Why has Sejanus failed to secure a place in the theatrical repertoire? Its first performance at the Globe was a fiasco, and subsequent interest has been scant. Apart from a few university productions, the only modern revivals in Britain appear to have been that of William Poel in 1928 and the one directed by Greg Doran for the R.S.C. in 2005. I was fortunate enough to be able to see this latter production, which confirmed the opinion I had formed as a student, that here was a powerful play whose years of neglect had been undeserved. Audiences may be put off by its length and large cast of characters,* while the exhaustive documentation of sources and onslaught of punctuation unleashed on the published version (which Jonson substantially revised) are not exactly inviting to the reader, but the play’s combination of fiendish political machinations, solemn rhetoric, black comedy and horrific violence is dynamic and compelling.
The action covers a series of events which took place over eight years, from the death of Drusus, son of the emperor Tiberius, in AD 23, to the downfall and execution of the emperor’s favourite, Sejanus, in AD 31. The dramatic timeline is left vague, with no indication from Jonson that years are passing, and none that they have been truncated. Commentators on the play have often remarked that, with its master-servant pair of scheming villains, it resembles Jonson’s comedies, and indeed there is a strong element of the comic overreacher in the characterization of Sejanus. This can be seen in the glee with which he commits his crimes and the hyperbole of his boasts of success (at one point reckoning his power with that of Jove, whose existence he then denies). Here he is, for example, at the beginning of Act 5, at a point when he thinks that few obstacles remain between him and ultimate control of the empire:
Swell, swell, my joys : and faint not to declare
Your selves, as ample, as your causes are.
I did not live, till now ; this my first hower;
Wherein I see my thoughts reach’d by my power.
But this, and gripe my wishes. Great, and high,
The world knowes only two, that’s Rome, and I.
My roofe receives me not ; ’tis aire I tread :
And, at each step, I feele m’advanced head
Knocke out a starre in heav’n !
With rhyming couplets (which Jonson uses sparingly) accentuating the joyful, incongruous gracefulness, the imagery is almost balletic in its nimble megalomania, calling to mind Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel cavorting with an inflatable globe. The great irony is that Tiberius, whom Sejanus dreams of supplanting, has already decided to crush him; he is thus like Wile. E. Coyote briefly and unknowingly suspended over the abyss before plummeting to earth. Jonson finds humour, too, in Tiberius, such as when it is reported that he scours men’s astrological information for signs of promising futures just so that he can thwart them by having the men killed. Two of the play’s most magnificent moments of comedy are given to Tiberius, an emperor usually portrayed as dour and gloomy. In the first, he responds to Sejanus’s suggestion of marriage to Drusus’s widow Livia with a wonderfully deflating ‘H’mh?’, marking the moment at which his support for Sejanus begins to ebb. In the second, he engineers Sejanus’s arrest by means of a letter read out to the senate. Tiberius does not appear in this scene―he does not appear at all after the third act, having retired to his villa on Capri―but he makes his sly, baleful presence felt despite being corporeally absent. The previous scene has already made clear that Sejanus is to be detained by his nemesis Macro, so we can chuckle along when the corrupt flatterers of the senate enter the chamber full of his praise (one even going so far as to give him precedence over the emperor), under the impression that Sejanus is to be granted some great honour. As the messenger reads out the letter, which see-saws between defending Sejanus and condemning him, the senators desperately try to fathom the emperor’s intent, unsure where to place their allegiance. There is no suspense for us as readers or as members of the audience, for the outcome is already known; the fun is in the brilliantly manipulative cruelty, disguised as vacillation or ambivalence, with which Tiberius toys with the senate, darkly insinuating even while declaring complete trust in the man he raised from obscurity to power. A remark on the danger of a sovereign, ‘who, by his particular love to one, dares adventure the hatred of all his other subjects’, is swiftly followed by an affirmation of confidence in Sejanus; no sooner is the affirmation made than Sejanus’s ‘zeale’ and ‘loyall furie’ in prosecuting his enemies are called into question, and widespread complaints about his ambition acknowledged―only for those complaints to be dismissed as malicious. The letter’s language is stealthy and ambiguous, the syntax often tortuous (e.g. ‘What wee should say, or rather what we should not say, Lords of the Senate, if this bee true, our gods, and goddesses confound us if we know!’). As Tiberius’s purpose gradually becomes clearer, the senators begin to change seats to distance themselves from Sejanus, distancing themselves still further as it becomes evident that he has lost imperial favour. This is tremendous theatre, but the effect was somewhat undermined in the R.S.C. production by the decision to have Tiberius himself read part of the letter, with the actor playing him situated to the side of the main stage to convey a sense of geographical and temporal remove. Not only did this take the audience from Rome to Capri, it also jumped back in time from the reading of the letter to its composition, compromising both the immediacy of the scene and Jonson’s chief joke, that Sejanus, for all his puffed-up self-regard, is out-manoeuvred by someone who does not even need to be present to overcome him.
Both Sejanus and Tiberius are, in their different ways, masters of language. The first makes expert use of flattery and cajolery for his own ends, but his verbal arsenal is also equipped with formidable tools of bombast, invective and sarcasm; the second is subtle, complex and devious, adept at couching his intentions in disavowals and disclaimers, which his receptive vassals are able to interpret contrary to how they are ostensibly stated. The third major villain, Macro, is by contrast much more straightforward and plain-spoken. Towards the end of the third act, each character is given a superbly written soliloquy in which the differences in their patterns of thought are amply demonstrated.** Sejanus, venting his anger at having his request to marry Livia turned down, heaps scorn on Tiberius, whom he underestimates as dull and heavy.
Would’st thou tell me, thy favours were made crimes ?
And that my fortunes were esteem’d thy faults ?
That thou, for me, wert hated ? and not thinke
I would with winged haste prevent that change,
When thou might’st winne all to thy selfe againe,
By forfeiture of me ? Didst those fond words
Fly swifter from thy lips, then this my braine,
This sparkling forge, created me an armor
T’encounter chance, and thee ? Well, read my charmes,
And may they lay that hold upon thy senses,
As thou had’st snuft up hemlock, or tane downe
The juice of poppie, and of mandrakes. Sleepe,
Voluptuous Caesar, and securitie
Seize on thy stupide powers, and leave them dead
To publicke cares, awake but to thy lusts.
I love the artistry of that last sentence, with all those languid sibilants and long e sounds expressing Tiberius’s supposed torpid decadence, giving way to harder consonants as his anger forces itself out through his tongue. All of Sejanus’s peevishness cannot dampen his self-regard, his estimation of his own intelligence (‘this sparkling forge’), his confidence in his ability to meet any challenge. And yet there hints of confusion in his words: first it is his own haste that is winged, his readiness to react, then it is Tiberius’s words that fly. The avian imagery is then complicated by the reference to armour, which transforms Tiberius’s words from birds to arrows. Forging a suit of armour is, moreover, not an act to which winged haste readily applies; Mercury one moment, Vulcan the next. Sejanus goes on to outline his course of action, sure of its success, with no pause for reflection or doubt, but it is this unreflective lack of doubt, or suppression of doubt by self-assured rhetoric, that causes him to overlook the vulnerability of his position.
Tiberius, by contrast, is much more thoughtful, his options considered and measured in carefully weighted couplets. Crucially, he takes the time and trouble to think things through before reaching his decision, whereas Sejanus goes straight from deriding his antagonist to describing what he will do and how he will succeed. Macro, for his part, exhibits neither the pride of Sejanus nor the deliberation of Tiberius, professing unquestioning obedience devoid of scruple.
The way to rise, is to obey, and please.
He that will thrive in state, he must neglect
The trodden paths, that truth and right respect ;
And prove new, wilder ways : for vertue, there,
Is not that narrow thing, shee is else-where.
Mens fortune there is vertue ; reason, their will :
Their license, law ; and their observance, skill.
Occasion, is their foile ; conscience, their staine ;
Profit, their lustre : and what else is, vaine.
If it then be the lust of Caesars power,
T’have rais’d Sejanus up, and in an hower
O’re-turne him, tumbling, downe, from height of all ;
We are his ready engine : and his fall
May be our rise. It is no uncouth thing
To see fresh buildings from old ruines spring.
Macro may be ambitious, but he knows his limit; his focused gaze does not permit indulging in derision of Sejanus,*** or in painstaking ruminations. He may speak here (and in one other speech) in verse, but his language is artless compared with that of Sejanus and Tiberius, quite lacking in striking imagery or oblique turns of phrase. However, the end of the play reveals him to be the author of the most horrible crimes: after Sejanus’s execution, he orders that his children, too, be killed, circumventing laws banning the execution of young virgins by first having the daughter raped by the hangman. This act earns him the description the ‘wittily, and strangely-cruell Macro’; Sejanus and Tiberius may take the honours for verbal wit, but Macro is witty in his actions, his outrages. And yet, even though the play apparently leaves both Macro and Tiberius unpunished, Jonson is careful to diminish them. The appalling conclusion in mob violence leaves the survivors who comment on it shell-shocked, and moves beyond petty individual monsters, who are dwarfed, in the frame of Jonson’s penetrating historical vision, by the larger forces playing out around them. This is what I’ll be looking at in my next post.
*The R.S.C. both shortened the text and reduced the number of characters.
**Here is an interesting discussion and reading of these soliloquies by Professor Michael Cordner and the actor Henry Goodman.
***Once, however, Sejanus has been toppled from his perch, Macro does allow himself the pleasure of some vituperative crowing.