Excerpt From Alcestis In Plain and Simple English
The scene represents the ancient Castle of ADMETUS near Pherae
in Thessaly. It is the dusk before dawn; APOLLO, radiant in the
darkness, looks at the Castle.
The house of Admetus! This is where I was subservient
In the past, and did not turn down the food of a servant,
Although I was born in heaven. Yes, Zeus had killed
My son, Asclepios, the Healer of the World,
Stabbing him with fire in his heart; in my anger
I killed his servants, the Cyclops, who made the fire.
Then Zeus threw me out of heaven to work
As a servant to a mortal man. I came to these people,
And watched over the flocks of a stranger for payment,
And I have watched over and helped this family since then.
The Lord I happened to come to was innocent
And had a heart as pure as my own, he was the son of King Pheres,
Admetus. I saved him from death,
Persuading the Grey Sisters until they swore
That Admetus could be spared,
If he would just pay the underworld the price
Of another living soul. For a long time he tried to find someone
Amongst all his family, and everyone who owed him love,
But he never found a soul who would give up his life
And leave this earth for him, apart from his wife:
Right now she is being carried through the funeral paths,
Stabbed by death; for this is the day
When she has to leave the light and die.
And, as the stain of death cannot come anywhere near
My brightness, I must leave this house which I love.
But look! There is the executioner of hell, here on earth,
Come to assault her! Yes, he has been watching patiently,
And now he comes when fate decrees.
Enter from the other side THANATOS; a crouching black-haired and
winged figure, carrying a drawn sword. He starts in revulsion on
Why are you here? What are you doing at the gate,
You being of light? Will you try to defeat
The judgement of heaven, and steal
Those things which rightly belong to the dead?
It seems it wasn't enough for you to have stopped
The death of Admetus in the past,
With your cunning magic wine, which
Deceived the three Grey Sisters of the grave;
But now I see you once again
Standing watch, threatening
With your arrows in your hands that you will take
This woman for yourself, who swore faithfully
That she would die at this time in place of her husband.
Do not worry.
I have come with fair speech and only want justice.
And if your words don't work, you will use force?
I always carry this bow with me.
And you will help this family against the laws of justice? Yes, that's it.
I love this man, and I am sorry he is upset.
And now you want to steal my second victim from me!
I never robbed you, not then and not now.
In that case why is Admetus still on earth, not down below?
He gave his own wife as a hostage, for whom…
I am here; and I will take her straight to the grave.
Go on, take her. I can't change your heart.
To stop me killing those who doomed? No; I will do my job.
No. To let people live long lives.
THANATOS (still mocking).
That would please you, would it? Of course I owe you great service.
Ah, so she could still… She can still grow old?
THANATOS (with a laugh).
No! I have my rights as well, and I insist on them.
For whatever happens you will only get one life.
It's a greater prize for me when they die young.
If she dies old, they will bury her with great treasure.
You can get lost! You're trying to look after the rich men!
What's that? Does death, who seems so blind, have wit?
Rich men would try to buy long life for themselves.
So you won't do me this favour? Is that it?
You know what I'm like, who I am: I'm telling you, no!
I know that you can make the gods ill and make men suffer.
Get lost! In your greed you have captured too many
Things which were not meant for you; but you won't have them all!
I swear, for all your bitter pride, a fall
Is coming your way. Even now a conqueror
Is coming to this house, sent by a southern King
To get him four wild horses, of the type
Which tear apart the bodies of men in Thrace.
This household will give him a warm welcome, and he
Will steal this woman back from you and your worms.
So you will give up everything to me, and all you will win
Is hatred, not the kindness you could have won.
Say what you like! Your threats won't get the woman
Back from me. Whatever happens, she
Will been lying in hell. Even as I speak
I am on my way to strike her with my sword.
Everyone whose head is visited by this grey sword
Must go to death and the Lords of hell.
[THANATOS goes into the house. Presently, as the day grows lighter,
the CHORUS enters: it consists of Citizens of Pherae, who speak
Quiet, quiet, above and below!
The household of Admetus is holding its breath.
And there is not a friend of the King nearby
To tell us whether we should be crying
For the daughter of Pelias, crowned and dead;
Or whether we should be happy, that she is still alive.
She is the bravest and most loyal wife
I have ever seen, or that the world will ever see.
DIVERS CITIZENS, conversing.
(The dash -- indicates a new speaker.)
Do you not hear any weeping, or the noise of hands
Beating their chests? No mourners crying
For someone they cannot save?
Nothing: and there is no maid servant
Standing there at the door. Help us, oh Paian,
Rise up, star beyond the seas!
Is she dead, and everything this quiet? No, this cannot be.
Dead, dead! Surely she hasn't been secretly buried?
What? I am still afraid: what makes you so certain?
Would Admetus send his dear wife to the grave
Alone, without witnesses?
I do not see a bowl of clear spring water.
That is always placed in front of
The door of a house where a dead man lies.
There is no lock of hair! Every woman's
Daughter cuts it off when their mother dies.
There is no sound of beaten chests!
But this is the day… Surely this is the day?
The day that the Queen should die and be buried.
This tears at my life, my heart! All honest men
Must grieve for the loss of such brightness,
A good life taken from us.
Wandering over thousands of miles,
Searching over the empty seas,
To where the Prophets of Lycia live,
Or where the three daughters of Ammon
Write their words in the sands of the desert,
To look for magic to make free–
It is all in vain! The end has come;
It comes suddenly and sharp.
What magic is there, what spell
Which could be made which could comfort me?
There is only one he could do that:
He was the son of Apollo,
He healed men, long ago.
If he was on earth to see this,
He would rise up from the darkness below
And those eternal gates.
He took men whom the gods had killed
And pitied them and brought them back to life;
Until Zeus killed him with fire,
And now, who can help us?
Everything that could be done has been done. Every promise
Has been kept; and every altar has been
Fully stocked with sacrifices.
There is no hope of a reprieve now.
Enter from the Castle a HANDMAID, almost in tears.
But look, a handmiad is coming, with the tears
Wet on her cheek! What news will we hear?
We understand your grief, daughter, if some bad thing
Has happened today. Tell us, is your mistress
Still alive, or dead? Tell us, if you can.
Alive. No, dead… Oh, take it which way you will.
No, daughter, can the same soul be living and dead?
Her life is over, you can see death in her eyes.
Poor King, thinking of what she has been, and what you are!
He never knew what she was worth… He will realise it now.
I guess there is no hope of saving her now?
The hour of death has come, and no man can resist it.
She is being looked after as well as possible?
Certainly, and fine clothes are laid out ready for her burial.
By God, she dies with a great heart,
With far more honour than any other wife!
Far above any other! What others? What would
Someone who wanted to be better than this woman be like?
How could any wife show more devotion
To her Lord, than by dying for his sake?
But everyone in the city knows this. It is here,
In her own house, that you will hear a story
That is very strange. When she knew her time had come,
She got up and washed herself, her body white as foam,
With running water; then she opened her cedar closet,
And took out her funeral clothes
And rich accessories. So she stood dressed like that
In front of her own home fire, and prayed:
“Mother, since I must leave the daylight,
This is the last time I will kneel to you and pray;
Be a mother to my two children! Find a sweet
Wife for him, some kind Lord for her.
Do not let them, like I am, die before
Their natural time; let them live happily, in our
Ancient home, until they have lived a full life and reached a good age."
Then she went to every altar in the house
And placed on each one a garland
Made from the wild myrtle trees, and she was seen
Praying, with no sobbing, no tears.
She knew the terrible thing that was coming, but
Her face never changed colour: until suddenly she ran
Back to her own room and her bridal bed:
Then the tears came, and she said everything she was thinking.
“Oh bed, where my happy childhood innocence
Was taken by this man, for whom I am dying,
Farewell! It is you… I say without bitterness…
It is you who has killed me. I go alone,
To make sure I am not false him all to you. And perhaps
Some other woman will lie here instead of me–
Maybe happier; she cannot be more faithful."
She kissed the pillow as she knelt there, and
Those fine blankets were soaked with her tears.
At last she had finished weeping; then
She tore herself away and got up again,
Walking with her eyes on the ground; but before
She left the room she turned, and knelt down
By the bed once again. Then her children came
To her side, and held onto her and cried,
And she hugged them, and she said a long goodbye
To each one, like someone who is going to death.
The whole household was then weeping, every slave
Was grieving for his mistress. And she held out
Her hands to all of them; there was not a single one so low
That she did not say kind words to him, and he responded.
So Admetus gets sorrow from
Both directions. It would have been a terrible grief to him
To have had to die; and having escaped death, what great sorrow
He has in its place–ah, someday he will understand!