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Review: Euripides' Alcestis, adapted by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes' adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis

Euripides' Alcestis
Translated and adapted by Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1999
isbn: 0-374-52726-1

If stodgy and old-fashioned are what you call Greek tragedy, you haven't read the posthumously published adaptations by Ted Hughes. Poet laureate to Queen Elizabeth II and husband of Sylvia Plath, Hughes died in 1998 at the age of 68. His estate published his translation and adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis in 1999.

Euripides' Alcestis, rendered into Hughes' modern idiom, tells the timeless story of conflicts between public and private values, selfishness and filial relations, while retelling myths about Prometheus, Heracles' labors, and the sacrifice the best of women, Alcestis, made for her undeserving husband, King Admetos.

Admetos has been marked for death, but arranges (with Apollo's help) for a stay, in exchange for the sacrifice of another human being. Since no one but his wife will volunteer, Death takes Alcestis.

First to refuse to die for Admetos are his "selfish" parents. Although old, they value what little is left of their lives. They feel they have made enough sacrifices for their grown son (including the throne) and it's time for him to take responsibility for himself. Admetos curses his father for his father's sacrifice of Alcestis, and predicts posterity will despise him as:

A tottery geriatric, horn-rimmed eyes,
Surviving on bile
Who refused to die
For his son in his prime.

Admetos fancies himself an altruist, since the sacrifice of his beloved wife will mean more to him than anyone else. For the sake of his people, Admetos claims, he must not die. Ever since the sun god Apollo blessed him, prosperity has been the fortune he has shared with his people. Should he die, they would lose the blessing. Lest this seem the lame excuse of an evil, self-serving despot, Admetos flaunts his virtue -- hospitality.

He opens his arms to Heracles.
This is high courage.
This is superhuman grace.
Greatness of spirit.

Hospitality, "one of the sacred mysteries" was far more important in antiquity than today -- perhaps on a par with our expectation of honesty or charity. When Heracles stops by, ignorant of Alcestis' death, Admetos is torn between respect for the dead and personal grief on the one hand, and the need to welcome, refresh, and entertain a guest and special friend, on the other.

The servants, although ordered not to reveal the identity of the deceased, do so when they can no longer stand silently by while Heracles and his party engage in drunken revelry.

Heracles is mildly miffed at his host's deceit: Admetos had claimed the funeral was for someone born far away whom Admetos had taken in when she was orphaned.

HERACLES: Somebody has died.
Somebody is dead. Who?
ADMETOS: A woman of the house.
HERACLES: A foreigner" Or your kindred?
ADMETOS: She was born far off, but we loved her.
HERACLES: What was she doing here?
ADMETOS: She was an orphan.
She lived with us, after her father's death.

But not enought to hold a grudge. In gratitude for his kindness and as an act of friendship, Heracles resolves to do his friend a secret service by rescuing his wife Alcestis from death. Behind the scenes, the mythological strongman subdues death with a wrestling hold; then he returns, tests Admetos' fidelity, and gives him a most welcome surprise present.

The play ends happily, with Alcestis silent, but alive and reunited with her husband, while Heracles goes off to his next impossible task, that of ridding the world of man-eating horses.

Marking the play as a modern adaptation rather than a literal translation, Hughes refers to elements of today's culture like horn-rimmed glasses, hypodermic needles, lasers, and atomic bombs.

His death would have been a national catastrophe.
A nuclear bomb spewing a long cloud
Of consequences.

Don't look for a list of acts and scenes following the dramatis personae. Instead of scenes, in Greek tragedy, a chorus punctuates the action. In case you wonder if I might have ruined the story by revealing so much of the plot, the old tragedies were performed before audiences that already knew the basic myths. Audiences sought out the productions of new playwrights to see how they wove in their own insights, language, images, and twists, in order to make the old story new again. Other than the chorus' function and a few well-explained mythological allusions, there should be nothing to distract from sheer pleasure in reading Ted Hughes' adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis.


Greek Tragedy: Euripides
Who he was, the plays he wrote, and study guides.

On the value of hospitality.

Euripides' Plays
Translations into English of Euripides' tragedies.

Information on Admetos' friend and savior, Heracles (Hercules/Herakles).

Alcestis Quiz
See if what you know about Euripides' play helps you answer these questions about Hughes' adaptation.

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