The Alcestis would hardly confirm its author’s right to be acclaimed “the most tragic of the poets.” It is doubtful whether one can call it a tragedy at all. Yet it remains one of the most characteristic and delightful of Euripidean dramas, as well as, by modern standards, the most easily actable. And I notice that many judges who display nothing but a fierce satisfaction in sending other plays of that author to the block or the treadmill, show a certain human weakness in sentencing the gentle daughter of Pelias.
The play has been interpreted in many different ways. There is the old unsophisticated view, well set forth in Paley’s preface of 1872. He regards the Alcestis simply as a triumph of pathos, especially of “that peculiar sort of pathos which comes most home to us, with our views and partialities for domestic life…. As for the characters, that of Alcestis must be acknowledged to be pre-eminently beautiful. One could almost imagine that Euripides had not yet conceived that bad opinion of the sex which so many of the subsequent dramas exhibit…. But the rest are hardly well-drawn, or, at least, pleasingly portrayed.” “The poet might perhaps, had he pleased, have exhibited Admetus in a more amiable point of view.”
This criticism is not very trenchant, but its weakness is due, I think, more to timidity of statement than to lack of perception. Paley does see that a character may be “well-drawn” without necessarily being “pleasing”; and even that he may be eminently pleasing as a part of the play while very displeasing in himself. He sees that Euripides may have had his own reasons for not making Admetus an ideal husband. It seems odd that such points should need mentioning; but Greek drama has always suffered from a school of critics who approach a play with a greater equipment of aesthetic theory than of dramatic perception. This is the characteristic defect of classicism. One mark of the school is to demand from dramatists heroes and heroines which shall satisfy its own ideals; and, though there was in the New Comedy a mask known to Pollux as “The Entirely-good Young Man” ([Greek: panchraestos neaniskos]), such a character is fortunately unknown to classical Greek drama.
The influence of this “classicist” tradition has led to a timid and unsatisfying treatment of the Alcestis, in which many of the most striking and unconventional features of the whole composition were either ignored or smoothed away. As a natural result, various lively-minded readers proceeded to overemphasize these particular features, and were carried into eccentricity or paradox. Alfred Schoene, for instance, fixing his attention on just those points which the conventional critic passed over, decides simply that the Alcestis is a parody, and finds it very funny. (Die Alkestis von Euripides, Kiel, 1895.)
I will not dwell on other criticisms of this type. There are those who have taken the play for a criticism of contemporary politics or the current law of inheritance. Above all there is the late Dr. Verrall’s famous essay in Euripides the Rationalist, explaining it as a psychological criticism of a supposed Delphic miracle, and arguing that Alcestis in the play does not rise from the dead at all. She had never really died; she only had a sort of nervous catalepsy induced by all the “suggestion” of death by which she was surrounded. Now Dr. Verrall’s work, as always, stands apart. Even if wrong, it has its own excellence, its special insight and its extraordinary awakening power. But in general the effect of reading many criticisms on the Alcestis is to make a scholar realize that, for all the seeming simplicity of the play, competent Grecians have been strangely bewildered by it, and that after all there is no great reason to suppose that he himself is more sensible than his neighbours.
This is depressing. None the less I cannot really believe that, if we make patient use of our available knowledge, the Alcestis presents any startling enigma. In the first place, it has long been known from the remnants of the ancient Didascalia, or official notice of production, that the Alcestis was produced as the fourth play of a series; that is, it took the place of a Satyr-play. It is what we may call Pro-satyric. (See the present writer’s introduction to the Rhesus.) And we should note for what it is worth the observation in the ancient Greek argument: “The play is somewhat satyr-like ([Greek: saturiphkoteron]). It ends in rejoicing and gladness against the tragic convention.”
Now we are of late years beginning to understand much better what a Satyr-play was. Satyrs have, of course, nothing to do with satire, either etymologically or otherwise. Satyrs are the attendant daemons who form the Komos, or revel rout, of Dionysus. They are represented in divers fantastic forms, the human or divine being mixed with that of some animal, especially the horse or wild goat. Like Dionysus himself, they are connected in ancient religion with the Renewal of the Earth in spring and the resurrection of the dead, a point which students of the Alcestis may well remember. But in general they represent mere joyous creatures of nature, unthwarted by law and unchecked by self-control. Two notes are especially struck by them: the passions and the absurdity of half-drunken revellers, and the joy and mystery of the wild things in the forest.
The rule was that after three tragedies proper there came a play, still in tragic diction, with a traditional saga plot and heroic characters, in which the Chorus was formed by these Satyrs. There was a deliberate clash, an effect of burlesque; but of course the clash must not be too brutal. Certain characters of the heroic saga are, so to speak, at home with Satyrs and others are not. To take our extant specimens of Satyr-plays, for instance: in the Cyclops we have Odysseus, the heroic trickster; in the fragmentary Ichneutae of Sophocles we have the Nymph Cyllene, hiding the baby Hermes from the chorus by the most barefaced and pleasant lying; later no doubt there was an entrance of the infant thief himself. Autolycus, Sisyphus, Thersites are all Satyr-play heroes and congenial to the Satyr atmosphere; but the most congenial of all, the one hero who existed always in an atmosphere of Satyrs and the Komos until Euripides made him the central figure of a tragedy, was Heracles.
The complete Satyr-play had a hero of this type and a Chorus of Satyrs. But the complete type was refined away during the fifth century; and one stage in the process produced a play with a normal chorus but with one figure of the Satyric or “revelling” type. One might almost say the “comic” type if, for the moment, we may remember that that word is directly derived from ‘Kômos.’
The Alcestis is a very clear instance of this Pro-satyric class of play. It has the regular tragic diction, marked here and there (393, 756, 780, etc.) by slight extravagances and forms of words which are sometimes epic and sometimes over-colloquial; it has a regular saga plot, which had already been treated by the old poet Phrynichus in his Alcestis, a play which is now lost but seems to have been Satyric; and it has one character straight from the Satyr world, the heroic reveller, Heracles. It is all in keeping that he should arrive tired, should feast and drink and sing; should be suddenly sobered and should go forth to battle with Death. It is also in keeping that the contest should have a half-grotesque and half-ghastly touch, the grapple amid the graves and the cracking ribs.
So much for the traditional form. As for the subject, Euripides received it from Phrynichus, and doubtless from other sources. We cannot be sure of the exact form of the story in Phrynichus. But apparently it told how Admetus, King of Pherae in Thessaly, received from Apollo a special privilege which the God had obtained, in true Satyric style, by making the Three Fates drunk and cajoling them. This was that, when his appointed time for death came, he might escape if he could find some volunteer to die for him. His father and mother, from whom the service might have been expected, refused to perform it. His wife, Alcestis, though no blood relation, handsomely undertook it and died. But it so happened that Admetus had entertained in his house the demi-god, Heracles; and when Heracles heard what had happened, he went out and wrestled with Death, conquered him, and brought Alcestis home.
Given this form and this story, the next question is: What did Euripides make of them? The general answer is clear: he has applied his usual method. He accepts the story as given in the tradition, and then represents it in his own way. When the tradition in question is really heroic, we know what his way is. He preserves, and even emphasizes, the stateliness and formality of the Attic stage conventions; but, in the meantime, he has subjected the story and its characters to a keener study and a more sensitive psychological judgment than the simple things were originally meant to bear. So that many characters which passed as heroic, or at least presentable, in the kindly remoteness of legend, reveal some strange weakness when brought suddenly into the light. When the tradition is Satyric, as here, the same process produces almost an opposite effect. It is somewhat as though the main plot of a gross and jolly farce were pondered over and made more true to human character till it emerged as a refined and rather pathetic comedy. The making drunk of the Three Grey Sisters disappears; one can only just see the trace of its having once been present. The revelling of Heracles is touched in with the lightest of hands; it is little more than symbolic. And all the figures in the story, instead of being left broadly comic or having their psychology neglected, are treated delicately, sympathetically, with just that faint touch of satire, or at least of amusement, which is almost inseparable from a close interest in character.
What was Admetus really like, this gallant prince who had won the affection of such great guests as Apollo and Heracles, and yet went round asking other people to die for him; who, in particular, accepted his wife’s monstrous sacrifice with satisfaction and gratitude? The play portrays him well. Generous, innocent, artistic, affectionate, eloquent, impulsive, a good deal spoilt, unconsciously insincere, and no doubt fundamentally selfish, he hates the thought of dying and he hates losing his wife almost as much. Why need she die? Why could it not have been some one less important to him? He feels with emotion what a beautiful act it would have been for his old father. “My boy, you have a long and happy life before you, and for me the sands are well-nigh run out. Do not seek to dissuade me. I will die for you.” Admetus could compose the speech for him. A touching scene, a noble farewell, and all the dreadful trouble solved — so conveniently solved! And the miserable self-blinded old man could not see it!
Euripides seems to have taken positive pleasure in Admetus, much as Meredith did in his famous Egoist; but Euripides all through is kinder to his victim than Meredith is. True, Admetus is put to obvious shame, publicly and helplessly. The Chorus make discreet comments upon him. The Handmaid is outspoken about him. One feels that Alcestis herself, for all her tender kindness, has seen through him. Finally, to make things quite clear, his old father fights him openly, tells him home-truth upon home-truth, tears away all his protective screens, and leaves him with his self-respect in tatters. It is a fearful ordeal for Admetus, and, after his first fury, he takes it well. He comes back from his wife’s burial a changed man. He says not much, but enough. “I have done wrong. I have only now learnt my lesson. I imagined I could save my happy life by forfeiting my honour; and the result is that I have lost both.” I think that a careful reading of the play will show an almost continuous process of self-discovery and self-judgment in the mind of Admetus. He was a man who blinded himself with words and beautiful sentiments; but he was not thick-skinned or thick-witted. He was not a brute or a cynic. And I think he did learn his lesson … not completely and for ever, but as well as most of us learn such lessons.
The beauty of Alcestis is quite untouched by the dramatist’s keener analysis. The strong light only increases its effect. Yet she is not by any means a mere blameless ideal heroine; and the character which Euripides gives her makes an admirable foil to that of Admetus. Where he is passionate and romantic, she is simple and homely. While he is still refusing to admit the facts and beseeching her not to “desert” him, she in a gentle but businesslike way makes him promise to take care of the children and, above all things, not to marry again. She could not possibly trust Admetus’s choice. She is sure that the step-mother would be unkind to the children. She might be a horror and beat them (l. 307). And when Admetus has made a thrilling answer about eternal sorrow, and the silencing of lyre and lute, and the statue who shall be his only bride, Alcestis earnestly calls the attention of witnesses to the fact that he has sworn not to marry again. She is not an artist like Admetus. There is poetry in her, because poetry comes unconsciously out of deep feeling, but there is no artistic eloquence. Her love, too, is quite different from his. To him, his love for his wife and children is a beautiful thing, a subject to speak and sing about as well as an emotion to feel. But her love is hardly conscious. She does not talk about it at all. She is merely wrapped up in the welfare of certain people, first her husband and then he children. To a modern romantic reader her insistence that her husband shall not marry again seems hardly delicate. But she does not think about romance or delicacy. To her any neglect to ensure due protection for the children would be as unnatural as to refuse to die for her husband. Indeed, Professor J.L. Myres has suggested that care for the children’s future is the guiding motive of her whole conduct. There was first the danger of their being left fatherless, a dire calamity in the heroic age. She could meet that danger by dying herself. Then followed the danger of a stepmother. She meets that by making Admetus swear never to marry. In the long run, I fancy, the effect of gracious loveliness which Alcestis certainly makes is not so much due to any words of her own as to what the Handmaid and the Serving Man say about her. In the final scene she is silent; necessarily and rightly silent, for all tradition knows that those new-risen from the dead must not speak. It will need a long rite de passage before she can freely commune with this world again. It is a strange and daring scene between the three of them; the humbled and broken-hearted husband; the triumphant Heracles, kindly and wise, yet still touched by the mocking and blustrous atmosphere from which he sprang; and the silent woman who has seen the other side of the grave. It was always her way to know things but not to speak of them.
The other characters fall easily into their niches. We have only to remember the old Satyric tradition and to look at them in the light of their historical development. Heracles indeed, half-way on his road from the roaring reveller of the Satyr-play to the suffering and erring deliverer of tragedy, is a little foreign to our notions, but quite intelligible and strangely attractive. The same historical method seems to me to solve most of the difficulties which have been felt about Admetus’s hospitality. Heracles arrives at the castle just at the moment when Alcestis is lying dead in her room; Admetus conceals the death from him and insists on his coming in and enjoying himself. What are we to think of this behaviour? Is it magnificent hospitality, or is it gross want of tact? The answer, I think, is indicated above.
In the uncritical and boisterous atmosphere of the Satyr-play it was natural hospitality, not especially laudable or surprising. From the analogy of similar stories I suspect that Admetus originally did not know his guest, and received not so much the reward of exceptional virtue as the blessing naturally due to those who entertain angels unawares. If we insist on asking whether Euripides himself, in real life or in a play of his own free invention, would have considered Admetus’s conduct to Heracles entirely praiseworthy, the answer will certainly be No, but it will have little bearing on the play. In the Alcestis, as it stands, the famous act of hospitality is a datum of the story. Its claims are admitted on the strength of the tradition. It was the act for which Admetus was specially and marvellously rewarded; therefore, obviously, it was an act of exceptional merit and piety. Yet the admission is made with a smile, and more than one suggestion is allowed to float across the scene that in real life such conduct would be hardly wise.
Heracles, who rose to tragic rank from a very homely cycle of myth, was apt to bring other homely characters with him. He was a great killer not only of malefactors but of “kêres” or bogeys, such as “Old Age” and “Ague” and the sort of “Death” that we find in this play. Thanatos is not a god, not at all a King of Terrors. One may compare him with the dancing skeleton who is called Death in mediaeval writings. When such a figure appears on the tragic stage one asks at once what relation he bears to Hades, the great Olympian king of the unseen. The answer is obvious. Thanatos is the servant of Hades, a “priest” or sacrificer, who is sent to fetch the appointed victims.
The other characters speak for themselves. Certainly Pheres can be trusted to do so, though we must remember that we see him at an unfortunate moment. The aged monarch is not at his best, except perhaps in mere fighting power. I doubt if he was really as cynical as he here professes to be.
In the above criticisms I feel that I may have done what critics are so apt to do. I have dwelt on questions of intellectual interest and perhaps thereby diverted attention from that quality in the play which is the most important as well as by far the hardest to convey; I mean the sheer beauty and delightfulness of the writing. It is the earliest dated play of Euripides which has come down to us. True, he was over forty when he produced it, but it is noticeably different from the works of his old age. The numbers are smoother, the thought less deeply scarred, the language more charming and less passionate. If it be true that poetry is bred out of joy and sorrow, one feels as if more enjoyment and less suffering had gone to the making of the Alcestis than to that of the later plays.
CHARACTERS OF THE PLAY
ADMÊTUS, King of Pherae in Thessaly.
ALCESTIS, daughter of Pelias, his wife.
PHERÊS, his father, formerly King but now in retirement.
TWO CHILDREN, his son and daughter.
A MANSERVANT in his house.
The Hero HERACLES.
The God APOLLO.
THANÁTOS or DEATH.
CHORUS, consisting of Elders of Pherae.
“The play was first performed when Glaukinos was Archon, in the 2nd year of the 85th Olympiad (438 B.C.). Sophocles was first, Euripides second with the Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, Telephus and Alcestis…. The play is somewhat Satyric in character.”
The scene represents the ancient Castle of ADMETUS near Pherae in Thessaly. It is the dusk before dawn; APOLLO, radiant in the darkness, looks at the Castle.
Admetus’ House! ’Twas here I bowed my head
Of old, and chafed not at the bondman’s bread,
Though born in heaven. Aye, Zeus to death had hurled
My son, Asclepios, Healer of the World,
Piercing with fire his heart; and in mine ire
I slew his Cyclop churls, who forged the fire.
Whereat Zeus cast me forth to bear the yoke
Of service to a mortal. To this folk
I came, and watched a stranger’s herd for pay,
And all his house I have prospered to this day.
For innocent was the Lord I chanced upon
And clean as mine own heart, King Pheres’ son,
Admetus. Him I rescued from the grave,
Beguiling the Grey Sisters till they gave
A great oath that Admetus should go free,
Would he but pay to Them Below in fee
Another living soul. Long did he prove
All that were his, and all that owed him love,
But never a soul he found would yield up life
And leave the sunlight for him, save his wife:
Who, even now, down the long galleries
Is borne, death-wounded; for this day it is
She needs must pass out of the light and die.
And, seeing the stain of death must not come nigh
My radiance, I must leave this house I love.
But ha! The Headsman of the Pit, above
Earth’s floor, to ravish her! Aye, long and late
He hath watched, and cometh at the fall of fate.
Enter from the other side THANATOS; a crouching black-haired and winged figure, carrying a drawn sword. He starts in revulsion on seeing APOLLO.
Why here? What mak’st thou at the gate,
Thou Thing of Light? Wilt overtread
The eternal judgment, and abate
And spoil the portions of the dead?
’Tis not enough for thee to have blocked
In other days Admetus’ doom
With craft of magic wine, which mocked
The three grey Sisters of the Tomb;
But now once more
I see thee stand at watch, and shake
That arrow-armed hand to make
This woman thine, who swore, who swore,
To die now for her husband’s sake.
I bring fair words and seek but what is just.
And if words help thee not, an arrow must?
’Tis ever my delight to bear this bow.
And aid this house unjustly? Aye, ’tis so.
I love this man, and grieve for his dismay.
I never robbed thee, neither then nor now.
Why is Admetus here then, not below?
He gave for ransom his own wife, for whom...
I am come; and straight will bear her to the tomb.
Go, take her. — I can never move thine heart.
To slay the doomed? — Nay; I will do my part.
No. To keep death for them that linger late.
THANATOS (still mocking).
‘Twould please thee, so?... I owe thee homage great.
Ah, then she may yet... she may yet grow old?
THANATOS (with a laugh).
No!... I too have my rights, and them I hold.
’Tis but one life thou gainest either-wise.
When young souls die, the richer is my prize.
Old, with great riches they will bury her.
Fie on thee, fie! Thou rich-man’s lawgiver!
How? Is there wit in Death, who seemed so blind?