Ancient tragedy, which originated as cultic drama, never entirely lost its religious con­notations. It is for this reason that Greek and Roman plays opened with the appearance on the stage of a character addressing a divinity, or of a divinity speaking directly to the audience. Seneca’s prologues have been criticized for being overly long, moody and laden with philosophical generalizations. His tragedy of Jesus must have begun with some such discourse by the hero.

            In his account of the events that led up to Jesus’ arrest, John cites at length a speech in which Jesus tells his heavenly father that his labors on earth are finished and he is ready to ascend to heaven (17:1-11): Father, the hour has come... Give glory to your son, To whom you gave authority over all mortals. I showed your glory on earth I finished the work you gave me to do. I have made you known to men And they have obeyed your word... And now I am coming to you...

            These words seem to be a fairly accurate rendition of some lines from the Prologue of Seneca’s play. The function of a tragic prologue was to set the tone for the action to follow and acquaint the audience with the predicament of the hero. Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta, a play that drama­tizes the last hours of Hercules on earth, opens with an invo­ca­tion by Hercules of his heavenly father Jupiter in which the hero demands to be admitted to heaven: The time is ripe for Hercules to at last take up his rightful place among the gods, for he has successfully completed the tasks assigned to him on earth: Now, father of the gods... You may rule secure: I have established peace for you... Impious kings are fallen, and cruel tyrants... And yet, father, is the heavens still denied to me?... Has not your son earned the heavens by his glory...?

            Seneca’s handling of these two opening speeches was similar: Like Hercules, Jesus claims to have established his father’s authority among men and asks to be admitted to heaven.[1]

            Jesus’ first speech, which had the nature of a supplication, evidently took place in front of the altar that stood at the center of the stage in Roman theaters, with Jesus looking up­wards (Jn 17:1), his arms raised. In the prologue to Seneca’s Oedipus, Oedipus’ presence at the altar is indicated by the line: Prone at the altar stretch I suppliant hands, craving swift death...

            The gospels indicate that Jesus and the three disciples who were with him had come from Jerusalem; this means that they had entered the stage from the right, the direction of the city according to ancient stage conventions.[2]

            All four evangelists report a dialogue with the disciples in which Jesus predicted his approaching end. Mark and Matthew locate this conversation on the Mount of Olives, whereas Luke and John have Jesus arrive on the Mount only later. According to John, Jesus said: My children, I shall not be with you very much longer; You will look for me; but cannot go where I am going... As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

These verses echo the parting words of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, a play on which Seneca seems to have modeled the Prologue to his tragedy of Jesus. As Oedipus goes off to die in the sacred grove of the Eumenides, he bids his daughters a touching farewell: My children, today your father leaves you... I loved you as no one else had ever done. Now you must live on without me.

            It is characteristic of Seneca to be more subtle than the Greek dramatists. In the tragedy of Jesus, just as in Seneca’s other plays, the fate of the hero is not stated directly, but is revealed to the audience by a series of hints. The following dia­logue, excerpted from the Gospel of John, is probably quite close to Seneca’s text: First disciple:  Where are you going, Lord?Jesus: You will look for me, but you will not find me For where I shall be you cannot go. Second disciple:  Lord, we do not know where you are going. Jesus: You cannot follow me where I am going, But later you will follow me. First disciple: Why can’t I follow you now? Jesus: Because I am going to the father. The time is coming, and is already here, When all of you will be scattered, Each to his own home, And I will be left alone. All of you will run away and leave me. First disciple: I will never leave you, even if all the rest do. Jesus: Simon, Simon! This very night You will say that you do not know me. First disciple: Even if I have to die with you, I will never say that I do not know you. Jesus: Are you really ready to die for me? I tell you the truth: Before the rooster crows you will say three times that you do not know me.

            By the end of this exchange, the audience has learned that the first disciple was named Simon. The second disciple remained unnamed. Mark (14:37) reports that two other disciples, besides Simon Peter, were present and names them, while Luke names only Simon Peter, and refers to the rest merely as the disciples. But all four evangelists agree that Simon Peter was present and that Jesus addressed him directly. The reason is that up to this moment Simon was the only individual identified in the dialogue of the play. Even Jesus had not yet been called by name. In the exchange with the disciples he is addressed only as Lord, and will not be identified for the audience until the very end of the prologue. It is characteristic of Seneca’s dramatic style to reveal the identity of the speakers in his plays only after scores of lines, a technique for which he has been taken to task by modern critics of drama, who prefer the more direct style of classical Greek tragedy.[3]

            The deliberate vagueness of Jesus’ words, and Simon’s failure to understand that Jesus is talking about his own imminent death, shows the hand of a skilled dramatist. The first part of the prologue ended with Jesus exclaiming (Jn 14:31): Rise, let us go from this place!

This means that he and the disciples now proceeded toward the area at the left of the stage where a grove was represented by some props made to resemble trees and rocky outcrops. These props remained on the stage for the duration of the tragedy, but they were the focus of the action only in Acts One and Five.

            Mark and Matthew state that Jesus and the disciples withdrew to a place called Gethsemane. These gospels do not explain why Jesus and his disciples went there; they state simply that they went. Luke provides more detail: Jesus left and went, as he usually did, to the Mount of Olives and the disciples went with him.

            Luke lets the withdrawal from Jerusalem appear almost casual: Jesus would have gone to the Mount of Olives because it was his custom to go there. But in order to let things so appear, he has to describe the place in vague terms, for the Mount of Olives embraces a large area. John refers to some­thing more specific, a grove: There was a garden in that place, and Jesus and his disciples went in.

            To represent a grove on a Roman stage the playwright had to take into account the physical limitations of Roman theaters, where stage props consisted for the most part of permanent fixtures, among them a two-story façade of a building, called the scaena. For country scenes the scaena was hidden behind curtains or other stage props.[4] What could not be presented visually had to be created in the mind of the audience through dialogue. Senecan drama has a particular concern with such scenic descriptions. In Seneca’s Oedipus the place to which the old prophet Tiresias retires to seek divine guidance is characterized as follows: Far from the city there lies a grove, Dark with thick ilex, a moist valley Around the spring of Dirce.

            Some such description was evidently given in Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus to describe the grove to which Jesus retired prior to his arrest.

            When Jesus and the disciples reached the grove at the left of the stage, he bade them sit down and said (Mk. 14:34): The sorrow in my heart is so great it almost crushes me.

            Again we detect an echo of hapless Oedipus in the sacred grove of Colonus, lamenting his fate, to groan beneath the heaviest of mortal burdens.

            When Jesus had said this, he went off from them about the distance of a stone’s throw, and fell down to his knees. (Luke 22: 41). Mark is more specific: he went forward a little, throwing himself face down to the ground. This indicates that he came back to the center of the stage, to pray at the altar, that, as mentioned earlier, was a permanent fixture of the Roman stage. The lines we have quoted from Seneca’s Oedipus, indicate that it was customary, when praying in front of this altar, to prostrate oneself on the ground: Prone at the altar stretch I suppliant hands, craving swift death...

            The disciples were no longer visible on the stage after they had entered the grovethey were assumed to be sitting or lying behind the mound of rocks on the left. Their actions were described to the audience by the words of Jesus, who appeared on the stage alone.

            The content of Jesus’ prayer is reported by Mark as follows: Father, my father, everything is in your power. Take this cup away from me. But not what I want, but rather what you want.

            Seneca’s Oedipus is also seized with anxiety as his fate hangs in the balance: I quake with horror: which way will the fates veer? My troubled heart sways with a double apprehension.

                        A few lines later he declares himself ready to accept whatever fate might have in store for him: I am not afraid to hear the worst.

                        Following his prayer, Jesus went and he found the three disciples asleep and said to Peter (Mk 14:37): Simon, are you asleep? Weren’t you able to stay awake for one hour?

                        The information that the disciples were asleep came from these lines pronounced by Jesus. We can gather that Jesus had gone over to the left side of the stage where the disciples were understood to be. He could see them from where he stood, but they were beyond the angle of vision of the audience.

                        Conservative interpreters are hard-pressed to explain how the prayers of Jesus were preserved if the disciples, the only possible witnesses, were asleep. The problem ceases to exist once it is realized that the scene was enacted in a theater filled with spectators.[5]

                        Regarding the identification of the characters, we note that, once again, only Simon is addressed by name; the other disciples remain nameless, and none of them speaks.

                        In the very next line a note is made of the progression of dramatic timethe audience is informed that Jesus had passed a full hour in prayer. For the audience such orientation in time was important, since the play condensed the action of an entire day into the much shorter span of time appropriate to a theatrical performance. As Aristotle informs us, the action of a tragedy was confined to a period of about twenty-four hours,[6] and ancient drama generally conformed to this rule.

                        According to Mark, Jesus ended by admonishing Simon with the words: The spirit is willing but the flesh lacks strength.

                        This line must come directly from play; it is a typical Senecan epigram, consisting of a clipped philosophical observation, such as are scattered by the dozen in his plays and philosophical writings. Jesus is portrayed as the ideal Stoic, exhorting his companions to use their inner strength to overcome their weaknesses. Seneca expresses the same idea in a letter to his friend Lucilius: And do you know why we are unable to attain this Stoic ideal? It is because we refuse to believe in our power. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us, or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.[7]

                        The disciples did not respond to Jesus’ admonition, since they were no longer on the stage. That is why Mark explains: They [the disciples] did not know what to say to him.

                        Then, Mark continues, Jesus went away [from them] once more, which means that he returned to the center of the stage and began to pray a second time. His prayer consisted of the same words as the first, according to Mark; but Matthew cites it verbatim: My father, if this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.

                        Jesus’s second prayer was similar, but not identical to the firstin the first prayer Jesus had not mentioned drinking from the cup. We detect a change in tone, suggesting that Jesus was closer to an acceptance of his fate.

                        Mark reports that Jesus now went toward the disciples once more, only to find that they had again been overcome by sleep; he woke them and admonished them to keep watch. After this, says Matthew And leaving them again, he went away [from them], and prayed the third time, saying the same words.

            The third prayer is not reported verbatim by any of the evangelists, although we can presume from Matthew’s characterization that it again mentioned the cup. We can be sure, however, that it did not literally consist of the same wordsjust as the second prayer was not exactly the same as the first. The third prayer was the concluding one, and it had to end on a decisive note.

            In presenting the agony of Jesus in the prologue of his play, Seneca was drawing on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the only Greek tragedy that deals with the subject of crucifixion. Prometheus had intervened to save mankind from destruction, and was condemned to be bound and crucified for his actions; in his agony he exclaims: I groan in anguish for pain present and pain to come... My allotted doom I must bear as best I may.

            At last, resigned to his fate, he says: I’ll drink my painful cup to the dregs.

            This line is probably quite similar to the conclusion of the third prayer of Jesus that is omitted by all four evangelists. That Jesus’ third prayer contained a definite decision to undergo the fearsome course of humiliation and suffering that lay in wait for him is confirmed by Jesus’ admonition to Peter during the episode that follows: Do you think that I will not drink the cup of suffering my father has given me?

            At the time of his arrest Jesus was re-asserting a decision he had reached earlier, in the course of the prologue. This decision is not mentioned by any of the evangelists, because they do not report the third prayer verbatim. Jesus’ agony was made more poignant by the fact that, as John explains (18:4): Jesus knew everything that was going to happen to him.

            Jesus probably said so himself, just as in Aeschylus’ play Prome­theus claims: Clearly I foreknow all that must happen.

            In developing his tragic plot, Seneca was most concerned with establishing that his Stoic hero was at all times in control of his fate. Though fully aware of all the horrors awaiting him, he was able to overcome his human weakness and reach for his destiny with the courage befitting a Stoic.

            As soon as Jesus reached his irrevocable decision at the conclusion of his third prayer, he went a third time toward the disciples, and once again found them asleep (Mk. 14:41). This means that he again went toward the mound at the left of the stage behind which the disciples were understood to be.

            The action of the entire prologue is carefully unfolded by means of a three-part division of events[8] that builds tension on the stage until it is nearly palpable, and the audience is almost relieved to hear the sound of voices and clang of weapons from offstage. Once Jesus’ decision to drink the cup of suffering is made, his nemesis arrives without delay.

            The report of Mark and Matthew suggests that Jesus turned around and, looking offstage to the right, shouted: The hour has come!

            This expression must come from the play, since Seneca uses one almost identical in his Agamemnon to indicate the moment when mortal danger is at hand.[9] The fateful hour has arrived!

            The audience was expected to gather that from where he stood Jesus could see the approach of an armed crowd that at this moment was still offstage to the right.

            The prologue of an ancient tragedy often concluded with one of the speakers announcing the arrival of the chorus. In the prologue to Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is praying in the sacred grove of the Eumenides when his daughter Antigone exclaims: Silence! Some old men are coming this way In search of your resting place!

            The chorus was not yet visible to the audience, but Antigone could see it at a distance from where she stood. According to Mark, as the armed crowd was about to enter, Jesus shouted (Mk. 14:42): Rise, let us go. Look! My betrayer is here!

            These words of urgency and foreboding serve to apprise the audience of a new and suprising fact: someone has betrayed Jesus to his enemies. Though his name has not yet been mentioned, the audience has just learned from Jesus’ words that he is about to enter the stage.

[1]           Cf. Léon Herrmann, Sénèque et les premiers chrétiens, Brussels, 1979, pp. 77-78.

[2]           This convention originated with the Theater of Dionysus in Athens: the spectators sitting on the south slope of the Acropolis saw behind the stage the road that leads from the center of Athens (on their right) to the area outside the walls and the harbor of Piraeus (on their left).

[3]           E.g., Clarence W. Mendell, Our Seneca (Yale University Press, 1941).

[4]           Vitruvius, De Architectura V. 6. 1. On curtains, see Eva Stehlíková, Rímské divadlo (Prague, 1993), p. 21. The Roman stage differed from the Greek in that all the actors play their parts on the stage whereas the orchestra is allotted to the seats of the senators. In the Greek theater the semi-circular orchestra in front of the stage was where the chorus usually sang and danced.

[5]           Cf. Robertson, op. cit., p. 190.

[6]           Poetics, Ch. V.

[7]           Letters to Lucilius, No. CXVI..8. The final words of the letter are: Nolle in causa est, non posse praetenditur.

[8]           Luke conflated the threefold scene into a single episode.

[9]           The expression in Seneca’s Agamemnon is venere fata.