Scholiar Reviews ns 10 (2001) 26.

Michael Elliot Rutenberg (tr.), Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999. Pp. vi + 103, incl. 2 appendices. ISBN 0-86516-459-2. US$9.00.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape

Seneca's Oedipus has not enjoyed the reputation of being a masterpiece such as the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Yet over the centuries there have been many attempts to bring this drama to contemporary audiences. The latest is the work under review.

In his lengthy (30 pages) introduction Rutenberg provides background to the general reader on topics such as the Oedipus myth, Seneca's life and times, Stoicism, Greek and Roman drama, as well as detailed information on his adaptation. It is clear that Rutenberg's changes to Seneca's text are intended to facilitate modern production. He expresses a passionate conviction that 'Seneca's Oedipus is not a pallid imitation of Sophocles. It represents a vision of the world present during the age within which Seneca lived' (p. 29). Rutenberg also believes that Seneca's theme 'of trying to find the strength to accept suffering with dignity, patience and mercy' is 'as relevant today in a world filled with repeated horrors against those who are innocent, as it was in ancient times' (p. 14).

In order to make clear Rutenberg's interpretation of the drama, this review will first outline the changes that have been made to Seneca's tragedy and then discuss the translation into English of the parts of the Latin text which he has preserved.

Rutenberg keeps the dramatis personae of the original but has made significant changes to the Chorus. In the place of the Theban elders there is a single 'Roman philosopher and statesman' (p. 33). It soon becomes clear that he is the mouthpiece of Seneca philosophus in the play, for the original choral odes have largely been replaced by excerpts from Seneca's philosophical works. There are extracts from Epistulae ad Lucilium, Ad Marciam, De ira, De providentia, De tranquillitate animi and De clementia. Rutenberg explains that he wanted in the first place to 'disrupt the theatrical reality of the play' and to provide 'a rational break from its unrelenting, passionate language' (p. 15). The words of the Chorus are thus intended to appeal to the intellect rather than to the emotions. Sometimes these philosophical passages are well integrated into the drama. For instance, immediately after Oedipus has commanded that Creon and Tiresias be arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow him there is a short choral passage (pp. 64f.) which combines four extracts from different parts of De clementia. The references to mercy cast a critical light on Oedipus' action and show that Seneca the philosopher would not have condoned this action, but would have prescribed clemency.

It is true that Seneca's choral odes often have no apparent link to the dramatic action preceding or following. While the parode of Oedipus (lines 110- 201) with its detailed description of the plague intensifies the feeling of doom which has already been evoked by Oedipus in the preceding scene, the second ode (lines 403-508) is a panegyric to Bacchus and has no immediate connection with the decision to conjure Laius' spirit which precedes it, or the report on the necromancy which follows. Nevertheless, to replace these poetical passages with their lavish descriptions of nature and recondite mythological references by philosophical talks with a didactic purpose (cf. p. 16) is to change the impact of the drama profoundly. This change alone is sufficient reason to class the play as an adaptation rather than a translation of Seneca's Oedipus.

Some of the further changes are to ease performance on the stage; for example Manto's disembowelment of the sacrificial animals is transferred offstage. Other changes shape Rutenberg's interpretation. He has enhanced the role of Jocasta. Not only is she present when Oedipus comes on the stage for the first time, but she is brought back in Acts II and III and in Act V commits suicide on the stage after a dialogue with Oedipus in which the son/mother theme and the accountability of humankind and fate are discussed. Rutenberg sees this as 'restoring' some of the material 'in the original source', Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus (p. 17).

The beginning and end of the drama have also been altered. Seneca's Oedipus is alone on stage at the opening of the play. In an 80-line monologue he communicates not only the calamitous state of his kingdom, but reveals a deep fear that he may be the guilty cause of it. At the end of Seneca's tragedy Oedipus is alone on stage again. All his worst fears have been realized. He has plucked out his own eyes to ensure constant and continued punishment and suffering. He represents the pervasive and irresistible force of fate and human impotence before its designs. This is not a happy picture. Seneca surely intended by this ending to convey to the reader/audience an impression of the futility of human suffering against the dictates of fate. But Rutenberg's message is subtly different. His new choral interludes may preach the virtues of submission to fate, but the conclusion of his play insists on the orderly continuation of civic life. Before Rutenberg's Oedipus stumbles out at the end of the play, he instructs Creon to bury Jocasta with honour and to look after his children. Creon has been brought back by Rutenberg 'to resolve the play's action' (p. 17). The presence of Creon indicates a return to law and order in Thebes. Seneca's bitter ending has been considerably sweetened in Rutenberg's adaptation. His play ends with a final choral quotation from Seneca's epistles (Ep. 102.28f.): 'someday (sic) the secrets of heaven will be revealed to us, and all our ignorant darkness will be dispelled by glorious light' (p. 92).

As far as the translation of the Latin text is concerned, Rutenberg often resorts to summary and paraphrase. For example, Oedipus' opening monologue of 80 lines is considerably shortened and its emphasis changed as it is now addressed to Jocasta. However, there are some lines that seem to follow the Latin quite closely. Rutenberg does not indicate which edition of Seneca's Latin he has used, but as he reprints the original choral odes in Miller's[[1]] Loeb translation (in Appendix II, pp. 95- 103) I have taken the Latin from this edition.

Iam iam aliquid in nos fata moliri parant; nam quid rear quod ista Cadmeae lues infesta genti, strage tam late edita, mihi parcit uni? cui reservamur malo? Sen. Oed. 28-31

Rutenberg has rendered these lines thus:

'I feel at this very moment, the Fates are planning some savage stroke against me. What else should I think when the blight that ravages Thebes seems only to spare me and those closest to me. For what punishment am I reserved that I remain unscathed amidst the devastation that lays waste to everything in its path?' (p. 37)

This seems to me a striking rendering that would be effective in a stage production. It is instructive to compare this translation with the others in English that seem to be most readily available: that of Miller[[2]], Watling[[3]]and Ted Hughes[[4]]. While Rutenberg's version does not have the dense, poetic quality of Ted Hughes', it compares favourably with these other translations, especially as a text to be spoken by an actor on the stage.

I think that one of the reasons that the above sample from the new play is effective is because the language is simple and direct. However, in parts Rutenberg unfortunately seems to be infected with Seneca's own predilection for excess. For instance in Oedipus' description of his encounter with the Sphinx there is a distinctly Senecan delight in the description of gore:

'Her body shook, smashing itself against the pointed rock. Her jaws clashed together, biting at the empty air until blood streamed from that fetid mouth.' (p. 39)

Rutenberg's stage directions envisage the play as set in the throne room of Nero's imperial palace, but he writes that the first production in New York was actually in the setting of an underground royal bunker in a post- holocaust future.

Some purists may disapprove of Rutenberg's revision of Seneca, but he has certainly brought a fresh interpretation of an ancient drama which in its unaltered state offers no ready access to audiences of the third millennium. For that he deserves our thanks.


[[1]] F. J. Miller, Seneca's Tragedies (London 1960).

[[2]] See [1]:

'Now, even now the fates are aiming some new blow at me; for what am I to think when this pestilence, so deadly to Cadmus' race, so widespread in its destruction, spares me alone? For what evil am I reserved?'

[[3]] E. F.Watling, Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia (Harmondsworth 1966):

'Fate is preparing, even while I speak, Some blow for me. Why else, when all my people Suffer this pestilence, when havoc walks Through all this land, am I alone unscathed? For what worse punishment am I preserved?'(p. 210)

[[4]] Ted Hughes, Seneca's Oedipus (London 1969):

'even now what is fate preparing for me surely I see that how could I be mistaken this plague slaughtering everything that lives no matter what men trees flies no matter it spares me why what final disaster is it saving me for' (p. 14)