9780374527266 / 0374527261

Alcestis: A Play


Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux



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About the book:

The qualities that make classic Greek Drama often so difficult to relate to on the modern stage--its weird formality, its lyricised violence, its declamatory tone and peculiar plotting--paradoxically make it perfect for translating into modern poetry. The late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes proved this himself with his Whitbread Prize-winning Tales From Ovid. In that fine translation Hughes's pagan fatalism and passionate craftsmanship proved an ideal match for one of the greatest of Greek texts.

Now this new poem/play shows that Hughes's previous success was far from a one-off. Euripides's story is simply summarised: a rich and esteemed Greek king, Admetos, has been asked for his life by the Gods. In place of Admetos, the king's beautiful wife Alcestis, mother of their two beloved children, offers to sacrifice herself. Meanwhile Admetos's beer-buddy, the hero Heracles (i.e. Hercules), has shown up at the palace, ready to do some carousing. On this clash of personalities and circumstances the play tilts, and turns--until the world is eventually put to rights.

The joy of this work is in the language. Hughes/Euripides is by turns vernacular: "I need to get my double nelson on an immortal neck", lyrical: "I have nailed her to the sun with a laser", and pungent: "What loathsome sacks of refuse old men are!". Other times the writing is almost casual in its modernity, which makes what could otherwise be a dense and disappointing text fresh and accessible.

Ted Hughes died, of course, in 1998: a short while after completing work on this version. His death seems all the more poignant in that, taking into account the other late, great works--Birthday Letters, and Tales From Ovid--alongside this noble and moving translation, he appeared to be approaching the height of his powers in his final months. But at least we have the books. --Sean Thomas

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