- ‘Octavia’, Attributed to Seneca edited by A.J. Boyle
Oxford, 340 pp, £70.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 928784 0
About a year after the Persians captured, sacked and burned the city of Miletus in 494 BCE, the Athenian playwright Phrynicus produced The Capture of Miletus, a tragedy about the colony’s harrowing fate. It was still early in the history of Athenian drama, and it may have been the audience’s reaction to Phrynicus’ play that led later tragedians to prefer mythological topics to contemporary ones. Herodotus tells us that the entire theatre fell to weeping and that Phrynicus was fined a thousand drachmae for reminding the Athenians of misfortunes all too familiar to them. Any future production of the play was forbidden.
Vol. 31 No. 7 · 9 April 2009
Reading that in the ancient Roman play Octavia, ‘unusually, there are two chorus groups, one pro-Octavia and the other pro-Poppaea,’ I was immediately reminded of a remarkable broadcast I saw recently on Italian television (LRB, 26 February). I was in a hotel in Venice at the time, trawling through the 57 channels in search of some coverage of the Milan soccer derby. It transpired that Italian football, just like its English counterpart, has been sold down the river to Sky; since my hotel did not subscribe, live coverage was unavailable.
I did, however, stumble across a channel that was attempting to give the best possible live coverage without actually showing any of the action. They had a camera at the stadium, but it was trained away from the pitch, on two commentators who were describing the play. The point of it was that one man was an Inter fan, and the other supported AC; as each team gained possession of the ball, their man picked up the commentary (and the other was supposed to stop, though he rarely did). My first thought was that this had to be the lamest and most desperate attempt to cover the game imaginable. I was about to turn the thing off and head out into the night, but something stayed my finger. It turned out to be the best piece of entertainment I’ve seen for years. I realised later that it was drawing on an ancient Italian dramatic tradition. If the two choruses in Octavia came even close to the hilarious interplay the two commentators produced when AC Milan scored, only for the goal to be disallowed, then I think the play is definitely worth reviving.