Review by: Frank Corsaro, Juiliard Opera Center - September 28, 2005
It is astonishing to me that one could still be excited by so venerable a text as Seneca’s Oedipus. Such was the case with my encounter with Michael Rutenberg’s rendition of this masterwork. Highly imaginative, eminently actable, and obviously a work of fine scholarship and devotion. It is my hope that it will be performed in theatres worldwide.
Review by: Leon Golden, Florida State University - September 28, 2005
The translation itself is admirably fluent and contemporary in idiom. It should be very effective as a vehicle for performances and should be easily comprehensible to audiences whether they hear or read it. Rutenberg’s translation and the discussion he provides on staging the play in his introduction facilitate the possibility of an exciting stage performance of Seneca’s play.
Review by: Robert Meagher, Hampshire College - September 28, 2005
Michael Rutenberg’s Oedipus is a skilled, shattering translation of one of the most haunting dramas of the Roman corpus. I have watched Rutenberg’s text leap form page to stage and reclaim there in its native habitat a dark, elemental, utterly compelling energy. As an added bonus, his learned and illuminating introduction casts appreciated light into even the corners of this often overlooked masterpiece.
Review by: Thomas Kohn, Didaskalia - June 1, 2002
The front cover and the title-page proclaim that Michael Rutenberg's version of Seneca's Oedipus has been "freely translated and adapted". This might be the proper place to point out that any translation is by necessity an adaptation. It is impossible to transform perfectly a work from one language to another, especially when going from an inflected language, with flexible word order, into one where word placement is more important for primary meaning. But Rutenberg's version is, in fact, an adaptation, different from the literal and ubiquitous translation of F.J. Miller,  and even a far cry from the free verse rendition which Ted Hughes originally created for Sir John Gielgud and the National Theatre Company.  Rutenberg's Oedipus is based on a number of assumptions.
Rutenberg assumes that Seneca's choral passages are extraneous to the action of the play, mere embolima, to use Aristotle's terminology.  Rutenberg states in his Introduction that "[u]nfortunately, these lyric arias tend to hold up the action" (page 14). Thus, he replaces the Chorus of Thebans with one man, named "Chorus," who comments on the action directly to the audience and quotes liberally from the letters and dialogues of Seneca the Philosopher. For the curious, Rutenberg provides the sources for his Chorus in Appendix I, and he also includes "modernized" versions of Miller's translations of the original choral passages in Appendix II.
Rutenberg also assumes that Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus is the direct source for Seneca's play, and so has "restored parts of scenes left out of Seneca's version, but which are present in the original source" (page 17). Rutenberg has Jocasta re-enter following Creon's report of the necromancy (Act 3, page 59), defending her brother as she does at OT 634-48. Rutenberg has Tiresias come back after the extispicium in order to confront Oedipus (Act 3, pages 61-4), in a scene adapted from OT 316-462. And in the end, Creon returns to take custody of Oedipus, his children, and his throne (Act 5, pages 90-2), as he does at OT 1416-1523.
Further, Rutenberg assumes that a modern audience is not as familiar with Greek myths as Seneca's would have been. Thus, Rutenberg eliminates most of Seneca's allusions, and fills in several vital details from the Oedipus story. For example, he includes the text of and answer to the riddle of the Sphinx (Act 1, page 38). And he copies Sophocles' account (OT 774-812) of the events which drove Oedipus to flee from Corinth to Delphi and then to Thebes (Act 4, page 70).
Finally, Rutenberg alters a great deal of the staging. Instead of having Oedipus enter alone at the start of the play, he is accompanied by Jocasta. Instead of performing the extispicium on-stage, he has Manto report it as if it had previously happened.  And in the end, Oedipus is escorted by Creon and Jocasta is carried off-stage (page 92), before a final word from Chorus.
A scholar could argue with some of Rutenberg's choices. One could say that Seneca's choral passages are, in fact, linked to the themes and symbolism of the play. One could state that Oedipus is the central character of Seneca's drama, and so the Roman playwright keeps the roles of all the other characters to a minimum. One could maintain that Oedipus' isolation is a key thematic element, and so he needs to be alone when he enters at the beginning and when he exits at the end. The frequent allusions and the omission of key details, one could point out, are both distinctive features of Seneca's style. And one could suggest that Rutenberg has left out much by glossing over Senecan wordplay. Consider, for example, line 81 of the original Latin, when Oedipus, considering flight, speaks the word parentes, immediately before his wife and unbeknownst mother interrupts, thus providing much irony for a knowing audience.
In short, a scholar could find much to criticize in this adaptation, if Rutenberg had intended to produce a faithful translation for academic purposes. But this is not the case. The fundamental assumption of this work is that it is a script, meant for performance in front of a modern audience. Rutenberg did not make his alterations on a whim, as his "rather long introduction" (page 29) makes clear. His prefatory remarks, which at times read like a fine set of program notes, are a well-reasoned discussion both of his additions and omissions and of the value of Senecan tragedy to a modern audience.
The script itself is very readable, and I can imagine it fitting onto a modern stage quite well. The language is fairly straightforward, yet the suggestion of Senecan syntax remains. The stage directions are derived from a hypothetical performance, and not from the actual production Rutenberg directed at Hunter College, as the costume suggestions do not match the production photographs interspersed throughout the text. But the production photos, both the ones found in the book and those appended below, along with the testimonial quotes on the back cover of the paper edition, give an indication as to the power and effectiveness of Rutenberg's adaptation. If you desire a faithful translation of Seneca's Oedipus, this book is not the one to choose. But if you want a retelling of the Oedipus myth which aims to resonate with a modern audience, and which takes Seneca's tragedy as a starting point with extra material from Sophocles and Seneca the Philosopher, Rutenberg has created just the thing.
1. Found in many places, including the Loeb Classical Library.
2. Ted Hughes, Seneca's Oedipus, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY: 1972.
3. Poetics 1456a29ff. See R. J. Tarrant, "Senecan Drama and its Antecedents," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978), 221-8.
4. T. G. Rosenmeyer, "Seneca's Oedipus and Performance: The Manto Scene," in Ruth Scodel, ed., Theater and Society in the Classical World, University of Michigan Press: 1993, 235-44, makes a similar suggestion. This is met with some skepticism in John R. Porter's review in Phoenix 50:1 (Spring 1996), 80.
Thomas D. Kohn
University of Mississippi
Didaskalia, Vol. 5 Issue 3 - Summer 2002: Ancient Theatre Today
Review by: Betine Van Zyl Smit - University Of The Western Cape, Scholiar Reviews - August 10, 2001
Scholiar Reviews ns 10 (2001) 26.
Michael Elliot Rutenberg (tr.), Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus
Seneca. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999.
Pp. vi + 103, incl. 2 appendices. ISBN 0-86516-459-2.SCS
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
Seneca's Oedipus has not enjoyed the reputation of being a
masterpiece such as the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles.
Yet over the centuries there have been many attempts to bring
this drama to contemporary audiences. The latest is the work
In his lengthy (30 pages) introduction Rutenberg provides
background to the general reader on topics such as the
Oedipus myth, Seneca's life and times, Stoicism, Greek and
Roman drama, as well as detailed information on his
adaptation. It is clear that Rutenberg's changes to Seneca's
text are intended to facilitate modern production. He
expresses a passionate conviction that 'Seneca's Oedipus is
not a pallid imitation of Sophocles. It represents a vision of
the world present during the age within which Seneca lived'
(p. 29). Rutenberg also believes that Seneca's theme 'of
trying to find the strength to accept suffering with dignity,
patience and mercy' is 'as relevant today in a world filled
with repeated horrors against those who are innocent, as it
was in ancient times' (p. 14).
In order to make clear Rutenberg's interpretation of the
drama, this review will first outline the changes that have
been made to Seneca's tragedy and then discuss the
translation into English of the parts of the Latin text which he
Rutenberg keeps the dramatis personae of the original but has
made significant changes to the Chorus. In the place of the
Theban elders there is a single 'Roman philosopher and
statesman' (p. 33). It soon becomes clear that he is the
mouthpiece of Seneca philosophus in the play, for the
original choral odes have largely been replaced by excerpts
from Seneca's philosophical works. There are extracts from
Epistulae ad Lucilium, Ad Marciam, De ira, De
providentia, De tranquillitate animi and De clementia.
Rutenberg explains that he wanted in the first place to
'disrupt the theatrical reality of the play' and to provide 'a
rational break from its unrelenting, passionate language' (p.
15). The words of the Chorus are thus intended to appeal to
the intellect rather than to the emotions. Sometimes these
philosophical passages are well integrated into the drama.
For instance, immediately after Oedipus has commanded that
Creon and Tiresias be arrested on suspicion of plotting to
overthrow him there is a short choral passage (pp. 64f.)
which combines four extracts from different parts of De
clementia. The references to mercy cast a critical light on
Oedipus' action and show that Seneca the philosopher would
not have condoned this action, but would have prescribed
It is true that Seneca's choral odes often have no apparent
link to the dramatic action preceding or following. While the
parode of Oedipus (lines 110- 201) with its detailed
description of the plague intensifies the feeling of doom
which has already been evoked by Oedipus in the preceding
scene, the second ode (lines 403-508) is a panegyric to
Bacchus and has no immediate connection with the decision
to conjure Laius' spirit which precedes it, or the report on the
necromancy which follows. Nevertheless, to replace these
poetical passages with their lavish descriptions of nature and
recondite mythological references by philosophical talks
with a didactic purpose (cf. p. 16) is to change the impact of
the drama profoundly. This change alone is sufficient reason
to class the play as an adaptation rather than a translation of
Some of the further changes are to ease performance on the
stage; for example Manto's disembowelment of the
sacrificial animals is transferred offstage. Other changes
shape Rutenberg's interpretation. He has enhanced the role of
Jocasta. Not only is she present when Oedipus comes on the
stage for the first time, but she is brought back in Acts II and
III and in Act V commits suicide on the stage after a dialogue
with Oedipus in which the son/mother theme and the
accountability of humankind and fate are discussed.
Rutenberg sees this as 'restoring' some of the material 'in the
original source', Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus (p. 17).
The beginning and end of the drama have also been altered.
Seneca's Oedipus is alone on stage at the opening of the play.
In an 80-line monologue he communicates not only the
calamitous state of his kingdom, but reveals a deep fear that
he may be the guilty cause of it. At the end of Seneca's
tragedy Oedipus is alone on stage again. All his worst fears
have been realized. He has plucked out his own eyes to
ensure constant and continued punishment and suffering. He
represents the pervasive and irresistible force of fate and
human impotence before its designs. This is not a happy
picture. Seneca surely intended by this ending to convey to
the reader/audience an impression of the futility of human
suffering against the dictates of fate. But Rutenberg's message
is subtly different. His new choral interludes may preach the
virtues of submission to fate, but the conclusion of his play
insists on the orderly continuation of civic life. Before
Rutenberg's Oedipus stumbles out at the end of the play, he
instructs Creon to bury Jocasta with honour and to look after
his children. Creon has been brought back by Rutenberg 'to
resolve the play's action' (p. 17). The presence of Creon
indicates a return to law and order in Thebes. Seneca's bitter
ending has been considerably sweetened in Rutenberg's
adaptation. His play ends with a final choral quotation from
Seneca's epistles (Ep. 102.28f.): 'someday (sic) the secrets
of heaven will be revealed to us, and all our ignorant
darkness will be dispelled by glorious light' (p. 92).
As far as the translation of the Latin text is concerned,
Rutenberg often resorts to summary and paraphrase. For
example, Oedipus' opening monologue of 80 lines is
considerably shortened and its emphasis changed as it is now
addressed to Jocasta. However, there are some lines that
seem to follow the Latin quite closely. Rutenberg does not
indicate which edition of Seneca's Latin he has used, but as
he reprints the original choral odes in Miller's[] Loeb
translation (in Appendix II, pp. 95- 103) I have taken the
Latin from this edition.
Iam iam aliquid in nos fata moliri parant;
nam quid rear quod ista Cadmeae lues
infesta genti, strage tam late edita, mihi
parcit uni? cui reservamur malo? Sen. Oed.
Rutenberg has rendered these lines thus:
'I feel at this very moment, the Fates are
planning some savage stroke against me. What
else should I think when the blight that
ravages Thebes seems only to spare me and
those closest to me. For what punishment am I
reserved that I remain unscathed amidst the
devastation that lays waste to everything in its
path?' (p. 37)
This seems to me a striking rendering that would be effective
in a stage production. It is instructive to compare this
translation with the others in English that seem to be most
readily available: that of Miller[], Watling[]and Ted
Hughes[]. While Rutenberg's version does not have the
dense, poetic quality of Ted Hughes', it compares favourably
with these other translations, especially as a text to be
spoken by an actor on the stage.
I think that one of the reasons that the above sample from the
new play is effective is because the language is simple and
direct. However, in parts Rutenberg unfortunately seems to
be infected with Seneca's own predilection for excess. For
instance in Oedipus' description of his encounter with the
Sphinx there is a distinctly Senecan delight in the description
'Her body shook, smashing itself against the
pointed rock. Her jaws clashed together,
biting at the empty air until blood streamed
from that fetid mouth.' (p. 39)
Rutenberg's stage directions envisage the play as set in the
throne room of Nero's imperial palace, but he writes that the
first production in New York was actually in the setting of an
underground royal bunker in a post- holocaust future.
Some purists may disapprove of Rutenberg's revision of
Seneca, but he has certainly brought a fresh interpretation of
an ancient drama which in its unaltered state offers no ready
access to audiences of the third millennium. For that he
deserves our thanks.
[] F. J. Miller, Seneca's Tragedies (London 1960).
[] See :
'Now, even now the fates are aiming some
new blow at me; for what am I to think when
this pestilence, so deadly to Cadmus' race, so
widespread in its destruction, spares me
alone? For what evil am I reserved?'
[] E. F.Watling, Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia
'Fate is preparing, even while I speak, Some
blow for me. Why else, when all my people
Suffer this pestilence, when havoc walks
Through all this land, am I alone unscathed?
For what worse punishment am I
[] Ted Hughes, Seneca's Oedipus (London 1969):
'even now what is fate preparing for me
surely I see that how could I be mistaken this
plague slaughtering everything that lives no
matter what men trees flies no matter it spares
me why what final disaster is it saving me for'