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THE eight tragedies and one praetexta attributed to Seneca are the only surviving specimens of Latin tragic drama. They were probably written by the philosopher of that name, who was born in Cordova, Spain, in the third year of our era. He was a brilliant youth, studying law and the Greek poets. Early in life he attached himself to the Stoics, later to the Pythagoreans. His remarkable oratory in the Roman courts of law awakened the jealousy of the Emperor Caligula, who hinted that the philosopher-orator would be in better health away from Rome. Consequently Seneca went into exile from which he was recalled, after the death of Caligula, by Agrippina, who placed him as tutor to her son Nero, the heir apparent. In this post of advantage Seneca gained fame and wealth. For five years or so during the early days of Nero's reign, the power of Seneca, and his colleague Burrus, was second only to Nero himself.

Seneca was learned and able, and his writings have the excellent quality of being conversational in tone, even when touching the most profound topics. His tragedies were written while he was in exile, and we do not know that they were ever enacted on any stage. He chose the dialogue form, but was more interested in his theories than in drama, and he knew more about the lawyer's platform than the stage. Moreover the ordinary popular play of his day, indescribably indecent and coarse, was highly distasteful to him. There was no public stage open to a writer of tragedy. Such works as Seneca's probably had little chance of performance, still less of popularity. They are more like dialogue-poems meant to be recited at banquets or read in the library. They follow the classic form, and are based on classic themes; but the flair for the theater is lacking. The tone is too rhetorical, too artificial, and often insincere. The antithesis, the epigram, and the quotable saying were more important to their author than the sincere unfolding of the human situation.

Among Greek writers, Euripides attracted Seneca most. His Agamemnon is an imitation of Aeschylus, his Oedipus after Sophocles; all the other plays are after Euripides. In most cases he retained the Greek names and plot, making slight changes in the arrangement of scenes, or shifting the action in order to bring a different character into prominence. Here and there a new personage is introduced; yet the Latin plays are generally shorter than the Greek originals. The chorus was retained, though there was no dancing place in a Roman theater. The lyrics given to the chorus by Seneca do not advance the plot or intensify the action; they merely serve for rhetorical display and seem therefore doubly redundant and artificial.

The Medea, the Mad Hercules, and The Trojan Women are among the best of his plays. In the first two, the action is practically identical with the Greek prototypes. The Trojan Women is a contamination of the Hecuba and The Trojan Women of Euripides. There are many differences in detail, and changes of scene not customary in a Greek play. Only three speaking actors are required to be on the stage at one time, but the taboo is lifted from portraying scenes of violence. The plays are far inferior to the corresponding Greek dramas. Seneca's artificiality and lack of sincerity proved fatal when it came to the delineation of passion. The Phaedra of Euripides struggles against her unlawful love, but is overcome by Aphrodite; while the Phaedra of Seneca is sensual and shameless, deceiving her nurse in order to gain her as an accomplice. Similar parallels can be found in other plays, proving Seneca the weaker and smaller genius, if genius at all.


It is obvious that Seneca's importance in drama does not lie primarily in the intrinsic value of his plays. Like Plautus and Terence, he was a link between the ancient and the modern stage. Through him the European world first became acquainted with classic tragedy. A translation of his plays, made by different writers, was published in London in 1581, just at the time when the Elizabethan poets were most strongly attracted to the theater. They were looking for a form more concise than the sprawling chronicles and miracles; and in comparison with medieval compositions the Senecan model was indeed neat, tight-bound, and effective.

In France the influence of Seneca was even greater than in England. There sprang up a neo-classic school which dominated the stage for many decades. To the modern student, it seems as if all that was least admirable and least characteristic of the classic writers at their best had somehow been salvaged by Seneca and handed down to the European stage. We miss the wisdom and sincerity, the tender beauty and nobility of the Greeks; while we find ever with us the long, undramatic speeches, the soliloquies, the off-stage action reported by the messenger, as well as cumbersome rhetoric and artificial mannerisms. Nevertheless for better or worse, it was the fertilization of the Renaissance mind by the classic spirit, through Seneca in tragedy and through Plautus and Terence in comedy, which produced the remarkable European drama of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.

This article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. pp. 86-8


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