Jul 4, 2014

Alcestis: A God and his Boyfriend in Ancient Greece

During my freshman year at Augustana, I took a course in Greek Literature.  We had to read The Iliad, The Homeric Hymns, and plays by Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Of course, the professor tried his best to eliminate all traces of same-sex desire, presenting the ancient Greeks as rampaging heterosexuals.

He wasn't successful with Alcestis (438 BCE) by Euripides.

The plot synopsis makes it seem entirely heterosexist: Apollo offers to let King Admentus live past his allotted life span, if he can find someone to die in his place.  His devoted wife Alcestis offers to go.

But what actually happens is: Apollo offers Admentus immortality because he likes him. A lot.

In Greek mythology, Apollo lives with Admentus for several year before this story takes place. The lyric poet Callimachus says that they were lovers.  Thanatos (Death) even taunts Apollo about wasting his time on short-lived mortals.

Admentus has a human admirer in Hercules, who arrives without realizing that Alcestis is about to die.  Admentus is supposed to be in mourning, but he's so happy to see his friend that they spend the night carousing.

In the morning, apprised of the situation, Hercules rushes off and wrestles with Thanatos in order to bring Alcestis back to life (this is a rather a buffed Alcestis).

So it's not about hetero-romance spanning life and death after all.  It's about a man turning over Heaven and Hell to help his friend.

I never thought that Greek dramas could be staged well.  They're too alien to modern sentiments. But Alcestis has been staged several times recently, usually with Ted Hughes' 1999 translation that avoids the homoerotic subtext -- text, actually -- to concentrate on the romance between devoted husband and wife.

Here the Ted Hughes version is performed at Bates College in 2009.

There's also an opera version, Alceste, by  Gluck (1767).

In 2013, a Cuban-American troupe performed Alcestis Ascending in New York, with script by University of Alabama professor Seth Panitch. It's in Spanish and English.

See also: Greek Mythology.