The Complete Plays of Seneca

Theatre des Quartiers d'Ivry Theatre Gerard Philipe de Saint-Denis
October 1995 to February 1996

Reviewed by Colin Mayrhofer
Classics Department
Australian National University

From October 1995 to February 1996 two theatres in the Paris region joined forces to present the complete plays of Seneca in public performances, five as fully-fledged stage productions, the remainder as rehearsed readings. Readings from the Letters to Lucilius and interviews with the artists and with translator Florence Dupont rounded out the project. Thyestes, Trojan Women, Agamemnon were directed by Adel Hakim at the d'Ivry in October and November 1995; Hercules Furens and Hercules on Oeta were directed by Jean-Claude Fall at the Saint-Denis, in January and February 1996.

They were professional productions in theatres which receive public and private sponsorship to subsidise their activity. Both theatres are located in cultural centres which engage in a variety of educational projects in the arts. They are committed to encouraging the practice of the arts in their immediate region, but the public for these plays and others in the theatres' respective subscription seasons is wider, without (to the foreign observer's eye) going so far as to include that of the fashionable Parisian theatres. As one might expect, if all members of the audience who were teaching or studying literature in places of secondary and higher education had been asked to stand, perhaps half would have remained seated. Nevertheless interest in the project extended well beyond academic circles. The plays were well-
attended (the weekend performances were fully booked), resoundingly applauded in performance and reviewed positive reviews in the national press. I will go on to praise the performances, but here I should like to express my admiration of both sponsors and audience for their role in the project. Classicists, after all, acknowledge the importance of these bodies with reference to the ancient theatres.

First, a word on the scenic space. The auditoria of the two theatres have steeply-raked rectilinear seating, in Ivry occupying about half of a plane floor, in Saint-Denis facing a raised apron which projects from a proscenium arch. The entrances in Ivry were necessarily from the alleys on either side of the seats, and the actors also used the technicians' gangway above the auditorium, and even a suspended lighting trolley, whereas in Saint-Denis the arrangements were more traditional, though, as we shall see, they included entrances from heaven and hell.

All plays shared elements of scenery. In the middle of the stage there was a circle of what looked like black slate, and all around that, to the boundaries of the stage area, a layer of black grit. Underlying all the actions, the spectator saw a combination of cosmos and amphitheatre. At the back of the stage and occupying most of its width was a free-standing structure with three doors, true to Roman convention. In all but one of the plays this structure resembled a wall of partly ruined masonry bearing traces of Roman wall-painting; the spectator was conscious of venturing into an ancient and long-buried world. It was an interior wall with three open doorways in Thyestes, an exterior wall with two bricked-up doorways and one central closing door in Agamemnon.

The Hercules plays used the same structure without particular dramatic references, except perhaps to signal continuity with the earlier season of plays. In the Trojan Women, the scene was a wall of burnt masonry, with the tomb of Hector in its middle, in form something like an erect sarcophagus or mummy-case, and on either side a slit in the fabric of the structure, through which characters could come and go inexplicably through the imitation masonry. This could be read as an allusion to the tendency of Senecan characters not to signal their movements into and out of scenic space. In one case the mysterious entrance and exit was used by the character, identified as senex by the MSS, who comes and goes in the scene of Andromache's dream.

There were also scenic elements peculiar to each play. In Thyestes a long table covered with white sheets, which could have been dining table or altar, occupied the centre. In Trojan Women a pole was planted vertically in the centre of the circle: perhaps a spear, perhaps an oar, certainly a token of the victorious invaders. The messenger at the end of the play uprooted this pole when he left to embark with the Greek fleet, and the messenger in Agamemnon arrived carrying the same pole. This element of continuity worked well with those who attended the three Atreid plays in succession (they were presented as a trilogy on weekends). In Agamemnon there was a barren tree in the centre, giving the stage the sense of a public place. In the Hercules plays, an aluminium ladder reached from the circle in the centre of the stage to the rear surface of the proscenium arch; that is, to the invisible world of the gods. The chorus of the Oetaeus were the only ones to use the ladder, but its symbolic presence was important. When a character on stage reproached the gods, the words were directed to the top of the ladder. Finally, in Hercules Furens, there was a manhole in the centre of the circle, behind the ladder. Already when the audience entered the auditorium, wisps of smoke were issuing from this hole, the entrance to the underworld.

In the matter of costumes, the production firmly chose the twentieth century, with the exception of the timeless rags worn by the Trojan women, and a few other cases. At the beginning of Thyestes the ghost of Tantalus was naked, or near enough, and covered with white powder, no doubt the ash of cremation. The fury who drives him was in fact threefold: three women in yellow cocktail dresses, with dark glasses and black scarves like Anita Ekberg's in Fellini's 8 1/2; each had long artificial nails on one hand. The director clearly chose to avoid any obvious ancient and modern attributes of horror in favour of a combination both inherently interesting and enigmatic: something for the spectators to reflect on during their first encounter with the verbosity of the plays. The director reaped the rewards of this memorable combination in the third play, because those who had seen the first recognized and immediately appreciated the situation when the ghost of Thyestes made an unscripted later appearance, accompanied by furies. (1)

Agamemnon wore a bright blue uniform with gilt buttons and high boots in the play that bears his name. Clytaemnestra's nurse was dressed as a personal secretary. Clytaemnestra herself wore a dress of the same cut as the furies', but in (what else?) bright red. Electra appeared in tight miniskirt and thick-soled black boots, her hair brutally cut and dyed, whereas her brother and Pylades were neatly dressed, images of innocence. In Thyestes, the hero and his children wore the ill-fitting clothes of those exiled by the Great Depression. Atreus in his public personality had a dark grey suit, and his minister was a gentleman's gentleman. Pyrrhus and his troops in Trojan Women were in today's battle dress. Astyanax wore expensive joggers and sweatshirt; he could have been a model in a catalogue of fashion for children. The only antique costumes were worn in scenes which the director had written off as unplayable except in the mode of derision, for example Strophius in silver breastplate and white military cloak, and Atreus, in his paroxysm of joy when he contemplates Thyestes at table, wearing a white kilt, naked from the waist up but covered with imprints of hands in blue paint.

The end of Agamemnon, with the arrival of Strophius and Pylades, was played consciously for absurdity. Adel Hakim remarked that Seneca seems to have lost sight of what he was doing, in introducing characters so late in the play.(2)

The baring of the breast was a gesture favoured in these productions, in some cases to illustrate the text: the chorus, during the kommos of Troades, at Hecuba's direction; Hercules Oetaeus when he reveals the plague that is eating away his flesh; but also Eurybates in Agamemnon, no doubt to show the vulnerability of the Greek fleet, and Aegisthus, in a scene which at least one reviewer refused to take seriously. The scene in question is the entrance of Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra from the house after the killing of Agamemnon. The raw sexual attraction which Clytaemnestra feels for the sadistic Aegisthus had been established in their previous scene. Now they were covered from head to foot in gore, and they drank in turn from a bottle of red wine, handling one another greedily. Concerning this scene, the Le Monde reviewer wrote, ' ... des rires secouent la salle. Ce n'est plus du theatre, mais du Grand-Guignol'. (3)

It is true that the audience laughed, and the appearance of Strophius and Pylades described above was soon to excite further laughter. One could discuss the theatrical merit of Grand-Guignol, and the causes of laughter in a modern audience, and whether Seneca's text aimed to deter all laughter, and so on. But most straighforwardly one can note that in this provocative scene the director succeeded in replacing a number of the assumptions and conventions of the classic text by modern assumptions, thereby powerfully making sense of it. Electra, in her punk gear, conforms to our image of a child from a family that is, to say the least, dysfunctional. The gestures and intonations of her elders established their role as incompetent and dangerous parents. She had her own way of protecting herself and, above all, her little brother, from their repressive violence.

The director used the same approach elsewhere with less provocation in the Andromache-Ulixes scene of Trojan Women. This is a prime example of metatheatre in Seneca: both characters have a role to play so as to deceive the other and win the contest over Astyanax's life. Ulixes is bound to win in the end, but Andromache resists with the tenacity of a mother, until he finds the chink in her defence, which is her fidelity to the dead Hector. The scene is composed to some extent of exchanges between the two, but even more, of monologues to which the other character does not have access. The director has to create a scenic convention which not only permits these asides but allows them their full emotional force. Hakim used a powerful spotlight, mounted on a stand downstage right - near the side entrance by which characters arrived from the fleet. Ulixes manipulated this spot in the manner of a brutal interrogator to extract answers from Andromache, and it served also to create areas of light and shade which the actors used like stages within the stage for their monologues.

This was good theatre in itself, but the scene succeeded at a deeper level as well in bringing the text to life. The text presents the capitulation of Andromache in paradoxical terms: in the hope of saving her son's life she hides him in the place of death; finally she prefers to save her husband's tomb, so her son must return to the world of the living and die, and so on (Trojan Women, 599ff., 642ff.). A reader may be inclined to dismiss this as typical Seneca, style without substance. But if it is embodied on stage, with adequate acting and direction, and in this production they were more than adequate, it is totally convincing. Andromache was terrified and confused by the interrogation, and when forced to choose between son and husband, she chose the latter, not reflecting that the surrender of her son would in no way prevent the Greeks from destroying Hector's tomb if they so decided.

Worse was to come. Astyanax understood that his mother had betrayed him, and she had to leave him for ever with this understanding. She tried to give him a view of himself in relation to his parents which would make the separation more tolerable: 'show what kind of stuff you are made of' (i uade liber, 791). But Astyanax is only a child, that kind of talk was meaningless for him; hence his one utterance, 'have pity, mother' (miserere mater, 792). That cry was most probably to be delivered by a young actor in the ancient theatre as it was in this modern theatre. It reminds the reader of the need to imagine the sheer visceral impact of an attractive child (see on costume above) in a threatening situation on stage.

Florence Dupont's translation tends to emphasise the metatheatrical side of Seneca's text, and in Hakim's production the actors made much of these cues, inviting the audience with gestures to attend to the spectacle of a narrated or acted event. At the beginning of the banqueting scene in Thyestes, Atreus glories in the success of his revenge, pointing to his brother who has eaten his own children's flesh (917-9). Thyestes, still at table, sings a canticum, after which Atreus addresses him, and their dialogue ensues. How is one to imagine this in spatial terms?

'Eavesdropping' in its normal sense can not apply to Atreus inside his own palace; should we imagine an architecture in which the host can spy on his guests? In this production, the stage was in semi-darkness at the beginning of the scene, after the stasimon. The chorus and the messenger who in the previous scene narrated the sacrifices preliminary to the banquet took their places on benches along the side walls of the stage. The three furies, whom we recognized from the prologue, set the table, lit by a single low spot
which gave them menacing shadows. Thyestes arrived and sat at his place. Then Atreus entered, brightly lit, dressed as described above, his hands covered with green paint which he smeared on his face. He is literally not in the same world as Thyestes (885-6), and there is no incongruity in his speaking without being heard. During Thyestes's song, the actor playing Atreus left the stage, cleaned his face and hands, and reappeared in the dark suit of King Atreus to join his brother at table.

In this banquet scene the role of Thyestes is, if not easy, at least replete with corporeal cues. Apart from anything else, the actor can clutch his belly and gag. It is the role of Atreus which is difficult to imagine: what does he do all this time? The solution adopted here was to give him a coldly psychotic character (in his dark-suited phase); he looked on his brother's pain with detachment. But why did Thyestes content himself with reproaches from a distance? An obvious solution, which would be true to the conditions of the ancient theatre too, would be to have Atreus hedged about by guards. But in this interpretation the princes needed to be alone. It was a family affair, something that brothers had to settle between themselves. And indeed ultimately they settled it with blows. Atreus's taunt that Thyestes would have done likewise, given the chance (1104ff.), was embodied in the ending of the play, with the two of them on the ground wrapped in the tablecloth, an indiscriminate mass of wrestling limbs, repeating for ever the last exchange (1110-2).

What about the heads and hands of the children, which Atreus reveals to Thyestes just before revealing that Thyestes has already eaten of their flesh? To know how it was done is to situate the dramatic method to some degree: the hideoous remains were under the table, hidden by the tablecloth which reached to the ground. The actors naturally took their seats facing the audience across the table, and so Atreus could lift up his side of the cloth and show the remains to his brother without the audience needing to see anything.

The Hercules plays seem to the reader to pose the problem of Seneca's dramaturgy in an acute form, as they contain violent, spectacular action, separated by long passages of pathetic monologue. Jean-Claude Fall made use of the technology of the modern theatre in certain scenes of Hercules Furens. He used a powerful low-frequency sound to prepare the audience for impending disaster, and smoke and a ball of fire issued from the underworld ahead of Hercules and his companions, who were expelled violently upwards from the hole in the ground. Hercules' killing of his children and wife while driven mad by Juno was enacted on a darkened stage under stroboscopic light, a symbol of his altered perception, and when normal light was restored, the tableau of the corpses was mirrored in a life- size model fixed high up on the back wall of the stage, already transported to the sky, as it were. It was these corpses that Hercules saw when he emerged from the sleep into which he falls after his fit of madness.

This implies that the actors playing wife and children had left the stage in the meantime. This transition was perhaps the dramatic climax of the production, and it deserves a detailed description. The first child fled out of view followed by Hercules, who killed him off stage. The second child fled into the house; Hercules pursued him, and reentered with the lifeless body, an effigy, in his hand, and hurled it off stage. Megara and her infant were killed on stage, and there they lay. When the normal light was restored, with Hercules sleeping supine near centre stage, the two children entered, clothed in black, with lighted candles, and joined their mother. She sat up and accepted a candle, which she lit from theirs, and then solemnly one by one they went down into the underworld, a literal interpretation of the text (1129ff.), and probably an allusion to the ending of Peter Brook's Mahabharata. The extinguishing of the lights during the Orpheus chorus (524ff.) (intended to help the audience imagine the underworld) provided dramatic preparation for this scene, and prominence was given to the words of the chorus at 854ff., which evoke infants in the underworld, for whom alone there are torches to lessen their fear of the dark.

The influence of Peter Brook could be suspected also in the mise en scene of the Oetaeus. I refer to a use of techniques far removed from sound and lighting effects: rough theatre, the handling by actors of simple objects in a
significant way. The chorus of Oechalian captives, spoken by one woman in this production, used the grit on the ground and a few tiny ceramic figures to illustrate the capture of their city by Hercules. Before the entrance of Deianira's nurse, a large square of cloth was thrown down by an unseen hand from the top of the ladder. The nurse unfolded this, and it became the women's confidential space within which they debated how she should react to Heracles' infidelity.

When Deianira resolved to regain her husband's love by sending him a tunic daubed with the centaur's blood, the actor playing Deianira executed the daubing of the tunic in a fully mimetic fashion, using a pad of wool. A stasimon follows this scene, and in the course of it the chorus narrates the story of Icarus. To illustrate the heat of the sun which melted the wax of his wings, they set fire to this same pad of wool.

In somewhat the same spirit Philoctetes, when he described the cremation of Hercules, spilled matches about him, which at the appropriate moment he gathered in a heap and lit. But to return for a moment to the Deianira scene: after the preparation of the tunic, she lay on the square of cloth as if asleep. The chorus, during which the wool burned, was apparently to be read as Deianira's dream. She awoke in a state of agitation and described to the nurse the supernatural events which she had seen. This was an interesting re-creation of the conventions of the classical text, in a manner which reminds one of Medea's dream in Pasolini's film of that name.

Deianira's speech following Hyllus' narration of the agony of his father was another example of coping with the conventions of the text. It is formally directed to her inner self, not to the judgement of the world around her, and the actor in delivering it remained motionless except for her eyes, using a limited range of inflection in her voice. In the stichomythia which follows the pair of long speeches, she reverted to a normal style of delivery.

Both directors faced the challenge presented by Seneca's dramas quite simply, by getting from their company of actors performances that, with their intelligence, energy and variety, made the words live. The biggest task was the Hercules parts, played by a giant of a man, Moise Gabelus. Laurence Roy, the mature woman actor who played Clytemnestra and Juno, was a match for her roles, and among the men who played various parts large and small, including the daunting messenger speeches David Gouhier and Francois Raffenaud were remarkable. The choruses were spoken, usually turn and turn about by two actors. The text was in general performed in full and faithfully, but not sedulously. In particular, Jean-
Claude Fall was inspired by the uncertainty which exists in the transmitted texts over the assignation of speeches to different characters to redress imbalances in the casting: thus Hercules returned from the underworld with Theseus and not Cerberus but Peirithous, who shared some of the speeches of Theseus; Lichas spoke the epilogue of Hercules Oetaeus.

The productions had a place for provocation and absurdity. Gouhier and Raffenaud named played the chorus in Hercules on Oeta. They were hardly the Aetolian women demanded by the text, though they did wear long dresses. They made their entrance down the ladder to the stage, and as visitors to the scene, commented eagerly on the action like two talking heads on television who have often performed together. Sporting commentators? Rather personalities from late-night French television, matching wits over literature and philosophy.

The publicity claimed that the project was the first of its kind in France, a statement which probably erred on the side of modesty. In any case the project was remarkable for both its conception and its execution, and though it generated spectacles of a very different kind from Mnouchkine's Les Atrides, it deserves the same order of attention from students of classical drama.

(1) In an interview on radio, France Culture, Mardis du thŽ‰tre, 'Seneque ou les enfers revisites', Tuesday 12 December 1995, with Florence Dupont and the two directors of the Seneca season, the following explanation was given: the furies in Thyestes are dressed like Anita Ekberg because the fury is the goddess of the house, not an Olympian goddess, and the director had tried to imagine a goddess such as might inhabit a house. He chose the idea of a photograph of a famous person from a movie magazine; something private and yet widespread in the community.

(2) Taken from the same radio interview.

(3) Brigitte Salino, Review of Agamemnon, Le Monde, 21.10.95

Colin Mayrhofer
Australian National University

(Colin Mayrhofer's course on the ancient Greek and Roman theatres at ANU is aimed at a mixed public of Classics and Drama students, using translated texts. It has a component of practical work in acting and directing scenes from the classics.)

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Didaskalia Vol. 3 No.1-Spring/Summer 1996
edited by Sallie Goetsch and Christopher Marshall
ISSN 1321-4853