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   Chapter 2 TENDENCIES OF SENECAN INFLUENCE AS FELT BY ENGLISH DRAMA

Two Tragedies of Seneca: Medea and The Daughters of Troy / Rendered into English Verse By Lucius Annaeus Seneca Characters: 7822

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It would hardly be possible to find a stronger contrast than that between these Senecan tragedies and the early English drama as it existed in moralities and miracle plays before the classic influence made itself felt. With perhaps the single exception of "The Sacrifice of Isaac," which in its touching simplicity is truly dramatic, the moralities and miracle plays are little more than vivid narrative in which events of equal magnitude follow one another in epic profusion; the classic unities of time and place are unknown, and, so far as unity of action is observed, it is epic unity rather than dramatic. The characters are little more than puppets that pass across the stage, moved by no single inward spring of action, but determined in their movements by outward forces or temporary emotions.

In contradistinction to this epic profusion of inchoate external action, we find the authors of the Senecan tragedies choosing for their material only the closing portion of the myth which is the basis of their drama, and centring the little action they admit around the crisis of a soul's life, the real subject of their drama being some spiritual conflict. This introspectiveness, this interest in spiritual problems and soul processes, we find in the English drama only after it has come under the Senecan influence, and it is found in its most exaggerated form in those dramas which are most closely modelled after the Senecan pattern. While the first effect of this influence was to lessen the dramatic interest, it is only as the interest in the spiritual life is added to the wealth of external action that the English drama finds any true principle of dramatic unity. How far the stirrings of the Reformation aided in the development of this interest in soul problems is a question that the student of dramatic literature cannot ignore, but which is outside the present inquiry.

The consciousness of the importance to dramatic art of an inner spiritual theme as a central formative principle led to the nicer differentiation of character,-to the evolution of true dramatic personages from the puppets of the earlier drama, through a deeper inquiry into the inward springs of action.

The centralizing of the visible presentation around a spiritual theme brought about several secondary changes in English drama. The narrowing of the field of action necessitated the description of past and passing actions, which, though not admitted on the stage, were necessary to the understanding of the drama; this led to the introduction of the stock character of messenger and of the long descriptive monologues so familiar in the classic drama. The widening of the interest in the spiritual conflict necessitated the objectifying of that conflict, and led to the introduction of the stock character of confidant, also well known to the Greek and Roman drama, and to the further introduction of long and passionate soliloquy.

This influence exercised by the Senecan tragedies on the material of the English drama had its counterpart in an influence on the outward form,-an influence no less dominant and abiding. The tragedies of Seneca are divided, without regard to their true organic structure, into five acts; these acts are separated by choruses, that bear much the same relation to the acts they separate as does the orchestral interlude of to-day-that is, no real relation; such hard-and-fast division into five parts by choruses unconnected with the action is unknown to the Greek drama. The acts are again divided into scenes, this sub-division being dependent on the exits and entrances of the dramatis person?, every exit and entrance necessitating a new scene.

The early imitators of Seneca copied their model closely in the arrangement of acts and scenes, and with them, as with Seneca, chorus and act division are wholly unconnected with the action of the drama; "Gorboduc," "Tancred

and Gismunda," and "The Misfortunes of Arthur," are the earliest and most faithful English copies of the Latin model. In the Shakespearian drama the adherence to this classic form is less rigid, and the playwright adds or omits the choruses at will: in "Henry Fifth," the chorus not only separates the acts, as in Seneca, but also speaks the prologue; in "Pericles," where Gower speaks the prologue and act interludes, there is also added a lyrical monologue by the same speaker at the opening of the fourth scene of Act IV.; while in "The Winter's Tale" the use of a chorus has dwindled to a single monologue spoken by Time at the opening of Act IV.

In the later development of the five-act division the chorus falls away, and the act division becomes not formal but organic, and coincides with the structural divisions of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe; this has now become the rule for the form of the modern serious drama.

Besides the centralization of the external action around an inner spiritual theme and the fixing of the structural form, other less fundamental results of the Senecan influence are evident in the sixteenth and seventeenth century English drama. The Senecan tragedies belong to the age of the Julian successors of Tiberius,-an age when reason had lost its control, when changes were wrought by intrigue, cunning, and brute force; when vicissitudes of fortune and enormities of conduct were witnessed with the same curiosity which is excited by a fascinating drama, and with something of the same apathy, even when the spectator himself was concerned in the exhibition. The effect of this upon the Senecan tragedy was to expand the limits of what the dramatic proprieties permitted to be represented on the stage, to give in place of dramatic action brilliant and lurid rhetoric only, and to replace a true philosophy by a stoic fatalism.

The tragic and lurid realism of action and description which especially differentiate Seneca from the Greeks found its way into England by a double stream; that is, not only directly from his dramas, but also through the channel of contemporary Italian tragedy, a tragedy which Klein in his "Geschichte des Dramas" describes as a horrible caricature of the Senecan tragedy, where the pity and fear of the Greeks are turned to shuddering horror and crocodile tears. The result is seen in the riot of bloodshed and lust of the so-called tragedy of blood. What Mr. J. A. Symonds says of Marlowe's "Tamberlane" is true of this entire school: "Blood flows in rivers, shrieks, and groans, and curses mingle with heaven-defying menaces and ranting vaunts. The action is one tissue of violence and horror." Even Shakespeare reflects this influence, and in "Hamlet," "Lear," and "Macbeth," we still find this bloody and sensational tendency, though it is purified of its worst extravagances.

We have spoken of the two characters of messenger and confidant which modern drama owes to the nobler Senecan influence; it is to the less admirable influence of his sensational realism that we owe the introduction of supernatural agencies,-of witches, ghosts, and apparitions; these are often little more than stage machinery: in Shakespeare, however, we find them transmuted into powerful adjuncts to the dramatic effect; compare the ghost of Tybalt, that appears to Juliet when she takes the sleeping potion, with that of Medea's brother, that appears to Medea in the last act of the Senecan tragedy of that name; note, too, the use of the ghost in "Macbeth," in "Julius C?sar," and in "Hamlet."

The stoic fatalism which runs like a dark thread through these tragedies of blood is, in the English as in the Senecan tragedy, the natural concomitant of all this sensational horror, and is evident in the texture of the dramas and the character of the personages, and in original as well as in quoted passages.

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