Thursday, 8 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Thyestes

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 284

Seneca's tragedies had a similar influence on sixteenth century tragedy to that of Plautus on the comedy of the same period. Yet Seneca's reputation has suffered a comparative eclipse since then, and is now (as Watling observes) the first century Latin writer least likely to be known to modern readers.

Thyestes illustrates some of the reasons for this quite clearly (as do other plays in this volume). It differs from the other tragedies translated here, in that there is no extant Greek tragedy on the same theme for direct comparison (Octavia, also included here, being something of a special case). Nevertheless, the same issues that have led critics to dismiss Seneca's writing are still apparent. Thyestes is very static, despite the violent actions at its centre. This is partly due to the lack of stage directions, expected by a modern reader, but the lengthy speeches also have something to do with it. Several of the speeches read as though they are exercises in rhetoric, with the result that they could be transferred from one character to another without really affecting the play at all. (It goes without saying, then, that characterisation is weak.) The dialogue is virtually non-existent, as the play consists almost entirely of these long oratorical speeches; most acts only have two speakers. The role of the chorus is passive and ill defined. In short, it is difficult to see, on the evidence of Thyestes, why these plays had the influence that they did.

Thyestes retells part of the long story of the internal wrangling of the house of Pelops (of which the best known event is the murder of Agamemnon and Orestes' revenge, as retold in the Oresteia). Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, is established as king of Mycenae, banishing his brother Thyestes. For a reason not fully established in the play, Atreus decides to destroy his brother, inviting him to return and join him in ruling Mycenae. This is a cover for his true intentions; Atreus desecrates the temple which is part of the palace by murdering Thyestes' two young sons there (a third, Aegisthus, survives) as though they were sacrifices despite the extremely ominous omens sent by the gods. (This melodramatic scene is made to have virtually no impact by being placed off stage; act three is entirely taken up by a messenger retelling the events to the chorus.) The two boys are then cooked, Atreus revelling in the sounds made by the roasting meat - an unpleasant touch reminiscent of the more sensational Elizabethan tragedies. This meal is served to the boys' father, who is only told at the end what he has been eating.

The plot could have been developed in a much more interesting way, particularly given the recurring breakdown of family relationships among Pelops' descendants. (Examples include Pelops' own relationship with his father, Tantalus, providing the prototype for Thyestes' gruesome meal by attempting to serve up his own children as a banquet for the gods; Agamemnon and Aegisthus; Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; Orestes and Clytemnestra.) Seneca fails completely to do this; he seems insufficiently interested in the reality of his characters, in the psychological effects that such a background would have. This failure is the biggest problem that is specific to this one of Seneca's plays.

No comments: