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Theatre / Alcestis

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"ἣ νῦν κατ᾽ οἴκους ἐν χεροῖν βαστάζεται
ψυχορραγοῦσα: τῇδε γάρ σφ᾽ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ
θανεῖν πέπρωται καὶ μεταστῆναι βίου."
Euripides, Alcestis, Lines 19-21note 

Alcestis is a play by Euripides, one of the ancient Greek tragedians. The work was composed in 438BC, not as a tragedy, but in the place of one of the satyr plays the playwrights would enter in the competition. As such, Euripides gives the story a more comic treatment than tragic, though it has its fair share of tragedy and drama.

The play is a retelling of the myth of Admetus and Alcestis. The god Apollo had slain the Cyclopses, forgers of Zeus's thunder, and so the sky god punished him by making him serve a mortal man: King Admetus of Thessaly. Because Apollo found Admetus to be a just man, he rewarded him by saving him from death; unfortunately, for this to be done someone else had to die in the king's place.

Admetus finds no one willing to die for him, neither among his friends nor his parents. He returns to discover that his wife, Alcestis, had offered, and the play opens with her upon the verge of death.

The play is available online here... or, for you non-Classical scholar folks, in English here or here.

This play provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Admetus is enraged that not even his parents could bring themselves to die for him, causing Alcestis to die instead.
  • Back from the Dead: Alcestis, thanks to Heracles's trip to the Underworld.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Admetus gets the chance to cheat death, a special one-time offer. Trouble is, no one is willing to go in his place. Finally Alcestis, his devoted wife, goes, and Admetus gets to live, alright... knowing he caused the death of the person who loved him the most.
  • Balancing Death's Books: Gods can occasionally save select mortals from death, but Apollo is in no position to grant such a boon. The whole Cyclopes-killing story started with Apollo's son Asclepius raising the dead, which provoked the ire of Hades. The underworld god complained to Zeus that Asclepius was diminishing him of his subjects. Seeing that Apollo is already on sufferance from Zeus, he can have no recourse to him in that matter. On the other hand, the Underworld won't give anything for free: hence the victim swap idea.
  • Big Eater: Heracles. He's not seen eating, but a servant describes his gorging with abundance of particulars.
  • Deus ex Machina: Heracles, in both the play and the original myth Euripides used.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: When Heracles appears, he goes after Death to bring Alcestis back.
  • Due to the Dead: Heracles is really shocked when he learns of the death, because he had been behaving very inappropriately.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The main drama of the play is the fact that Alcestis died for her husband because he was promised by Apollo to have immortality.
  • Fetch Quest: Heracles appears en route to fetch the man-eating horses of Diomedes for one of his labours.
  • Genre-Busting: Euripides placed the play in the Athenian competition as the slot for the Satyr Play but it is a Tragedy that blends elements of both satyr, comedy and Tragedy with a bitter and Black Comedy tone. Modern scholars have classified the play as one of the first problem plays.
  • The Grim Reaper: Death (more specifically, Thanatos; there are two bringers/gods of death, Thanatos and his sisters the Keres)
  • Happy Ending: Which isn't exactly common in the Greek myths...
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Alcestis, who died so her husband can live.
  • Hot-Blooded: In many myths, Heracles becomes so enraged at the people who wrong him that he takes a terrible vengeance on them. In this case, Heracles is so grateful to Admetus for his hospitality and embarrassed by his own actions that he marches off to rescue Alcestis without a second thought.
  • Important Haircut: Admetus orders all in Thessaly to cut their hair in mourning for Alcestis.
  • It's All My Fault: Admetus, despairing, eventually takes his father's accusations to heart (see Never My Fault, below) and blames himself for allowing Alcestis to die in his stead.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Admetus's kindness to Apollo is what gets him the chance to avoid death. His kindness to Heracles is what allows Alcestis to survive.
  • Love Hurts: Admetus is completely devastated by Alcestis's sacrifice to the point of swearing to never remarry and to commission a statue of her to lie next to him every night. This is very surprising, even if a bit creepy, because this is Ancient Greek culture, where women are little more than properties.
  • Mood Whiplash: The play switches from Alcestis's funeral and Admetus's bitter argument with his father to Admetus's friend Heracles, who is drunk and merry. He sobers quickly when he learns of Alcestis's death, though.
  • The Mourning After: Admetus promised to never remarry after his wife's death. Mercifully, this doesn't last too long, thanks to Hercules.
  • Never My Fault: Admetus blames his parents for being too cowardly to die for him, even in their old age, resulting in Alcestis's death. His father, meanwhile, is disgusted that Admetus would expect something like that and states that Admetus himself is truly the one to blame.
    • Actually it's more a case of Jerkass Has a Point: without a king, Thebes is bound to be attacked and taken by another city, then Admetus's parents will be killed or enslaved along with the rest of the population and their line will be extinct.
  • Not Your Problem: Thanatos says this to Apollo about Alcestis's death.
  • Sacred Hospitality: A major conflict of the play is Heracles's surprising visit to Admetus's kingdom during a funeral. Admetus decided to hide this news from Heracles and invite him in anyway.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Heracles does this for Admetus and Alcestis by traveling to the Underworld to get her back. His reason is that he had been acting disrespectful because he didn't know about her death.
  • Take Me Instead: The major part of the agreement Apollo had made Admetus: the king can escape death if someone else offers to die for him. The play opens with his wife Alcestis being the only one to offer.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Alcestis asks Admetus not to remarry after her death so that her children wouldn't have to face this trope.