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Show or tell? Seneca's and Sarah Kane's Phaedra plays.

Bexley, E. M. (2011) 'Show or tell? Seneca's and Sarah Kane's Phaedra plays.', Trends in classics., 3 (2). pp. 365-393.


This article analyzes the Senecan background to Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love by focusing upon both playwrights' predilections for graphic violence and sexual content. Kane's version of the Phaedra story presents sex, death and mutilation as acts that often defy meaning – these phenomena have such a strong experiential impact that they are slow to move into the referential realm of sign and symbol. By placing these acts centre stage, Kane also implicates the audience. Of course, we cannot propose the same performance effects for Senecan tragedy, owing to lack of evidence. Nonetheless Seneca's work, like Kane's, plays upon dramaturgic techniques of showing and telling: Phaedra's passion is nefas, simultaneously immoral and something she physically cannot speak. Death is also meaningless in Seneca: the final scene shows Theseus trying and failing to make sense of his son's torn body. Both Seneca and Sarah Kane push the boundaries between theatrical illusion and visual reality and, in the process, comment on the nature of theatre itself.

Item Type:Article
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Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:09 October 2017
Date of first online publication:20 November 2011
Date first made open access:No date available

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