Written in the Winter of 2011-12 to accompany a free reading of the Ben Jonson play, directed by Alan Paul.
Ben Jonson’s Sejanus is a Roman play, but it is also a Jacobean one. Like similar works, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is a masterpiece of theatrical equivocation, cloaking political meanings within a historical form. The one image informs on the other, with the play’s meaning caught in the interstices. Two falsehoods combine to tell the truth.
The play depicts the Roman dynasty stretching from Augustus (Julius Caesar’s nephew), to his stepson Tiberius, to grandnephews Nero and Caligula. Tiberius was widely feared for executing heirs to his throne. Caligula is still associated with incest, sodomy and insanity. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and fed Christians to the lions; some have speculated that he is the anti-Christ from the Book of Revelations. While these accounts are surely exaggerated, the fascination of Rome’s decline has lasted, perhaps because it is grounded in reality. In his Annals, Tacitus portrays Tiberius’ reign as one in which “all men are possessed with a mysterious terror; as well as with a holy ignorance, which none see but such as are immediately to perish.”
But Sejanus also speaks directly to its times. Jonson completed the play in 1603, the historical moment of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. The change of power led to an atmosphere thick with dread, almost Roman in its worldsickness. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed the play for the new King, and Jonson was arrested and interrogated by the Privy Council soon after for offending passages in the play. In October of 1605, when Jonson was rewriting the play for publication, he attended a dinner party thrown by a Robert Catesby. In November, Catesby and his friends, along with a man posing as “John Johnson” (he turned out to be Guy Fawkes) were arrested in the “Gunpowder Plot,” a supposed conspiracy to blow up both houses of Parliament. Jonson was again questioned by the Privy Council before being released.
One thing is clear. Jonson spent two years working on Sejanus. After its theatrical failure and censorship, he would reel off a series of rich and morally dark comedies: Volpone in 1607, The Silent Woman in 1609, The Alchemist in 1610. Taken together with Bartholomew Fair in 1614, Jonson would spend the next decade at the height of his powers. Sejanus is a play which involves us dramatically in criminal conspiracies and human foibles, in arcing patterns of rise and fall. We see in this play for the first time Jonson’s fascination with the fundamental weakness of man. It is the structural and moral model for his mature comedies, an exemplar of his ability to make us, in the words of Clifford Leech, “curiously acquiesce in evil.”