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The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy

Thomas Kohn

Publication Year: 2013

The first-century Roman tragedies of Seneca, like all ancient drama, do not contain the sort of external stage directions that we are accustomed to today; nevertheless, a careful reading of the plays reveals such stage business as entrances, exits, setting, sound effects, emotions of the characters, etc. The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy teases out these dramaturgical elements in Seneca's work and uses them both to aid in the interpretation of the plays and to show the playwright's artistry. Thomas D. Kohn provides a detailed overview of the corpus, laying the groundwork for appreciating Seneca's techniques in the individual dramas. Each of the chapters explores an individual tragedy in detail, discussing the dramatis personae and examining how the roles would be distributed among a limited number of actors, as well as the identity of the Chorus. The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy makes a compelling argument for Seneca as an artist and a dramaturg in the true sense of the word: "a maker of drama." Regardless of whether Seneca composed his plays for full-blown theatrical staging, a fictive theater of the mind, or something in between, Kohn demonstrates that he displays a consistency and a careful attentiveness to details of performance. While other scholars have applied this type of performance criticism to individual tragedies or scenes, this is the first comprehensive study of all the plays in twenty-five years, and the first ever to consider not just stagecraft, but also metatheatrical issues such as the significant distribution of roles among a limited number of actors, in addition to the emotional states of the characters. Scholars of classics and theater, along with those looking to stage the plays, will find much of interest in this study.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Acknowledgments

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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Introduction: Dramaturgical Methodology

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pp. 1-14

This project owes a great debt to the groundbreaking work of both Oliver Taplin and Dana Sutton. In his 1977 book, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Taplin set out three purposes: to begin the creation of a “‘grammar’ of the dramatic technique of the Greek tragedians,” to provide a “scene-by- scene commentary on Aeschylus’ surviving tragedies from the aspects of...

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1. Seneca and His Dramatic Resources

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pp. 15-31

Before examining the individual plays, one by one, for dramaturgical elements, it would be helpful to look in general at how Seneca exploited the resources at his disposal. By necessity, this overview of the playwright’s practices in regards to the physical stage, including entrances and exits, props and effects, and his customs regarding the beginning...

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2. Oedipus

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pp. 32-49

Oedipus himself is onstage for almost the entire play, entering at line 1, and leaving the stage only twice before the end. His persona is so dominant and overwhelming that even when he is not physically present during act 5, the servant’s report makes him seem to be there. Oedipus is the most demanding role of the...

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3. Agamemnon

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pp. 50-65

One actor is assigned only the role of Clytemnestra, who appears in acts 2, 3, and 5, and speaks with all the other characters except the Ghost of Thyestes and Agamemnon. Elsewhere, I argue that the festa coniunx who, according to the Chorus, accompanies Agamemnon in the fourth act (780–81) is not Clytemnestra, but...

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4. Phaedra

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pp. 66-80

One actor plays Phaedra exclusively, since she is onstage for four of the five acts,1 and speaks with all of the characters aside from the Messenger. It is possible for the same actor to portray both; but Phaedra is a strenuous role, and it is more sensible to give him a break during act 4. The Nurse...

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5. Medea

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pp. 81-92

Two mute actors are required to portray the sons of Jason and Medea at the end of act 4 and all of act 5. Medea and her Nurse are present for all five acts,1 and so one actor must be assigned to play each of these roles exclusively. The third actor gets the remaining characters: Creon, Jason, and the Messenger. It is significant that all...

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6. Hercules Furens (Mad Hercules)

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pp. 93-109

Three mute actors are required to portray the sons of Hercules and Megara in acts 2 and 4. Since Juno is the only speaking character in act 1, and she does not appear subsequently, the actor portraying her could, in theory, be assigned any of the other roles. Of the remaining characters, Amphitryo...

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7. Troades (Trojan Women)

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pp. 110-123

The distribution of roles in this play is particularly significant.1 One actor portrays the herald Talthybius, the seer Calchas, Andromache’s Old Servant, Helen, and the anonymous Messenger. All of these characters are messengers or facilitators: Talthybius reports the demands of the ghost of Achilles, which Calchas confirms, adding...

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8. Thyestes

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pp. 124-132

Two mute actors are necessary to portray two of the sons of Thyestes in act 3. In acts 2–5, one actor must portray Atreus exclusively, while a second is reserved for Thyestes. The third actor is assigned Atreus’ Henchman, the younger Tantalus, and the Messenger. This leaves act 1, the prologue...

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9. Phoenissae (Women of Phoenicia)

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pp. 133-139

Because of the fragmentary nature of this play, it is hard to determine what Seneca had in mind for the Phoenissae in terms of role distribution. So extreme is the uncertainty that Sutton (1986) does not even posit suggestions. Aside from needing the same actor to play Antigone in acts 1 and 2, and the same actor for Jocasta...

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pp. 140-144

This project began as an investigation into the first-century Roman tragedies of Seneca, combining the methods of Oliver Taplin (1977) and Dana Sutton (1986) in order, to paraphrase Taplin, to develop a fuller grammar of Seneca’s dramatic technique and to show what Seneca is all about. Oddly, neither of these two scholarly pioneers...


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pp. 145-173

Works Cited

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pp. 175-179


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pp. 181-184

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028825
E-ISBN-10: 0472028820
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118571
Print-ISBN-10: 0472118579

Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 8 figures, 8 tables
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 831670034
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, ca. 4 B.C.-65 A.D. -- Tragedies.
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, ca. 4 B.C.-65 A.D. -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Latin drama (Tragedy) -- History and criticism.
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