First performed: 438 BCE
This version published: 2000
Alcestis's husband Admetos is the ruler of Pherae and is widely lauded as a great hero who has brought peace and prosperity to the Greek city-state, "a savior of his people, an inspired prince." Unfortunately, he is also doomed to die young. The sympathetic god Apollo intervenes and informs Admetos of his fate, which can be avoided only if Admetos finds someone who is willing to die in his place. The king begs both of his parents to die for him, but only his young wife Alcestis volunteers to perish in her husband's place.
The play begins on the eve of Alcestis's death, as Apollo provides this backstory. He is joined in the prologue by none other than Death, who has come to claim Alcestis's life. Death's words made me shiver and re-read them, then shiver and re-read again.
"...I am not a god.
I am the magnet of the cosmos.
What you call death
Is simply my natural power,
The pull of my gravity. And life
Is a brief weightlessness--an aberration
From the status quo--which is me...
[Human] lives are the briefest concession,
My concession, a nod of permission.
As if I dozed off and dreamed a little.
I take a dream--and Admetos calls it his life.
When I awake in the body of Admetos,
However, Apollo refuses to be cowed (probably because he is immortal and, you know, cannot die). He acknowledges Death's power, but vows, "Somebody in this universe can pull the darkness over your eyes too. And today you are going to meet him."
Following this eerie, fascinating prologue, the play moves on to the human characters. The whole household is in premature mourning for Alcestis, who is lying on her deathbed. Her husband Admetos grieves and moans that he would do anything to save her. He promises her the one thing she requests, that he will not remarry, and also promises to mourn her for the rest of his life. Alcestis herself is not particularly talkative (admittedly, this is her death scene), but Admetos laments that nothing will ever be able to fill the void made by her approaching death. Just before Alcestis dies, he dares to think of how he might rescue her from the underworld as Orpheus tried to rescue his dead wife:
"Thinking about Orpheus--in the thick of all this.
Thinking of the impossible.
How he went down there,
Into the underworld, into the dead land,
With his guitar and his voice--
He rode the dark road
On the thumping of a guitar,
A horse of music.
He wrapped himself in his voice,
Death-proof, a voice of asbestos,
Down and down and down."
What with phrases like "a voice of asbestos" and Orpheus having a guitar instead of a lyre, I was reminded that this version of the play was actually "adapted" as well as translated by Ted Hughes. However, I really have no complaints with that, since the essence of the story is left intact and the modern turns of phrase are striking and lyrical rather than overly intrusive. While I have not read Euripides' original and cannot truly compare it, I think Ted Hughes' "adaptation" is pretty remarkable in any case.
Scarcely has Alcestis died and Admetos lamented that he is not like the demi-god Orpheus, when a demi-god shows up on Admetos' doorstep! This is none other than Heracles, who is in the middle of completing his twelve labors. High on his recent triumphs over a slew of human-devouring monsters, Heracles is ready to dine with his old friend Admetos and have a few drinks. He does not know that the house is in mourning, and Admetos conceals it from him so as not to be a poor host. So, Heracles proceeds to get extremely drunk. He recounts the stories of his labors, forcing the servants to act the parts of the monsters he wrangles (ouch!), and this in a palace where the queen has just died. However, Heracles finds out what has happened and apologizes to Admetos, who still seems stunned and absolutely defeated by Alcestis' death.
I cannot not comment on the irony of Admetos' reaction, because it annoyed me. While I understand that his wife volunteered to die in his place, he might as well have just asked her the way he asked his parents, and for all his vocal lamenting he never tried to stop Alcestis from sacrificing herself. But it gets worse. When Pheres, Admetos' father (his father is still alive, a "retired" king), comes to mourn Alcestis at her funeral. He offers funeral gifts and some kind words to Admetos, who in turn absolutely lambastes his father. He vows that he will throw his father's corpse and that of his mother to the dogs after they die, since they would not give their lives for his instead of Alcestis though they are old. Admetos' father replies, "My life might not be much in your eyes. For me it is all I have." He points out that Admetos is like a cannibal, living thanks to the death of another. Admetos is hypocritical towards his father and annoying as hell, eaten up with guilt and grief.
However, Heracles also feels guilty for having made a drunken scene while Alcestis lies newly dead. He approaches Admetos in the company of a veiled woman, who he says he won as a prize in an athletic competition(!), and begs Admetos to look after this woman for him. Admetos refuses, saying he will not dishonor Alcestis by having this woman in his house. Finally, Heracles tells Admetos to look at the woman's face behind her veil--and it is Alcestis! It turns out that, to atone for his rudeness, Heracles surprised Death while he bent over Alcestis' body and so saved her from the underworld. Alcestis must be silent for three days (no big loss, I guess, since Euripides didn't give her much interesting to say in her one scene earlier in the play!), but after that she is free to live out the rest of her natural life. So Apollo's prophecy has come true! Someone, Heracles, was able to pull the darkness over Death's eyes.
I really enjoyed this play. I began it thinking that it might extol the virtues of Alcestis in supposedly being a good wife and dying for her husband, but to the contrary we see the utter selfishness and cowardliness of Admetos far more than we actually see Alcestis herself. While the subject matter of the play is dark and it is primarily a meditation on death, it is also a timeless meditation on life and what makes life worth living in spite of the presence of death.
Although I never thought of Heracles as a characteristically wise figure, I loved the words he used to console Admetos:
"But any one of us can be killed tomorrow.
We don't ruin today with worrying about it.
Death can come in a twinkling, any second.
Up to that second, every second is precious,
Precious, precious life.
Death has to be ignored.
Then when it comes--mourn. Acknowledge it.
But not before it comes."