A classicist’s analysis of the verse drama Germanicus by the Afrikaans poet N.P. Van Wyk Louw as a portrayal of power and powerlessness

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This article, by the translator of the verse drama Germanicus (1956) by the Afrikaans poet N.P. Van Wyk Louw (Claassen 2013), examines Louw’s portrayal of power and powerlessness in his play and the originality with which he adapts his major historical source, the Annales of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. Louw’s reinterpretation of aspects of the historical events and personalities portrayed by Tacitus has in at least one case been proven more likely than that of his source; that is, since the archaeological discovery in Spain of some contemporary inscriptions referring to the events to which Tacitus and Louw refer. Emphasis is placed in turn on the degree of originality in Louw’s adaptation of the original text, on his conceptualisation of the corruption inherent in all display of power and on the content and manner of presentation of the poet’s political ideas, for which his work served as a vehicle.

The question of whether the drama is merely a fairly literal translation of Tacitus’ narrative is discussed in the light of a brief summary of its contents, followed by a discussion of Louw’s dramatis personae, together with an examination of the manner in which Louw applies or adapts the information provided by the Roman historianAnalysis of verifiable historical information shows that the drama collapses Tacitus’ narrative of the events of the years 14 to 19 A.D. (from the death of the Emperor Augustus to the death of the hero, Germanicus Caesar) into a unit spanning some six to eight months. Two scenes are set on the Germanic borders of the Roman Empire of the time, in the camp to which Germanicus has been sent by his adopted father, the new emperor, Tiberius, to quell a potential uprising. Germanicus is shown as more interested in literature than in taking over imperial power, as he is urged to do by a fellow-officer, the Republican-minded Gnaeus Piso, who sees Germanicus’ loyalty to the emperor as weakness.

Next, four scenes in Rome, all set in the imperial palace, portray the events of a few weeks after the hero’s return to Rome. A series of confrontations between the main protagonists and a serious of minor characters is discussed as essentially illustrative of the main concerns of this article. Each confrontation is shown to illustrate another facet of power and powerlessness. Germanicus’ greatest desire is to remain pure in the context of the evil around him, but he becomes increasingly aware of factors that prevent this ideal of his. Tiberius is shown as escaping from his own awareness of the harshness needed to maintain power by taking his refuge in strong drink. In one scene, the dowager Empress Livia is portrayed as planning the death of Germanicus, her own grandson, a task she delegates to her personal physician (a character invented, plausibly enough, by Louw) and Plancina, the wife of Piso. The final two scenes are set in Petra, the capital of Nabatea (today’s Jordan) and further east, before the temple of Apollo at Daphne in today’s Syria. In scene seven there is a final break in the friendship between an already ailing Germanicus and his friend Piso, but in the last scene, the latter appears in disguise and attempts a reconciliation, which the dying Germanicus is, however, too apathetic to accept.

Appropriate secondary sources are acknowledged throughout, but the main focus of the article is on Louw’s text and also on his various apposite essays and his correspondence with his brother W.E.G. Louw. Louw’s portrayal of the historical persons of the era is shown in the article to be an attempt to create something new from the material offered by Tacitus, rather than a mere regurgitation of Tacitus’ interpretation of figures such as the emperor Tiberius Caesar (the successor to the Emperor Augustus, the de facto creator of Roman imperial rule), Livia, Augustus’ widow and the mother of Tiberius, Germanicus Caesar, the latter’s nephew and designated heir, and his wife Agrippina, and the major opponents (and dramatic foils) to these personages, the strongly republican Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and his wife. The author shows how these personages are juxtaposed and how their interaction serves to drive the message of the drama.

Attention is next given to the generic differences between ancient and modern historiography. The ancients considered historiography to be a subsection of rhetoric, which would include use of “dramatic” monologues (often a vehicle for the author’s own comments on events or persons). Louw’s innovative adaptation of Tacitus’ prose narrative as an apparently totally different genre, namely verse drama, is thus shown to be virtually the logical next step in Louw’s use of Tacitus’ material.

Louw’s generic play is further illustrated by reference to his own various discussions of the role of intertextuality in the creation of “something new”; Louw chose a particular series of incidents in the history of Rome to serve as vehicles for the innovative portrayal of three main themes. Of these, only the first is strongly Tacitean: the idea that the powerful are corrupted by their hold on power, with cruelty as an inevitable concomitant (as in Lord Acton’s famous dictum). Paradoxically, the powerful are equally powerless to escape from such excesses.

The display of the lack of power experienced by the subjugated, the second important theme in Louw’s drama, is illustrated by Louw by means of passionate monologues in the mouths of various minor characters which show their total helplessness as set against the powers that rule over them. Confrontations between the outspoken weak and the equally outspoken wielders of power are historically unlikely, but are dramatically appropriate to Louw’s subtle message. The hapless Roman soldiers on the German front explain their mutiny on the occasion of Tiberius’ succession to Augustus as resulting from their powerlessness in the face of long years under the cruel rule of their military overseers, with meagre pay and very few prospects of a comfortable retirement. In Rome, Thusnelda, the captive and pregnant wife of the Germanic rebel Arminius (Louw calls him Herman) spells out her hatred of the unjust Roman rule over conquered nations. Next, the blinded slave Clemens appears, who has been horribly mutilated for attempting to pose as Germanicus’ boorish uncle, Agrippa Postumus, the potential heir to imperial power, who had been liquidated soon after the death of his grandfather Augustus. Clemens pours out a vitriolic account of the excesses of the absolute rule by the house of Caesar before the horrified young prince Germanicus, whose ideal is to be “pure” and just in all he does. Against these, the apparent subservience of two “client-kings,” namely Thusnelda’s father, Segestes, in Rome, and the Nabatean king, in the (now Jordanian) ancient city of Petra, shows that even apparent kindness serves only to hide the Roman iron fist. In the last two scenes Roman officers are shown as reciprocally fearing the silent masses who appear to be mourning the imminent death of the young prince, Germanicus, but whose apparent hero-worship may at any moment boil over into anarchy and destructive violence. Throughout, even the holders of power are shown to be essentially powerless to change their own circumstances.

The third theme, an adumbration in the mouth of the dying Germanicus of a sweeping change to come, a new era about to dawn in the then known world (interpreted as the coming of the Christian era), is next briefly discussed. In the light of the historical realities of the then still ascendant Roman rule and the characters’ obvious unawareness of a then still unknown young Jewish lad in the Roman protectorate of Judaea, this is shown to be historically unlikely, yet, with 20th-century hindsight, dramatically justifiable.

Louw’s own political views next receive attention, with emphasis on his changing views on South African politics and his ever greater awareness of the need for a political nationalism that is grounded in justice and equity. In a literary article such a complex topic understandably must receive less attention than it deserves, but the author carefully argues that Louw moved from a more “instinctual” national loyalty to a much more rational search for truth and justice in the government of his day and saw himself as the “quasi-prophetic” political educator of fellow-Afrikaners. This theme is examined with appropriate reference to ideas and topics that appear in both Louw’s poetry and his extensive prose. The article ends with an examination of the question of whether Germanicus may at all be considered a contemporary “political document”. The author concludes that the drama is both contemporary and timeless: Louw’s ideas about power and powerlessness are as much applicable to the present South African political scene (and that of the world) as it was to the political circumstances of his own era.

The article is illustrated with contemporary portraits of the main protagonists and provided with a simplified family tree of the Julio-Claudian (Caesarean) dynasty.

Keywords: Afrikaans verse drama; Germanicus;Louw, N.P. Van Wyk; power and powerlessness; reception of Roman historiography; Tacitus’ Annales

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: ’n Klassikus se ontleding van N.P. Van Wyk Louw se Germanicus as ’n beeld van mag en onmag

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