Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality

Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality

Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality

Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality

Synopsis

Roman tragedies were written for over three hundred years, but only fragments remain of plays that predate the works of Seneca in the mid-first century C.E., making it difficult to define the role of tragedy in ancient Roman culture. Nevertheless, in this pioneering book, Mario Erasmo draws on all the available evidence to trace the evolution of Roman tragedy from the earliest tragedians to the dramatist Seneca and to explore the role played by Roman culture in shaping the perception of theatricality on and off the stage. Performing a philological analysis of texts informed by semiotic theory and audience reception, Erasmo pursues two main questions in this study: how does Roman tragedy become metatragedy, and how did off-stage theatricality come to compete with the theatre? Working chronologically, he looks at how plays began to incorporate a rhetoricized reality on stage, thus pointing to their own theatricality. And he shows how this theatricality, in turn, came to permeate society, so that real events such as the assassination of Julius Caesar took on theatrical overtones, while Pompey's theatre opening and the lavish spectacles of the emperor Nero deliberately blurred the lines between reality and theatre. Tragedy eventually declined as a force in Roman culture, Erasmo suggests, because off-stage reality became so theatrical that on-stage tragedy could no longer compete.

Excerpt

Any study of Roman tragedy must begin with Otto Ribbeck’s Römische Tragödie (1875), which remains an important study of the myths and Greek precedents of Latin plays. Equally important, and perhaps more well known, is Ribbeck’s Scaenicae Romanorum Poesis Fragmenta, vol. 1: Tragicorum Romanorum Fragmenta (3d ed., 1897), in which he attributes the fragments of Roman tragedy to individual dramatists and offers reconstructions of plot outlines. Since Ribbeck, monographs have discussed each of the early dramatists individually, especially on questions of Greek models and poetic style. These philological studies are important, in particular H. D. Jocelyn, The Tragedies of Ennius (1967), R. J. Tarrant, Seneca: Agamemnon (1976) and Seneca’s Thyestes (1985), Elaine Fantham, Seneca’s Troades (1982), and Michael Coffey and Roland Mayer, Seneca: Phaedra (1990), for their attention to dramaturgical detail; but for the most part, the other commentaries treat plays as texts rather than as performance events.

Recent studies on the Roman theatre examine the dramaturgical, cultural, and political contexts of performance: W. Beare’s The Roman Stage (3d ed., 1964) remains an important general study of drama at Rome for the content and dramaturgical contexts of tragedies and comedies. Antonio La Penna’s Fra teatro, poesia e politica romana (1979) is a collection of earlier influential articles on the content and reception of Roman tragedy. Richard C. Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and Its Audience (1992) looks at the development of the Roman theatre and applies an examination of a dramatic production of comedy to a study of audience expectation. William J. Slater, ed., The Roman Theatre and Society (1996), presents essays that address questions of dramatic reception throughout the Roman Empire, but not the reception of tragedy exclusively. Shadi . . .

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