Not going to apologise for that title.
So, yes, this is a post about Seneca's great tragedy Thyestes; and yes, that's how you pronounce its final syllable (long 'e', you see). Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in AD 1, in Spain. He was the son of a famous philosopher (Seneca the elder) and went on to become an even more famous philosopher himself. Of the ten tomato-coloured volumes of the ‘Loeb Classical Library’ Seneca only two are drama—there's the one containing the Thyestes, at the top of this post. The other volumes are all letters and philosophical works that articulate his controlled and Stoic approach to life. But it’s his take on tragedy that interests me here, specifically in response to the aesthetic tenets laid down so famously by Aristotle, katharsis and so on.
All the best classical tragic drama is, if you believe the critics, Greek. There are thousands of monographs on the Aeschylean and Sophoclean and Euripidean stuff, and only a few specialists resurrecting the musty violence of the Latin. It’s difficult to deny that Attic drama has a much greater importance for our current literatures than the Roman plays. But of course there’s one sense in which Seneca has been even more influential on the development of tragedy. This is because it was Seneca, and not particularly the Greeks, who exercised the greatest influence on English Renaissance drama, and therefore upon the world’s single most significant writer of tragedy—I mean Shakespeare, of course. It’s a old chestnut of Shakespearean studies how much he took from Seneca, not only in-effect rewriting the Thyestes (in Titus Andronicus) but also developing the very Senecan, very Thyestian (and profoundly un-Greek) theme of revenge in a play such as Hamlet. It can, then, be something of a disappointment actually to read a play like the Thyestes. It really does come over as rather unpleasant, even crude. Body horror.
For one thing, it's not dramatically very interesting: the five ‘acts’ (though ‘act’ needs to go in inverted commas, since there’s nothing in the original text to indicate that it was designed to be broken down into separate scenes or acts despite the Renaissance assumptions on that score)—the five acts are rather discontinuous from one another. First we have the ghost of Tantalus and his goading Fury; after they exit they never return to the stage. Then we have a scene with Atreus planning his revenge, followed by a scene in which Atreus greets his brother with a false bonhomie: neither is very dramatically kinetic or engaging. There’s very little action, no development of character or plot. We do get a couple of extra, minor characters, but the whole drama depends really on only these two players. Then there is a scene in which a messenger reports actions from offstage—exciting if revolting, but removed from the audience by being reported at second hand. Only in the last act, in which Atreus gloatingly reveals his hideous crime to his brother, do we see some dramatic action.
In other words, and for the benefit of those who aren’t as familiar with the play as perhaps they should be, here’s a summary of its structure:
‘Act 1’ The ghost of Tantalus is summoned from Hades by a Fury to work evil in the royal house of Argos, his own descendants. Tantalus is reluctant, but is compelled.In other words, as drama and judged by the standards we now tend to apply to theatrical work, Thyestes is a static, awkwardly constructed piece, saved from a wholly debilitating clumsiness only by the dark intensity and unremittingness with which it treats its central topic. On the other hand many critics see in the play’s pared down focus a startlingly modern, almost absurdist potency lacking in other classical drama: more Beckett or Anouilh than Euripides or Aeschylus.
Choral ode 1: A prayer that the gods will end the tradition of evildoing that has dogged the house of Argos.
‘Act 2’ Atreus prepares to take revenge on his brother, Thyestes. His attendant is horrified by his schemes.
Choral ode 2: True kingship is not about power over others but power over oneself. The chorus praises the life lived in rustic obscurity.
‘Act 3’ Thyestes returns to Argos from exile. He does not trust his brother, but is persuaded by his son. Atreus greets him warmly and dresses him in royal robes.
Choral ode 3: The chorus praises the change from hatred to love in the relationship between the two brothers, noting with unwitting irony that nothing endures.
‘Act 4’ A messenger describes how Atreus sacrificed Thyestes sons, cut their bodies up and cooked them.
Choral ode 4: An ode of horror at the violation of the natural order—there is darkness at noon, and surely the world is coming to an end.
‘Act 5’ Thyestes is enjoying the feast that Atreus has prepared for him, but has strange misgivings. Atreus reveals what he has been eating his own offspring. Horrified Thyestes prays to the gods for justice, but without response.
One thing that critics of ‘tragedy’ have tried to decide, then, is whether this Roman development of the form simply negates Aristotelian aesthetic tenets:—a new focus on the nihilistic, godless extremes of human violence; a shift from an emphasis the place of catharsis in provoking psychological health to unremitting horrors that are likely to provoke only disgust and despair. Where does this leave tragedy? Any place good?
Norman Pratt identifies two separate sorts of tragic impulse. He takes Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy as representative of what he considers a particular Greek form of tragedy. Then he looks at Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play famous for its Senecan horrors, (most notoriously, the scene played on stage, in front of the audience, in which poor old Gloster gets his eyes thumbed out), the extreme and horrific degeneration of a noble king into madness and beggary and so on.
Oedipus is trying to make sense in a world that does not make sense. He is in a divinely ordered system where his rational purpose is disastrously turned against him by the force of capricious circumstance. The divine order brings disorder to human experience. If in this fashion we can say that Oedipus transmits the picture of disorder in nature, Shakespearian criticism is in substantial agreement that King Lear expresses the theme of nature in disorder. The terms “disorder in nature” for Sophocles and “nature in disorder” for Shakespeare are only superficial catch phrases, but they show a contrast between two types of tragedy, radically different in their conceptions of evil. In Oedipus nature wounds human life. Suffering is built constituently into the nature makeup of how things are …. In Lear nature itself is not defective, but only part of it, the human dimension. [Norman T. Pratt, Seneca’s Drama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1983), p.6]Now here’s a very notable oddity. In Seneca’s plays, and despite the fact that they unmistakeably take place in the pagan universe of ancient Greek and Roman myth (a world in which gods and mortals promiscuously interact, and gods actually appear on stage), characters repeatedly wonder where the gods are, or pointedly deny that the gods even exist. It really is a very puzzling thing. When Thyestes returns to Argos he talks of ‘my native soil and the gods of my father (if there really are gods)—(si sunt tamen di)’ [406-7]; and the play ends with Thyestes praying for the gods of vengeance to come—a prayer that remains noticeably unanswered. The last line of the play is giving over to Atreus’s mockery, not to any deus dangling down from any machine to mete and dole justice. In Seneca’s Medea, Medea kills her own children to spite her husband Jason; and the play ends with her flying away in a chariot pulled by flying dragons. The last lines of that play are Jason’s: ‘travel on high through the lofty spaces of heaven, and bear witness where you ride that there are no gods’ [testare nullos esse deos, 1027].
To restate Pratt’s view in more banal terms: the story of Thyestes and the ruthless violence of Atreus is not so much about the cruelty of the cosmos as it is about the evil in men’s hearts. Accordingly there is an inward, choking, human corporeality about the plays. It is the revolting intimacy of Thyestes devouring his own children, which turns us away from the ‘higher’ concerns of any spiritual realm.
Alessandro Schiesaro considers the Thyestes 'the most important of Seneca's tragedies, Thyestes, which has had a notable influence on Western drama from Shakespeare to Antonin Artaud'. During the course of his book-length study, 'Thyestes emerges as the mastertext of "Silver" Latin poetry, and as an original reflection on the nature of theatre comparable to Euripides' Bacchae. More than this, Schiesaro argues that this horrible practice of eating your offspring is 'actually' about incest and the incest taboo. As he puts it: ‘incest “pollutes” the body with the seed of a close relation … eating one’s own children is a similar form of unacceptable ingestion’ [Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2003), 94]. Instead of being quite separate things, Atreus ‘identifies between these two very different gestures [incest, familial cannibalism] a common element which becomes central to his thinking’. In doing this he is, says Schiesaro, ‘follow[ing] a form of logic that is akin to the logic of the unconscious.’ It seems inevitable that Freud must come into the critical equation: ‘it is one of the greatest achievements of post-Freudian thought to have realized that this strange logic, where symmetry replaces the rigid conventions of Aristotelian thought, is actually an ineliminable component of the mind, given free rein in the workings of the unconscious but normally kept at bay during conscious activity’. This, in a nutshell, and sic as regards the inelegant neologism ‘ineliminable’, is the approach Schiesaro takes to the Thyestes.
Is this right? Does Thyestes represent the supercession of rational, ordered Aristotelian tragedy by something irrational, something driven and subconscious? I could put this another way. We might want to see Aristotle’s Poetics, with its firm rule and its assurance that literature like tragedy can be accounted for, defined and determined, as the conscious component of the literary psyche; and the weird horrors of Senecan tragedy, its dissociated nightmare-like succession of images, its unrestrained expression of the most brutal impulses of humanity towards revenge and violence, as the subconscious element. Critics often talk in these terms about literature more generally, or more precisely, they often work within this kind of unstated paradigm: as if, for instance, the balanced, rational fictions of Jane Austen embodies the ‘conscious’ mind of late eighteenth-century literature, where the buried horrors and haunted catacombs of the Gothic novel represent its ‘subconscious’. There's a danger in being too fatuously literal-minded in the way we deploy Freud's metaphors, of course; but I wonder if there isn't something in here.
If I have one main problem with Schiesaro’s approach it is this: I can think of very few dramas less sexually conceived than Thyestes. It is a play almost entirely purged of erotic charge; or perhaps it would be close to the truth to say that all the erotic charge is sublimated into the more primal appetites of revenge, self-glorying, of eating and drinking. There are no female characters at all in this play, which is a very striking thing, when you think about it. Neither do the text's various male characters express any sensual or homosexual impulses. Where’s the sex? It has been, we might say, crowded out by the horror. Some people get turned on by silk stockings; some by gas masks; but I don’t know the name given to the perversion whereby people become sexually aroused at the prospect of a father literally devouring the flesh of his children
But is this the way horror actually works? I ask because I wonder if something closer to the reverse isn't, actually, the case? I’m thinking of how sexualised most Gothic horrors are, or most horror films today: the logic of the genre is that it almost has to be sexy young teens being terrorised by violent ghosts and monsters precisely because the libidinal response and the excitements of fear and thrill are so closely associated for most of us. So why is Thyestes so thoroughly unsexy?
Maybe this question comes across as merely fatuous, but I ask it to try and get to something that I think is important about the way the play works. And Schiesaro may well be right to argue that Freud provides a very useful way of understanding how the play works. Take for instance Freud’s interest in inversion, the way some obsession or fascination in the subconscious mind only emerges into consciousness in flipped-about form. To decipher one’s dreams or neuroses it is often necessary, Freud suggests, to look to the opposite of what they apparently mean.
One thing that critics have often noticed about Thyestes is that, despite being one of the darkest and most distressing plays ever written, it nevertheless takes the form of comedy: or more specifically that the play inverts comic topoi. John Fitch (in the introduction to his Loeb translation, the edition pictured at the head of this post) notes the ‘familiar comic pattern’ by which ‘young people escape the control of their elders and establish themselves as adults’. A feast is often a central feature of comic drama, the celebration of life and healthy appetite at which everybody eats their fill of good food and drinks themselves happy. Both these tropes get spun about in Thyestes: most obviously the ‘comic feast’ is hideously inverted; nothing further from the joyful celebration of life can be imagined. Fitch notes that ‘the inversion of natural processes is particularly clear when children are thrust back into the body of the parent in a travesty of birth and pregnancy (see lines 999-1000, 1041-44)’ [Fitch, 226]. When we look further into the matter we find that the key dramatic devices of the Thyestes are precisely the mainstays of comic drama: a character misled by another, trickster character; the misunderstanding which brings the main character low and so on. Reading Thyestes though the lens of psychoanalysis might give us the feeling that we’re making sense of its otherwise rather baffling perversity. And it does seem to me that the perversity of this play has indeed baffled commentators, some of whom have been disinclined to call the play tragic at all. Here’s Fitch again:
Though unmistakeably a masterpiece, is Thyestes’ effect that of tragedy? It does not evoke that sympathy for the victims of disaster on which many Greek tragedies base their emotional effect: for Thyestes is too weak-willed, too gross in his feasting, too dim-witted in comparison with his brother, to command much sympathy. Atreus himself is paradoxically far more attractive, at least initially: in his exuberant ruthlessness, in his frank devotion to power as the only good, in his macabre wit, he has an appeal like that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But he becomes repellent in his demented sacrificing of the youngsters, and in his sadistic toying with Thyestes. [Fitch, 225]The way out of this cul-de-sac is not to see the play as being about ‘character’ in the full sense (and perhaps not even about ‘character’ in the Greek sense), so much as it is about appetite itself. Indeed, one way of taking Thyestes would be to see it as a dramatic exaggeration of appetite until that alone becomes the sole substantive constituent of human character. The actors in this drama are like children without authority figures to control them in; children given absolute free rein to their urges. Perhaps it’s this very childishness that explains the absence of sex in this play. Young children understand some appetites very well (food, anger, joy, misery) but have no purchase on the post-pubertal peculiarities of sex.
There’s one particular feature of Seneca’s portrayal of this play’s horrible scelus—its crime, or villainy—that particularly strikes me: and that’s the way a purely human atrocity infects the whole of the natural world. The sky goes dark in the face of such infamy. The messenger, reporting Atreus’ murder of the children, addresses the sun: ‘O patient Phoebus … you have fled backwards, snatched the day from mid-heaven’ [776-7] such that ‘the evil deed is smothered in strange darkness by oppressive night at an alien time’ [786-7]. The chorus pick up the theme: Phoebus has left the sky in disgust at this human iniquity, and surely the end of the world is foretold:
The regular cycles of heaven are lost;Of course the world doesn’t end. Despite the enormity of the chorus’s (and our) horror, the world continues on its way. In fact, despite the artistic rightness of this perhaps melodramatic insistence on darkness at noon, there is when we reflect upon it something rather pitifully naive about it. All our experience teaches us that, horrible though Atreus’s crime is, human beings have committed crimes, and uncountably many of them, that are much worse; and that when these things happen the cosmos takes absolutely no notice at all. The sun rises and sets no matter how beastly we are to one another. George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy book ends with a coda that relates a true-life story from WWII. Captured Russian officers were being detained by Nazi guards in a Polish castle. Supplies of food, erratic towards the end of the war, ceased entirely in the winter of 1944-45. The guards ate what they had, but there was nothing for their dogs, so they turned the hunger-maddened Alsatians on the Russian prisoners. Shortly after this the Nazis retreated, leaving the remaining Russian officers locked in the castle’s cellar. Those who survived did so by devouring their colleagues. Advancing Russian troops found the last few alive. They gave them a good meal and then shot them all, lest the Russian soldiers see to what depravity their commanding officers could be driven. The castle was then burnt to the ground.
sunset and sunrise will not exist.
The dewy mother of dawning light,
accustomed to hand the eastern reins
to the god, is stunned
by such disorder on her kingdom’s threshold [813-18]
[The Sun] bids the darkness rise, yet night
is not yet ready;
no stars appear in their turn, no fires
gleam in the ether,
no moon disperses the heavy shadows.
Our hearts are shaken and trembling, trembling
with enormous fear
lest the shattered cosmos fall in the ruin
ordained by fate,
lest gods and humans be engulfed once more
in formless chaos …. [823-33]
This is a very nasty story, made all the nastier by the fact that it is true. Steiner does not consider it tragic, because he thinks the Holocaust, in its meaningless and nihilistic hideousness, has emptied the significance from the very concept of tragedy and rendered it void. For Steiner this story is merely horrible, with a deep horror of the sort that Conrad's Kurtz famously glimpsed in his last moments. But what interests me here is how sickeningly familiar this sort of thing is to our sensibilities. And the point about that is that when we hear this story we don’t, of course, expect also to hear that the sun fled the sky in disgust, or that the stars refused the glint the darkness because of man’s iniquity. The enormous indifference of the cosmos to every human being is one truth that every person learns as they grown out of childhood and into adulthood.
This in turn makes me wonder whether Seneca’s pathetic fallacy undermines and even, in a peculiar way, trivialises the story of Atreus and Thyestes. It is in a strict sense childish to think that our transgressions are directly mirrored in the universe as a whole, like young Pip in Great Expectations stealing food and a file for Magwitch and then running through a landscape he sees as accusing of his crime: every cow looking at him seems to be saying ‘stop thief’ and the fog he runs through symbolically embodies his own ethical confusion. In Dickens’s novel this is more obviously the pathetic fallacy, because we understand that the guilt is in Pip’s mind, not the external world, even as we understand that his guilt is colouring his perspective on the outside world. But in Thyestes the starless darkness at noon is presented as an objective fact. What are we to make of it?
In part it is a very accurate embodiment of the cosmic pretensions of tragedy itself: the suffering in tragedy is always a particular, human suffering. Yet so many critics want to claim that the significance of tragedy is precisely that it articulates a universal significance. Isn’t this just based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between human life and the universe?
Thyestes is a childish tragedy; and I use the adjective neither flippantly nor pejoratively. It inhabits a mode of childish intensity, one in which those appetites that loom most large for children (hunger and physical appetites; rage and the desire to get your own back) assume monstrously god-blotting-out proportions. It is a sexless world because it is in touch with the primary experience of all of us: the prepubertal child’s vehemence. It is an intimate world, physically and spiritually, because when you are a child everything is close to you. It is a universe that is both god-filled (every corner bears the mark of the magical authority of the gods) and godless precisely because children comprehend the godlessness of the cosmos, even if they cannot articulate it. What I mean by this last shocking assertion is that, although many children believe in God they do so from a structure of belief and experience in which the conceptualising of God (as carer, as rulemaker, as the horizon of the world) elides for young children very precisely with their experience of their parents, and adults in general. God is both a magical presence, and merely another sort of adult. And because Seneca’s play is all these things it makes the most profound point about our adultish appropriation of tragedy. We flatter ourselves that we understand tragedy in a way that children cannot; their lives are too limited, they can’t count to six million and therefore can’t grasp the holocaust. This is very wongheaded of us. The anxieties we experience (Is there a god? Does my wife really love me? Will I lose my job?), whilst real, are milk-and-water compared to the horror that children face every night with the monster in the closet, or in the shadows of the corner of their bedroom. For adults, angst and even tragedy is a portion of our lives; but for children, moment by moment, it is everything and all consuming. And that’s what Seneca’s strangely over-focused and powerfully ghastly play captures.