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Senecan Drama and its Performability: Phaedra’s Last Act (1154-280)

Simona Martorana

Durham University

The last act of Seneca’s Phaedra (1154-280) has raised many concerns among scholars regarding its consistency, and particularly its performability [Coffey-Mayer 1990, Zwierlein 1966]. Some scenes, such as Phaedra’s suicide or the transportation of Hippolytus’ dismembered body onto stage, have been criticized as artistically inaccurate and incoherent. Considered a rhetorical exercise and strongly criticized, this part of the play (more than others) has been labelled as unperformable [Zwierlein 1966]. Following the path traced by some scholars [e.g. Sutton 1986], I attempt to reconstruct the circumstances in which the performance of this section of the drama could have taken place; I also explain how considering a potential performance can enrich the literary value of the text itself.

Speaking more generally on Seneca’s drama, the issue of performability has been the subject of discussion for a long time. Beginning with Schlegel 1809 and Leo 1878, scholars have focused either on historical or archaeological evidence, and on rhetorical or stylistic patterns within the tragedies, in order to solve this complex question [e.g., Marti 1945, Beare 1950, Lefèvre 1972, Viansino 1993, Boyle 1997, Harrison 2015, Slaney 2016]. One of the most accredited theories is that the dramas may have been enacted by way of a recitatio, or mimic performance, though the techniques and patterns utilised remain unknown to us [Zwierlein 1966]. The issue of performability, however, is still discussed.

In my paper, I would like to join this discussion by analyzing the theatricality (i.e. the way in which something can be performed on stage; Fischer-Lichte 2012) of Phaedra’s last act. Examining the theatricality of a written text means exploring to what extent textual elements are arranged together in order to suggest a certain kind of performance. In other words, I wish to show how this text appears to acquire a higher literary and artistic value in light of the potential performance in which it would have been engaged. Only by reading this text in conjunction with a performative act (whether a theatrical performance, recitatio, etc.), it is possible to fully appreciate its literary content. In particular, I deal with three main points:

  1. The Entrance/Transportation of characters onto the stage. The arrival of Phaedra and the transportation of Hippolytus’ body onto the stage (1154-9) find a reference in their previous dialogue (583-718): however, in this case Hippolytus has been replaced by his father, Theseus, and the parts of his dismembered body lay scattered and disordered. This repetition of a similar scene, with a change in roles for the main actors, serves to remind the audience of the visual settings in which Phaedra conceived and confessed to her criminally incestuous love.
  2. The Description of Hippolytus’ dismembered body (1168-74). This description is an opposite and tragic response to that of Hippolytus’ beauty and youth that is provided by the Chorus in 736 ff.: lines 1168-74 serve as a dramatic realization of the tragic irony implied in the previous description of the Chorus, which anticipates the dramatic developments in the plot.
  3. Phaedra’s suicide (1191-8). This was intended to create a link to the infamous act of Lucretia’s suicide, a well-known trope in Latin historical and literary tradition that became a symbol of the freedom and boldness of the Roman people. Beyond the account of Livy, her story has been told in many contemporary accounts, as well as previous praetextae [Beare 1950, Casamento 2011], though these have not been handed down to us. A Roman public, however, would have appreciated this reference to other theatrical pieces.

Finally, through this excursus I demonstrate how the themes, literary and textual patterns of Phaedr. 1184-280 acquire a stronger, deeper significance when read in connection with a potential performance. Accordingly, I would argue that the drama was at least “written with the conditions of performance in mind” [Roisman 2000].

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