critical flop of The Cenci; Artaud soon afterward suffered a nervous breakdown, and never produced another play.

That being said, his Theater of Cruelty continued to inspire directors and playwrights, including Jean-Louis Barrault, Jorge Lavelli, and Peter Brook. Slaney tours the theoretical basis for their productions, from Barrault's almost-musical instructions for his actors in Phèdre (1942) to Brook's return to theatre as ritual in his Oedipus (1968). These directors, so concerned with the psychosomatic nature of language, its musicality, and its brute force, would seem to be ideal candidates for actualizing the senecan aesthetic on stage. While Lavelli's Medea (1967) seemed to fulfill the promise, Brook's Oedipus failed to win over critics (although it has been staged successfully numerous times since). Slaney concludes this chapter with a fresh consideration of the controversy around Zwierlein's Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas, and the book as a whole with a glance at how the senecan aesthetic has taken a backseat in recent adaptations of Seneca, "Senecan theatre no longer has to be senecan" (p. 276).

This is a strong monograph by a promising young scholar. Quibbles are few.3 For those interested in Seneca and the reception of his dramatic works, this is a must read.


1.   Boyle, A.J. (1988) "Senecan Tragedy: Twelve Propositions", in Boyle (ed.) The Imperial Muse, vol. I, To Juvenal Through Ovid, Berwick: 78-101.
2.   Boyle, A.J. (1997) Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition. London and New York; Miola, R. (1992) Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford; Ker, J. and Wiston, J. (2012) Elizabethan Seneca: Three Tragedies. London. Braden, G. (1985) Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege. New Haven.
3.   While it will not be a problem for scholars, students may regret that certain Latin and French phrases are not translated (only block quotes are translated). Although this is "A Performance History", there are moments in which attested performances are not given the attention they deserve or speak against Slaney's thesis. For instance, Slaney cites how a 1726 commentator to Dryden and Lee's Oedipus found the conclusion of the performance comedic, "a Man of paste-board…is thrown down…The People usually laugh very heartily" (p. 179). How does this reaction influence the hypertragic nature of the play? Likewise, it would be useful to know contemporary reviews of Barrault's Phèdre, not simply the idealized hopes of the director.

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