Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Thou hast devourd thy sonnes - some notes on Seneca's horror plays

My Seneca reading in March:

Medea, tr. Frederick Ahl

The Trojan Women, tr. E. F. Watling

Thyestes, tr. Jasper Heywood

Hercules Furens, tr. Heywood

The Madness of Hercules, tr. Dana Gioia

The plays themselves are all from the mid-1st century, perhaps written when Seneca was in political exile and had time to kill.  The Heywood translations are form the 16th century, pre-dating Shakespeare and so on, and are landmarks in the history of English theater and poetic translation.  The other translations are more recent; the Gioia is brand new.

It is Gioia’s fault that I have delayed this post for so long.  His new translation includes a 57 page essay on Seneca that is the best thing I have ever read on the playwright, even better than the great T. S. Eliot essay that precedes the 1927 edition of Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies, the 1581 anthology that so strongly influenced English theater.  Gioia is clear, efficient, and worst of all thorough.  He even has insightful things to say about Eliot’s essay.  The translation is also good.  He kinda discouraged me from writing anything.  Just read him.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book, since it is from a little publisher, Wiseblood Books, that most libraries won’t know.  They also just published Marly Youmans’s strange, beautiful new poetic fantasy Seren of the Wildwood.  Buy them together!

So what is my simple thumbnail Seneca like?  Let’s see.

He adapted Greek plays, themselves all adaptations.  Mostly Euripides.  Seneca minimizes the characters and moves the chorus into a new role, providing thematically-related songs that connect the five acts.  He has five acts; that is also new.  Sometimes, The Trojan Women being a good example, structure and function of the play is not so different than the Greek original, nor so different than modern ideas of dramatic structure.  But sometimes Seneca is more radical.

Thyestes is the appalling story of King Atreus feeding his two nephews to their father, his brother King Thyestes, a classical horror story, one of the many curses underlying The Oresteia.  In Seneca’s version, in the first act the fury Maegera incites Tantalus, himself a monster, to curse his nephews, Thyestes and Atreus.  Tantalus and Magera are never seen again.  Most of the rest of the play is essentially a series of monologues.  This is static rather than dramatic.  Anti-dramatic. The main characters barely meet until the end, when Atreus displays for his brother the heads of his devoured children.

ATREUS: Thou hast devourd thy sonnes and fykd thy selfe with wicked meat.

THYESTES: Oh this is it that sham’de the Gods and day from hence did dryve

Turn’d back to east, alas I wretche what waylinges may I geve?  (p. 90)

Then there’s some gruesome stuff about severed heads and hands and rolling bowels.  Note the rhyming fourteen syllable lines, an innovation of Heywood’s that did not catch on.

However cruel Euripides was, Seneca is crueler.  Medea murders her two children onstage.  If you have ever wondered why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, this is the answer: he was imitating and perhaps even trying to outdo Seneca.

The entire English revenge tragedy tradition is founded in this way on Seneca, although my understanding is that Italian theater absorbed Seneca first and some of the English gore is actually borrowed from Italian theater, so Senecan but at second-hand.

Meanwhile, French theater dropped the murdered children and kept the anti-drama, keeping the motionless full-act monologues.  Please see Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine (1578) or The Hebrew Women (1583), with the warning that as drama they are tedious.  Soon enough Jean Racine will figure out how to fill the static structure with emotional and poetic intensity.  Hard to believe that the pure Phèdre and the sloppy, mad Titus Andronicus both derive from the same source.

I mentioned that Seneca’s Medea kills her children onstage, but that is false because there was no stage.  Seneca’s plays were not performed in that sense.  Yet the act of reading, for Seneca and his peers, meant reading aloud – meant having a slave or servant read aloud to him – and thus any reading was a kind of performance.  It is easy to imagine groups of friends gathering to hear talented servants read the plays.  Still, there would be no masks or dragon chariots hanging from cranes or severed heads or murdered children.  All of that would be in the text and the imagination.  The Italians, and Shakespeare, putting that onstage, were distorting Seneca.

Elizabethan plays are crammed with paraphrased quotations of Seneca.  I won’t go into that.  There are books, as they say, entire books, some of which are just catalogues of the quotations.  Reading for the sententiae is probably lost to most of us today.

Nevertheless I enjoyed my return to Seneca, to the extent that his horrors are enjoyable, and hope to read them again someday.  Maybe I will try Emily Wilson’s recent translation.  I will certainly reread Dana Gioia.

This concludes my little Roman play project.  Thanks to anyone who read along or commented.


  1. Wasn't Dana Gioia's introduction amazing? I have yet to reread the Eliot, but it did make me want to.

    A couple of years ago I found the Seneca Tragedies, Volume II, in a used bookstore. It was David Slavitt's name made me pick it up, but I hadn't read it until now. Johns Hopkins Press is the edition I have. Oedipus, Hercules Furens, Hercules Oetaeus, Octavia, and the Phoenician Women.

    The Oedipus was fascinating. Same events as Sophocles, but so different. O. is sure he's guilty from the start. Much darker and no sense that Oedipus will become a cult hero.

    Gioia's translation of the Furens (and Rachel Hadas' of the Oedipus) both impressed me.

    Seneca's plays strike me as more relevant today than anybody realizes. Somebody with better chops should go after this. Seneca, Elizabethan tragedy, Grand Guignol, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, modern horror. But will Peter Greenaway have read Seneca? I doubt it. Much less somebody like George Romero.

    Kudos for reading Heywood, though the bit you quote, despite its importance, doesn't make me want to...

  2. I was so enthused by your writing about The Madness of Hercules, tr. Dana Gioia I ordered it from Amazon, as Wildwood don't mail to to UK. I can't wait for it to come, next Thursday. I am currently reading along with The Nicomachean Ethics and having a great time. I'm so glad I joined in.

  3. Clare, how encouraging, thank you.

    Reese, I am so glad you read Gioia's Seneca.

    I have not read Seneca's "Oedipus". I think I am missing that one and "Agamemnon." I will fix that someday.

    The Heywood "Hercules Furens" is better than "Thyestes," although the play is also better, but I agree that the Elizabethan versions are on the edge on my mental category "for graduate students." Maybe a little specialized except for students of the period.