A young royal dies. The rest of the royal family handle it awkwardly. The public is engulfed in grief. It’s so sad. But what a beautiful story!
For the past several weeks, I’ve been directing a production of Euripides’ Alcestis. Today, I thought I’d share my thoughts about the play, and the way I’ve tried to translate them to the stage.
I’ll begin with a quick recap of the plot. If you’d prefer it be a surprise, skip this paragraph! Admetus, King of Pherae, was fated to die young. The god Apollo, fond of Admetus, made a deal with the fates to allow him to live if someone else died in his place. After his parents refused to make the sacrifice, Admetus turned to his wife Alcestis, who agreed to die. As the play opens, she is on the verge of death, and not long into the drama, she dies. Just after her death, Admetus’ old friend, the hero Heracles, stops by on his way to fight yet more monsters. Admetus, anxious to maintain his reputation as the best of hosts, conceals from Heracles his wife’s death and invites him into the palace. One of Admetus’ servants, enraged by Heracles’ drunken antics in a house in mourning, disobeys the king and tells him the truth of Admetus’ sorrow. Shocked, Heracles vows that he will bring Alcestis back to life: he will intercept Death as Alcestis is being led to the afterlife, and beat the personification of mortality into restoring the woman to life. And so it transpires. Heracles brings Alcestis back to Admetus, and everybody gets to live. A happy ending!
Or is it?
Your Candle Burned Out Long Before Your Legend Ever Will
This production has had a long gestation period. About seven years ago, I was working through Alcestis for a course when Elton John’s Candle in the Wind (the Diana version) came on the radio. Hey, I thought to myself. This fits nicely. But why does it fit? Well, on the most obvious level, it’s about a beautiful royal woman dying before her time. But when you think about it, there’s more. “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever will” Elton sings. For me, that sentiment strongly echoes one of the chorus’ lines in Alcestis (452-454):
τοίαν ἔλιπες θανοῦσα μολ-
πὰν μελέων ἀοιδοῖς.
What a theme you leave behind by your death for the music of singers!
And therein lies the rub. The Chorus spends a lot of time talking about how beautiful a story this all makes. The legend that emerges from Alcestis’ death somehow makes it all OK. We can all enjoy an exquisite melancholy as we picture the noble, self-sacrificing Alcestis and her devoted husband who struggles to contain his grief at the loss of his beloved wife.
The problem is that Alcestis the legend more or less completely erases Alcestis the person. But when we look at that person, it becomes clear that the sad, noble image the chorus spend much of their time conjuring up is bollocks.
It’s clear that Alcestis is far from happy with the arrangement: she is dying because her circumstances have forced her to, because her reputation as a good wife demands it. But she doesn’t want to do it, and her dying speech to Admetus is full of barely-repressed anger. As for Admetus, his protestations that he couldn’t lie without his wife ring pretty hollow when we remember that he’s the sole reason she has to die.
By the end of the play, we have a new story: how, through the might of Heracles, Alcestis and Admetus are reunited, the family made whole, and everything well. But once again, Euripides peels back the film of legend and makes us look at the troubled relationship beneath it.
What, we must ask, does the resurrected Alcestis think of her future life, as she rejoins the man who condemned her to death so that he could live? We don’t know, because she cannot speak–the lingering aftereffects of her time in the underworld, Heracles explains. What will she say when it wears off? Alcestis’ silence calls into question the happiness of the ending.
Having been stimulated to this view of the play by Elton John’s song, it seemed only natural for my production to draw inspiration from the furor that surrounded Diana’s death. At the front of the stage there will be a shrine to Alcestis, her photograph surrounded by flowers left by a grieving populace. The Chorus, originally citizens of Pherae, are now news reporters–terribly solemn and serious, but on a certain level overjoyed to have such a story to report. Almost every scene in the play takes place under their watchful gaze–even Alcestis’ death, and her last, intimate words to her husband are being heard, recorded and broadcast.
I’ve been lucky enough to find an excellent cast who not only understand exactly how I see this play, but who have taken it to levels I never imagined. My Admetus is a Tony Blair-like self-dramatiser, breaking away from embracing his dying wife to make clear to the world just how sad he feels. My unctious chorus are note-perfect, radiating concern and solemnity, but always keeping one eye on the watching world that demands its share of emotion.
Ceci n’est pas un tragedie.
Alcestis is not a tragedy. I say that not because it has a “happy” ending (so do many of Euripides’ tragedies), but because it was never meant to be a tragedy. According to the ancient plot summary, it was the fourth play in Euripides’ entry for the Great Dionysia of 438 BC. Now, the fourth play in a tragic dramatist’s submission was normally a Satyr Play: with a chorus of goat-footed satyrs, these plays poked fun at the serious themes that the previous trilogy of tragedies had explored. Alcestis does not have a chorus of satyrs (I will omit discussion of “pro-satyric” drama), but it retains the spirit of fun and irreverence that they symbolize. The play is full of humour: there is the drunken Heracles, chatting up Admetus’ servant with banal maxims about the inevitability of death; there is the ridiculous argument between Admetus and his father about which of the two is more cowardly; there is the final scene of Admetus struggling with his obvious desire for the mysterious woman Heracles has brought him, who turns out to be Alcestis all along. And in the course of rehearsal, my actors and I have found still more sources of humour. Even the very real pathos of Alcestis’ death scene is undermined by Admetus’ description of the bizarre form his mourning will take–but I’ll leave that for viewers to discover.
But this quasi satyr play’s subversiveness goes beyond its frequent humour. In taking us behind the facade of legend to show the real suffering and anger of a tragic heroine, it asks some uncomfortable questions about the nature of tragedy itself. Why do we feel good when watching others’ suffering? Does the beauty of a story or the lessons it teaches outweigh the misery that brought it forth? Do our ideas of a happy ending take into account the actual feelings of the participants?
In our time, when the news constantly brings us breathless coverage of all manner of “tragedies”, with reporters spouting banal profundities and extreme close-ups of grieving relatives, the questions Alcestis raises have never been more relevant.
Alcestis plays at the Winstanley Theatre, Trinity College, from the 14th to the 16th of March, at 7:00 pm.
PS It has nothing to do with anything I’m saying here, but I cannot resist adding this picture. It is without a doubt the most enthusiastically ridiculous depiction of the Alcestis legend, complete with utterly gratuitous nudity, both male and female.