How Did Seneca Really Die?

Who was Seneca? My over educated girlfriend kind of remembered him. I called another Abiturient and he could only provide a vague explanation of who the man was. Then I went to my elderly German neighbor who lives above me and asked if he knew who Seneca was. He stared at me for a long, dull moment. Waiting for an answer, I listened to the Altbau house crack and creak as I stood in his doorway; a bird whistled something outside the stairwell window and my dog, Samuel Beckett, was barking that I return home to feed him. Finally my neighbor broke down and said:
“Yeah, I know who he is. Give me some of that rum that you gave me the last time you wanted to know something and I’ll tell you more.”
“I’m writing this pseudo-essay about Seneca’s Tod (Seneca’s Death) by Peter Hacks. It’s a three act play,” I explained to my aging neighbor.
“Peter … who?”
“Peter Hacks. Never heard of him?”
I jogged down the stairs and grabbed a bottle of rum and my dog who was chewing on a Steiff zebra that we named Godot and went back to my neighbor. Sitting on his couch in the living room my neighbor showed-off his ambidextrous abilities. With one hand he poured the rum into two glasses, with the other hand he petted Beckett. I starred at the pictures of his girlfriend and family on the wall. He’d been with the same woman without marrying for over forty years. Between all the black & white pictures of his true love were the shots of his father in Wehrmacht uniforms, a few shots of his dead dog “Smiley” and his mother.
My neighbor filled me in on all he knew about Seneca and by three 3 pm I was wasted and my neighbor was just getting started.
“Do you want to know more about Stoicism,” my neighbor asked.
Gulp. Gulp.
“Maybe,” I said. “Is there anything exciting about Stoicism?”
“Exciting?” he said.
Disappointed and wobbling I grabbed Samuel Beckett and headed back to my apartment. Then I searched through some of my old papers, I mean really old papers, and found “The Pumpkinification of Claudius.” Yeah, I thought. I totally forgot about that. Seneca wasn’t just a boring, opportunistic dip from two thousand years ago. He was actually a pretty funny guy. Alone the title: The Pumpkinification of Claudius. Isn’t that hilarious…

After reading Senecas Tod (Seneca’s Death) by Peter Hacks there was only one thing I wanted to know about the play. How accurate was Hacks regarding the events portrayed? In certain literary circles it seems like a sport to interpret the life and death of the stoic philosopher Seneca. But was Hacks a sports writer? My drink-like-a-fish neighbor didn’t offer much more than I already knew about Seneca. But I liked to go to him about historical questions and he was great source for getting rid of the booze that I have grown scared to drink. He is the type of guy that knows a great deal about history and things – but, he isn’t, like most other Germans, over-educated. That is, he doesn’t have an Abitur, he’s just well read. Unfortunately, the only thing my neighbor helped me with this time was to acquire yet another headache.

Call me a stickler for things redundant. After reading Ein Gespräch im Hause Stein…, Adam & Eve, Prexaspes, I was starting to feel what we call in America “gun-shy” about reading another Hacks play. I thought: I need a break from this communist krapp. Didn’t this guy write anything other than propaganda? Doesn’t he have expanded horizons or something? I also thought that reading another play by Hacks might awaken (anti) communist nightmares embedded in my subconscious. Like when I was in seventh grade at John Hancock Middle School. Even today when a certain bell rings I get down on the floor, put my head under a desk and pray that if the Russkies arrive they don’t torture me into communist submission.

Putting the communist stuff aside, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous post(s), Hacks is a great writer, but there seems to be an issue (for me) regarding his choice of subject(s). With this play I feel more comfortable than ever asking the question: As a twentieth century “classic” writer can Hacks write with any historical accuracy? The thing is, if he doesn’t write accurately, that is, with a bit of concern regarding historical fact, then, as a courtesy, he should at least let us know that what he’s writing is something attributable to… I don’t know… free interpretation?

Hacks’ Seneca is a strange play, indeed. I can’t figure out exactly what this play is supposed to be about. Is it a play about death? Is it a play about a philosopher and his reasoning of death? Is it about Hacks proving how well he can write? Is it about a middle-class, bourgeois Klugscheißer (smart-ass) Greco-Roman whose luck has run out? I don’t know.

Although it doesn’t have it in the subtitle, I think this play is the best example yet of one of Hacks’ classic plays being a comedy. I’m starting to wonder if the publisher/printer of this collection of plays I have made a mistake by subtitling Adam & Eve a comedy. I didn’t think that was a comedy, at all. Of course, this could also be Hacks’ style. I mean, funny dialog doesn’t make a play a comedy. Or? Although I found Seneca to be as difficult to read as Prexaspes (damn German classic rhyme!) it was less difficult to follow but at least there are puns on philosophy throughout.

There is something missing for me in this play. Like some of the intrigue and frivolity of Seneca’s life. Here’s a little of what I know about Seneca. He was probably one of the best examples ever of a philosopher who was a pig-headed, spoiled rotten, failed political opportunist. He was nothing more than a born in the right place, over-educated, Klugscheißer, and if it weren’t for his rhetorical abilities he’d be an honest-to-goodness miracle simply because of how long he was able to talk his way out of death. And Peter Hacks almost captures that in this play. Almost!

(Keep in mind: the following translated text is what will be known as Tommi-translation. In other words, take it with a grain of salt.)

Seneca: So it is ordered. I want the evening cheerful. Bet it works? Two guests, no more, each guest desired.
Nikodrom (Seneca’s chamberlain): It is not two guests, it’s three and one is undesirable.
Seneca: Who is the third you mean?
Nikodrom: Death.
Seneca: With that one the wise man is never in touch. He may search where he’s welcome but not with me.
Nikodrom: And when he arrives uninvited?
Seneca: I go.

Go where?

I don’t know what it is. My only guess is that sometimes authors, by rewriting stuff, forget things. Either that or in order to make something theatrical they have to leave a lot of the good stuff out. In this play Hacks leaves out a lot of the really good stuff regarding Seneca. Sure, the play is beautifully written but… Why not have great writing AND a great story? (I’m trying to stay away from blaming communism here. That’s right: the communists don’t want Hacks writing the real story behind Seneca’s Death.)

For example, Seneca had his first run-in with a death sentence during the reign of Caligula. And do you know how he got out of that? Get this! He weaseled his way out of death by faking an illness. Caligula thought he was going to die anyway. Talk about a Klugscheißer! And it doesn’t stop there. If Seneca was such a smart guy – you know, with being a “philosopher” and all that – then I’m sure he was able to talk his way out of Nero thinking he partook in the Pisonian conspiracy? Actually, do we really know for a fact that that’s why Nero condemned Seneca to death?

Another bit of juice that is missing from Hacks’ free interpretation of Seneca is that Seneca was Nero’s teacher when Nero was young. Wouldn’t there have been some kind of personal connect that Nero had to Seneca? There are numerous accounts of Seneca politically saving-face for Nero throughout his reign. Oh, and what about the volunteering of Seneca’s wife to join her husband in death? Nero nipped that idea in the bud. Why?

So what is the real reason Seneca died the way he did? Here’s where Hacks seems to get the story right. Based on historical facts, Seneca was ordered by Nero but failed at killing himself by simply slicing open his veins. He was too old and his blood didn’t flow. So he put himself in a hot vat of water thinking that would help the blood flow. The reality is a hot bath does the opposite. Seneca eventually died after a long and horrible, asphyxiating death. Yet Hacks has Seneca battle rhetorically with his publisher regarding the fees of his new book. And that’s pretty comedic! I guess.

OK. Hacks is a cynic. And why not be a cynic when you are restricted in what you can and cannot write. Of course, if I had the opportunity I’d be a cynic about Seneca, as well. The guy was most likely nothing more than a jerk. In fact, when I was first reading about him it was at the time when Joschka Fischer’s star was rising on the German political horizon. Of course I didn’t compare the two as philosophers; instead I compared them as opportunists. Yes. May opportunity blossom for all of us! (Btw, at the time I was also comparing Fischer to Diogenes who prayed to dog shit and lived in a bucket.)

Obviously my expectations were high when I started reading this play. I was hoping to learn something new about Seneca. Ironically, the most interesting character in this play was the “Maurer” (a mason or bricklayer). He only has a few lines of text in each scene, yet I couldn’t help but focus on him. Throughout the play this character confronts, intellectually, a “philosopher” and he does so while pushing a wheelbarrow, either empty or full, right through the scenery and/or Seneca’s living room. The metaphor behind this is obvious. As the Maurer constantly interrupts, Seneca asks why he doesn’t go around the house. The Maurer uses a kind of working man’s logic to argue with Seneca that such a thing wouldn’t be logical. I thought that was hilarious. But this isn’t a comedy, right? It’s just a drama about a guy who kills himself in a tub. I guess.

In closing (this pseudo-essay) and for those interested, here’s my theory of why Seneca had to die. This is part of the plot-premise I wanted to use when I wanted to write a play about Seneca so many years ago. Btw, I was highly motivated by “The Pumpkinification of Claudius”.

Seneca was sentenced to death because of Christianity. It was Christianity that would put the fire under Nero’s belt and make him turn against his teacher. Some even believe that Seneca corresponded with St. Paul. But I like the idea that Seneca was actually converted by St. Paul. At the least, the opportunistic “stoicism” practiced by Seneca certainly fits well with the materialist values of Christianity. On top of that, if Paul did get to Seneca then Seneca, knowing what he knew about Nero, might have believed he was living under the rule of the anti-Christ, which many early Christian scholars believed was Nero.

Oh well…

Rant on.


PS Keep in mind that if anyone steels my premise above and writes a play using it, VAT publishing is going to come and break your legs with a baseball bat. ;-)