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TABLEAUX AND SPECTACLES: APPRECIATION OF SENECAN TRAGEDY BY EUROPEAN DRAMATISTS OF THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES

  • Susanna Braund (a1)

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Did Sophocles or Seneca exercise a greater influence on Renaissance drama? While the twenty-first century public might assume the Greek dramatist, in recent decades literary scholars have come to appreciate that the model of tragedy for the Renaissance was the plays of the Roman Seneca rather than those of the Athenian tragedians. In his important essay on Seneca and Shakespeare written in 1932, T.S. Eliot wrote that Senecan sensibility was ‘the most completely absorbed and transmogrified, because it was already the most diffused’ in Shakespeare's world. Tony Boyle, one of the leading rehabilitators of Seneca in recent years, has rightly said, building on the work of Robert Miola and Gordon Braden in particular, that ‘Seneca encodes Renaissance theatre’ from the time that Albertino Mussato wrote his neo-Latin tragedy Ecerinis in 1315 on into the seventeenth century. The present essay offers a complement and supplement to previous scholarship arguing that Seneca enjoyed a status at least equal to that of the Athenian tragedians for European dramatists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My method will be to examine two plays, one in French and one in English, where the authors have combined dramatic elements taken from Seneca with elements taken from Sophocles. My examples are Robert Garnier's play, staged and published in 1580, entitled Antigone ou La Piété (Antigone or Piety), and the highly popular play by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee entitled Oedipus, A Tragedy, staged in 1678 and published the following year.

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References

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1. Eliot (1950), 139.

2. Boyle (1997), 141. This approach to Seneca was pioneered by Cunliffe (1893) and developed by Lucas (1922), Charlton (1946), Jacquot (1964a), Braden (1985), Miola (1992), Boyle (1997), esp. 141-66, Davis (2003), and Ker and Winston (2012).

3. Thus George Steiner (1984), although he asserts that Seneca exerted a very powerful influence on Garnier (pp.138-43), is obsessed with the presence of Sophocles. Xanthopoulou (2008) in her 100 page study of Garnier's Antigone and Racine's La Thebaïde as avatars of Sophocles (p.95) barely mentions Seneca (on just three pages). And even when scholars clearly see Seneca's merits, they can deprecate Seneca in the same breath as affirming his importance, for example, in her valuable study Robert Garnier and Political Tragedy (1969), Gillian Jondorf falls foul of the precise fault with which she taxes others.

4. I am not denying the presence of spectacle or tableaux in Greek tragedy; Aristotle includes spectacle as one of the six essential elements of tragedy (Poetics 1450a10) and at Poetics 1455b.32 he makes spectacle the last of four types of tragedy (‘Tragedy has four species, the complicated, whose entire nature depends on peripeteia and recognition, the tragedy of pathos, for example those about Aias and Ixion, the tragedy of character, for example the Phthiotides and the Peleus, while the fourth is spectacle, like the Phorcides and Prometheus and any set in hell’ (assuming that the suggestion ὄψις is the correct restoration in the textual crux here); similarly, for the role of tableaux in Greek tragedy, the title of Chapter 7 in Oliver Taplin's Greek Tragedy in Action (1978) is eloquent: ‘Tableaux, noises and silences’. Rather, my claim is that these features are quintessential in Roman tragedy and as such affect Renaissance theatre profoundly.

5. By contrast, Aristotle in the Poetics attributes the utmost importance to action in his analysis of Greek tragedy.

6. Thus Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898). This is not quite exact, since Étienne Jodelle's Cléopâtre captive (1552) and Jean de la Taille's Saül le furieux (1572) preceded Garnier's activities. For an outline of the beginnings of French tragedy see Charlton (1946), 94-105; he remarks on the close familiarity of these early dramatists (103): ‘In the critical years of its youth French Senecan tragedy was thus almost inevitably the product of a small exclusive group, appealing to a narrow circle of scholars’; he identifies Garnier as the end of this phenomenon of exclusivity (104).

7. Dobby-Poirson (2006), 9: ‘action trop statique, manque de psychologie, poids écrasant de la rhétorique.’

8. Dobby-Poirson (2006), 8: ‘Il est regrettable que la Comédie-Française ait attendu 2005 pour inscrire à son répertoire cet auteur qui fait partie de notre patrimoine et dont les œuvres ne demandent qu’à revivre.’

9. See Dobby-Poirson (2006), 8. Cf. Charlton (1946), 102, who identifies in late sixteenth century France a ‘trend…for a more and more academic Senecanisation of classical tragedy’. Jacquot (1964a), 291, quotes Alexandre Hardy, the early seventeenth century French dramatist, as recommending ‘le style du bon Sénèque suivi par Garnier’ (‘good Seneca's style followed by Garnier’).

10. Stone (1974), 94, also draws attention to the sub-title: he observes that Garnier preferred to bypass a unified plot in order to bring out the quality of piety through the series of confrontations presented in the play.

11. Fraisse (1974), 16.

12. See Frank's introduction to her commentary ([1995a], 1-16) for discussion. Ginsberg's 2015 article and her essay in this volume are welcome in asserting the relevance and importance of the play.

13. Steiner (1984), 139.

14. Steiner (1984), 181.

15. Fraisse (1974), 15: ‘s'ouvre sur un dialogue grandiloquent entre Œdipe et Antigone, scène qui a fortement impressionné les humanistes de la Renaissance et dont Robert Garnier a tiré de beaux effets.’

16. Translation by Braund, forthcoming in the Chicago Seneca series.

17. My translation, with welcome assistance from Juliet O'Brien.

18. See Dobby-Poirson (2006), 475-81, for discussion of Garnier's deployment of scenes of supplication which especially feature elderly or very young characters.

19. I realise that in production the director can introduce any amount of physical movement into scenes consisting of long speeches; my point is that there is nothing in the text that motivates movement and, on the contrary, there is material that encourages the characters to strike and maintain particular frozen dramatic poses.

20. Mouflard (1963), 233. Cf. her opinion of Garnier's character Jocaste, 234: ‘Garnier a négligé la Jocaste du théâtre grec, s'est inspiré de Sénèque et de Stace.’

21. For discussion of Statius’ engagement with Senecan tragedy see Boyle (2011), xc-xciii.

22. Loraux (1987), esp. chapter 1.

23. Seneca's debates of course bear a relationship to the agōnes of Greek tragedy, but I suggest that for the Roman dramatist they are a more important tool and one deployed more often. Seneca's training in adversative rhetoric thanks to his father, author of the Controversiae, is only the most obvious aspect of his tendency towards binarism.

24. See Mouflard (1963), 239, on Garnier's Ismène, who is definitely more feisty than Sophocles’.

25. Beaudin (2010), 33, understands this very well when he writes that this method of contamination allowed Garnier to give his play greater scope than the Greek tragedy, by using the figure of the pious Antigone to unify the drama, through her devotion to her father (Act 1), to her mother (Acts 2 and 3), to her brothers and to the divine laws about respect towards the dead (Acts 4 and 5). On Seneca's contaminatio of multiple Greek sources in his Oedipus, see the paper by DeBrohun in this volume.

26. Dobby-Poirson (2006), 225. She uses the phrase ‘misère extrême.’

27. Dobby-Poirson (2006), 225.

28. Schmidt-Wartenberg (1888), 18: ‘Les tragédies de Sénèque étaient le dictionnaire duquel Garnier a tiré son langage pathétique.’

29. Jacquot (1964a), 290: ‘une série de tableaux pathétiques plutôt qu'une progression dramatique.’

30. Lebègue (1964), 88.

31. For valuable discussions of Garnier's Christianisation of his Roman source material, see Lebègue (1964) and the apt remarks of Jondorf (1969), 72f.

32. Steiner (1984), 138.

33. Ginsberg in this volume treats precisely the topic of civil war thematics in Seneca's Phoenissae.

34. The volume includes the Hercules Oetaeus and the Octavia.

35. On the opening scene see Wilson (2003), 2. On reworkings of Senecan material see the judicious position taken by Bacquet (1964). On the complexity of Gorboduc's Senecanism see Miola (1992) 11f.

36. Ker and Winston (2012), 58.

37. A.J. Boyle's discussion of the English play in his edition of Seneca's Oedipus (2011), c-civ identifies as particularly Senecan features the ghost scenes, the ‘verbal pyrotechnics,’ the focus on nature and its inversion, fate, and ‘fate's revelation through spectacular preternatural events.’ For a fuller version of the material here see Braund (2016), 108-16.

38. For full discussion of Corneille's Œdipe (1659) see my book Seneca: Oedipus (2016), 94-108.

39. Technically speaking, Oedipus’ understanding of the revelation occurs at roughly the same point in both plays, about four-fifths through (at line 1182 in Sophocles and at line 868 in Seneca); however, in a passage not adapted by Seneca, Sophocles’ Tiresias is absolutely explicit about Oedipus’ identity much earlier in the play (447-60), although Oedipus chooses to ignore him. This constitutes a significant difference in treatment.

40. They also make the Delphic oracle especially riddling: the oracle says that ‘the first of Lajus blood’ is the cause of the plague and this leads to Eurydice, as the oldest of Laius’ children, being considered guilty of Laius’ death for some while.

41. On the innovations in the physical aspects of the theatre in the Restoration, warmly encouraged by Charles II, see Langhans (2000): this era saw the introduction of movable painted scenery offering perspective complementary to the receding view from the forestage through the proscenium arch, along with machines that enabled playwrights to produce spectacular effects.

42. In particular, ‘if thou must weep, weep bloud; | Weep Eyes, instead of Tears’ (V i 57f.) reworks Seneca Oedipus 954-57; see Braund (2016) 114-15.

43. I am very grateful to the several audiences of different versions of this paper, which began by invitation from the editors of this volume to participate in a panel on Senecan tragedy at the Classical Association of Canada meeting in Winnipeg (May 2013). The paper was conceived and written in French, since the province of Manitoba is bilingual, and was later delivered at the Collège de France in Paris (June 2014). Maude Côte-Landry assisted with the translation into English and Juliet O'Brien gave essential help on translating sixteenth century French tragic diction. Jayne Knight rendered excellent editorial assistance for which I am very grateful. The editors and Ramus readers critiqued my argument in very productive ways from which I have benefitted: my thanks to them too. The errors that arise from straying beyond one's comfort zone and competence are all mine.

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TABLEAUX AND SPECTACLES: APPRECIATION OF SENECAN TRAGEDY BY EUROPEAN DRAMATISTS OF THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES

  • Susanna Braund (a1)

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