“I will be acting in a production of Alcestis, can you tell me anything about Ted Hughes’ translation/adaptation?”.

Alcestis was one of the last projects Hughes worked on before he died in 1998. It was first produced by Barrie Rutter, who is Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides drama company in Halifax, northern England, in September, 2000. Ted had corresponded frequently with Barrie Rutter, and in a telephone call to me shortly before he died, Ted told me he had sent Barrie the script, and that he hoped that Alcestis would be a play many small theatre companies would tackle, because it was “just a short play and it might be done over and over”.

Alcestis is a tragedy into which Euripides introduced a satyr play (the part in which Heracles appears), thus mixing the usual categories of Greek Drama. The subject matter of Greek tragedies was the relationship between humans and the gods, they drew their themes and characters from Greek myths but they dealt with very human situations. Satyr plays were amoral, vulgar and satirical and they poked fun at heroes. At Greek Festivals they were apparently performed after the tragedies, presumably to relieve tension. Alcestis contains both.

Ted felt very strongly that the ritual, mythic level of Greek tragedy was very important – that this was what worked the magic on the audience. Talking to me about Alcestis on the phone that day, he said that actors sometimes “had difficulty adapting from their modern, ironic style to something like Phaedra [another Classical Greek drama adapted by Hughes], which requires intensity and depth”. And that they needed to “take a more intense approach to the emotion of the text”, because Greek drama was “half Japanese – Noh” – by which he meant that it had the same ritual nature. Actors, he said, sometimes took time “to get inside the skin of the tiger”.

When Ted outlined the plot of Alcestis to me, he clearly recognized the similarity between the theme of Alcestis and events in his own life. And in his adaptation of the play there are many lines which could well have applied to Ted’s own situation and feelings after the deaths of both Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill. The Chorus, even before the death of Alcestis, says of Admetus: “He does not know what loss is / When everything is too late / The he will know it / When he has to live with what has happened”. And Admetus says: “I shall mourn for you, Alcestis / Not for a year, but for my entire life”. Hughes’ poetry sequences Birthday Letters, Howls & Whispers and Capriccio show just how much this also applied to Hughes himself.

There is a page of notes and photographs of Barry Rutter’s production of Alcestis on the Northern Broadsides web-pages at:

Keith Sagar’s essay on Alcestis, which was written at Barry Rutter’s request and presented at The Lowry Centre, Manchester, when the play was performed there, can be downloaded from his web page: Alcestis.

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© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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