Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 12.

P.J. Davis, Seneca: Thyestes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth 2003. Pp. 172. ISBN 0-7156-3222-1. UK£10.99.

Martin Dinter,
St. John's College, Cambridge

This volume adds to a recently established series of introductions to ancient tragedies that aims at providing accessible information about a play's main themes and historical context, the central developments in modern criticism, and the history of its performance and adaptation.

Chapter 1, 'Contexts' (pp. 9-18), offers four short sub- chapters on 'Nero's Rome' (pp. 9-12), Seneca (pp. 12- 15), the date of Thyestes (pp. 15f.), and Roman tragedy (pp. 16-18). Davis introduces Rome to the reader as a well-established monarchy with Nero as the main character on the Roman stage. Nero's reign was a fissured time, on the one hand hailed as a new golden age providing literary patronage under a ruler with personal artistic ambitions, and on the other seen as an era marked by the emperor's uninhibited cruelty, megalomania, and the terror of treason trials. Davis examines the conflicting accounts of Seneca's personality from antiquity and assesses his role at the Neronian court. He states a case for a political reading of Thyestes, the product of Seneca's experience during the first decade of Nero's reign. For Davis follows Tarrant's and Nisbet's dating to the early sixties of the first century.[[1]] This introductory chapter rounds off with a short overview of the history of Roman tragedy and an account of the plays on the Atreus and Thyestes myth in Roman tragedy before Seneca.

Chapter 2, 'Performance History' (pp. 19-36), opens with four quotations, which compass the variety of responses to the question whether Seneca's plays are performance or recitation drama. Davis begins his discussion by historicising these responses and pointing out the shift in readers'/viewers' expectations over the centuries. He seeks to refute the argument that Seneca's tragedies contain events which are incapable of being staged and would therefore render them unplayable, pointing to scenes where staging would provide clarification. His summary of scholarly opinions on the problem documents a move away from the latter position in recent scholarship, but in the end he admits its insolubility. Nevertheless he does not conceal his own aesthetic position, that Seneca's plays 'demand performance upon the stage' (p. 27). Only after that does he give a short account of the different types of tragic performance at Rome (ibid.), which would have been of greater use as an introduction to the previous discussion. The argument which introduces the story of twentieth-century performances (pp. 27-36), that the intended performance of Senecan tragedy seems confirmed by its frequent staging in modern times, can bear little weight, especially if one considers Davis's previous emphasis on changes in audience perception. But the detailed and informative account of productions in various countries from the 1950s onwards casts good light on modern approaches to bringing a 'classic' on stage and the public's responses to this. The section would have made an attractive coda to Davis's fourth chapter on reception.

In Chapter 3, 'Themes and Issues' (pp. 37-79), Davis formulates his strategy that 'the primary function of the opening scene is to announce major themes and motifs, which are to be explored and developed in the rest of the play' (p. 39). Accordingly in a close reading of the first act Davis points to the play's recurrent motifs of hunger and thirst, desiccation and moisture, darkness and light, and its overt concern with heredity and paternity. But he disregards metatheatre: yet lines such as Thy. 13 in quod malum transcribor? announce the author's awareness of his role as a literary successor in the tradition of Roman tragedy, which he aims to supersede, an intention brought to light in expressions like inausa audeat (Thy. 20). Davis next discusses the play's characters: Thyestes (pp. 43-52) who initially shows features of the Stoic sage but in the end turns out to be a true member of his family, and Atreus (pp. 53-61), who encompasses the human, the bestial and the divine, and he demonstrates how the two brothers are complementary halves of a whole. A further subsection defines the role of the chorus (pp. 61-69), before Davis's section on Stoicism (pp. 69-74) reads the Thyestes against Seneca's treatise On Mercy. The chapter concludes with a short consideration of violence in the play (pp. 74-76) and a final brief appreciation of the entire play (pp. 76-79). This chapter falls short of fulfilling the expectations raised by the sophisticated discussion in Chapter 2, since Davis does not address the play's emphasis on representation and spectacle, all the evident staginess and theatricality. Readers are bound to feel frustrated by the basic level on which themes and issues raised are considered. For example, the high level of violence is brought to our attention, but no attempt is made to account for it.

The fourth and longest chapter, 'Reception' (pp. 81- 134), is dedicated to the 'Nachleben' of the Thyestes. This 'adds not only an important dimension to our understanding of subsequent works, but also to our understanding of Thyestes itself' (p. 81). Davis starts with the play's immediate reception in the second half of the first century in Rome, concentrating on the Octavia and Statius' Thebaid (pp. 81-86). He then moves on to discussing English Renaissance drama (pp. 86-115) and asserts Senecan influence on its five-act form. He offers a reading of the following plays: Norton and Sackville's 1562 Gorboduc, enacting and elaborating upon lines from Seneca's Thyestes -- and sharing, it seems, the play's political dimensions. Thomas Kyd's 1587 The Spanish Tragedy reflects on Senecan drama as textual authority for revenge and for opposition to Christian principles. In the case of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1591) Davis points to the importance of the original context the Senecan references in this play and demonstrates a reshaping of Thy. Ode 4 (843-74) into one of the play's scenes (Titus Andronicus 4.3.50-72). Marston's 1599 play Antonio and Mellida has been hailed as 'a Senecan comedy'[[2]] but nevertheless bears many quotations from Thyestes and exploits Senecan topoi. For the 1600 sequel Antonio's Revenge, which brings us back to revenge tragedy, Davis details reworking of Seneca and demonstrates how his Thyestes functions as a reference point for the understanding of Marston's dramas so that the characters seem to re-enact 'roles once defined in Roman tragedy' (p. 100). After analysing Jonson's 1603 Sejanus His Fall and 1611 Catiline His Conspiracy Davis defines the relation between the ancient model and the Renaissance plays as 'exploitation of Senecan form and theme, radical transformation and sophisticated intertextual engagement' (p. 115). The discussion ends with two examples from outside England (pp. 115-21) -- Giraldi Cinzio's Italian play Orbecche (1541) and Robert Garnier's Les Juives (1583). Under the heading 'Adapting Thyestes: from the seventeenth to the twentieth century' (pp. 121-33) Davis unearths such obscure treasures as John Wright's 1674 Thyestes [...] to which is added Mock-Thyestes, in burlesque. Finally, Voltaire's Les Pélopides (printed 1771), which 'constitutes the most radically rewritten version of the myth' (p. 128) and Hugo Claus' mid-twentieth century adaptation of Thyestes, which represents a 'thorough rethinking' (p. 132).

A 'Guide to Further Reading' (pp. 153-55) offers a useful annotated bibliography for the English-speaking student. A chronology and a brief index are also provided.

The first chapter is sometimes repetitive, but provides a solid and useful account for students. The second chapter struck me as slightly unbalanced and in need of reorganisation; but it wins the reader over by its fascinating account of contemporary performance history. The third chapter for reasons stated above is the weakest part of the book, but the excellent final chapter provides a stock of material for those interested in reception and makes this companion particularly useful for those teaching tragic drama from antiquity to the present.


[[1]] R. J. Tarrant (ed.), Seneca's Thyestes (Atlanta 1985) 12f. and R. G. M. Nisbet, 'The Dating of Seneca's Tragedies, with Special Reference to Thyestes', Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 6 (1990) 108.

[[2]] Ph. J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple: an Elizabethan Dramatist in his Social Setting (Cambridge, Mass. 1969) 149 quoted by Davis, p. 100.