Sonia Greene’s Alcestis

The H.P. Lovecraft collection at Brown University has a typewritten draft of an adaptation (translation and expansion) of Euripides’ Alcestis by Sonia Haft Greene, Lovecraft’s wife. I couldn’t google up a plain text transcription of it, so here’s my own transcription. Slight copyedits throughout.

For Euripides’ original play (Euripides’ earliest surviving work), see Richard Aldington’s or Herbert Kynaston’s translations. Kynaston’s endnotes are particularly useful.

Handwritten annotation: “Davis, S.H. H P Lovecraft helped her on revision of this play.”

Adaptation from Euripides’ The Love of Alcestis.

Dramatis Personae of Prologue

  • Apollo — son of Zeus
  • Asclepius — son of Apollo
  • Zeus — father of all the gods and men
  • Hephaestus — a lame Blacksmith and lesser son of Zeus
  • Cyclopes — forgers of thunderbolts for Zeus
  • Pluto — brother of Zeus and god of the nether world
  • Ares — son of Zeus, god of war and half-brother of Apollo
  • Leto — mother of Apollo and former wife of Zeus
  • The Fates — Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos
  • Admetus — King of Pherae in Thessaly
  • King Minos of Crete
  • Pasiphae his wife and queen
  • Glaucus — their little son
  • Slaves and Courtiers

(During the trial of Apollo, some of the other gods and goddesses are shown.)

  • Poseidon — god of the Sea (with Trident)
  • Athene — goddess of Wisdom, half-sister of Apollo
  • Artemis — Apollo’s twin-sister
  • Hermes — messenger to the gods
  • Demeter — goddess of harvest and flowers
  • Here — wife to Zeus
  • Aphrodite — goddess of Beauty
  • Hestia — goddess of the hearth and home

(This Prologue is not in the text. Originated by the writer.)

Dramatis Personae of the Play proper

  • Apollo
  • Heracles
  • Death
  • Admetus
  • Pheres — his father
  • Phlegon — an old servant, groom of the guest-chamber
  • Alcestis — wife of King Admetus [Note: Pronounce Alkestis]
  • Two young children of the King and Queen
  • Servants, old men, hired mourners, citizens

Synopsis of Scenes

  • Act I
    • Scene I — Courtyard of King Admetus’ Palace
    • Scene II — Chamber within the Palace
  • Act II
    • Scene I — Same as Act I Scene I
    • Scene II — The Great Hall of the Palace
  • Act III — Same as the preceding

Alcestis — Prologue

Prologue, Scene I

Night. A cemetery beside a high-road, under a horned moon. Edge of road with low wall in the foreground. Ground covered with asphodel (the flower of the dead) and studded with tombs and stelae, rises unevenly to wall of cyclopean masonry overgrown with rank vines and crusted with moss and lichens.

Apollo — a beardless figure, robed in purple, laurel-crowned, carrying a lyre, and with a bow and arrow slung across his back — and his son, Asclepius, a young man carrying a serpent-twisted staff — walking among the graves. From the distance, wailing, weeping, and mournful music in heard.

Hear how they weep! Those cries and threnodies
Bespeak a grief that sharply moves my own.
Too long have Pluto and his messenger
Ravaged the land and waked the tears of men.
That evil hunger daily has increased,
Till now an earth unpeopled looms ahead.
Great Zeus is dull to give his brother rein,
For in such slaughter lies the gods’ undoing.
How could we live had we no worshippers?

I wish I dared do more — even now
The dark god rages at my small attempts.
A thousand souls through me have warded off
The clutch of greedy Death — and in the earth
I hear a waxing rumble of dismay.
But if I snatch the prey that he has won —
The very fruits of his abhorrent quest —
What mercy may I hope from that black hate?

My son, behold! shall fear prevent the good
From doing what the Great One has neglected?
Did ancient Chiron dream a lesser goal
When year by year he taught you how to heal?
Or Pallas when divinely she bestowed
On you the vanquished gorgon’s potent gore?
This rending anguish on the night-wind borne
Calls for relief — shall mortals pray in vain,
And learn to doubt the gods who heed them not?
Let such be nevermore — let man’s proud race
Live deathless and unbroken, free from dread,
And glad to praise the power of Father Zeus.
He too, and all the gods, will richly share
The boons that rise from Death’s last banishment,
For do we not need men as men need us?
We laugh from looking downward upon men —
Yet would we laugh, were there no men to see?
And more, our conscience often aches to view
The woes beyond repair our haste has wrought.
Kill Death, and those our cruel acts have struck,
Or errors slain, may rise again to life,
Giving us joy as joy to them returns.

All this is true, and close to my own thoughts,
Yet will great Zeus behold it with our eyes?
Of late the thunders have been low and sullen;
Pluto at all times has his brother’s ear,
And pleads his case with artful sophistry,
Making it seem as if our work for men
Were treason aimed against Olympian might,
Whereby mankind with immortality
Might emulate the gods and share their power.
And yet I would not falter. Tell again
Those secrets you have used in man’s defense,
That I may add them to the things I know.
Success is near and nothing shall deter me.
Wait, while I gather from this vault of dead
Another store of urns to try my skill.
Would I were sure that dust might breathe again!

Asclepius approaches a colonnaded tomb and opens the door thereof. Disappears within tomb.

Is this presumption? That, I cannot think,
Yet there are gods with evil ends to serve —

Re-enter Asclepius, bearing to funerary urns. Leaves door of tomb open.

Come now, my son, and practice all your arts.
The ghoul, the fiend, the worm alone shall mourn;
To them we leave this citadel of gloom.

Exeunt both.

After the departure of Apollo and Asclepius, the opened door of the colonnaded tomb closes very stealthily. Other tomb-doors open and close. Vague, sinister stirrings everywhere. A winged shape flies athwart the horned, rising moon.


Prologue, Scene II

The forge of Hephaestus under Mount Aetna. Anvils, flames, and all the tools of the blacksmith’s craft. Hephaestus at forge in foreground, fashioning a gigantic shield. In background, huge, one-eyed Cyclopes busily at work. A din of hammers and roaring flame.

Enter Zeus in a blaze of purple light.

HEPHAESTUS and CYCLOPES (in chorus).
Hail! mighty Father of gods and men.

Hephaestus, hail! A blessing on your craft.
But put aside the labors of the hour
And forge me new and mightier thunderbolts.
Things fit for more than slaying mortal men,
But for the doom of one almost a god himself.

Hephaestus obeys. Puts aside shield, and lays down hammer.

Noble Father, your will is law. (To the Cyclopes)
Ho! Bring me iron fit for the sternest thunderbolts of Zeus.

They approach with ingots and return to their tasks, all but one, who remains to assist Hephaestus, and places an ingot in the forge.

(To Zeus) They shall be such that all the Titan band
Could not resist you, shieldless and alone.

Takes red-hot ingot from Cyclops, hammers it into shape on anvil with loud clangor. Dips it into water. A great hissing. Hands the completed thunderbolt to Zeus. Zeus tests it in his hands.

Well done, my son. Destruction swift and sure
For god or titan. Yet I grieve to smite
The almost-god whose acts invite his doom.

Who has offended, mighty Thunderer?

One who, though god-begotten, has a nymph
For mother. One whose overreaching art
Has mocked the gods and nullified their will.
Should he not perish who has set aside
The common fate of death reserved for man;
Who dared made men immortal, and who robs
The shadowy kingdom of my dismal brother?
Me, too, he mocks, when with his drugs and spells
He voids the workings of my thunderbolts.
Whom Zeus has slain, shall pitying half-gods save?

What half-god holds such powers of blasphemy?

Apollo’s son, Asclepius, he whose mother,
Surprised in evil, flutters as a crow.
Brought up by Chiron, egged on by his sire,
Flattered by Athene, he has learned and dared
To wield a force reserved for greater gods.
For long I suffered him to heal the sick,
Though Pluto daily clamored and complained —
But now he goes too far. And not content
To spoil the dark god’s realm, he mocks myself
By raising those my rightful wrath has struck.
Capaneus, who upon the Theban wall
Laughed at my will, and fell by my just bolt,
Again walks earth in insolence. And now
The Thracian King, who wronged the god of vines,
Returns, though torn by mad Paugaean steeds.

Tests his new thunderbolt again. Curtain.

Prologue, Scene III

Palace of King Minos, Cnossus, in Crete; room with frescoes of bulls and bull-fights, and with one side open to the sky-curtains, now drawn aside, and a colonnade. Glaucus, a small boy, son of the King, lies dead on a couch. By his side, King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. Hired mourners wailing in background. Asclepius, attended by a slave, with a basket of jars and phials, in conversation with King Minos.

Tell them to cease; they serve no useful end,
Nor is there reason now to mourn or wail.

As he proceeds, Minos with a gesture dismisses the wailing train.

You know my deeds — Capaneus come to life —
Hippolytus, revived and made a god —
Eriphyle, Lycurgus, living all
After the dark lord thought them safe with him;
Through me mankind shall conquer half his woe,
And with the years I hope to pass my art
Down with my children — bright Machaon, skilled
Already in the healer’s craft; Hygeia,
Grown to a goddess’ stature and prepared
To learn the deeper secrets I can teach.

He advances to the couch of the dead prince, surveying the body, raising its hands and pausing, whilst all the room is silent.

How came he thus? How long has he been so?

But yesterday, while wandering in his play,
He slipped his nurse and joined the busy slaves
That serve the cellars where the mellowing wine
Stands round in jars, and meats mysterious
Hang from shadowy beams, and giant cheeses rise
Like blocks of masonry, while sunken vats
Hold the sweet fruitage of the fertile hives.
There, as they worked, the menials saw him spring
Like a lithe kitten at a curious mouse
Which nibbled at a cheese and darted off
Into the shadows of the farther vaults.
They heard him shout, and childlike give pursuit —
And then his muffled cry came from afar.
Hastening, they found him in a honey-vat —
Smothered and choked — and when they drew him forth
He breathed no more… Glaucus, my fairest boy,
Child of my old years — (Breaks down in tears)

PASIPHAE (interrupting and weeping).
Honey-sweet, to end in such a deadly sweetness —
Can your art undo the malice of the nether world?

Asclepius, while speaking, takes medicaments from the slave’s basket, anoints the body and forces a fluid down its throat.

Peace be to both — I think his heart will beat
In a brief instant. Do not let him find
You weeping. He has seen enough of grief
In those dark shadows he will soon forget.

The body stirs.

MINOS and PASIPHAE (together).
He stirs!

Pasiphae rushes to embrace the body, but Asclepius waves her back as he administers further medicaments.

Great Zeus be praised — great Zeus
And you, Asclepius, banisher of tears!

Quiet — he wakes!

GLAUCUS (faintly as he revives).
The fields — the dark, dark fields —
Asphodel — shadows — (moans) I am afraid! —

Asclepius allows the King and Queen to approach and embrace their child.

Father! Mother! (Embraces mother.) A dream —
So terrible — What mean these people?

Thunder in the great expanse beyond the colonnade.

It is growing dark — I feel an evil in the leaden clouds —

ASCLEPIUS (about to go, and ignorant of the tragic irony in his own words).
And now, farewell!

A single bolt of lightning, darting deliberately out of the sky, smites Asclepius to the floor. Its portentous loudness draws an excited throng into the room. Glaucus and his mother scream. While the rest are in semi-darkness, a strong light played directly on Asclepius indicates the bolt is meant for him. The slave kneels by his fallen master, till Minos, also kneeling, pushes him aside and examines the stricken healer. Cries, chatter and confusion.

MINOS (in woebegone accents and a catch in his voice).
Asclepius is dead! Oh Zeus, my Father —

A moment of awed silence.

A glory of light. Apollo appears on the open colonnaded balcony. The throng stands back awed and silent. Apollo walks slowly and sadly to his stricken son, lifts him, sees that he is dead; folds the arms on the breast, and rises with darkening brow.

APOLLO (sadly at first, but with growing rage).
Dead — and men’s hopes dead with him. Is it thus
With all who try to help a suffering race?
Oh Zeus, my father, could you not perceive
The greater glory he had given you?
Not your mind, but black Pluto’s, planned the deed,
And cursed evil shaped the murderous bolt.
Evil — all evil — and may Phlegethon
Swallow with flame the monsters whose foul hands
Dared fashion aught to harm my stainless son!
May vultures pluck their vitals — may the pyre
Scorn to receive them, and the Furies goad
Their tortured carrion through the zodiac —
Fiends, wretches, vermin! Let my golden shafts
Send them to hells and nether hells of pain —
My rage and grief shall darken all the sky
Till the last monster by my arrow die!

Light fades. Curtain.

Prologue, Scene IV

Mount Olympus — the golden throne of Zeus in a blaze of purple light. Around it the greater and lesser gods; Apollo, held by Ares and Pluto, facing Zeus in proud and silent defiance. Leto, mother of Apollo, dejectedly, stands a short distance away from Zeus. Hephaestus, in mourning for his Cyclopes.

Son though he be, let not his guilt escape
The fate reserved for all who thwart my will.
None may resent what Zeus thinks wise to do,
Or take revenge on loyal servitors.
Twelve stout Cyclopes lie this moment slain
For no offense save that they forged my bolts.
Here stands the slayer all impenitent —
Phoebus, upon whose son my vengeance fell,
And who, in spite, has shot my artisans.
Nay, more — his guilt is mingled with his son’s.
For did he not abet the impious acts
That mocked my power and robbed my brother’s realm?
This, then, my sentence — that the wretch be flung
To the black gulfs of lowest Tartarus. —
There may he know the wrath of him he sought
To rob and circumvent — nor does his son,
The rash Asclepius, live to set him free!

Ares and Pluto commence to lead Apollo away, but his mother, Leto, crowds her way to the feet of Zeus.

LETO (in a low but clear voice which gradually grows tremulous).
Father of gods and men, and once my spouse —
Spare not the kindness of omnipotence!
Great and his sins, yet greater still the grief
That drove him to them. Time will bring regret
And penitence, if you but prove benign;
Give him some lesser penance — let him learn
The mercy that can live in majesty!
But if he seem unworthy, let the plight
Of others sway you to a lenient mind.
Shall guiltless earth be left without the blaze
Of Phoebus’ chariot, and shall grace and song
Be banished with the god that calls them forth?
Shall your Nine Daughters pine on Helicon,
While earth forgets the arts that bring you praise?
Degrade him if you will, but be not stern.
Recall the milder chastisements so oft
Imposed on peccant gods and heroes. Mark
How many you have punished with a word,
Or curb of power, or earthly servitude.
Is this sad madness of our son’s to earn
What only thoughtful evil should receive?

You plead too well for justice. Let me think.
Should mercy flow on hard impenitence?
And yet his grief was great.

  Is not that grief
Which spurred him to his crime itself a part
Of his just penalty?

  It may be so.
The harm is over, for who else would dare
Annul my edicts and despoil my kin?
If time will give Apollo penitence
I’ll grudge him not his chance, but let him learn
Humility through service on the earth.
There is in Thessaly a rural realm
Called Phaere, on Amphise’s grassy shore,
Where reigns the young Admetus, whose chief wealth
Is flocks and herds that roam the verdant slopes —
A minor monarch in a little land.
Him, son of Leto, you shall serve one year
As shepherd, stripped of bow and laurel crown,
And sceptred only with a staff and crook. —
Look up — do you accept my milder terms
And vow obedience to your King and me?

APOLLO (now humbly and reverently).
I accept. Mother, a second time you give me life!
And you, almighty Sire, revive my faith in magnanimity.
But mark you this, immortal Thunderer,
Some day your hand will gladly set on high
Among the stars my son Asclepius.


Prologue, Scene V

A hillside in Phaere. Apollo, in the guise of a herdsman, sits among the grasses and plays on a lyre crudely made from a tortoise-shell. Admetus, alone, and with a pensive air, approaches and sits down beside the enslaved god.

Your music, noble herdsman, makes me sad.

I would I had the heart to sing of joy.
But woe sits heavy on me. I have lost a cherished son.

It is not what you play, but what all music gives me.
I am sad because denied what means the most to me.

Again King Pelias’ daughter, whom to win
A suitor must come charioted, and drawn
By boars and lions? — Most surpassing fair
The maid must be to tempt you with such odds!

Lovely indeed, yet some deeper tie
Tells me the emptiness that yawns ahead
Unless I win her. I shall make the test,
Ready for death if the victory be not mine —
For none has yet survived the dreadful feat.
Ten Thracian boars and lions from the Nile
Fret in their byres outside the palace wall.
Seven days from now I make the rash attempt…
Pray to great Zeus my ending may be swift!

Zeus can be merciful, yet lesser gods
May have superior cure for such a case.
So, too, may mortals, if they be but friends,
For friendship brings to light surpassing powers.
Even a lowly shepherd warmly won
By all your acts of kindness and good will
May have the secret that will bring you joy.
Behold! this lyre of mine, though rustic-fashioned,
Has shown your heart new feelings and desires.
Would it do less with beasts? Indeed, my tasks
Upon these hills are often cut in half
By what the singing shell has taught the flocks.

Shepherd! You mean there is a way to win?

A way indeed; nor do I speak in jest.
Look up, Admetus, and enjoy the sun,
For, seven days hence, its god will prove your friend.
The test will come, and with your savage train
You will draw up to claim your royal bride.
May she repay a passion such as yours
With love no less, and as your Queen inspire
New tales of loyalty and sacrifice
To give her name undying life in song.
Alcestis! With devotion burning bright,
And fated to defy the powers of night.


Prologue, Scene VI

A cave amid remote mountains. Abode of the Fates. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos shown at their usual duties of spinning. Apollo, in a blaze of glory, enters with signs of haste, just as Atropos is about to cut the life-thread of Admetus, which Lachesis has been measuring.

Stay, potent sisters, for I see whose thread
You, Atropos, have poised on your shears.
It is for him that I have come to plead —
Admetus, Phaere’s King and noblest friend.
Spare him, I beg you, you whom I address
As daughters of my own celestial Sire;
Rob not the world, so poor in human worth,
Of such a store of excellence as he!

Your words are strong. Does it become a god
To speak so like a worshipper of men?

It was my father’s will that made me serve him
For a whole year amidst Thessalian slopes.
Each day I watched his flocks, while he, benign,
Would often pause to hail me as a friend.
Kindness on kindness flowed from his warm heart,
Till we became as brothers. I, in turn,
Was glad to help his fortunes when I could.
Through me he won Alcestis for his wife —
A thing he reckons first among his boons,
And now he lies sore stricken — he who has
So much to live for and so much to joy!
Spare him, wise sisters — giving joy as well
To me, his Queen, his subjects and the world.

Would that we might, Apollo, but the law
Rests heavy on us. Ours but to obey.

I parcelled out his thread with leaden heart;
But who can change the course of destiny?

Let me think — (slowly) — for there is no way
To spare him save by purchase — Stay! if one
Were stricken in his place he might be saved.
Shall it be so, Apollo?

  Yes, make haste
To choose another! Take some suffering soul
Worn out with years, who hourly begs release.

It is not given us to choose, my brother.
Only free will can seal the bargaining.
He who shall die to let Admetus live
Must from devotion offer himself up,
And pay the debt to Pluto knowingly.

Let it be so — all love the stricken king,
And vow effusively they would die for him.
Friends, warriors, slaves and kinsfolk old and young —
Father and mother, both bent low with age —
Surely the search cannot be long. Some soul
Ripe with long living, rich and fortunate,
Will joy to pay the young King’s ransom-price.

Perhaps — perhaps — yet destiny is strange,
And Death loves best the young and beautiful.

Enter the judgment, that I may make haste
To tell the monarch of your kind decree.
I thank you, sisters, for if Death must prowl,
Your boon has made his greed less pitiful.
Once I had thought him conquered, when my son
Asclepius deftly raised the lifeless clay —
But that is over. — Blessings, spotless maids,
And may bright Phaere’s halls resound with joy.


Handwritten annotation: “End of Prologue. Sonia H. Davis, L.A., Calif.”


Act I, Scene I

Courtyard of King Admetus’ Palace.

Near the outer gate walks Apollo, bow and quiver of arrows slung upon his back. Lyre slung on one side. He has an air of dejection and seems to be awaiting someone apprehensively.

On the inner side of the court, near the door of the palace, a group of servants stands holding conversation; another servant, a man of middle age, enters from the palace and speaks.

FIRST SERVANT (entering).
She is sinking each moment; in an hour she will be gone.

SECOND SERVANT (an old woman).
On! my mistress — my kind young queen — to go like this, and all to save my Lord!

THIRD SERVANT (a young boy).
You are good at mourning, old Stratonice, but where were you when my lord called for one to take his place? You have but a few years at most, yet for all your mourning you would not give those years to save the Queen.

Impudent brat! and shall you talk to me, who am no kin to the great ones, when the King’s own parents, each with fewer years to live than I, refuse to die in his stead?

FOURTH SERVANT (an old ex-soldier).
Peace to you all! You know not what you talk of. It is no light thing to lay down a life under still skies, when the sun shines goldenly, and the bees hum about the flowers. On the field an hundred times I have offer’d my life for my King. The trumpets were sounding, the horses snorting and screaming, the chariots rattling, the warriors shouting or shrieking in pain, the lances and javelins ringing against the bronze of armor and bucklers. There was the smell of blood in the air, and a great and violent crossing to the shades to bear a man company. It is nothing then to give up one’s life. But here where all is calm and beautiful, with nothing to stir the head or rouse the blood, and with no heroes beside one to make the dark crossing — to lie on a couch of doom and watch the shadows move, knowing that Death creeps closer and closer, silently, inexorably, giving one no chance to fight back and die joyously, like a man, with a heap of slain foes around one — that, I swear, is not easy. I could not do it, though the King make my children nobles and raise statues to my memory.

FIFTH SERVANT (a young wench).
It was a mad and cruel thing that the Fates, or those who rule the Fates, imposed. If they could save King Admetus at all, why could they not do so with good will, asking no other life in exchange?

Ungrateful wench! Is it not enough that they give us back the King, whose life means much to us all, and take a lesser life instead? If Death be cheated of his great prey, shall he also lack even a slight consolation?

Just the same, it is harsh and evil. I cannot see the will of Zeus in it.

And only the Queen would die in his place. Even his father and mother would not. She is the greatest of all — Thessaly will remember her. She loves Admetus well.

The king would have stopped her, but he could not. He would have cancelled the bargain and died as he had offer’d — and she must die in his place.

Is there great weeping within? It is too far to hear.

All are weeping, but most of all the king. It is a grievous sight. He tries to hold her back from the terrible darkness, but it is no use. The children are frightened, and scream to see their mother grow faint. Alcestis is the calmest of all. She feels a joy in the sacrifice she is making, though she dreads to leave the King and her children.

At the other end of the courtyard Apollo assumes a sharply listening attitude; an expression of acute dread crosses his face. Strains of music heard faintly and vaguely from somewhere in the distance. “Danse Macabre” (St-Saens).

THIRD SERVANT (who has for some time been listening intently).
Hark! There are steps outside — I feel a darkening presence.

A general silence; all the servants assume attitudes of dread and expectancy.

Enter Death, a thin youth with cadaverous visage, robed and hooded in black and carrying an inverted torch. He addresses Apollo in a shrill, hard, quick voice. In the distance low rumbles of thunder and intermittent flashes of lightning. The servants, beholding Death, all flee inside the palace. The sombre music grows more distinct as Death approaches.

Still here, Apollo? Have you not done enough? But for you, my summons would have been for the King himself. Would you cheat me of his substitute as well? Beware lest your bow and arrows balk me once too often!

From this point on the sombre music gradually fades.

Not so fast, young Destroyer! Justice is on my side.

If you have justice, why carry your bow?

It is my custom. Would you have me without my usual trappings? (Sarcastic, ambiguous.) I carry my bow that I may play when weary of the lyre.

Your custom, indeed! And is it also your custom to help a household against the rightful will of the gods?

This is no thing of custom. I love Admetus well, and would do for him what I can.

DEATH (with rising then falling inflection).
So—? You have done much, indeed, but I swear you shall do no more. I know your cunning speech and fair ways! The King you have denied me, but you shall not deny me this woman.

And are you so set upon whom you shall take? One life is due — that we all grant. But why the Queen’s? She is precious to the King, her children, and all the people. They can ill spare her. Beneath this roof are many lives. Some are aged, useless, infirm. Why choose cruelly when you might choose kindly?

I seek Alcestis and no other, being denied the King. To take the young, the lovely and the great is my honor and glory. Detain me no more; I must go to cut off a lock of her hair, for such are the first fruits taken of those who are to die. Again I say, you have balked me once with your plea to the Fates, but you shall not balk me again. (Edges to the door of the palace.)

Perhaps I shall not — yet be not too sure. I know your temper — loathed by gods and men — but I know likewise what the future holds.

In the midst of this speech the sombre suggestion of music ceases.

In snow-clad Thrace [Note: pronounced Thrakey] there is a savage king — Diomedes — son of Ares, ruling grim over the rude Bistones. In his byres there champ a herd of wild, man-eating mares fed with such strangers as approach the palace. Thither to end this crime a hero comes, one of no common valor, form or birth, sent by Eurystheus from Mycenae, charged to kill the king and fetch the mares away. He, as a guest, will lodge beneath this roof — and men have praised the kindness of his heart.

Apollo fingers the lyre and falls into a prophetic chant.

Before you take a ruthless victor’s ease,
You shall know well the name of Heracles!

Death enters the Palace. Curtain.

Act I, Scene II

A chamber within the palace. A hearth, a bed, several votive altars.

Alcestis, being attired by weeping handmaidens, has aspect of great weakness and needs the support of two maids to move about. Soft and pensive music (first part of “Orpheus in Hades”). Admetus and children close at hand. Several old men are present. Alcestis, being dressed, advances to the hearth and offers a prayer to Here.

Oh Here, queen of Heaven, behold! I depart this day. Keep thou my children safe. To my daughter give a noble husband, and to my son a loving wife.

A murmur from the handmaidens. Admetus, though weeping, restrains the children, who seem about to break down and scream. Alcestis addresses her handmaidens.

Bring me the wreaths of myrtle. (Wreaths are handed her.) Let me crown all these beloved altars I have known.

Supported by her maidens, she begins a circuit of the room, laying wreaths upon each altar.

Now let me rest. Put me upon my couch.

They lead her to her bed and lift her gently thereon. She turns to kiss the bed.

I do not hate you, faithful resting-place, though another wife shall possess you; not more true than I, but perhaps more fortunate.

Admetus, still showing effects of his illness, draws near the couch with the children. Alcestis reaches up to embrace the children, who cling frantically to her garments. Servants begin to assemble at doors, finally coming within the room. Alcestis extends her hand in greeting to each one, nodding and smiling. Some accept the greeting in silence, some weep, some exclaim “Oh Queen!”

Exeunt servants, except handmaidens, after all are greeted. Alcestis now addresses Admetus in a tone of haste.

My Lord, the end is close!

ADMETUS (advancing toward bed and embracing her in desperation as if he would hold her. The children continue to cling to her garments).
Alcestis, stay!

It cannot be. I see the boat of the dead and Charon standing with his hand on the pole. He calls to me, saying, “Hasten, you delay us.” And a winged messenger from the dead looks at me from under dark eyebrows, and would lead me away.

Do you not see him?

In a burst of strength, she half raises herself and addresses Admetus.

Admetus, listen — let me tell you before I die what I would have you do. You know that I give my life for yours. For though I might have lived and had as husband any prince in Thessaly, dwelling in wealth and royal state, yet I could not bear to be widowed of you, or to have out children fatherless. Therefore I have not spared myself, even though your own blood-parents have failed you. The gods have ordered all this after their own pleasure. So be it. In return I ask only this recompense — which indeed you owe me, for what will a man not give for his life? You love these children as I do. Let them be rulers in this house, and bring here no step-mother to hate them and treat them unkindly. (Addresses children.) My son, in your father you have a tower of strength. Obey him and grow like him. But you, my daughter, how shall it fare with you? For you will have no mother to give you in marriage or comfort you in travail when most you need a mother’s love. And now farewell, for I shall soon be gone.

(To Admetus)
And now farewell, Admetus, my husband. You lose a true and loving wife.

(To children
And you, my children, a true and loving mother.

(Sinks back exhausted.)

Do not fear; all shall be as you will. I could find no other wife so fair and well-born and true as you. No more shall I gather revellers in my palace, or crown my head with garlands, or listen to the voice of music. No more shall I touch the harp or sing to the Lybian flute. Instead, some cunning craftsman shall make an image of you, for me to look upon — cold comfort indeed, but helping a little to lift the burden of my soul. Would that I had the melody of Orpheus, for then I might go down to hell and persuade its King and Queen to release you, nor could Pluto’s watch-dog — or Charon the ferry-man — stop me from bringing you back to the light of day. But now you must wait for me there, for I shall come soon to dwell with you. When I die they shall lay me beside you, for never was a wife so true and noble as you. (Weeps.)

ALCESTIS (faintly).
Take these children as a gift from me; be as a mother to them. (Children weep.)

ADMETUS (wildly).
But what shall I do when I am bereft of you?

Time will comfort you; the dead are as nothing.

ADMETUS (drawing dagger).
I cannot bear it; let me go with you!

ALCESTIS (feebly seizing dagger and knocking it to the floor).
No! Would you have me go in vain? Live for your people. It is enough that I die in your stead.

Sinks back gasping as if exhausted by effort; eyes close; handmaidens raise her and let her sink again. They weep.

She is gone! Our lovely Queen is dead!

Gasps and sobs occur throughout the spectators. Admetus and the children fling themselves upon the Queen’s lifeless form with loud cries. Maidens remove children and comfort them. Old men raise Admetus from couch and comfort him with murmurs.

Be brave, my lord; it is the common lot.

She will live long in each Thessalian heart.

You’ll best repay her with a wise, long reign.

Admetus visibly composes himself.

ADMETUS (to old men).
I will see to the burial. Sing a hymn to the god of the dead. And to all my people I make this decree: that they mourn for this woman, their Queen; and clothe themselves in black, and shave their heads; and that such as have horses, cut off their manes; and that there be not heard in the city the voice of the flute of the sound of the harp for the space of twelve months.

The old men chant a dirge. Massenet’s “Elegy” or other suitable substitute. Admetus holds his children. Handmaidens cover the face of Alcestis. Curtain.

Act II, Scene I

Same as Act I Scene I. Courtyard of the palace.

Old men, servants, citizens scattered in mournful groups.

The following not in original text. Anacreontic song heard in the offing. From Anacreon, translated by Thomas Moore. Or Abraham Cowley’s version may be employed. Or any suitable substitute, set to music.

Heracles approaches and sings:

“Observe, when Mother Earth is dry,
She drinks the dropping from the sky;
And then the dewy cordial gives
To every thirsty plant that lives.
The vapors that at evening weep
Are beverage to the swelling deep;
And when the rosy sun appears
He drinks the ocean’s misty tears.
The moon too quaffs her paley stream
Of lustre, from the solar beam.
Then hence — with all your sober thinking!
Since Nature’s holy law is drinking;
I’ll make the laws of Nature mine
And pledge the universe in wine!”
    —Thomas Moore.

Enter through the outer gates Heracles, bearded, clad in lion-skin, and bearing heavy club; he is singing but pauses to address a group of old men who display astonishment and recognition.

Hail, men of Pherae! Is this the house of Admetus, your king?

Hail and welcome — Heracles himself! if I judge you right. This is indeed Admetus’ house; but what brings you to our land, so distant from your own?

I am on an errand for King Eurystheus of Argos, to bring to him certain horses of Diomedes.

A murmur of astonishment passes among the old men.

Horses of Diomedes! Do you not know this king and the stables he keeps?

I know nothing of him or his people, save that they are far away in Thrace.

You will not master him or his horses without blows.

Perhaps not. Yet I may not refuse the tasks that are set me.

You are resolved to do this thing or die?

I am — nor is this the first race I have run. But what’s this danger you see in a simple thing?

You will not easily bridle the mares of Diomedes.

How so? Do they breathe fire from their nostrils?

No, but they devour the flesh of men.

The flesh of men! Come, come! that is the food of wild beasts, not of horses.

And cannot some horses be wild beasts? They say that the mangers of Diomedes’ mares are foul with blood.

Indeed! And what manner of master is Diomedes, that he feeds them thus?

He is the son of Ares by Cyrene, and the greatest lord in Thrace. His father’s love of gore is in him, and he feeds his wild mares on the blood and flesh of wayfarers who stray within his realm.

It is a strange, hard fate that makes me fight always with the sons of Ares. First was Lycaon, then came Cygnus, in slaying whom I pierced the god himself. And now this Diomedes. But no one shall see the son of Alcmene tremble before an enemy.

Enter Admetus in mourning, with hair shorn. He recognizes and greets Heracles. Old man draws off respectfully.

Hail, son of Zeus! You are welcome in Pherae.

Admetus, hail! I thank you for your greeting. But why this robe of black and shorn head? What scene of grief do I intrude upon?

Today I bury one most dear to me.

Your grief is mine — but whom has Pluto claimed?

ADMETUS (slowly and deliberately).
My children are well; so also are my father and mother. (Pauses.) She who died was a stranger by blood, yet near in friendship. Having lost her father, she dwelt in my house.

HERACLES (turning to leave).
Let me not burden you in time of woe. Be brave — I’ll visit you when I return.

Stay, Heracles! (To an aged servant who approaches in answer) Here, Phlegon!

(To Heracles) None must find a King made boorish by a private grief. Let me prepare to lodge you in good cheer.

(Takes Phlegon aside and instructs him softly while the old men look on in wonderment and admiration.) Conduct this traveller to the guest-chamber and see that he have plenty of good food and drink. See, too, that the doors between his chamber and the great hall be shut, for it is not meet that the guest at his meal should hear the cries of those that mourn.

Oh King — why, in such trouble, do you lodge a guest?

ADMETUS (softly).
Would you praise me more if I bade him go? Shall I lose the honor of hospitality without lessening my grief thereby? Rather will I play a kingly part, and be to Heracles such a host as he will ever be to me when I pause in the land of Argos.

(Turns to Heracles and speaks aloud.) Come, follow on, and ease your weariness, not let a thought of others’ woe oppress.

Exeunt Admetus, Heracles, and Phlegon, entering the palace.


Act II, Scene II

Great hall of the Palace.

Alcestis upon a bier decked with flowers and ornaments. Servants in mourning-habit stand about. Apollo amongst them. Admetus mourning beside the bier. Enter Pheres, father of Admetus, with train of servants bearing robes, crown and other ornaments with which to honor the dead. As he approaches the bier, he speaks to the king, his son.

I have come to mourn with you, my son, for you have lost a noble wife. But you must act bravely, hard though it may be. Take for Alcestis these ornaments, for it is meet that she be honored who died for thee, and for me also, that I might not go down to the grave childless.

(Addressing the dead.) Farewell, Alcestis, loyal daughter and noble wife, who have kept this house from falling. May all be well with you in the dwellings of the dead.

ADMETUS (in wrath).
Who are you that you should bewail her? Surely you are no father of mine. For, haing come to extreme old age, yet you would not die for your son, but have suffered this woman, a stranger in blood, to make that sacrifice. Her, therefore, I count as father and mother; yet it had been a noble deed for you, seeing that the span of life before you was so short. Nor would I have been left to live out my days thus miserably, bereft of her whom I loved.

Have you not had all happiness, living in kingly power from youth to age? You would have left a son to come after you, that your house might not be spoiled by your enemies. Have I not always done due reverence to you and to my mother? And lo! this is the recompense you make me. Wherefore I say to you, make haste and raise other sons who may nourish you in old age, and pay you due honor when you die; for I will not bury you. To you I am dead.

PHERES (in querulous agitation).
Eh? Not so fast! Do you think you are driving some drowsy Lydian or Phrygian slave bought with gold? Do you forget I am a free-born man of Thessaly, as my father was before me? I reared you to rule this house for me, nor did I owe it to you to die for you. It is no custom of the Greeks that a father die for his son.

All that you should have had of me, you have had — the kingdom over many people, and in due time broad lands which I received from my father.

How have I wronged you? Of what have I defrauded you? I do not ask you to die for me, nor ought I to die for you. You love to behold the light. Think you your father loves it less?

For the years of the dead are very long, while the days of the living are short and precious. And I say to you that he who has failed in a man’s duty is not I, but yourself! For you have fled from your fate in shameless fashion, and have slain this woman.

Truly, a woman has vanquished you in valor, yet you charge cowardice against me. It is a wise device of yours that you may live forever, if marrying many times, you can still persuade your wife to die for you. Be silent then, for shame’s sake; and if you love life, remember that others love it also.

Exeunt Pheres with his own train of servants, who have laid the ornaments on the ground.

After a pause and after finally placing on the bier the ornaments his father has brought:

It is time at last — she must go to the tomb. Farewell, Alcestis!   (To servants) Nicomedes, Epaphroditus, Glykon, Clemenes, Neobolus! Syrax, take the bier. (They obey.) Strephon, sound the mournful flute — and you, Dirce and Thalamon, intone a dirge for the dead.

Doleful music.

Now to the vaults of sorrow and rest.   (To Apollo) Help me to move these lagging, mournful feet.

Exeunt omnes in slow procession; men before the bier, women behind. A handmaiden walks beside the bier with a large jar held atop her head — or on shoulder supported with hand — for libations to the dark gods. Admetus drags along heavily supported on the arm of Apollo.

Enter now the ancient servant Phlegon, who has the care of the guest-chamber. In the silence there becomes audible the sound of distant revelry, a gruff voice raised in laughter and in song.

PHLEGON (solus).
Hei! I have seen many guests from all lands under the sun, but never have I harbored such an evil guest as this! First, knowing that my lord was sore troubled, he forbore not to enter these gates. Then, being lodged, he bare himself in no seemly fashion — calling loudly for what he lacked, and drinking great draughts of red wine untempered with water, in a great cup wreathed with ivy. And when the fire of the wine had warmed him, he crowned his head with myrtle-boughs and sang in the wildest fashion.

(Listens. A strain of Bacchic melody floats in from the distant guest-chamber.) Aye, he is singing still.

A tune can be overheard.

“To Anacreon in Heav’n where he sat in full glee
A few sons of Harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute,
No longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;
And beside I’ll instruct ye like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’s vine.”

The song fades into incoherent murmurs. Phlegon continues:

Singing, singing, singing! One might have heard two melodies — this fellow’s ribaldries, which he shouted without thought for my lord’s troubles, and the lamentations for our poor mistress. But we servants did not suffer him to see our tears, for that the King had forbidden. Surely this is a grievous thing, that I must entertain this stranger who, for all his fame, is surely some kind of thief or robber — (Pauses and weeps) and now they have taken my Lady to her grave, and I could not follow after her. (Beats his breast.) Our poor Queen, who was a mother to all within this house.

Enter Heracles from the guest-chamber, boisterous and wine-flushed, and crowned with myrtle; waving his hand in the air:

Ho! there. Why do you look so solemn and full of care? You should not scowl on a guest in such fashion.

Approaches drunkenly and puts his arm around old Phlegon’s shoulder.

Come here, old fellow — I’ll teach you to be wiser! Know you what the life of man is? I’ll vow you don’t! So listen to me; (wipes his mouth absurdly) there is nobody who knows what a day may bring forth. (Shakes left hand poised in the air.) Therefore I tell you — be glad in heart, eat, drink and count the present day your own — (sways maudlinly) all else is doubtful.

(Laughs inanely, but grows serious.) Put away this grief that lies upon you, and come back to drink with me.

(Takes Phlegon’s arm.) The tinkle of wine falling into your cup will chase away gloomy thoughts. As you are a man, be wise like a man — for to those of dismal face life is not life but trouble only.

PHLEGON (gravely).
All this I know, but we have such grief in this house that mirth seems out of place.

So bad as that? They told me that the dead was but a stranger; why should a stranger’s death so trouble you when those who rule this house yet live?

You say they live — ah, little you know what trouble we endure!

I know what was told me — have I been deceived?

My lord is given to hospitality.

And should it hinder him that some stranger is dead in his house?

PHLEGON (sadly).
A stranger, you say? I would not call her so!

HERACLES (more soberly).
Is there some sorrow I have not been told of?

There is, or I should not have loathed your revelling.

HERACLES (still more concerned).
Why, who is dead? One of Admetus’ children, or his father?

PHLEGON (sorrowfully).
It is his wife, Alcestis, who is dead!

HERACLES (sober and taken aback).
Zeus! Yet he lodged and cheered me royally!

He would not turn a guest-friend from his house.

HERACLES (addressing the absent Admetus).
Unhappy king, what a helpmeet you have lost!

Aye! And we are all lost with her!

HERACLES (self-reproachfully).
I should have known it, for I saw the tears in his eyes, and his head shaven — but he deceived me, saying the dead woman was a stranger. So I entered the door and made merry, and crowned myself with garlands, not knowing what had befallen my host. (He tears the myrtle from his brows.) But come, tell me, where does he bury her?

His vaults are on the road to Larissa, at the city’s rim.

Many things have I dared before, but now, most of all, must I show myself a true son of Zeus. Admetus shall be recompensed for my callous revelry, for this day I will save his death-seized wife, and give her back to him. I will watch at the tomb for the black-robed robber, Death, who cannot but be near, drinking the blood of the sacrifice. I will run upon him and catch him in my arms, not shall he escape from me till he has given up this woman. And if he be not there, I will go down to the queen of Hell, in the land where no sun shines, and beg of her that she give Alcestis to me, that I may return her to her husband. Nobly he entertained me, nor drove me from his house in spite of all his grief. Does all Thessaly hold another who so honors hospitality? He shall learn that it is no ill friend to whom he has shown kindness.

Exit Heracles.

PHLEGON (solus, in awe).
What manner of man is this, who would wrestle with Death’s self? It must be true that he is a son of Zeus! Oh, my poor lady, is it true he can bring you back? I will not fill Admetus with false hopes — Zeus grant the stranger may not, as they pass. By now the mourners must be coming back from the tomb. Shall we once more behold such wonders as began when Apollo came down amongst us?

Exit Phlegon. Curtain.


The same as the preceding. Admetus and a great company sit in the great hall of the palace. A group of old men seek to comfort him. Apollo sits apart, dejected.

How shall I dwell in this palace through all the years ahead? Once I came within the gates with many pine-torches from Pelion, and the merry noise of the marriage-song, holding in my hand the hand of her who is dead, and after us followed a troup that magnified her and me, so noble a pair we were. And now with wailing instead of marriage-song, and garments of black for white wedding-robes, I go to my desolate couch.

Look, my lord — your guest returns from outside, and with one veiled.

Enter Heracles leading by the hand a veiled woman. He addresses Admetus.

Admetus, hail! I think it well to speak freely to a friend, nor to hide from one a grudge. Hear me! Though you thought me worthy to be welcomed as a guest-friend, yet you did not tell me that the queen lay dead in your house, but suffered me to feast and make merry. For this I blame you. And now to tell you why I have returned. I beg you to keep this woman till I return from Thrace, bringing the horses of Diomedes. And if it should go ill with me, let her stay here and serve you. It was not without toil that she came into my hands. There were certain contests of strength upon the road I traversed, with prizes for the winners — horses for those who excelled in lesser things, and for the greater victors in wrestling and boxing, teams of oxen, to which was added this woman. Now I would have you keep her — a guardianship for which you will some day thank me happily.

If I have hurt you I am doubly grieved. I meant no slight when I hid the truth from you. It would have been a sorrow on a sorrow had you gone to another’s house. As for this woman, I would have you ask some other prince of Thessaly to keep her, one who has not suffered a grief like mine. Here in Pherae you have many friends — but I could not look on her without tears. Do not add a new trouble to my heavy load. (Glances at veiled woman.) I judge her to be young — in shape and stature so like her who is dead!

Covers his eyes. The veiled woman steps back a pace.

I pray you take her from my sight — she troubles my heart and my tears overflow as I behold her.

Would I had the strength to bring back your wife, Alcestis, from the dwellings of the dead, and place her in your hands!

(Orchestra plays softly, 2nd part of “Orpheus in Hades” or equivalent.)

I know your good will, but what profits it? No man may bring back the dead. For that Asclepius was slain. (Apollo in his corner sighs audibly.)

Well, time will soften your grief, which is yet new!

Yes, if by time you mean death.

But a new wife will comfort you.

Do not mock me. I cannot hold such a thought.

What! You will always keep this widowed state?

No other woman shall be wife of mine.

What will it profit her who is dead?

I do not know, yet I had rather die than be false to her.

Yet I would have you take this woman into your house.

Do not ask this of me. I entreat you by your father Zeus.

You will lose much if you do not do it.

And if I do, it will break my heart.

Let me persuade you — you will some day thank me.

ADMETUS (after some hesitation, speaking wearily).
Well — be it so. They shall take her to the women’s quarters.

I would not have you trust her to the servants.

ADMETUS (wearily).
If you prefer, then lead her there yourself.

No — but I would give her into your own hands.

I will not touch her, but she may stay in my house.

It is only to your hands I will entrust her.

I do it only much against my will.

Stretch out your hand and touch her.

ADMETUS (lightly taking the veiled woman’s arm).
I touch her as I would the Gorgon’s head.

Have you hold of her?

ADMETUS (looking away disgustedly).
I have hold.

Then keep her safe and call the son of Zeus a noble friend. See if she be not like your wife, to change your grief to joy. Lift up her veil and judge her by her face. (Admetus seizes the veil and hesitates.) Come, gentle friend, would you offend a guest?

Admetus finally lifts a corner of the veil and beholds the face of Alcestis adorned with a gentle smile; he starts, almost swoons, loses his hold on her and cries out, in a frantic shout,

Gods! Do not mock me… vision, ghost or jest! Immortal Ones, why would you make me mad?

The assembled company start in alarm, and look upon the woman, who with one hand pulls the veil wholly from her face, while with the other she gently seizes the nerveless right hand of Admetus. Servants shriek out in common confusion, their cries gradually reaching into shouts of joy.

Ah! Hei! Zeus! Phoebus! Gods! Here preserve us! Lady! O Queen! Alcestis!

A miracle! The Queen is come alive!

PHERES (deliriously).
The Gods are good! The gods…

Heracles! Greater than half the gods!

APOLLO (calmly but sadly).
He has indeed done more than I.

Mother! (He rushes forward but is restrained by his nurse.)

You have come back! (Falls half faint.)

Oh Queen! Oh noble guest!

Son of my Father, worthy of Olympus!

ADMETUS (wildly).
Awake me! Do not mock my grief!

Hold, noble king — you are not now deceived. She whom you hold is verily your wife, snatched at the tomb from Death’s malignant grasp. Learning your sorrow, I waylaid the fiend, and with stout wrestling sent him to the shades conquer’d and empty-handed. Take her now whom with such pains I regained for you. Cherish her well, nor cease to keep in mind that she alone would give her life for yours.

Admetus now feels of Alcestis in bewilderment, still doubting if she be solid flesh. Ripples of exclamation continue to circulate amongst the company.

ADMETUS (dazedly, entreatingly to Heracles).
You do not mock me, and I am not mad?

I do not mock you, and you are not mad. Enfold her close and know that in your wife your royal house is twice restored to life!

Admetus, recognizing the truth of Heracles’ statements, at last violently embraces his wife, who returns the mark of affection and triumph. A gasp of excitement sweeps through the company.


Oh, my Lord!

ADMETUS (to Heracles).
My noble guest! True son of Zeus, may victory crown your deeds. For you, and only you, have raised the fortunes of my sorely stricken house…

Exit Heracles with a quick flourish before Admetus can finish. Admetus pauses, holding Alcestis. The company gasps and buzzes with excitement, gazing after Heracles. Apollo, having saluted the departing hero with his right hand, maintains his posture of salutation.

ADMETUS (concludes).
Let smoke from every altar scent the breeze,
Whilst every tongue exalts great Heracles!



See also:

Posted 2022-10-22