GHOST OF TANTALUS:
From my loins is sprung
A generation whose iniquities,
Whose crimes, of horror never known till now,
Make all their predecessors' sins look small
And me an innocent.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) lived, as the saying goes, in interesting times. Trained in rhetoric and famed for his measured philosophical writings, Seneca was also heavily involved in - and, ultimately, a victim of - the brutal politics of Rome during the Julio-Claudian period (that is, the era when Rome first came to be ruled by the succession of individual rulers that we call 'emperors'). That the Stoic who consistently championed reason over emotion, and who taught that moral goodness was sum total of human happiness, could also have been tutor and advisor to the notorious Nero has always been one of history's odder little details.
Luckily, our humanist hero redeemed himself in later eyes by falling out of favour, getting entangled in an anti-Nero conspiracy, and being forced to commit a suitably noble suicide; for that extra patina of tragic saintliness, we're told that his wife, being a proper high-born Roman matron, tried to join him (alas, unsuccessfully). That this same Seneca also penned a clutch of plays every bit as bloodthirsty, melodramatic and transgressive as the most hostile ancient historian's tales of Nero's reign, though? Well, that's just bad taste.
So, at least, went the logic of many of Seneca's posthumous admirers. Some of the plays are collected by Penguin as Four Tragedies and Octavia. They make for interesting reading. It's difficult, of course, not to compare them (unfavourably) with the work of the great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century BCE, particularly when Seneca is trading in many of the same stories. The style is more bombastic and declamatory, the characters flatter, the artificialities heightened - not that Greek tragedy was ever a model of naturalism in the first place, of course - and the chorus sucked of life. In Greek plays, the Chorus provided a backdrop of (stylised) music and dance - through the odes, probably sung, with which they bridged the gap between the acts - but they often also participated in the drama, acting and reacting as characters appropriate to the setting. In Seneca's plays, however, the choral odes' connection to the play's events and themes are tangential at best.
In all this, he was reflecting the literary conventions of his day, which had - unsurprisingly - moved on somewhat in four hundred years. (Our view of this development is skewed, unfortunately, by the fact that we have next to no surviving works from the intervening period). In late Republican and imperial Rome, tragedies had become a hobby for public figures, rather than the centrepieces of huge civic festivals that they had been for the Greeks. Whether plays like Seneca's were ever meant to be performed is debated; certainly, the fashion of the period was for minimal stage directions and a much greater use of monologue 'asides'.
They are also fantastically gruesome in places. Take this description, from the climax of Oedipus, of the titular character blinding himself when his unwitting crimes are revealed to him:
With a groan,
A terrifying roar, he thrust his fingers
Into his eyes; and those wild orbs stared out
And seemed to rush to meet the hands they knew
And to obey their summons, offering
Themselves to their own fate. The fingers bent
And groped in haste to find the seeing eyes,
Then wrenched them from their roots and tore them out.
And still the fingers probed the open holes,
The nails scratched in the empty cavities
Which now gaped hollow where the eyes had been.
None of this speaks definitively against their viability for performance; the gore still does not necessarily need to be seen onstage (and even if it is... Titus Andronicus, anyone?), and stage directions might have been left more to the actors. Seneca's tragedies do involve much less character interaction, making them often seem rather formal exercises in epigram and rhetoric, for all the extremes of suffering therein; but again this is hardly something Greek drama was immune to (quite the opposite, in fact).
Indeed, it is in some of these qualities that Seneca's tragedies - through certain popular translations into English during the sixteenth century - seem to have been deeply influential on Jacobean drama, which certainly was performed. There are times when the echoes of individual phrasings and images are unmistakable. For example, here is Seneca's Phaedra:
Will Tanais wash me clean, will the wild waves
Of far Maeotis, feeding the Pontic sea?
No; nor great Neptune in his whole wide ocean
Drown this great weight of sin.
And here is Macbeth II, i:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
This influence applied more generally, too. The Jacobean playwrights' taste for pathetic fallacy - that is, for the presentation of (un)natural phenomena (storms, eclipses, the birth of prodigies) that implicitly reflect the human emotions of a drama - is very much a Senecan device. An extreme example is in Oedipus, where some 36 lines are devoted to the discussion of the various ill-omened mutations found in a sacrificial animal (the entrails of which are being examined as part of a routine divination). More usually, this is expressed through comments on extravagantly stormy seas, or - especially - of unusual astronomical events. Disorder created on earth by man is mirrored in the sky, as we see repeatedly in Thyestes:
Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Evil deeds have consequences that go far beyond individual suffering; they are contrary to the rational, divinely-ordained (not, for certain strands of Roman thought, a contradiction) order that governs the world. In this, at least, there are shades of Stoicism to be seen.
If Seneca's tragedies have any unifying themes, they are related to this point. One is that the potential for good and evil deeds lies with human beings and their choices. Seneca's protagonists either choose - despairingly, gleefully - to do wrong, or have wrong done to them by others. The significance lies in the moment of choosing; arguably, the catharsis lies less in our pity for them, as it might in other forms of tragedy, and more in our horror at the exaggerated depths to which they wilfully sink. Characters are often portrayed as experiencing rational doubts, before surrendering to their vengeful passions. Here, in Thyestes, is Atreus plotting to trick his brother Thyestes into unwittingly aping the crime of their ancestor, Tantalus:
What if the father could be made to tear
His children into pieces, happily,
With eager appetite - eat his own flesh?...
Good, very good. I could well be content
With such a punishment.
What! Is this fear again, my heart? Dost faint
Upon the point of action? Call thy courage up!
(The latter half of this speech sounds very much like one of Lady Macbeth's. This was one occasion where I couldn't help but wonder if the translator - clearly fascinated by the issue of Jacobean influence, to judge by the amount of space he devotes to it in the introduction - stretches Seneca to fit the point).
Seneca alludes to fate on several occasions, particularly in terms of the legacy of lineage. Characters are often shown to be predisposed, or uniquely vulnerable, to certain traits that also brought down their parents; or they become the targets for rage aimed at their forebears. Atreus and Thyestes are playing out another round in the endless feud that wracks the house of Tantalus (one that will surface again through the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus). Phaedra's mother was Pasiphae, whose own transgressive passion (for a bull) produced the deadly Minotaur - and she is warned, to no avail, "Learn from your mother; dare no strange affection".
But unlike in Greek tragedy, gods or other supernatural entities rarely have any direct impact on events. Where gods are mentioned, they appear only in the abstract sense of the implacable fate that attends upon all human complacency. The Trojan Women - not as moving as Euripides' version, but then what is? - begins:
The man who puts his trust in kingly power,
The potentate wielding authority
In his high court, having no fear of gods
And their capricious will, the man who takes
His happy state for granted - let that man
Look upon me, and upon thee, O Troy.
Here is the proof, the strongest ever given
By Fate, to show on what uncertain ground
The pomp of power stands.
More often, the plays are about people, however larger than life their actions and responses. In Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra's illicit passion for her stepson is presented as being - at least in part - a divine punishment upon Hippolytus for his rejection of everything the goddess Aphrodite stands for. In Seneca's version of the story, Phaedra, Hippolytus remains a misogynistic prude ("Woman, say what you will,/ Is the prime mover of all wickedness;/ Expert in every evil art, woman/ Lays siege to man", etc). But the events of the play occur in a more obviously human framework, of poor choices and long-burning resentment, and a division of space - between women and men, between domestic and the outdoors, between the living world and the underworld - that translates into acceptable activity and morality (the former, in both cases, being of course inferior).
The double standard at work is still highlighted, however, but here the focus is shifted to Hippolytus' father, Theseus - who, in myth, had a long history of callously loving and leaving (and sometimes killing) women:
Where is my lord? Away - that is how Theseus
Observes his marriage vows - on a bold venture
Through the deep darkness of the underworld
From which no man returns, comrade in arms
To an audacious suitor who will steal
And carry off a bride straight from the throne
Of the King of Death. So Theseus follows him,
Partner in his mad escapade; no fear,
No shame, deters him. Lust and lawless marriage
In hell Hippolytus' father seeks.
Even Oedipus, the ultimate in cautionary tales of inescapable fate, makes Oedipus in some senses the willed architect of his own downfall. When Oedipus learns that the misfortune attending his city stems from the unavenged murder of its previous king, Laius - this being, although Oedipus has yet to realise it, his own father and victim - Seneca pushes beyond dramatic irony by giving his protagonist the following pronouncement:
Thou, governor of the house of darkness - hear us!
Grant that the man whose hand slew Laius
May find no rest, no home, no friendly hearth,
No hospitable land to shield his exile;
Marriage unclean and misbegotten sons
Darken his days; may he with his own hand
Shed his father's blood; may he commit -
The worst that can be wished for him - the crimes
That I have fled from.
Blunt, inelegant, all about the spectacle; but compelling all the same. Appropriate, really, for the context in which they were written. :-)