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Sejanus His Fall: Stage History

Tom Cain

More is known about the reception of the first performance of Sejanus than almost any other early modern play. Four contemporary accounts, at least three of which are explicitly those of eye-witnesses, confirm that it was a theatrical disaster which the audience at the Globe may never have allowed to finish. Jonson himself, dedicating the 1616 folio version to Lord D’Aubigny, compared the response with the historical Sejanus’s dismemberment by the Roman mob. It was, he said, ‘a poem that, if I well remember, in Your Lordship’s sight suffered no less violence from our people here than the subject of it did from the rage of the people of Rome’. Significantly in view of its immediately ensuing stage history, however, he was able to claim that by 1616 it had ‘outlived their malice, and begot itself a greater favour than he [Sejanus] lost, the love of good men’ (Sej., Epistle, 3-6). Both the hostile reception and the subsequent approval of at least the cognoscenti are confirmed by the account given many years later by Hobbes’s friend Francis Osborne. He recalled that as a boy, probably then aged nine, he had been part of that first hostile audience: ‘I amongst others hissed Sejanus off the stage, yet after sat it out, not only patiently, but with content, and admiration’ (Osborne, 1983, 4) . Osborne does not say when he saw these later performances, but if the argument advanced in the Introduction for a date of May 1603 for the first performance is accepted, it cannot have been repeated that year because of the closure of the theatres, and later performances at the Globe would have taken place after their reopening on 9 April 1604. Although in November that year the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register in its revised and clearly ‘literary’ format, there may well have been subsequent performances of the stage version over the following few years.

Osborne’s testimony certainly supports the view that Jonson is referring to at least a limited subsequent success on the stage as well as the page in his 1616 epistle to D’Aubigny, but there is no further evidence of these productions, and it is to accounts of that first performance that one must turn. Also in the Globe that afternoon was ‘Ev. B’, probably a young Inns of Court student named Everard Buckworth, who wrote a commendatory poem to the quarto edition that stressed his ‘indignation’ at the audience’s response:

When in the Globe’s fair ring, our world’s best stage,
I saw Sejanus, set with that rich foil,
I looked the author should have borne the spoil
Of conquest from the writers of the age;
But when I viewed the people’s beastly rage,
Bent to confound thy grave and learned toil,
That cost thee so much sweat, and so much oil,
My indignation I could hardly ’suage.

Buckworth’s ‘people’s beastly rage’ anticipates Jonson’s later ‘rage of the people of Rome’, and implies the same distinction between the judgement of the ‘people’ and that of the ‘good men’ which Jonson makes in his epistle to D’Aubigny, suggesting that this was the defensive response in Jonson’s circle in 1603. The audience’s spectacular rejection of the play, the Jonsonians’ response of a sharp distinction between the ‘illiterate’ multitude and the ‘wits of gentry’, and the play’s subsequent recognition are all corroborated by the poetaster William Fennor in his Description of a Poet, published in the same year as Jonson’s folio. There Fennor takes Sejanusas his sole example of the poet’s craft, and of the way in which

sweet Poesy
Is oft convict, condemned, and judged to die
Without just trial, by a multitude
Whose judgments are illiterate, and rude.
Witness Sejanus, whose approvéd worth,
Sounds from the calm south, to the freezing north …
With more than human art it was bedewed,
Yet to the multitude it nothing showed;
They screwed their scurvy jaws and looked awry,
Like hissing snakes adjudging it to die,
When wits of gentry did applaud the same
With silver shouts of high loud-sounding fame.

( Fennor’s Descriptions, 1616, sigs. B2r-v)

Fennor is the only witness who adds the intriguing detail that the play’s supporters ‘did applaud’ Sejanus, and though this may refer to their reception of the printed version, the most plausible reading is that their ‘silver shouts’ were drowned out by the hissing in the theatre. Though it is impossible to say for certain whether Osborne’s ‘hissed … off the stage’ means that the play was not allowed to finish, these accounts all point more convincingly in that direction than they do to the audience simply hissing disapproval at the end of the play. Nor can we say for sure what went wrong. As Fennor goes on to say, ‘The stinkards oft will hiss without a cause’.

Two possibilities are discussed at greater length in the Introduction: one reflects the distinction made by Jonson and his supporters between the learned element and the rest of the audience. The version of Sejanus which survives in the 1605 quarto text (though avowedly different from that which was performed) is a very wordy play. It is true that the audience of 1603 could grasp the language, spoken faster, better than a modern one. Even so, when Jonson later boasted to Drummond that he had included ‘a whole oration of Tacitus’ (Informations, 481), he was rather complacently suggesting that he had challenged his audience with his translation of Cordus’s speech at 3.407-60. It may have been this which the audience disliked, as later they were to ‘dislike the oration of Cicero’ in Cat. (‘To the Reader in Ordinary’, 5-6). Cordus’s speech might have impressed those who recognised its source, but it can hardly have held the attention of those who did not appreciate its accuracy, and were not unreasonably looking for drama in the theatre. This and other lengthy speeches, however, may not have been given in the Globe in 1603. Not only did Jonson revise the quarto, but the King’s Men were an experienced company, and Jonson was not sufficiently established in 1603 for him to control just what they did with his play. Just over 400 years later, when attention spans were admittedly shorter and the pace of speech apparently slower, the RSC version was cut by 800 lines, a quarter of the play as printed in 1605. The other possible cause of the audience’s reaction, hinted at by some of the commendatory verses in the quarto edition, was not boredom, but over-simple political interpretations of the play, with some in the audience relating Tiberius to the recently dead Elizabeth, and Sejanus to Essex.

Jonson’s custom of including the names of the ‘principal tragedians’ at the end of each play in the folio edition, and apparently placing them in order of the importance of their parts, allows limited identification of the cast. Sejanus himself was undoubtedly played by Richard Burbage, first in the folio list, and by now easily the leading actor of his age, arguably of any age. He had recently created the part of Hamlet, and at around this time was to create that of Othello. Three years later reliable evidence confirms that he was the original Volpone (Riddell, 1969) . Contemporary accounts stress the relative naturalism of Burbage’s acting, and although one generation’s naturalism becomes another’s over-acting, it can be assumed that for the Globe audience Burbage’s Sejanus would have seemed a realistic incarnation of the unscrupulous and hubristic favourite. Shakespeare, placed opposite Burbage in Jonson’s list, probably therefore played opposite him as Tiberius. This casting accords with John Davies of Hereford’s contemporary statement that Shakespeare had ‘plaid some Kingly parts in sport’ (The Scourge of Folly, 1611, Epigram 159) . This is the last time Shakespeare is recorded in such a cast list, other than the general one in his own first folio of 1623. He did not play in Volpone or The Alchemist, and there is no contemporary evidence that he ever acted again. After Shakespeare’s name, the casting becomes more uncertain, but if the order depends on the importance of the parts in the play, Augustine Phillips, third in the list, played Arruntius, the leading figure among the Germanicans. Arruntius not only has over 300 lines in the quarto version, the next largest part after Sejanus and Tiberius, but his is a major role as a bitter choric commentator on the corrupt action around him. Phillips was already an experienced actor when he was first mentioned in records in 1590, and though no evidence survives as to the kind of roles he played, Arruntius must have been well within his scope. Opposite his name is that of John Heminges, who may therefore have played Silius, the next largest part in the quarto version. If one was to continue this mechanistic intepretation of Jonson’s list, William Sly would have played Macro, Henry Condell Sabinus, John Lowin Lepidus, and Alexander Cooke Eudemus. But such simple line-counting is unrealistic. The actor who played Eudemus, for example, could easily have doubled as Lepidus, the latter first entering at 3.12, over 360 lines after Eudemus’s last exit. Similarly, the actor who played the relatively small but important role of Cordus could have returned at 3.660 as Macro. These, and other such combined roles, would have qualified as ‘principal’. The names of the boys who would have played Livia and Agrippina are not recorded. Here again doubling would have been possible, with Livia not appearing after 2.138, and Agrippina first entering at 2.427. Livia’s is a small part, and such a combination would have been well within the scope of the apprentice who was soon to play Isabella in Measure for Measure and Desdemona in Othello.

Some clues testify as to the costumes and appearance of the actors, and they suggest that slightly more historical verisimilitude was attempted than appears to have been the case in the well known ‘Longleat MS’ drawing of a scene from Titus Andronicus, in which only the major characters wear Roman costume. This had probably also been the case in Poetaster, where some characters at least wear Elizabethan clothing. In Sejanus it is clear that Burbage as Sejanus wore a ‘robe’, as Macro makes clear when he says he will ‘tear off thy robe, / Play with thy beard’ (5.647-8). It follows that Tiberius must also have worn a toga-like ‘robe’, but the only detail of his costume is supplied by Arruntius’s reference to the laurel wreath he habitually wears to ward off lightning (3.123). Probably all the other senators wore such robes, though Arruntius’s reference is indecisive in that he tells them, as they hurry to pay their craven respects ‘in the wide hall of huge Sejanus’ that they should ‘Stay not to put your robes on’ (5.432-4). Although this could be a convenient way of passing off the fact that some of the actors were wearing contemporary costume, the senate scenes in acts 3 and 5 would have looked decidedly unconvincing if only the principal characters were dressed in ‘Roman’ robes. In the quarto version at least, Jonson looks for historical accuracy among other minor characters when he makes Sejanus demand that the priest should wear his ‘night vestments’ (5.91) when sacrificing to Fortuna, and the priest himself refers to the fact that he and his ministers all bring ‘pure vestments’ to the sacrifice (5.174). Whether such characters as the lictors would also have worn togas is unclear, but at 3.470 they are told to ‘resume [take up] the fasces’. The sight of actors dressed in the uniform of Elizabethan guards carrying the Roman fasces, might, however, have been acceptable to an audience used to such anachronisms on stage.

All of the Globe performance could have taken place on a bare stage, apart from the two occasions on which Jonson specifies the Senate as the location (3.1, 5.478). In each of these cases he makes much of the seating arrangements, and benches or chairs must have been brought onstage for these episodes, since they are too long, too populous, and too important to be played ‘aloft’ as the senate scene in Titus Andronicus had been. The gallery may well have been used in an earlier scene, the conversation between Sejanus, Eudemus, and Satrius at 1.261-375. Evidence for this is inconclusive (see the Commentary), but it is much stronger for the later use of the gallery as a hiding place ‘between roof and ceiling’ from which Rufus and Opsius spy on Sabinus (4.93-114). It may also have been used for the unusual inter-act music, which at this date was a ‘not received custom’ at the Globe (J. Marston, Plays, ed. H. H. Wood, 1.143) . Another aspect of the staging of the first production has been clarified by recent productions at the ‘new’ Globe. Jonson twice directs that a group of characters ‘pass over’ the stage (1.176.1, 5.460.1). In each case they do so under the eyes of Arruntius and his fellow Germanicans, and it is possible that rather than coming out of one tiring house door and exiting by the other, the group who ‘pass over’ did so by walking through the yard, climbing steps onto the stage, and leaving in the same way (see Commentary, 1.176.1).

Later Performances

That Sejanus was performed on other occasions before the closure of the theatres in 1642 is confirmed by Osborne, writing in the 1650s; that some of these performances took place before 1616 is implied by Jonson in his epistle to D’Aubigny, though perhaps the ‘favour’ he then claimed it had begot itself came from the printed version. Nothing more is known of these performances, and the evidence about the play’s post-Restoration revival is equally scanty. John Downes, in Roscius Anglicanus (1708) , 8-9, lists Sejanus as one of those ‘Old Plays [which] were acted but now and then’ by Thomas Killigrew’s company, the King’s Servants, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from 1663 onwards. Downes does not give a cast list or specific dates. There is no record of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century revival; though the actor-turned-playwright Francis Gentleman wrote an adaptation (1752), it seems never to have been performed.

The next recorded performance after the Restoration did not come for over 250 years, when on 12 February 1928 William Poel and his Elizabethan Stage Circle (a newly-resurrected version of Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society) produced it at the Holborn Empire, normally a music hall. Poel had been allowed to use the Empire for a Sunday night, and for only the second time in his long career as a reviver of Elizabethan plays was able to use the exceptionally large theatre to build a platform stage projecting to ‘the fifth or sixth row of the stalls’ (The Times, 13 February 1928, p. 18; possibly the reviewer was Percy Simpson, who used the identical phrase about it in H&S 9.192, and wrote Poel an enthusiastic letter about the production). This was part of Poel’s campaign against the proscenium arch, realistic scenery, and all the other aspects of Victorian versions of Shakespeare that he regarded as pernicious. It was, said the Times, ‘unusually interesting, and quite as much for the design and method of the production as for the theatrical satisfaction to be got from a rarely performed play of Jonson’s’. Following Poel’s theories about the Elizabethan stage, the production was continuous and, said the Times reviewer, ‘achieved a remarkable effect of smoothness and dramatic aptness . . . Nothing distracted the mind from the history of Sejanus’, and ‘we could well believe at the end that the tale of Sejanus had been presented to us very much as it had been presented at the Globe in 1603.’ The reviewer praised both direction and acting: ‘The whole performance was carried through with spirit, the directness of Jonson’s conception of his hero and his hero’s drama being furthered at every point by the directness of the players’ appeal to the audience.’ Particular praise was given to D. A. Clarke-Smith as Sejanus, Roy Byford as Tiberius, Robert Speaight as Arruntius, and Esmé Percy as Eudemus. Speaight himself gives further details: as Arruntius, he was made up ‘to resemble Ben Jonson’, while Tiberius was attended by two Maharajas. Poel interpreted the play as having been written ‘in reference to Essex’, and adapted it in unspecified ways in an attempt to ‘disinter the original acted play from the more literary composition that followed it’ (Speaight, 1954, 247-8) .

Poel’s one-night production was never likely to cause a revival of interest in Sejanus itself. The first signs of such a revival came in the 1970s with two university productions. The first of these was directed by Laurence Lerner and Gamini Salgado, and was performed at the Gardiner Arts Centre, University of Sussex on 14 June 1973 by an ad hoc company. Laurence Lerner’s description is worth quoting at length (in G. K. Hunter, 1974, 60-1):

We cut very heavily, mainly removing the complications of the Imperial family … on the whole, we cut more heavily in the first half of the play than in the second.

We felt that our confidence in the play as a piece of theatre was triumphantly justified. The two senate scenes are magnificent, the first … in a rather straightforwardly theatrical way, and the second, in which Sejanus falls, full of possibilities. We played up the grotesque side of the senators fairly strongly, and did not object to those who put in bits of business, feeling that it brought out an aspect of the play, and that Sejanus and Macro were quite strong enough to dominate this. Sejanus’ ranting soliloquies were very effective. …. Unquestionably, the big surprise for us all was the messenger’s speech at the end. We cut the second mesenger … I can’t see why Jonson had two. But the speech itself came over very well, and I think that almost everyone in the cast felt that poetically it was the finest thing in the play, and produced the most effective moments in the theatre. We ended the whole play with Macro appearing silently at the back, looking down on the three remaining virtuous senators.

Five years later the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Society staged Sejanus at the ADC Theatre, Cambridge. The production was directed by Charles McFarland, and the leading actors were Adrian Williams (Sejanus) and Paul Hartle (Tiberius). Silius doubled as Macro, underlining the ironic truth that only a figure more corrupt than Sejanus can defeat him; later Macro himself played the Flamen, indicating that the scene with the goddess Fortuna is a piece of trickery. Tiberius read the ‘long letter’ from off stage through a microphone. Peter Holland had strong reservations about the acting and directing, but like Lerner found that the play was ‘a superbly theatrical drama, even though it needs a brilliant company’. Actors had difficulty with Jonson’s verse because it is so unlike Shakespeare’s, and the doubling of many actors caused some confusion. As in the two previous revivals, the text was cut heavily (this time by 700 lines), but Holland was left ‘hopeful of seeing a professional production, with much more than a scholar’s interest’ (T. Howard, 1979, 77-8).

This was yet to come. Meanwhile, another revival that began life as a student production followed in 1988: this was Matthew Warchus’s debut as a director at the Edinburgh fringe in 1988. The production had its first inception in the rehearsal room at Bristol University Drama Department, where it was one of the individual choices Warchus made as a student director.

Thus between 1973 and 1988, Sejanus had as many different productions as it had had over the previous 250 years. That these were university productions is significant, for from the 1960s onwards the play’s bleak portrayal of Machiavellian politics had made it a popular subject of study in University English departments in Britain and America, where, as Lerner suggests, the play’s theatrical potential became obvious. A staged reading of the play at the new Globe theatre followed on 9 November 1997, and on 6-9 June Seb Perry directed another student production at Merton College, Oxford.

Then in 2005 came the most significant and almost certainly the most accomplished revival since the King’s Men had first staged it. This was the RSC production directed by Greg Doran as part of the ‘Gunpowder Season’, performed at the Swan in Stratford, the People’s Theatre in Newcastle, and the Trafalgar Studios in London. It was in general very well received by the press, Paul Taylor (The Independent, 29 July 2005, p. 50) and Michael Billington (The Guardian, 28 July 2005, p. 28) praising both play and production particularly highly. By cutting about a quarter of the play as it was printed in 1605, and reducing the number of characters, particularly of Sejanus’s time-serving followers, Doran greatly eased the demands on the audience’s patience made by the long and accurate versions of Tacitus in which Jonson took such pride. That the play still lasted for two and a half hours raised again the question of whether the published quartos, especially of Jonson, do represent the plays as performed originally. The RSC production was fast-paced, but it would still have taken almost three and a half hours to perform the quarto version uncut, ignoring the music which Jonson indicates was played between acts at the Globe. Whatever happened in 1603, language still remained at the centre of the play in Doran’s version, but it was balanced by an unexpected dramatic pace that foreshadows (as so much else in the play) that of Volpone and The Alchemist.

Though presented as part of the Gunpowder Season, intended to point towards drama’s engagement with contemporaneous political events, the setting was resolutely Roman throughout, played on a bare, colonnaded stage, and usefully contextualized by opening with the funeral of Germanicus (not a part of Jonson’s play), rather as some productions of Richard II open with the death of Woodstock. This specificity paradoxically helped clarify the wider issues at stake, allowing the audience to universalize them more willingly than if they were given overt nudges about the topicality of disinformation, burning of books, show trials, or toppling statues. Strong ensemble playing, reminiscent of the best years of the RSC, helped establish the atmosphere of fear, envy, and corruption (also political constants) which Jonson’s verse, full of images of disintegration and vulnerability, establishes from the outset. Surrounded by spies in his service, and yet nervous of being observed himself, William Houston, as Sejanus, dominated the stage throughout, presenting a convincing combination of hubristic ambition and sinister sexuality, the typically Jonsonian links between which were rather simplistically underlined by having Sejanus meditating on the delights of power while buggering the eunuch Lygdus. There were fine performances too from Barry Stanton, who invested the ruthless but fearful Tiberius with a geniality that was the more disturbing because apparently based on James Robertson Justice, and from James Hayes as the patrician Sabinus, whose convincingly anachronistic republican dignity was no match for Sejanus’s Machiavellian schemes to entrap him and his fellow Germanicans.

In The Prince Machiavelli had used Sejanus as an object lesson in the dangers of advancing favourites too far, and though he is missing from Jonson’s list of sources and marginalia, Machiavelli dominates the play almost as much as does Tacitus. This production brought out the amorality and hypocrisy of princely statecraft well, especially in the scene in act two in which Tiberius and Sejanus discuss their strategy against the Germanicans. Curiously, the moment at which Sejanus loses the trust of Tiberius in a parallel scene in act three was underplayed. As Sejanus betrays his ambition by seeking a marriage into the imperial family, Tiberius, the master of considered and deceptive speech, responds with a surprised grunt. On that “H’mh?” the whole play pivots; of the many inflections that could be given to it, Stanton’s was among the more mundane. The growing but largely hidden conflict that emerges between the two from this point, however, anticipating that between Volpone and Macro, gathered threatening pace in this production, culminating in the Senate scene in which the ‘long letter’ sent by Tiberius brings about Sejanus’s fall.

The letter is only known by repute, and Jonson’s version of it is one of his most adroit pieces of historical reconstruction. Doran’s staging of this scene, as the senators gradually shift away from Sejanus, whom they are expecting to be given the tribunicial power, was a good example of creative direction. At the outset, Sejanus was seated, unhistorically but with great visual appropriateness, at the apex of a pyramid of senators who jostled to get a place at his feet. The letter was then read, not, as in Jonson’s version, by a herald, but with much greater dramatic impact by Tiberius himself, seen in an elevated space at the side of the stage, still in Capri, composing aloud as he is fondled by his nephew and successor Caligula. As the letter wove its tortuous, dissembling way towards the instruction to suspend Sejanus, the senators gradually abandoned their places in the pyramid until Sejanus was left aloft, vulnerable and almost speechless, to the mercies of Macro and (offstage) the Roman mob. It was an ending which reinforced the overall judgment that this is a play that should never have been left so long off the professional stage.

APPENDIX: Cast lists

William Poel, 1928

Sejanus D. A. Clarke-Smith
Tiberius Roy Byford
Arruntius Robert Speaight
Eudemus Esmé Percy
Drusus Senior George E. Bancroft
Drusus Junior Pat Beveridge
Nero Lewis Shaw
Caligula Iris Roberts
Silius Gordon Douglas
Sabinus Frank Macey
Lepidus Arthur Brough
Cordus/Terentius Wilfred Walter
Gallus Alan Edmiston
Regulus Laurier Lister
Laco Lionel Ridpath
Varro Keith Pyott
Clerk (?Praeco) John K. Maclean
Macro George Skillan
Afer Norman Claridge
Pomponius Noel Dixon
Satrius Charles Maunsell
Natta Richard Coke
Agrippina Margaret Scudamore
Livia Viola Lyel
Sosia Violet Gould

Royal Shakespeare Company, 2005

Sejanus William Houston
Tiberius Barry Stanton
Sabinus James Hayes
Arruntius Nigel Cooke
Silius Geoffrey Freshwater
Macro Peter de Jersey
Cordus/Terentius Keith Osborn
Varro/Regulus Ewen Cummins
Laco Barry Aird
Agrippina/Priestess Ishia Bennison
Nero Jonjo O’Neill
Caligula Jon Foster
Eudemus Nigel Betts
Latiaris Ian Drysdale
Afer Kevin Harvey
Livia Miranda Colchester
Drusus Senior/Minutius Matt Ryan
Lygdus/Cotta Peter Bramhill
Satrius Michael Jenn
Natta Tim Trelgar
Lady/Priestess Vinette Robinson

Reviews cited

The Times, 13 February 1928, p. 18
Paul Taylor, The Independent, 29 July 2005, p. 50
Michael Billington, The Guardian, 28 July 2005, p. 28

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