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  • The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History by Helen Slaney
  • Gordon Braden
Helen Slaney. The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 320. $120.00. ISBN 978-0-19-873676-9.

A “performance history” of plays for which the first chapter of that history is unknowable seems like a perverse proposition, but Slaney brings it off, at times brilliantly. She clearly favors the suggestion that Seneca’s scripts were originally performed as tragoedia saltata, declamatory recitation or singing accompanied by pantomime. She expends no energy arguing the point historically, however (she doesn’t mention it until fairly late), but concentrates on the disposition of voice and body such performance would imply, one which “uncouples the figures who are (verbally) represented from the body of the actor performing them” (21). From that uncoupling derives an inclusive dramatic aesthetic that Slaney analyses into nine interrelated manifestations, which the ancient scripts only partly explore (metatheatricality, for instance, is only passingly evident in them); in an adroit distinction, the originals are “Senecan” in that they were written by Seneca, but the aesthetic “senecan” in a more open sense, extending beyond revivals and imitations and interacting over time with changing conventions of theatrical practice. The result is a strong narrative line whereby European theater explores, backs away from, and then—excitingly but unevenly—rediscovers the potential of senecan dramaturgy. Enlightened discussions of Kleist’s Penthesilea (actually recited with pantomime in one nineteenth-century performance) and Shelley’s The Cenci are good enough to make much of the point. But Slaney’s conceptualization of her topic also makes senecan dramaturgy relevant to the history of European theater even when it is not being practiced: a path European theater is deliberately not taking, a sinister double (occasionally vehemently denounced, as by Schlegel) to an evolving [End Page 286] notion of the pièce bien faite, but always there, ready to return in the theatrical experimentation of the twentieth century.

Four chapters cover well-traveled territory (Tamburlaine, The Spanish Tragedy), though there also are striking novelties. The importance of Neo-Latin drama widely performed in the universities and some vernacular descendants of it (Robert Garnier) is widely recognized but has attracted little interest; for Slaney this strain is central and receives innovatively sympathetic attention. The originality of her general argument comes fully into the light when the fading of Seneca’s reputation is seen as part of a larger “repression” of senecan possibilities; a virtuoso chapter presents Racine’s Phèdre as shaped on several levels precisely by that repression. Chapters on later, more thorough “repression” focus on works that, though intended for the stage, had increasing difficulty making it there. The Cenci is eventually taken up by none other than Antonin Artaud for performance; he repeatedly cites Seneca as an important precedent for his Theatre of Cruelty. Slaney follows through on this advocacy more thoroughly than anyone else, with a careful look at what can be reconstructed about Artaud’s Cenci and at the line of descent through Artaud’s disciples. But she does not make it more of a triumphant return than it actually is. Of Artaud’s Cenci: “If there was any point at which Seneca was to have been revived as a major player in the development of twentieth-century tragedy, it would have been this” (241). But the production (Artaud’s last) was a failure, partly for contingent reasons, but also because of Artaud’s conception of the theater: “Artaud . . . mistrusted language altogether,” and in so doing “lost touch with the senecan aesthetic and its rhetorical deployment of the spoken word” (242). Later efforts make more use of the text, but in being more “Senecan” are actually less “senecan”; Caryl Churchill’s Thyestes “is deliberately flattened and compressed into a commonplace, informal register” (277). Slaney’s intelligent asperity continues in a tart conclusion, where she rejects the kind of gesture (“many of Seneca’s central themes seem particularly urgent and relevant in the current political and social climate”) with which discussions like this often end. The Senecan “hell on earth” is not to be so glibly invoked: “Some day, a relevant climate may indeed come...


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