Written in the tradition of early Greek tragedies, The Alcestiad tells the story of Admetus, King of Thessaly, his wife Alcestis, and the triumphs and tragedies they endure as favorites of the god Apollo. The extent of Apollo’s involvement in their marriage is further explored in Wilder’s accompanying satyr play, The Drunken Sisters.
by Thomas Buck
Wilder’s classical background informs the structure and presentation of The Alcestiad, also entitled A Life in the Sun. The play’s three acts correspond with the three plays presented in succession by each entrant in the annual tragedy competition which was a central feature of the ancient Athenian festivals honoring Dionysus. Like a Greek tragedy, each act takes place over the course of a single day, and the action occurs in front of a central building. In this case, the building represents the palace of Admetus, a mythical king of Thessaly.
Act I opens with a brief interchange between Apollo and Death, the latter personified as in Euripides’ Alcestis and elsewhere in Greek literature. Death rejects Apollo’s idea that humans and gods can understand one another, but Apollo asserts his intention to teach Death a lesson. In a more traditional Greek prologue, the audience learns that this is the wedding day of King Admetus and Alcestis, who seems more interested in a sign from Apollo than her impending nuptials. Alcestis confides to Aglaia, Admetus’ old nurse, that she is reluctant to marry because she feels called to be a priestess of Apollo. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the famous and infallible prophet Teiresias, depicted humorously as an ornery, crotchety old man. Teiresias presents four herdsmen, announcing that they will serve Admetus for one year, and that among them is Apollo in disguise. As soon as she is alone with them, Alcestis declares her devotion and begs for a sign. One of the herdsmen suggests that Apollo is divided among the four of them, as well as others living in Thessaly. Admetus appears, nobly offering to release Alcestis from their engagement, but the herdsman has convinced her that her marriage is Apollo’s will, and she now directs her full devotion to Admetus.
The second act presents a tale familiar from Euripides’ Alcestis, which was first performed in 438 BCE. Twelve years after the wedding, King Admetus is desperately ill and facing death. Unlike Euripides’ Admetus, however, he is unaware of the bargain Apollo has struck on his behalf: he can avert his appointed death if someone else dies in his place. A message from Delphi reveals these details to Alcestis, and she immediately offers herself, without consulting Admetus. As in Euripides’ play, Hercules pays a spectacularly awkward, drunken visit just at the point of Alcestis’ death. In contrast to Euripides’ purely comical figure, Wilder’s Heracles has come to ask Alcestis to help him understand his own dual parentage. When he discovers her passing, he is deeply upset, and resolves to rescue Alcestis from Death. Wordlessly, he leads Alcestis out of the underworld and departs, and the act ends without dialogue.
Act III moves the action forward another twelve years. In Wilder’s words, it “makes free use of the tradition that Admetus and Alcestis in their old age were supplanted by a tyrant” (Wilder 689), though the tyrant Agis is Wilder’s own invention. In an opening reminiscent of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a plague has struck Thessaly. The citizens turn to their king for help, but Agis has barricaded himself in the palace. Apollo and Death return to the scene, and Apollo informs an agitated Death that he can never take Alcestis. Epimenes, the son of Admetus and Alcestis, arrives accompanied by his friend Cheriander to kill Agis in a scene evocative of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the second play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only extant Greek trilogy. In stark contrast to Aeschylus’ play, they are turned away by Alcestis, whom they do not recognize at first. Agis himself emerges, distraught for his sick daughter. When word comes that she has died, Alcestis dissuades him from trying to repeat Hercules’ journey to the underworld. Finally, she is guided away by Apollo in a kind of apotheosis.
In keeping with the form of a classical Greek tetralogy, Wilder ended The Alcestiad with a satyr play, a shorter piece presented by each tragedian after his three tragedies to lighten the tension. Very few classical satyr plays survive, making a broad understanding of the genre difficult. In Wilder’s satyr play, The Drunken Sisters, Apollo gets the three Fates drunk in comic fashion and extracts their promise to spare Admetus. The light-hearted play takes a jarring turn when the Fates realize the trick and reveal that someone must die in Admetus’ stead. Apollo immediately foresees Alcestis’ sacrifice and, distraught, flees the stage.
Wilder’s interest in the myth of Alcestis began close to the dawn of his literary career. Martin Blank traces this interest to a reference in his 1930 novel, The Women of Andros, and documents Wilder’s intermittent attention to an Alcestis project throughout the 1930s.1 Wilder gave up on writing his version of the play in 1939, but resurrected his enthusiasm after his service in World War II, when his brother called his attention to the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.2 Wilder himself, in a note accompanying the play’s first production, credits Kierkegaard with his play’s focus on “the extreme difficulty of any dialogue between heaven and earth.”3 Nevertheless, Wilder tabled the project, again citing a need to devote further thought to his personal views on the philosophical issues it raised, although he includes Act I in summary form as the “Alcestiad of Catullus” in The Ides of March (1948).4
When he finally completed the play in 1955, Wilder premiered it in Edinburgh under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, who had directed The Matchmaker the previous year.5 Guthrie made significant changes to the text, notably presenting it under the title A Life in the Sun. He also inserted The Drunken Sisters between the first and second acts, where it fits chronologically but violates the traditional structure of a Greek tetralogy.6 As the critical reaction was far from favorable, Wilder did not bring the play to Broadway as planned.7 Instead, he collaborated with Herbert E. Herlitschke on a German translation, and the play was presented in Zurich as Die Alkestiade—with the satyr play at the end—to wildly favorable reviews.8
The Alcestiad has earned less praise than some of Wilder’s other dramas, but Owen Brady and Martin Blank have identified it as a “magnum opus,”9 a characterization supported by Wilder’s lengthy preoccupation with the project as well as its structure and themes.10 Critics note Kierkegaard’s influence especially in Alcestis’ struggle to understand and interact with Apollo, though Lifton argues that Wilder undermines his own existentialist message by introducing Apollo to the audience.11
The difficulty of communication with the divine was a popular topic with classical Greek dramatists, which helps explain why Wilder wrote his play as a Greek tetralogy. In a 1955 introduction to Oedipus Rex, Wilder lamented the loss in modern theater of “tremendum,” the sense of awe conveyed by the religious aspect of classical drama. Haberman detects the influence of Sophocles’ “religious intensity” in The Alcestiad.12 Indeed, Wilder’s Alcestis is very like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, as Wilder noted,” represents man setting out on a journey of self-knowledge and inquiry” in solving the riddle of the Sphinx.13 As Sophocles did with Oedipus, Wilder uses Alcestis to examine the nature of living through man’s relation to an unknowable divine;14 and (again like Oedipus), she finally achieves parity with and understanding of the divine as Apollo guides her from the stage.15
10Ibid., 417-18, note 2.
Blank, Martin. “The Alcestiad: The Play and Opera” in Martin Blank, ed. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder. G.K. Hall, 1996.
Brady, Owen. “The Alcestiad: Wilder’s Herculean Labor to Solve the Riddle of Identity,” in Martin Blank et al., eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Locust Hill Press, 1999.
Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Wesleyan University Press, 1967.
Lifton, Paul. “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theater of Thornton Wilder. Praeger, 1995.
Wilder, Thornton. “Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex,” in Thornton Wilder and J. D. McClatchy (ed.) Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Library of America, 2007.
For further discussions of The Alcestiad, please visit the Bibliography.
[ Back to Works ]