Saturday, April 5, 2014

Criticizing Euripides: Alcestis Is Basic, Not Literature.

The Good: Decent human emotion
The Bad: Plot fails to develop, Characters do not motivate the play’s events, Simplistic
The Basics: Little more than a character thumbnail sketch, Alcestis is a disappointing play that does not truly develop as much as it concludes.

One of the nice things about working in a terrible corporate environment is that I am given more time to read. Being forced to take breaks and having nothing in common with my coworkers has inspired me to go through more of my personal library and that has been an upside of a bad situation. Unfortunately, not all of my reading material is truly as memorable as one might hope. Alcestis, the classic Greek play by Euripides (as translated into English by Philip Vellacott) certainly falls into that category.

Alcestis is a very basic play that never truly develops beyond its original concept. It suffers because there is no genuine character development in it and, as such, it reads like a repetitive plot summary of the important events that precede the play itself. The play is hard to get excited about because it is, largely, one man whining quite a bit and then someone else doing the “heavy lifting” for him. In fact, the protagonist of Alcestis, the Greek king Admetus, is all about letting other people take important actions on his behalf and that makes for an uninspired lead character. Equally as important is the fact that Alcestis undermines its own themes about the nature of sacrifice.

Beginning with Apollo making a deal with Death in which he acknowledges that King Admetus was set to die, but that Queen Alcestis has opted to take his place, the machinations of the gods are affected by Alcestis’s strong sense of character. At the palace, Alcestis calls Admetus to her and declares that if she is taking his place with Death, that he should never remarry and not force their children to accept a stepmother. Alcestis then appears to die and her funeral procession leaves the palace. Shortly thereafter, Admetus begins to mourn and the palace takes in visitors.

Hercules, a friend of Admetus, drops by and despite the palace not being ready to receive him, Admetus insists that Hercules enjoy the hospitality of the king. While Admetus mourns – having lied and told Hercules that the palace is in mourning for the death of a recent visitor and friend of the family – Hercules gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. Admetus’s mother and father visit the palace to try to join in the mourning for Alcestis, but Admetus pushes them away, angered that neither of them offered to sacrifice themselves for Alcestis when he was dying. Admetus’s father, Pheres, is especially angered by Admetus’s insistence that he should have sacrificed himself so Alcestis did not have to step up. But when a servant tells Hercules the truth, Hercules is disappointed that Admetus lied to him and he resolves to wrestle Alcestis from the very grasp of Death itself.

Alcestis is a very basic philosophical play, but part of the problem with it is that it explores ideas, but takes no stances. So, for example, Alcestis’s sacrifice is seen as universally noble, but Admetus’s anger toward his father is met with a rational argument; Alcestis made her sacrifice with her free will and Pheres was under no obligation (as a free man himself) to sacrifice himself for his son. Pheres argues that he loves life as much as Admetus and that it would have been more honorable for Admetus to die as he had been fated to than let Alcestis take his place in death and then whine about her sacrifice. Pheres makes a good point, though Alcestis makes a reasonable point that as a man close to death anyway, Pheres could have made a sacrifice that illustrated real love for his son and daughter-in-law (especially given that he has nothing to live for).

Either way, the points become moot when the random element of Hercules is added to the mix. Alcestis, who has only the briefest on-stage role in the play that bears her name, has easily the most character in the play. She acts out of love and makes a decision with only the most minor string attached. Nevertheless, she makes her decision out of love and she does not articulate any regret for her decision.

But, Admetus whines his way through Alcestis and Hercules steps up to do the heroic thing. That makes Admetus seem weaker than Hercules (which he is!) and less resolved than his wife. Instead, he gets a second chance at life and whines his way into possibly getting that opportunity at no cost. That makes for a morally ambiguous play that seems to have the message that if one whines to the right people, they can get anything they want.

The play does not end up taking any strong stance on what is right or wrong in the circumstance and the moral ambiguity makes Alcestis seem more pointless than a treatise on free will. The reason for this (because I am not one who likes to be force fed the themes to my literature) is that no side in Alcestis argues with enough of a compelling or well-rounded view. Instead, each side argues its own monolithic point until Hercules just goes out and makes most of the arguments null and void. In other words, Alcestis fails to even commit to making a philosophical discussion. Even though it is short, Alcestis reads more like a waste of time than a compelling journey through ideas or characters.

For other plays, please check out my reviews of:
Arms And The Man – George Bernard Shaw
An Enemy Of The People – Arthur Miller
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eugene O’Neill


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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