Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

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Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Sun Jan 05, 2020 12:13 am

As some of you know, I'm reading Seneca's Thyestes, albeit at a glacial pace. Seneca 2008, I think, intends to start a more general thread on Thyestes, so I'm keeping this topic fairly specific. I'm using Tarrant's edition and commentary. In his introduction, he mentions that the play may never have been publicly performed, but more likely was declaimed, and I believe Seneca 2008 (I'm using the 2008 just to differentiate the Seneca of old and our Seneca!) leans toward the possibility of theatrical performance. With respect to Seneca's ultimate aim of getting it published, its "theatricality" is perhaps secondary; however, I'm still curious. Being new to Roman drama, I know very little about how it was actually presented. Tarrant mentions that the Roman theatre was not as highly esteemed as Greek theatre and goes on to say "and a close involvement with the stage would have been thought positively dishonorable for a Roman of high social standing."
Public recitation on the other hand seems to have been quite popular and the audience provided valuable feedback for polishing the work before publication. What bothers me, though, is that with only one person reciting the play, some of the dramatic effectiveness is lost, no matter how good a rhetorician the presenter might have been. I'm thinking primarily of the dialogues where one character (Tantalus) begins the line, and another character picks it up and ends it (Furia), as in line 83:
Tantalus: amate poenas. quando continget mihi effugere superos? Furia: Ante perturba domum inferque tecum proelia et ferri malum regibus amorem, concute insano ferum pectus tumultu. I'm hoping, Seneca, you can elaborate a little more on the theatrical side of the issue. Apparently, this has been discussed for a very long time without resolution.
P.S. Although there is a specific question here for Seneca 2008, I'm always happy to gain insights from everyone!

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by seneca2008 » Sun Jan 05, 2020 1:51 pm

Aetos wrote: I'm using Tarrant's edition and commentary. In his introduction, he mentions that the play may never have been publicly performed, but more likely was declaimed, and I believe Seneca 2008 (I'm using the 2008 just to differentiate the Seneca of old and our Seneca!)
I am flattered that I seem in your mind to have usurped Seneca's Tertullian appellation (Seneca saepe noster). Seneca the younger is clearly "our Seneca", I am just passing through.

Your question while unanswerable has prompted a lot of very interesting responses which reveal quite a lot about the very little we do know and the great deal we do not know about theatrical performance in Neronian Rome. It's one of the questions which I think illustrates the difficulty we have in leaving our prejudices at the door when dealing with the past. I can't help feeling that this whole debate kicked off in the 19th century as a result of mainly 19th century attitudes towards contemporary theatre. In some future age if "waiting for Godot" survived simply as a text with only a vague idea of how Shakespeare might have been performed, I wonder if it would have been considered performable? I think 19th century critics were so obsessed with Greek tragedy and its supposed superiority to Senecan Tragedy that they were only capable of seeing it through that lens.

You may find the following representative of the current debate. Spoiler alert we dont know and it depends what you mean by "performance".

There is no direct evidence that Seneca's plays were ever performed in his lifetime nor is there any evidence that they were not. What is clear however is that Seneca's plays are performable because many productions have been mounted. (See Harrison, G (2000) (ed.), Seneca in Performance (London) ) - in particular Fitch's contribution "Playing Seneca").

This of course begs the question what do we mean by performance or staging? The whole of elite Roman life is in a sense "performance" and so its interesting to look at part, at least, of Senecan drama as dealing with the confusion of theatrical illusion in the theatre with the reality of the "theatricality of life" outside the theatre. (See Littlewood, C. A. J. (2004) Self-representation and illusion in Senecan tragedy, (Oxford )

I think you have Schiesaro, A. (2003). The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Drama. (Cambridge). You will see on p6 he says :

"But if I refrain from casting Thyestes in the dubiously honorific role of prime witness for a reconstruction of ‘Neronian Rome’, it is because we know little about the circulation of the plays (the longstanding quarrel about their performability
having all but displaced such a crucial issue)and thus we are ill at ease when it comes to evaluating the relationship between the text and its possible audience: the emperor?1 dissident aristocrats? family members? nobody at all? "

The footnote to this passage describes some of the secondary literature:

"I have little doubt that the tragedies, whether or not they were actually staged, were written as performable theatre plays. In practice, it is plausible that they were performed in small, private theatres, in the Hellenistic tradition; Calder (1976–77), (1984); Marshall (2000). Other theories: (i) Lesedrama, purely for recitation, as advocated most extensively by Zwierlein (1966) – cf. the review by Lefèvre (1968); (ii) ‘recital’ with several voices, but no costumes and no stage setting, rather like operas in concerto-form – see Fantham (1982) 34–49; (iii) full staging, actual or potential – see Walker (1969); Herington (1982); Sutton (1986).

Kohn, Thomas D., (2013), The dramaturgy of Senecan tragedy (Michigan) is also helpful (p7) (with a great Joke in the last line):

"It was only relatively recently that scholars, primarily German, began to question the producibility of the tragedies, as well as Seneca’s intentions for them. It is argued that the plays only superficially resemble dramas, that they are far too rhetorical, and that their quality is vastly inferior to the fifth-century Attic tragedies. Schlegel apparently started the trend when he declared that the tragedies were so poor that they could not have been meant for performance, but rather were to be read. Marti picked up this idea, maintaining that Seneca was merely writing philosophy in verse form, and that the tragedies were meant to be read silently in the order they appear in the E branch of manuscripts. But this mode of reception is doubtful, since Roman literature, following from its Greek models, still had a large aural component, even in the early empire. Silent reading, while perhaps not unheard of, does not seem to have been the primary method of enjoyment of literature, especially of tragedy."

Kohn makes an interesting and amusing point about hearing/reading in the context of the famous graffito from Agamemnon at Pompeii (p 13)

"In addition, a line from Seneca’s Agamemnon has been found as a line of graffito in Pompeii. In the line in question (Idaea cerno nemora, “I see the groves of Ida,” 730), Cassandra is speaking as she prepares to enter the palace of Agamemnon. She means that, just as Mt. Ida, where Paris made his fatal judgment between the goddesses, brought disaster for her, so does the house of her captor. This seems to be an obscure line, not one that sounds pithy and proverbial and would have circulated by word of mouth, not, that is, the “To be or not to be” or the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” of the Agamemnon. It could only have been written by someone who had heard the complete play. Further, the line is terribly misspelled: idai cernu nemura. About half of the vowels are wrong, again implying that they were written by someone who heard them, not someone who read them. Finally, it is hard to believe that a member of the imperial court, if the play had received some kind of private performance there, would have been involved in defacing the walls of Pompeii."

There is a lot more I could add but the post is already long - interesting how we fall almost unconsciously into these rhetorical tropes - but I would like to mention the contention that "no-one wrote for the Roman stage except to make Money" and that therefore this means "It is incredible that Seneca ...should have composed plays intended to win the favour of the general public". (Beare W. (1964) The Roman Stage (London)). It's certainly true that Tacitus tells us that it was Taboo for Aristocrats to perform on the stage (even though their life was one elaborate performance) yet he says nothing about their writing for the stage. Seneca was clearly an extraordinary man and we are mistaken, I think, if we try to contain his abilities within our preconceptions.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Sun Jan 05, 2020 3:31 pm

Seneca, thank you! You do not disappoint. I do have Schiesaro and shortly after posting the topic, I read the very quotation you included in your list of references. You've given me much to digest and I very much appreciate your taking the time to put this together. I'll have more to say later, but I wanted to say thank you in the meantime.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by mwh » Sun Jan 05, 2020 3:53 pm

I think Senecan drama is comparable to Platonic dialogue.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Sun Jan 05, 2020 7:49 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Sun Jan 05, 2020 1:51 pm
Your question while unanswerable has prompted a lot of very interesting responses which reveal quite a lot about the very little we do know and the great deal we do not know about theatrical performance in Neronian Rome.
It appears I shall have to add this the list of Events I Wish I Could Witness , which includes:
1. Catullus reciting Carmen 8.
2. Listening to Vergil reciting his Aeneid.
3. Sitting in Homer's audience and hearing the Homeric dialect.
4. Sitting in the audience of a stage production of the Menaechmi.
and now:
5. Sitting in Seneca's "drawing room", as he tries out his newest play, "Thyestes", on a group of friends.
mwh wrote:
Sun Jan 05, 2020 3:53 pm
I think Senecan drama is comparable to Platonic dialogue.
Just a bit messier and lot louder? Just kidding, although I can almost imagine Furia looming over Tantalus and barking out "perge, detestabilis umbra" or "hunc, hunc furorem divide" or "sic, sic, ferantur.."
In terms of recitation, I imagine they could be presented in the same way and from what I've read so far, Seneca's tragedies are virtually a platform for the system of Stoic philosophy, where the various characters represent different viewpoints on behavior.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by mwh » Sun Jan 05, 2020 8:34 pm

I mean in terms of performance and performativity, regardless of philosophy. I could also have compared Euripidean drama at Rome. In Seneca’s time Plato and Greek plays were in circulation and were read—privately for the most part, it appears.. They were once-removed simulacra of real-life interaction, the imagined action implicit in the words alone. I reckon it was the same with Seneca (much as you say, only I wouldn't say you can "almost" imagine). Despite Nero's performative antics, Seneca's world was a text-oriented one.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Mon Jan 06, 2020 2:31 am

mwh wrote:
Sun Jan 05, 2020 8:34 pm
(much as you say, only I wouldn't say you can "almost" imagine)
Just some bad English I picked up somewhere-one either can imagine or he can't. It's an expression I've used all my life and never really thought about.
mwh wrote: Despite Nero's performative antics, Seneca's world was a text-oriented one.
Tarrant mentions this in his introduction - regardless of performance considerations, the ultimate goal was to get the play published.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by seneca2008 » Mon Jan 06, 2020 3:11 pm

aetos wrote:...from what I've read so far, Seneca's tragedies are virtually a platform for the system of Stoic philosophy, where the various characters represent different viewpoints on behavior.
When you have read more extensively you will discover that critics line up on opposing sides on the question of how stoic the tragedies are. Some see them as profoundly challenging to a stoic world view (even anti-stoic) others as a programme of instruction. The fact that (some) medieval scholars thought there were two Senecas one Philosophus and one Tragicus following perhaps in part a misunderstanding of Martial (1.61.7–8) show how deep seated this rift has been in the reception of Seneca's tragedies. Christopher Star's chapter Seneca Tragicus and Stoicism in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Senecan Tragedy is helpful on this.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. , (1989) Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology (Berkeley) is also interesting because he considers the Stoic science of nature rather than stoic ethics to be a key to understanding the stoic nature of the tragedies.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by seneca2008 » Mon Jan 06, 2020 3:55 pm

aetos wrote: mwh wrote:
Despite Nero's performative antics, Seneca's world was a text-oriented one.
Tarrant mentions this in his introduction - regardless of performance considerations, the ultimate goal was to get the play published.
I would treat Tarrant with a good deal of caution. Senecan studies have developed a lot since he wrote his commentary in 1985. Having worked with the Boyle now for a bit I think his is the preferred commentary if you can find a library copy. It is prohibitively expensive for private readers without deep pockets.

I take issue with the idea that Seneca's world was a text oriented one except in the very obvious sense. It's not just Nero's theatricality that we need to think about, but the way in which the idea of performance was inextricably linked with elite Roman life. Perhaps this is why there was such anxiety about performance on stage because it blurred the lines between that and acceptable performance in the Senate and law courts and for example at funerals and on many other less obvious "stages". Actors were "infames" yet all public life was performance.

But having said this, MWH is right that we must not lose sight of the text. Seneca clearly engages with Virgil and the Augustan golden age. The prologue of Thyestes has to be read with the opening of Aeneid 7 in mind. Schiesaro is compelling on Seneca's appropriation of the Virginian poetics of furor but perhaps that might better in a separate thread.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Mon Jan 06, 2020 4:52 pm

Seneca, thanks for the recommended reading on Stoicism and Seneca. I'll have to confess I had the barest of introductions to Stoicism back in my Phil. 101 class, almost 50 years ago. What I remember is reading (in addition to the introductory text) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and doing a paper on Nietzsche, so I have some catching up to do.
Just saw your latest post: In this area I'm better prepared! I finished Aeneid 7 not too long ago and am now making my 2nd readthrough of Book 8. As I was reading the Thy. Prologue, I was reminded of Allecto throughout the dialogue between Tantalus and Furia. When I saw "actum est abunde" in line 105, I remembered Juno's line in the Aeneid 7.552, "terrorum et fraudis abunde est", in effect telling Allecto she's done enough, and then seeing how Seneca takes this thought and puts it in Furia's mouth and has Furia tell Tantalus he's done enough and in the following lines, that he's definitely worn out his welcome, just as Juno dismisses Allecto, reminding her that Jupiter really doesn't want her flitting about in the upper world. I also read Ovid's "Procne and Philomela" to get the background on lines 56-57 "...Thracium fiat nefas/maiore numero…." and can now see why Schiesaro sees it as important.

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by mwh » Wed Jan 22, 2020 9:41 pm

I’m not too surprised that our seneca2008 doesn’t like my calling Seneca’s world a text-oriented one, and counters by saying that all public life was performance. Well, so it was, and so it is (witness Trump, our latter-day Nero). But Seneca read books, a lot, and he also wrote (or dictated) a lot. I don’t see good reason to think that his plays were written for stage performance any more than his moral epistles were.

I ventured a formal comparison with Plato’s dialogues. They took quasi-dramatic form but were not meant for performance; they were a factitious imitation of live interaction. I don’t remember seeing this comparison made elsewhere (though it may well have been), but I think it’s a valid one, for all the cultural distance. I also suggested a comparison with Euripidean drama at Rome. Seneca will not have seen a performance of Euripides’ Medea but he will have read a text of it. (Had he read Ovid’s Medea too, I wonder?) Same goes for the Thyestes, and others. His acquaintance with his Republican predecessors, Pacuvius, Accius, etc., will have been of the same nature.

In my view his own tragedies likewise presuppose a readership, and did not require a bunch of actors to mount performances of them. I suppose it’s possible that the parts were divided among different speakers in a group, reading from scripts, as in modern play readings, but I think individual readership is more likely, as with Plato and Euripides and Cicero other dialogic texts in Seneca’s time. At all events not full-scale theater performance with costumes and props and actors and spectators. I know not everyone agrees, but it seems to me that Seneca’s tragedies are best regarded not as performance scripts intended for grisly actualization but as pseudo-drama, as texts appealing to the imagination .

Or to put it as a Senecan sententia, words speak louder than actions.

Aetos, Isn’t it good to see connexions like your Seneca<Vergil ones. You might enjoy adding Statius’ Thebaid too, going to town on Vergilian furor (Tisiphone~Allecto).

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Re: Thyestes-Recital or Theatrical Performance?

Post by Aetos » Thu Jan 23, 2020 1:17 am

mwh wrote:
Wed Jan 22, 2020 9:41 pm
I know not everyone agrees, but it seems to me that Seneca’s tragedies are best regarded not as performance scripts intended for grisly actualization but as pseudo-drama, as texts appealing to the imagination .
Michael, one of the first joys I experienced from reading was enjoying the process of visualisation, being able to form my own mental picture of a scene in a novel, or from the description of a mechanical system or even from "reading" instruments to create a mental map showing my position; no silver, no TV, no CRT, no LCD or OLED screens required. I suspect this skill was much better honed in Seneca's day.

Having now absorbed a little Schiesaro, (as well as your own and Seneca2008's comments) I can see that performability is really quite a way down the scale of importance. What appears to be much more important is appreciating the poetry and its power to reveal the truth that reason would repress (at least I think this is one of the key elements of Schiesaro's analysis.). I suppose that's why I've never really felt a need to see any kind of stage production of Faust-Goethe's poetry was enough. There are certainly many more lessons to be taken from Thyestes (such as the "poetics of furor", its metadramatic aspects, cultural and mythological background), but so far this is what stands out from I've read. Just reading the prologue has me balancing on the tip of the iceberg!
mwh wrote:
Wed Jan 22, 2020 9:41 pm
Aetos, Isn’t it good to see connexions like your Seneca<Vergil ones. You might enjoy adding Statius’ Thebaid too, going to town on Vergilian furor (Tisiphone~Allecto).
You know, this whole experience of reading the Iliad, the Aeneid and now Thyestes (and possibly the Thebaid!) together has truly been revelatory and seeing the connexions is a large part of the fun! It is everything I hoped it would be.
Any particular edition or commentary you could recommend for the Thebaid?

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