The Alcestis would hardly confirm its author’s right to beacclaimed “the most tragic of the poets.” It is doubtful whether one cancall it a tragedy at all. Yet it remains one of the most characteristicand delightful of Euripidean dramas, as well as, by modern standards, themost easily actable. And I notice that many judges who display nothing buta fierce satisfaction in sending other plays of that author to the blockor the treadmill, show a certain human weakness in sentencing the gentledaughter of Pelias.
The play has been interpreted in many different ways. There is the oldunsophisticated view, well set forth in Paley’s preface of 1872. Heregards the Alcestis simply as a triumph of pathos, especially of“that peculiar sort of pathos which comes most home to us, with our viewsand partialities for domestic life…. As for the characters, that ofAlcestis must be acknowledged to be pre-eminently beautiful. One couldalmost imagine that Euripides had not yet conceived that bad opinion ofthe sex which so many of the subsequent dramas exhibit…. But the restare hardly well-drawn, or, at least, pleasingly portrayed.” “The poetmight perhaps, had he pleased, have exhibited Admetus in a more amiablepoint 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 seethat a character may be “well-drawn” without necessarily being “pleasing”;and even that he may be eminently pleasing as a part of the play whilevery displeasing in himself. He sees that Euripides may have had his ownreasons for not making Admetus an ideal husband. It seems odd that suchpoints should need mentioning; but Greek drama has always suffered from aschool of critics who approach a play with a greater equipment ofaesthetic theory than of dramatic perception. This is the characteristicdefect of classicism. One mark of the school is to demand from dramatistsheroes and heroines which shall satisfy its own ideals; and, though therewas in the New Comedy a mask known to Pollux as “The Entirely-good YoungMan” ([Greek: panchraestos neaniskos]), such a character is fortunatelyunknown to classical Greek drama.
The influence of this “classicist” tradition has led to a timid andunsatisfying treatment of the Alcestis, in which many of the moststriking and unconventional features of the whole composition were eitherignored or smoothed away. As a natural result, various lively-mindedreaders proceeded to overemphasize these particular features, and werecarried into eccentricity or paradox. Alfred Schoene, for instance, fixinghis attention on just those points which the conventional critic passedover, decides simply that the Alcestis is a parody, and finds itvery funny. (Die Alkestis von Euripides, Kiel, 1895.)
I will not dwell on other criticisms of this type. There are those whohave taken the play for a criticism of contemporary politics or thecurrent law of inheritance. Above all there is the late Dr. Verrall’sfamous essay in Euripides the Rationalist, explaining it as apsychological criticism of a supposed Delphic miracle, and arguing thatAlcestis in the play does not rise from the dead at all. She had neverreally 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, itsspecial insight and its extraordinary awakening power. But in general theeffect of reading many criticisms on the Alcestis is to make ascholar realize that, for all the seeming simplicity of the play,competent Grecians have been strangely bewildered by it, and that afterall there is no great reason to suppose that he himself is more sensiblethan his neighbours.
This is depressing. None the less I cannot really believe that, if we makepatient use of our available knowledge, the Alcestis presents anystartling enigma. In the first place, it has long been known from theremnants of the ancient Didascalia, or official notice of production, thatthe 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 weshould note for what it is worth the observation in the ancient Greekargument: “The play is somewhat satyr-like ([Greek: saturiphkoteron]). Itends in rejoicing and gladness against the tragic convention.”
Now we are of late years beginning to understand much better what aSatyr-play was. Satyrs have, of course, nothing to do with satire, eitheretymologically or otherwise. Satyrs are the attendant daemons who form theKomos, or revel rout, of Dionysus. They are represented in diversfantastic forms, the human or divine being mixed with that of some animal,especially the horse or wild goat. Like Dionysus himself, they areconnected in ancient religion with the Renewal of the Earth in spring andthe resurrection of the dead, a point which students of theAlcestis may well remember. But in general they represent merejoyous creatures of nature, unthwarted by law and unchecked byself-control. Two notes are especially struck by them: the passions andthe absurdity of half-drunken revellers, and the joy and mystery of thewild things in the forest.
The rule was that after three tragedies proper there came a play, still intragic diction, with a traditional saga plot and heroic characters, inwhich 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 withSatyrs and others are not. To take our extant specimens of Satyr-plays,for instance: in the Cyclops we have Odysseus, the heroictrickster; in the fragmentary Ichneutae of Sophocles we have theNymph Cyllene, hiding the baby Hermes from the chorus by the mostbarefaced and pleasant lying; later no doubt there was an entrance of theinfant thief himself. Autolycus, Sisyphus, Thersites are all Satyr-playheroes and congenial to the Satyr atmosphere; but the most congenial ofall, the one hero who existed always in an atmosphere of Satyrs and theKomos until Euripides made him the central figure of a tragedy, wasHeracles.
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 onestage in the process produced a play with a normal chorus but with onefigure of the Satyric or “revelling” type. One might almost say the“comic” type if, for the moment, we may remember that that word isdirectly derived from ‘Kômos.’
The Alcestis is a very clear instance of this Pro-satyric class ofplay. It has the regular tragic diction, marked here and there (393,756, 780, etc.) by slight extravagances and forms of words which aresometimes epic and sometimes over-colloquial; it has a regular saga plot,which had already been treated by the old poet Phrynichus in hisAlcestis, a play which is now lost but seems to have been Satyric;and it has one character straight from the Satyr world, the heroicreveller, Heracles. It is all in keeping that he should arrive tired,should feast and drink and sing; should be suddenly sobered and should goforth to battle with Death. It is also in keeping that the contest shouldhave a half-grotesque and half-ghastly touch, the grapple amid the gravesand the cracking ribs.
So much for the traditional form. As for the subject, Euripides receivedit from Phrynichus, and doubtless from other sources. We cannot be sure ofthe exact form of the story in Phrynichus. But apparently it told howAdmetus, King of Pherae in Thessaly, received from Apollo a specialprivilege which the God had obtained, in true Satyric style, by making theThree Fates drunk and cajoling them. This was that, when his appointedtime for death came, he might escape if he could find some volunteer todie for him. His father and mother, from whom the service might have beenexpected, refused to perform it. His wife, Alcestis, though no bloodrelation, handsomely undertook it and died. But it so happened thatAdmetus had entertained in his house the demi-god, Heracles; and whenHeracles 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 Euripidesmake of them? The general answer is clear: he has applied his usualmethod. He accepts the story as given in the tradition, and thenrepresents it in his own way. When the tradition in question is reallyheroic, we know what his way is. He preserves, and even emphasizes, thestateliness and formality of the Attic stage conventions; but, in themeantime, he has subjected the story and its characters to a keener studyand a more sensitive psychological judgment than the simple things wereoriginally meant to bear. So that many characters which passed as heroic,or at least presentable, in the kindly remoteness of legend, reveal somestrange weakness when brought suddenly into the light. When the traditionis 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 werepondered over and made more true to human character till it emerged as arefined and rather pathetic comedy. The making drunk of the Three GreySisters disappears; one can only just see the trace of its having oncebeen present. The revelling of Heracles is touched in with the lightest ofhands; 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 ofsatire, or at least of amusement, which is almost inseparable from a closeinterest in character.
What was Admetus really like, this gallant prince who had won theaffection of such great guests as Apollo and Heracles, and yet went roundasking other people to die for him; who, in particular, accepted hiswife’s monstrous sacrifice with satisfaction and gratitude? The playportrays him well. Generous, innocent, artistic, affectionate, eloquent,impulsive, a good deal spoilt, unconsciously insincere, and no doubtfundamentally selfish, he hates the thought of dying and he hates losinghis wife almost as much. Why need she die? Why could it not have been someone less important to him? He feels with emotion what a beautiful act itwould have been for his old father. “My boy, you have a long and happylife before you, and for me the sands are well-nigh run out. Do not seekto dissuade me. I will die for you.” Admetus could compose the speech forhim. A touching scene, a noble farewell, and all the dreadful troublesolved — so conveniently solved! And the miserable self-blinded old mancould not see it!
Euripides seems to have taken positive pleasure in Admetus, much asMeredith did in his famous Egoist; but Euripides all through is kinder tohis 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, forall her tender kindness, has seen through him. Finally, to make thingsquite clear, his old father fights him openly, tells him home-truth uponhome-truth, tears away all his protective screens, and leaves him with hisself-respect in tatters. It is a fearful ordeal for Admetus, and, afterhis first fury, he takes it well. He comes back from his wife’s burial achanged man. He says not much, but enough. “I have done wrong. I have onlynow learnt my lesson. I imagined I could save my happy life by forfeitingmy honour; and the result is that I have lost both.” I think that acareful reading of the play will show an almost continuous process ofself-discovery and self-judgment in the mind of Admetus. He was a man whoblinded himself with words and beautiful sentiments; but he was notthick-skinned or thick-witted. He was not a brute or a cynic. And I thinkhe did learn his lesson … not completely and for ever, but as well asmost of us learn such lessons.