Alcestis: a tragedy or a tragicomedy?
Alcestis is a play that is unique not only among the preserved output of Euripides, but also among all extant Ancient Greek plays. It is distinct in respect of its treatment of the position of women in Greek society, the fundamental themes of life and death, and life after death, the complex relationships within the Greek family, the integration of Greek mythology into Greek perception of the everyday, and in its handling of many other matters important for the correct understanding of the Greek mentality.
One of the first problems that a researcher of Alcestis faces is the definition of its genre. Is it a fully-fledged tragedy, on a par with "Oedipus Rex" and "Prometheus Bound", or is its status altered, not to say lowered, by the introduction of comic elements? Is Alcestis better described as a tragedy or a tragicomedy? The purpose of this brief essay is to answer the above question.
As there are several conflicting opinions about the most appropriate definition expressed by the leading authorities in the field, it is pertinent to describe and classify them, before expressing my own. As may be seen from the classification below, "the unusual status" of Alcestis has met with varied and opposing interpretations, which indicates that its definition is indeed problematic. Alcestis has been defined as: (1) a parody; (2) a pro-satyric play; (3) not a pro-satyric play; (4) a tragedy with comic elements, or a tragicomedy; (5) a tragedy; and (6) a play with a composite style. Additionally, an agnostic view has been expressed, claiming that the issue of classification is irrelevant.
The first view has been expressed by Schone, who "thinks that Alcestis is a parody and a very funny one." Schone was led to this conclusion by what he perceived as excessive emotionality and the improbable treatment of the subject of Alcestis' death and resurrection.
The second view is that Alcestis is a pro-satyric play because of its structure, which involves Heracles as one of the main characters, and its partial employment of colloquial language. As Murray states:
The Alcestis is a very clear instance of [the] pro-satyric class of play. It has the regular tragic diction, marked here and there by slight extravagances and forms of words that are sometimes epic and sometimes over-colloquial, […] and it has one character straight from the satyr world, the heroic reveller, Heracles. It is all in keeping that he should arrive tired, should feast and drink and sing; should be suddenly sobered and should go forth to battle with Death. It is also in keeping that the contest should have a half-grotesque and half-ghastly touch, the grapple amid the graves and the cracking ribs.
This view appears to be supported by the consideration that as Alcestis (performed at the Dionysia in 438 BC) was presented fourth after three tragedies, it was supposed to be lighter in tone and to provide some relief to the weary spectators. As Murray remarks, "the rule was that after three tragedies proper there came a play, still in tragic diction, with a traditional saga plot and heroic characters, in which chorus was formed by [the] satyrs." Dale also uses the term "pro-satyric", "meaning in place of a satyr play."
This interpretation is opposed by a number of scholars. Rabinowitz asserts that "Alcestis is not an actual satyr-play, i.e., it did not have a chorus of satyrs, but it is possible, nonetheless, that the placement of the play resulted from and had an effect on its form or plot." Hall believes that defining the play as pro-satyric "can actually hamper appreciation of the play's distinctive qualities; […] more importantly, it obscures the prevalent melancholy of the emotional register, a melancholy little alleviated by the audience's knowledge […] that Alcestis' life will be spared."
A fourth view that attempts to compromise between the seriousness of the play's subject and its unusual development claims that Alcestis is a tragedy with comic elements, or a tragicomedy. Hadley acknowledges that the play consists of "less tragic material" and was definitely meant "as a relief from the tenser interest of the three preceding plays", which would bring it somewhat closer to comedy. Grube recognises two distinct currents within the play, the tragic and the comic, but cautions that "the tragic and comic are kept too far apart to make this play a unit even as a tragicomedy."
There are at least two problems which prevent a number of scholars from attempting to characterise Alcestis as a pure tragicomedy: the presence of two styles, the gravely rhetorical and the colloquial, and the existence of a distinctly satyric subplot, involving Heracles and the hospitality of Admetos, which does not form an inseparable unity with the main plot of the death of Alcestis.
The fifth view holds that Alcestis is a tragedy. This opinion is shared by several leading scholars, among whom are Hall, Vellacott and Kovacs. Hall avers that "the happy ending cannot erase Admetos' questionable earlier decision to allow his wife die in his place." According to Hall, "neither Alcestis' fame, nor the superficially happy ending, can erase the uncomfortable atmosphere and the implication that there will be sorrow still in the heart and house of Admetos."
Vellacott agrees that "the greater part of this play is in the full tragic vein. The immortals of the prologue, and the outrageous quarrel between farther and son in the third episode, may cause a wry smile; but the theme is a dying woman, a despairing man, and the relentless law of Necessity." Kovacs states that Alcestis is "a tragedy in the ancient sense." He continues, saying that "the occasional comic elements, such as Heracles drunk, do not detract from the seriousness of the play or its tragic focus on the limits of human life."
Smith is one of the scholars who tend to interpret the genre of Alcestis as compound. He explains it as follows:
Critics have recognized a compounding of styles in the play. It has been treated as a comedy which also offers a serious, perhaps tragic character in Admetos, and the label of tragicomedy is frequently applied. But as in many of Euripides' experiments in mixing tones and styles within a single play, the combination is unique and therefore difficult to classify usefully.
Smith chooses to apply the terms melodramatic, tragic and comic "to describe particular effects used by Euripides, without defining a class to which the play belongs".
Finally, the "agnostic" view has been expressed by Murray, who does describe Alcestis as pro-satyric in the sense that it was performed in an interval assigned to a play of such type, but eventually declares that these endless scholarly debates are "depressing" and suggests that we better concentrate on "the sheer beauty and delightfulness of the writing."
If one ignores the agnostic approach and chooses to define the genre of Alcestis, then it would seem necessary to decide what exactly constitutes the so-called comic aspect of play. It appears to have five main constituents: (1) the mixture of high rhetoric, appropriate for a traditional tragedy, with colloquial style; (2) the opening, which presents the contest between Apollo and Death; (3) the quarrel between Admetos and his father over Alcestis' body; (4) the introduction of Heracles and his drinking bout; and (5) the happy ending.
As for the subject of the play, I agree with Vellacott, that there is nothing comic about it. The death of a young woman, the grief of her husband and his belated feelings of love and remorse, the cries of two little children, the bereavement of the servants – all this is hardly the material of which comic plays are made. Although Apollo does tell Death in the beginning of the play that "by force will [Heracles] take this woman from [him]", the depiction of suffering is so powerful that the knowledge that the play would end happily does not prevent us from feeling compassion for these people. The happiness of the outcome is also questionable, as the family, whose foundations have been so profoundly shattered is unlikely to regain its initial unclouded state.
The mixture of grave and colloquial languages is a general issue, which needs to be, and has been, examined in the context of the whole output of Euripides' plays, as it is a recurrent feature of his writing and is not limited to Alcestis. Euripides was an innovator who sought new ways of expression and was apparently dissatisfied with the lofty rhetoric of the contemporary tragedy. He was also the first known playwright who attempted to describe the inner world of the human soul, its passions and choices, its own, subjective, mechanism of self-destruction, rather than the objectiveness of fate that, for instance, propels virtuous and ignorant Oedipus to his doom. Mixing styles was one of the stylistic devices regularly used by him to make tragedy step down occasionally and speak a living, not artificial, language; to achieve an immediate impact. Euripides' contemporaries clearly did not know what to make of his plays, so unused were they to these new ways of expression. As Rabinowicz remarks, "the fact that his plays were frequently chosen for the competition, but rarely won, might suggest that the Athenians wanted to see his plays, but were reluctant – maybe because of the controversies they aroused – to award them first prize." The general problem of Euripides' style cannot serve as an argument in the matter of defining the genre of Alcestis.
The play's opening, which presents a dialogue between Apollo and Death, would seem to be related to comic plays, in which the altercation between gods or mythological personages is common. However, this is not a prologue to a merry show. Death arrives to claim the life of a young and innocent woman, and Apollo, the Sun-God, who himself admits a short time earlier that he "safeguarded [that] household until this very day" and arranged "Admetos' escape from immediate death", miserably loses the argument and must retreat, with his bow and arrows. He cannot even enter "these well-loved halls", "lest some pollution touch" him. Apollo has only succeeded in delaying the death of his ephemeral protйgй, at the expense of making him utterly miserable and the destruction of his family. To add insult to injury, Apollo withdraws, invoking the help of Heracles. An immortal god calling to a mortal man for help! This is rather unsettling, not comic.
The similar apparently comic and preposterous, but in fact chilling, scene is that of the argument between Admetos and his father. The squabble between the father and the son, which would be natural in a comic play, is placed in such a context that it achieves an effect quite opposite from comic, the effect of confusion and terror. Two men hurling abuse at each other over the dead body of a woman is deeply disturbing. "Marry more women, so that more may die", says Pheres with disgust, probably pointing at the first "instalment", already turning cold and stiff. A comic scene, indeed.
Euripides uses a similar device in the scene of Heracles' drinking party, which in itself is comic, but placed within the context of the situation becomes something opposite. The very picture of a guest drinking and revelling alone in an empty room, with a wreath on his head, in a remote part of the house filled with moans and lamentation, weeping children and preparations for a funeral, is discomfiting. Euripides further strengthens the contrast, clearly stating that "there were two strains to hear – on the one hand, [Heracles] sang, showing no respect for Admetos' troubles, and on the other, we servants were crying for our mistress." Seeing eventually that the attendant servant is "solemn and thoughtful", Heracles inquires about the reason and is stunned and devastated at the news that it is Alcestis, his hostess, who is dead, and that not only has he imposed himself on the ravaged household, but also has insulted it by his most inappropriate revelry. The dismayed hero recollects Admetos' "eyes full of tears, and his face and shorn hair", and begins to lament, too, as one more misery has been added to his "heart and hand, daring and suffering so much."
The above examples demonstrate that Euripides does indeed use certain elements borrowed from comic and satyric plays, but makes them serve ends entirely different from the ones for which these elements were designed.
The allegedly happy ending of Alcestis does not qualify as an argument in favour of calling the play a tragicomedy. In the same way as the "comic" quarrels between Apollo and Death, and Admetos and his father, and the "comic" revelry of Heracles contain a disturbing element within themselves that not only destroys all the enjoyment, but also makes these scenes shockingly tragic, the return of Alcestis alive to her household does not guarantee the return of happiness. Unable to speak or be spoken to, she comes back to a man who pushed her underground to save his own life, a man whose feeling of self-respect is probably destroyed, who is permanently estranged from his parents. Heracles has succeeded in overpowering Death, but for how long?
Moreover, the happy ending, even if one agrees to consider it happy, is not a decisive argument as far as the genre of the play is concerned. As Kovacs remarks, "Greek tragedies with happy endings, while not as common as the other sort, were written by all three of the fifth century's great tragic poets."
Alcestis is definitely better described as a tragedy. The presence of certain comic elements does not turn it into a tragicomedy, as these elements are such only in form, but in the context of the play add contrast to, and intensify, the tragedy. This is yet another testimony to Euripides as an innovative and original writer, and Alcestis as a unique play, in which comedy, through skilful manipulation of the context, serves tragedy simply by being comic.
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