Euripides’ play Alcestis is – er – interesting. It is the earliest of Euripides’ surviving plays. Performed at the Dionysian festival in Athens in 438 BCE, it took the place of a satyr drama as last in a group of plays by Euripides. While we no longer have the three tragedies it followed, we know their titles at least, Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus.
Alcestis is a play that isn’t performed much these days because it isn’t exactly woman-friendly. Women in Athens were supposed to stay indoors, not be discussed in public, be thrifty, never have sex with anyone but her husband, and produce many healthy children, preferably boys. Alcestis, the title character of the play, is everything the perfect wife should be, including beautiful.
When the play opens Alcestis is on the verge of death. Her husband, Admetus, was supposed to die earlier that year but managed, with the help of Apollo, to make a deal with death. If Admetus could find someone willing to die in his place, then he would be spared. Admetus asked his aging parents and they had the temerity to refuse. He asked other family members and friends. No one would die for him. So his wife, Alcestis, stepped up and offered to die in his place. Now her time has come and she dies the noble death deserving of the perfect woman, lauded for her sacrifice by all who knew her.
Admetus, the selfish bastard, is sick with grief. He begs his wife not to die. Oh, how I wanted to punch him in the nose! Dude! She’s dying because of you! Maybe you should have thought things through a little better!
While Alcestis is being prepared for burial, Heracles shows up on his way to Thrace to perform one of his labors, fetching the four-horse chariot of Diomedes. He shows up at Admetus’ place looking for a meal and a comfortable bed. Greek customs of hospitality come in conflict with the requirement that Admetus mourn his wife. Admetus is in a pickle. He can’t turn Heracles away but he shouldn’t be welcoming him into his house either.
Heracles is astute enough to notice that someone has recently died but when he asks Admetus who it was, he tells Heracles it was no one of importance. He then has Heracles whisked away to so he doesn’t see Alcestis being carried out of the house to the family tomb.
In comes Pheres, Admetus’ father, offering condolences and finery to bury Alcestis in. But Admetus will have nothing to do with his father, even goes so far as to disown him, all because he blames him for his wife’s death. If only his father who, while he is getting old is certainly not about to kick the bucket, if only he had given up his life for his son, then Alcetis would still be alive. While everyone had been praising Alcestis’ sacrifice and mourning with Admetus, not one person pointed a finger at him and said things wouldn’t be this way if it weren’t for him. But Pheres refuses to be Admetus’ scapegoat:
I gave you life and brought you up to be master of my house, but I am not obliged to die for you. My ancestors have not handed down to me the rule that fathers should die for their sons, and this is not a Greek tradition either. […] You enjoy being alive – do you think your father doesn’t? By my calculations, we spend a good long time down below, while life is short but sweet. At any rate, you fought shamelessly against death, and you’re living now beyond your appointed time because you condemned her to death. And you accuse me of cowardice – you, the ultimate coward, who proved worse than the woman who died for you, her fine husband?
While personally I was cheering Pheres on during his long rant at Admetus, the Greeks wouldn’t have been. No, there is no tradition or obligation that a father should die for his son, but Pheres gets out some insults and statements that would have made the Greeks suck in their breaths. And while Admetus avoiding death by allowing his beloved wife to die in his place seems distasteful to us, it wasn’t to the Greeks. It meant that Alcestis died with honor and glory that of course reflected well upon Admetus.
While all this is going on, Heracles is indoors feasting and drinking and having a jolly time. The servants are trying not to look glum so as not to cause Heracles to question Admetus’ hospitality. But Heracles figures out something is up and he hasn’t been told the whole story. And the story isn’t hard to get from the servants. Heracles takes pity on his friend and goes out for a stroll to Alcestis’ tomb where he encounters Thanatos preparing to lead Alcestis away to the underworld. Heracles wrestles with Thanatos and brings Alcestis back to life. As you can imagine, Admetus is thrilled. After all, he got his wife back and an almost sure bet that she’ll die for him next time too.
One of the more interesting aspects of this play was the language. Euripides is known for writing more like people actually talk instead of in the highly formal manner of Aeschylus and Sophocles. He was pretty popular in his day too which probably has something to do with why we have more surviving plays by him than Aeschylus and Sophocles. Aristophanes apparently makes fun of the playwright though more than once. Something to look forward to once I make my way through all of Euripides’ plays.