Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca’s Oedipus.
Translated by FREDERICK AHL. With an Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2008. Pp. 280. Paper, $16.95. ISBN 978–0–8014–7397–5.
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Frederick Ahl is not the first to include the Oedipus plays by Sophocles
and Seneca in a single volume. [n. 1] But in this new offering, he presents
highly readable and highly enjoyable translations of these two ancient
dramatic masterpieces, as well as an essay that will provoke thought and
further discussion. The book ends with an indexed glossary of names found
in the plays.
The translations themselves display the outstanding quality we have come to
expect from Ahl. The Sophoclean dialogue flows and crackles; and the choral
odes are clear, yet lose none of their poetry. The Seneca is similarly
powerful and poetic. In Ahl’s English, the Hymn to Bacchus (ll. 409–507) is
both alluring and terrifying. And his stage directions, suggesting that the
cattle sacrificed in the extispicium should be portrayed by attendants
carrying the heads of a bull and a cow (pp. 212, 213), are a brilliant
solution to a problem that has vexed scholars. [n. 2]
Almost more remarkable is Ahl’s Introductory Essay. This is, rather, a
collection of essays, commenting on aspects of the two plays that readers
new to the dramas should know, and of which the more experienced should be
reminded. Topics include biographical information about the playwrights;
cultural contexts for the tragedies; and the myth of Oedipus in various
time periods. Throughout, Ahl strives to leave room for interpretation,
showing, for example, that the Oedipus we know from Freud is not
necessarily the one we get from Sophocles (pp. 22–30), and allowing the
possibility that Seneca philosophus may not be the author of the play (pp.
14–15). He also stresses that “[t]he views expressed in this introductory
essay … are the by-product of the translation process” (p. 3). That is, the
essay contains ideas with which Ahl dealt while rendering the plays into
English, and he continually reminds the reader that his thoughts have
In Section 9 (“Questions and Answers,” pp. 42–55), Ahl shows that in the
original Greek of the OT, when characters are asked questions, they do not
always actually answer them, and throughout the drama they contradict one
other. Ahl then provides previous English renditions, to show that other
translators have made choices that smoothed away these inconsistencies. Ahl
is adamant that such tampering detracts from our ability to appreciate
Sophocles’ artistry. He truthfully boasts that “I have made my translation
conform as closely as I could to the Greek text, pretty well line for line”
(p. 54). This is a fine sentiment, and Ahl is to be commended achieving
both accuracy and a readable text. But I question why such an effort is
required for Sophocles, but not for Seneca.
Ahl has altered the Roman play at many points. For example, he has
reassigned lines from one character to another [n. 3]. He has altered
carmen poposci at line 98 to “‘Sing me your riddling song,’ I said,”
creating oratio recta where none exists in the Latin. At line 708, even
though Oedipus clearly states that he exits the stage into the palace,
Ahl’s stage directions indicate that the king “sits down, brooding” (p.
230). Throughout, Ahl plays fast and furious with the Latin lines. At the
very start of the drama, it takes him seven lines of English to render the
first five in Latin. And he often alters Seneca’s effects of having
characters interrupt each other mid-line. These are all interpretative
decisions that a translator is entitled to make. But I find it troubling
that Ahl faults other translators of Sophocles for altering the text, when
he does the same with Seneca.
My quibbles should not, however, detract from well-deserved praise of this
book. Ahl’s translations will provide excellent access to the plays of
Sophocles and Seneca for students without Greek and Latin, and the
Introductory Essay raises important and interesting issues. I would happily
use this volume for a course on comparative Attic and Roman theatre, as
well as a mythology course dealing with different renditions of the same
story. Ahl is to be commended for providing a text that is useful and
thought-provoking, but also poetic and dramatic.
[n. 1] See, for example, Clarence W. Mendell, Our Seneca (New Haven, 1941);
and James L. Sanderson and Everett Zimmerman, eds., Oedipus: Myth and
Dramatic Form (Boston, 1968).
[n. 2] Among the scholars who have commented on the issue, Otto Zwierlein,
Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas (Meisenheim am Glan, 1966) 24–5 and 31–2,
finds the whole episode unstageable, a view seconded by John G. Fitch,
“Playing Seneca,” in George W.M. Harrison, ed., Seneca in Performance
(London, 2000) 1–12. Dana Sutton, Seneca on the Stage (Leiden, 1986) 23,
posits the drugged cattle could be brought on stage and hidden behind mute
Actors when the time comes to kill them. T.G. Rosenmeyer, “Seneca’s Oedipus
and Performance: The Manto Scene,” in Ruth Scodel, ed., Theater and Society
in the Classical World (Ann Arbor, 1993) 242–3, backs the notion that the
sacrifice occurs off-stage and that Manto narrates what she “sees” to her
father and the audience. I myself think that dancers portrayed the animals.
And recently, I saw a performance of the Oedipus at Grand Valley State
University (April 14, 2007 in Grand Rapids, MI), where no attempt was made
to represent the sacrificial victims; instead, the actors mimed (in a
modern sense) the rite, and were able to make the audience believe that the
beasts were there.
[n. 3] Lines 18 and 103–5 are moved from Oedipus to Jocasta. Lines 202–4
are given to Oedipus instead of the Chorus. Lines 288–90 go to the Chorus
Leader instead of Creon. Various lines in 825–36 are given to Jocasta
instead of the Old Corinthian. All of these changes are identified in
footnotes, except for lines 202–4. Some of these moves have textual
support, but not all of them.
Thomas D. Kohn
Wayne State University
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