Notes on Sonia Greene’s Alcestis

Previously on this blog: “Sonia Greene’s Alcestis (2022-10-22). Here are some notes on that text from the copy-editor (that is, me).

Again, for Euripides’ original play, see Richard Aldington’s or Herbert Kynaston’s translations. Kynaston’s endnotes are particularly useful.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the whole Prologue is in blank verse, and then the Play itself is in prose, except for the heroic couplets extolling Heracles that close the first and last scenes. (Other heroic couplets appear in Prologue scenes 3 and 5.)

There is one place in the Prologue where the iambic pentameter breaks down in an interesting way: the opening of scene 6, where Apollo bursts in on the Fates with “signs of haste.”

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.

You’d naturally expect the line to read “You, Atropos, have poised upon your shears.” (I assume that “poised” is to be read as “pois’d,” not “poiséd.” In this scene we also find “watched,” “flowed,” and “conquered” with the modern number of syllables, although in Act III we find an explicit “conquer’d.”)

Indeed, this might just be a typo in the text, and at first I was tempted to correct it. But read it again — that little hiccup or gasp in the second line could be just the right indication of how hurried and out of breath Apollo is. This is the one place where, lyrically speaking, his godly poise breaks down and he does not speak in stately measured tones.

There are a few other places where the meter fails in less interesting ways. For example, I cannot make “Pluto at all times has his brother’s ear” scan no matter how I read it. Subsequent revisions would probably have introduced Pluto on the previous line; say, “The nether god has influence above / At all times he has his brother’s ear.”

In Zeus’s last speech in Prologue scene 2, the typescript had “Though daily clamoured and complained.” I assumed the word “Pluto” was missing, and inserted it.

Admetus’ “Lybian flute” resembled a typo for “Lydian,” but what Euripides wrote is Λίβυν “Libyan,” and so I left the word alone as either an intentional archaism or an accidental misspelling. (I think the latter, since Greene earlier misspells “Hippolytus” as “Hyppolitus.”)

The first scene of the Prologue visits some Lovecraftian horror tropes (cyclopean masonry, horned moons, vague wings), but after that scene everything gets much less Lovecraftian and much more classical.

Reading Herbert Kynaston’s translation of Euripides reminded me that Greek tragedy hewed to the Three Unities. Euripides doesn’t show us Alcestis placing wreaths on the altars of her bedchamber, but merely describes it (because the action uniformly takes place in the courtyard of Admetus’ palace). In fact in Euripides we get the whole action of the Prologue “told, not shown” as well, from Apollo’s lips. It’s only because Greene is a modern writer willing to dispense with unity of time, place, and action that her Prologue is able to show us occurrences that happened months earlier, in different cities, involving different characters.

However, Greene still doesn’t depart from Euripides far enough to show us Heracles’ fight with Death; that action still takes place offstage, and feels much less satisfactory here. The Prologue has already taken us into the Cyclopes’ workshop; why shouldn’t we see Hades as well?

Heracles’ songs are not original to Greene; they are, as advertised, Anacreon’s ode XXI translated by Thomas Moore (“Observe, when Mother Earth is dry”) and the lyrics of the circa-1770 “Anacreontic Song” (“To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee”). It’s also interesting to me that the stage directions are so peppered with suggestions for incidental music, in some cases (e.g. Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre) apparently chosen for allusive effect rather than mood, as if the play were a Looney Tunes short. Then again, it is a comedy.

The resentful old servant that Greene names “Phlegon” is unnamed in Euripides. But “Phlegon” is a perfectly cromulent Greek name; in Roman times Phlegon of Tralles compiled a list of Italian centenarians (Macrobii, or περί Μακρόβιων), making that an eminently suitable name for an old man.

I find Euripides’ dialogue between Admetus and Heracles (II.1) less clever than Greene’s; he makes Heracles already aware of Alcestis’ bargain, and has Admetus outright deny that Alcestis is the dead woman. In Greene’s version, Admetus diplomatically describes the dead woman as “a stranger by blood, yet near in friendship,” which I think is a great way of finessing that scene without causing the audience to lose sympathy for Admetus.

I was surprised how closely parallel are both versions’ dialogues between Admetus and Pheres (II.2), even down to the sarcasm of “sagely hast thou devised to live for ever…”

Act III is rather torturous, with Heracles and Admetus going through all sorts of unnecessary back-and-forth before finally revealing that Heracles has rescued Alcestis. Why doesn’t Heracles just come right out and say it from the get-go? Well, at least we should remember that the detailed plot of the play (including this part) is all from Euripides.

Additionally, consider that Greene might have gotten herself into this pickle via the previous note: in Euripides, Admetus flat-out lies to Heracles, and perhaps Heracles is just serving Admetus some of his own medicine. (I still think that’s quite a stretch, mind you.) In Greene, Admetus never lies, and so Heracles’ deception can’t be justified even on those stretchy grounds.

This sort of torturous revelation scene for some reason seems to be a common trope in high drama, especially in “problem plays” that straddle genres. Kynaston compares Act III to the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I’d compare it to the final scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard (Isaac Asimov writes: “Why Fairfax does this passes human understanding. If Gilbert merely intends an additional dramatic high note for the end, does he realize what he is making Fairfax do? Fairfax is tormenting Elsie for no reason at all…”), coincidentally also the most tragic (and thus most “problem”-atic) in the G&S canon. Or the final scene of Iolanthe (which I’ll crown as the most Lovecraftian play in the G&S canon, Ruddigore be darned), also featuring a veiled spouse and tragic tone; though in Iolanthe’s case the subterfuge is justified, plot-wise.

Perhaps interestingly, Greene changes the “moral” of the story: Euripides’ final chorus unambiguously exalts Fortune and the gods:

The countless chances of our fate
Oft unforeseen results await;

but in Greene’s play, Admetus credits “you, and only you” (underline in original), “great Heracles,” with orchestrating the happy ending, tying it more to Heracles’ hero-cult.

Posted 2022-10-23