Posts Tagged ‘Jaspreet Singh Boparai’

Is Seneca staging a comeback? Maybe…

Sunday, July 9th, 2023

For 1,500 years, no writer except Virgil held more esteem in the classical world than Seneca. And today? “We read every major tragedian in the Western tradition, except Seneca,” says poet and author Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s setting out to rectify that situation.

“If Seneca’s plays survived the sack of Rome, the burning of libraries, the leaky roofs of monasteries, the appetites of beetle larvae, and the erosions of rot and mildew, they have not had a conspicuously easier time among modern critics,” he continues. “His tragedies have been dismissed both for too closely resembling Greek models and for too freely departing from them. As the classicist Frederick Ahl has noted, ‘no field of literary study rivals that of Latin poetry in so systematically belittling the quality of its works and authors.’ , “No Roman genre has suffered more consistent disparagement than tragedy.”

Seneca may be the season’s comeback kid. The former California poet laureate has just published a new verse translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules (Wiseblood). Wiseblood notes that the violent and visionary play “takes the reader to the extremes of human suffering and beyond – including a descent into the Underworld, an account that echoes through the ages to Dante and Eliot.” The also book includes a rich introduction that is almost as long as the text – a good reason in itself to buy the book. After so much neglect, a thorough reintroduction is more than overdue.

The book is twenty years in the making – and every step of the way, Dana Gioia was convinced no one cared. But Seneca may be getting a major reconsideration, fueled in part by a new stoic movement taking place among the young. (Go here for a blogpost on the statesman, satirist, philosopher, and dramatist.)

Host Jaspreet Singh Boparai on Zoom

Poet/translator Gioia did another favor for Seneca: an hour-long discussion of the play and the translation that was hosted on May 30 by the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. It’s on Youtube here. The conversation between Dana Gioia and Prof. Mateusz Stróżyński was hosted by classicist Jaspreet Singh Boparai – and as Dana noted, the university had the “kindness and courtesy” to host the event in English, not Polish.

Their discussion of the challenges they faced was excerpted in The Antigone Journal.

Here’s a bit of it:

DANA GIOIA: I chose Hercules Furens to translate because of its fabulous account of the Underworld. The play was the missing link between Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno. My interest wasn’t scholarly. Those poems were foundational to my own sense of being a poet. I particularly admired Virgil and Dante’s ability to create powerful, multi-leveled narratives that never lost their lyrical impulse. Musicality is the necessary magic of narrative poetry. It is also a quality missing from most contemporary poetry. From Seneca I learned how to present drama that alternates between regular action and sudden but sustained moments of extreme emotion. You can call these high points verbal arias or poetic oratory. In theater, they are called “show-stoppers”.  Seneca’s lyric tragedies helped me write poetic texts for opera.

Mateusz Stróżyński in convo with Dana Gioia on Zoom

MATEUSZ STRÓŻYŃSKI: I became interested in Hercules Furens during my research on EuripidesHeracles and Medea, which I began around 2010. I tried to look at the meaning of infanticide in those two plays, from a psychoanalytic perspective, trying to bring together my interest in Classical drama and psychoanalysis as well as my experience as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist. What struck me was that Seneca’s Hercules was much more similar to Euripides’ Medea than to his Heracles. Both seem to give an incredible insight into what has been conceptualized in psychoanalysis as pathological narcissism, especially by authors such as Herbert Rosenfeld, Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg. …

How do we conceive of performing Hercules Furens for a modern audience? 

DG: I wrote the first version of The Madness of Hercules to be performed. I was fascinated by the idea of reviving verse theater. I hoped to create a faithful poetic version of Hercules Furens that worked in live theatrical performance. I wanted the audience to feel the power of both the dramatic action and the poetic speech. There was a young businessman in New York City, Richard Ryan, who told me in a bar one night that he wanted to mount the project. (He was not rich, by the way, he was just enthralled by theater and poetry.) Ryan created Verse Theater Manhattan to stage my translation.  He went on to produce many other verse plays.

We made a radical production decision – we trusted Seneca and the play. We cut the text only slightly. The staging was minimal. The actors were directed to perform the text as verse – to let the power of the language animate their characters. The long speeches were not the impediments that most scholars declared; they were the driving forces of each scene.

Dana Gioia zooming to Poznań from his home library

My translations tried to preserve Seneca’s rhetorical design and recreate the poetry. I thought of the major monologues as great operatic arias for the actors.  They need poetry to work. The Madness of Hercules was produced in a mid-sized theater in lower Manhattan. We sold out both nights, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

Seneca’s Hercules (like Medea) describes a destruction of the inner capacity to love and depend on others, through a desire to control both the self and the others. I think the horrifying sterility of the Underworld in Seneca reflects the inner emptiness and deadness of a narcissistic personality, which inevitably manifests itself in aggression and destruction. But as we can see in Seneca, this narcissistic dynamic is often masked by a narrative of saving the world from monsters in order to bring peace and harmony.

Read the whole thing at the Antigone Journal here. Watch the Youtube video here.

I have a special reason to be grateful to this edition The Madness of Hercules. Dana has kindly dedicated the volume to me:

For Cynthia Haven
Tanquam Explorator

Ben Jonson used “Tanquam Explorator,” so I am in good company!

Postscript on July 10: A note on the dedication from Latin teacher Kevin Rossiter:

The Latin from Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius, letter 2, line 5.: “Hoc ipse quoque facio; ex pluribus quae legi aliquid apprehendo. Hodiernum hoc est quod apud Epicurum nanctus sum–soleo enim et in aliena castra transire, non tamquam transfuga, sed tamquam explorator–: ‘honesta’ inquit ‘res est laeta paupertas.”

“Explorator” is a spy, an eavesdropper. “tamquam” is like “so to speak”. There’s a line in Seneca where he talks about benefitting from reading people he disagrees with, saying “I go into enemy camps not as a deserter, but so to speak as a spy.”

My own translation would be: “For I am accustomed even to cross into the enemy camp, not so much like a deserter, but so to speak as an eavesdropper/spy.”

I see now that ‘tamquam explorator’ is being applied to you in the dedication – so, ‘an eavesdropper, so to speak’ does nicely, don’t you think? Every great writer is always a great eavesdropper!”