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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Susannah: Notebooks (Winter Journal)

Below is the next in a series of "director's notebooks" about Opera Roanoke's premiere production of Susannah.

Susannah Production Notebooks | Journal (Jan - Mar 2017)

Blitch and Susannah are ‘classic’ tragedians in the lineage where Floyd and Arthur Miller (The Crucible) join Williams, O’Neill, Ibsen and Strindberg, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and among others, ancients from Seneca and Ovid to Homer, Horace, and Josephus…


‘What can reason do? Passion, passion rules.’ So Seneca has it in Phaedrus, one of his stoic tragedies whose operatic excesses are as appealing as they are myth-busting to the idea which holds ‘stoic’ and ‘staid’ as consonant, if not synonymous. Yet this once-favorite of the rich and famous (Caligula to Nero) “had experienced, at first hand, exile, the anger of those in power, and the vicissitudes of fortune. He had been forced from his home as a criminal. Seneca’s plays, which deal obsessively with the theme of tyranny and the destruction caused by a lust for power… Seneca’s complex relationship with the politics of his own time is one of many reasons why his work is relevant today.”

His translator and editor, Emily Watson also observes (Oxford): “He is a writer for uncertain and violent times, who forces us to think about the difference between compromise and hypocrisy, and about how, if at all, a person can be good, calm or happy, in a corrupt society under constant threat of death.” (Does that not make Seneca a writer for all times?)


Seneca’s elevated, emotionally-heightened, even melodramatic tragedies, which place the human condition – the will or human ‘spirit,’ and its dilemmas, its heart-blazing affairs and violent struggles – front and center. Where his contemporaries and their Greek forebears often centered the tragedy’s focus on the gods, Seneca was an unapologetic humanist. A conservative stoic, he was also a prototypical progressive, locating the center of the human universe where every individual, on some level, experiences meaning: the heart. [Is that too "romantic", or too sweeping a claim?]

And his “dramatic self-consciousness” and “bravura stylistic excess” ensure his “passions” appeal to the lovers of great theatrical dramas, whether they be “operatic” or “classical” or “Shakespearean”… Seneca, as it were, is not only an historically-based character in one of the first great operas (from its early days as a public entertainment in 17th c. Venice, Monteverdi’s L’Incoranazione di Poppea) but the author of several great tragedies, like Phaedrus, Hercules Furens, and Hecuba. Along with Trojan Women, Oedipus, and Medea, they share the stage with earlier versions by Sophocles, Euripides, Ovid, Virgil, and Homer as primary sources for varying disciplines engaged with antiquity...


Seneca forces us to think about the difference between compromise and hypocrisy. (xxvi)

Hostile fortune is rarely kind to heroes.

Everyone knows you cannot risk | danger after danger and be safe

Fate may spare you many times, she gets you in the end (149)

Go ahead, be a tyrant, boast, puff yourself up with pride.

The avenging god follows close behind the proud.

I scorned death, and returned | …I have seen Hell, and revealed it. (157)


Like Camus, we must imagine Sisyphus (like Susannah) laughing at a cursed fate. Whether in acceptance or defiance; whether as an acknowledgment of “the absurd” or as a self-preserving

(-empowering) act of resistance… could our reading not include both?

Susannah joins Sisyphus, and other outsider, rebel, &/or free-thinking martyrs: Hercules, Prometheus, Oedipus, Electra, Philomela/Procne, Hester Prynne, Billy Budd...

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