By now, we have all heard the story. Like so many tragedies, this one begins with a husband and his wife. The husband seems a happy man, preeminent among his contemporaries, affable, well liked, someone whose weaknesses are balanced by a remarkable gift for inspiring affection and loyalty. (His relatives, on the other hand, are thought to be cold and greedy.) The wife, whose fiery inner passions are belied by a conventional exterior—she exults in the small routines of domestic life—is intensely, some might say madly, devoted to him. They have two small children: a boy, a girl.
Then something goes wrong. Some who have studied this couple say that it is the husband who grotesquely betrays the wife; others, who consider the wife too intense, too disagreeably self-involved, dispute the extent of the husband’s culpability. (As often happens with literary marriages, each has fanatical partisans and just as fanatical detractors—most of whom, it must be said, are literary critics.) What we do know is that directly as a result of her husband’s actions, the wife willingly goes to her death—but not before taking great pains to guarantee the safety of her two children. Most interesting and poignant of all, the knowledge of her impending death inspires the wife to previously unparalleled displays of eloquence: as her final hours approach, she articulates, with thrilling lyricism, what she knows about life, womanhood, marriage, death—and seems, as she does so, to speak for all women. It is only after her death, many feel, that her husband realizes the extent of his loss. She comes back, in a way, to haunt him: a speaking subject no longer, but rather the eerily silent object of her husband’s solicitous, perhaps compensatory, ministrations.
This is the plot of Euripides’ Alcestis. That it also resembles, uncannily in some respects, the plot of the life of Ted Hughes—whose final, posthumously published work is an “adaptation” of Euripides’ play—may or may not be a coincidence. Because Hughes’s Alcestis is a liberal adaptation, it cannot, in the end, illuminate this most controversial work of the most controversial of the Greek dramatists. (Scholars still can’t decide whether it’s supposed to be farce or tragedy.) But the choices Hughes makes as a translator and adapter (what he leaves out, what he adds, what he smoothes over) do shed unexpected light on his career, and his life.
As Ted Hughes neared the end of his life, he devoted himself to translating a number of classical texts: a good chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1997, Racine’s Phèdre in 1998 (performed by the Almeida Theatre Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 1999), and Aeschylus’ Oresteia, commissioned by the Royal National Theatre for a performance in 1999 and published posthumously in that year. Hughes had translated one other classical text: Seneca’s Oedipus, for a 1968 production by the Old Vic starring John Gielgud and Irene Worth. But with the exception of that work, which was well suited to his tastes and talents, the fit between the translator and the texts was never a comfortable one.
Hughes made his name as a poet of nature, and excluding the translations (he also translated Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and Lorca’s Blood Wedding) and the self-revealing 1997 Birthday Letters, addressed to his late wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, he rarely strayed from the natural world, for which he had extraordinary imaginative sympathy (and which in turn inspired his fascination with Earth-Mother folklore and animistic magic). A glance at his published work reveals the following titles: The Hawk in the Rain, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Flowers and Insects, Wolfwatching, Rain-Charm for the Duchy, Cave Birds, The River. “They are a way of connecting all my deepest feelings together,” Hughes told an interviewer who’d asked why he spoke so often through animals. Yet the poet’s appreciation for—and artistic use of—the life of birds, fish, insect predators, of barnyards and wild landscapes, was anything but sentimental. As Helen Vendler observed in a review of the 1984 collection The River, Hughes, who liked to represent himself “as a man who has seen into the bottomless pit of aggression, death, murder, holocaust, catastrophe,” had taken as his real subject “the moral squalor attending the brute survival instinct.”1 In Hughes’s best poetry, the natural world, with its dazzling beauties and casual cruelties, served as an ideal vehicle for investigating that dark theme.
It was a theme for which his tastes in language and diction particularly well suited him. Especially at the beginning of his career, the verse in which Hughes expressed himself was tough, vivid, sinewy, full (as Vendler wrote about The River) of “violent phrases, thick sounds, explosive words,” the better to convey a vision of life according to which an ordinary country bird, say, can bristle with murderous potential. “Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn/More coiled steel than living—a poised/Dark deadly eye…,” goes the violent beginning of “Thrushes,” from the 1960 collection Lupercal, hissing suggestively with alliterative s’s, exploding with menacing t’s and d’s, thick with cackling c’s and k’s. It was Hughes’s “virile, deep banging” poems that first entranced the young Plath; she wrote home to her mother about them. (At the end of his career a certain slackness and talkiness tended to replace virile lyric intensity; few of the Birthday Letters poems, for instance, achieved more than a documentary interest. Hughes himself seemed to be aware of this. “I keep writing this and that, but it seems pitifully little for the time I spend pursuing it,” he wrote to his friend Lucas Myers in 1984. “I wonder sometimes if things might have gone differently without the events of ’63 and ’69 [Plath’s suicide in 1963 and, in 1969, the suicide of Hughes’s companion Assia Wevill, who also killed the couple’s daughter]. I have an idea of these two episodes as giant steel doors shutting down over great parts of myself…. No doubt a more resolute artist would have penetrated the steel doors.”)
A taste for violence in both theme and diction is undoubtedly what drew the younger Hughes to Seneca’s Oedipus. The rhetorical extravagance of the Stoic philosopher and dramatist’s verse, the sense of language being pushed to its furthest extremes, the famously Baroque descriptions of the violence to which the body can be subjected: these have long been acknowledged as characteristic of Seneca’s style. In his introduction to the published version of the Oedipus translation, Hughes (who in works such as his 1977 collection Gaudete warned against rejecting the primordial aspect of nature in favor of cold intellectualism) commented on his preference for the “primitive” Senecan treatment of the Oedipus myth over the “fully civilized” Sophoclean version. Seneca’s blood-spattered text afforded Hughes plenty of opportunities to indulge his penchant for the uncivilized, often to great effect: his renderings of Seneca’s dense Latin have an appropriately clotted, claustrophobic feel, and don’t shy away from all the gore. The man who, in a poem called “February 17th,” coolly describes the aftermath of his decapitation of an unborn lamb in utero (“a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups”) was clearly not fazed by incest and self-mutilation. “My blood,” Hughes’s Jocasta says, “…poured on/into him blood from my toes my finger ends/blind blood blood from my gums and eyelids/blood from the roots of my hair…/flowed into the knot of his bowels…,” etc.
Hughes’s Seneca was good, strong stuff because in Seneca, as in Hughes’s own work, theme and language are meant to work at the same pitch—the moral squalor was nicely matched by imagistic, prosodic, and linguistic squalor. Hughes was much less successful when, a generation later, he returned to classical texts—especially the dramas. You could certainly make the case that classical tragedy (and its descendants in French drama of Racine’s siècle classique) is about nothing if not the moral squalor that attends the brute survival instinct—not least the audience’s sense of moral squalor, its guilty pleasure in not being at all like the exalted but doomed scapegoat-hero. But it is an error typical of Hughes as a translator to think that you can extract the squalid contents from the highly stylized form and still end up with something that has the power and dreadful majesty of the Oresteia or Phèdre. (Commenting on The River, Professor Vendler observed that “Hughes notices in nature what suits his purpose”2 : the same is true of his approach to the classics.)
It’s not that Hughes’s translations of Racine and Aeschylus can’t convey with great vividness the moral and emotional states of the characters; they can. “I have not drunk this strychnine day after day/As an idle refreshment,” Hughes’s besotted Phèdre tells her stepson, with an appropriately astringent mix of pathos and wryness. His Clytemnestra has “a man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body/ Like a polished blade”—lines that Aeschylus never wrote, it’s true, but that convey the poet’s preoccupation particularly with the threateningly androgynous character of his monstrous queen. But what Hughes’s classical translations (and so many others, most notably the very uneven new Penn Greek Drama Series edited by David Slavitt and Palmer Bovie) lack—disastrously—is grandeur. And the grandeur of high tragedy arises from the friction between the unruly passions and actions that are represented (incestuous longings, murderous and suicidal violence—moral squalor, in short) and the highly, if not indeed rigidly, stylized poetic forms that contain them: Racine’s glacially elegant alexandrines, or the insistent iambic trimeters of the Greek dialogue, alternating at regular intervals with choral lyrics in elaborate meters. (William Christie, the leader of the Baroque music ensemble Les Arts Florissants, has spoken of “the high stylization that releases, rather than constrains, emotion.”)
Hughes—never committed to strict poetic form to begin with, and increasingly given to loose, unrhythmical versification—is suspicious of the formal restraints that characterize the classical. Like so many contemporary translators of the classics, he mistakes artifice for stiffness, and restraint for lack of feeling, and he tries to do away with them. In his Oresteia the diction is more elevated than what you find in some new translations (certainly more so than what you find in David Slavitt’s Oresteia translation for the Penn Greek Drama series, which has Clytemnestra pouring a “cocktail of vintage evils” and addressing the chorus leader as “mister”), but still Hughes tends too much to tone things down, smooth things out, explain things away.
Few moments in Greek drama are as moving as the chorus’s description in the Agamemnon of Iphigeneia, about to be sacrificed at Aulis by Agamemnon, pleading for her life “with prayers and cries to her father” and then, even more poignantly, after she has been brutally gagged, “hurling at the sacrificers piteous arrows of the eyes.” But Hughes’s rather suburban Iphigenia cries “Daddy, Daddy” and simply weeps (“her eyes swivel in their tears”). Such choices remind you of how much the extreme figurative language that Aeschylus gives his characters has regularly confounded, not to say embarrassed, translators. The Watchman at the opening of the Agamemnon is so terrified of the adulterous, man-emulating queen that he can’t even talk to himself about it: “A great ox stands upon my tongue,” he mutters ominously. The line has tremendous archaic heft and power, something that cannot be said for Hughes’s “Let their tongue lie still—squashed flat.”
No doubt because of the many opportunities the Metamorphoses affords for crafting images of the animals into which so many characters are transformed, the most successful of Hughes’s late-career translations is his Tales from Ovid. But even here the poet fails to realize how important Ovid’s form is. In his introduction, Hughes makes due reference to the Hellenophile poet’s “sweet, witty soul,” but he’s clearly far more interested in what he sees as the Metamorphoses’ subject: “a torturous subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.” He manages, in other words, to find the Seneca in Ovid. And yet the pleasure of Ovid’s epic lies precisely in the delicate tension between all those regressive, grotesque, nature-based metamorphoses and the “fully civilized” verses in which they are narrated: a triumph of Culture over Nature if ever there was one. Hughes’s Ovid is often very effective, but it is not sweet and witty.
It’s tempting to think that Hughes found Euripides’ Alcestis interesting precisely because this work—the tragedian’s earliest surviving play—presents so many problems of both form and content. With its unpredictable oscillations in tone and style, it seems positively to invite abandonment of formal considerations altogether. “A critic’s battlefield,” the scholar John Wilson wrote in his introduction to a 1968 collection of essays on the play.3 The war continues to rage on.
Alcestis was first performed in 438 BCE in Athens at the Greater Dionysia, an annual combined civic and religious festival, including a dramatic competition, that must have resembled a cross between the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and the Oscars. The drama was presented as the fourth play in a tetralogy—the final spot, that is, in which amusingly bawdy “satyr plays” were normally presented, presumably to alleviate the pity and fear triggered by the three tragedies that had preceded it on stage. (The three that preceded Alcestis, two of which seem to have dealt with the sufferings of passionate women, are lost.) And yet, this fourth play—in which Queen Alcestis voluntarily dies in place of her husband, King Admetos, when the appointed day of his death is at hand, only to be brought back from Hades by Herakles in the play’s bizarre finale—unsettlingly mixes elements of high tragedy with its scenes of comic misunderstandings, elaborate teasing, and drunken hijinks.
The first, “tragic” half of the short drama begins with a somber expository prologue by Apollo, followed by a debate between Apollo and Death, who has come to claim Alcestis and who is warned that he won’t, in the end, get his way. We are then plunged into the mortal world and a mood of unrelenting gloom: a heart-rending scene of Alcestis’ slow death; her farewells to her children (whom she relinquishes to her husband on the condition that he not neglect them) and to her husband (who vows never to remarry); her impassioned outburst, addressed to her marriage bed, as she sees death approaching; her funeral procession, which is interrupted by a violent argument between Admetos and his aged father, Pheres (who along with his elderly wife refused to die in his son’s place when given the chance to do so); and a grief-stricken Admetos’ return to his empty house after the funeral.
The second, “comic” half presents the spectacle of the rambunctious Herakles’ arrival at the house of mourning (he is en route to yet another of his Labors); Admetos’ excruciatingly diplomatic efforts to keep up his reputation as a good friend and legendary host (he doesn’t want Her-akles to know Alcestis has died lest his guest feel unwelcome); a drunken, feasting Herakles’ discovery of the truth, and his subsequent vow to bring his friend’s wife back; and the hero’s rescue of Alcestis after a wrestling match with Death himself, which takes place beside Alcestis’ tomb. The play ends with the eerie spectacle of a triumphant Herakles, like the father of a bride, handing over the veiled and silent figure of Alcestis to Admetos without, at first, telling Admetos who the woman is—teasing him in order to prolong the suspense. She never speaks again during the course of the play.
The hodgepodge of moods, styles, and themes has made interpretation of this strange work particularly thorny. To cite John Wilson further:
Even the genre to which the play belongs is disputed—is it a tragedy, a satyr play, or the first example of a tragicomedy? Who is the main character, Alcestis or Admetos? And through whose eyes are we to see this wife and this husband? Is Alcestis as noble as she says she is? And is Admetos worthy of her devotion, or does he deserve all the blame that his father, Pheres, heaps upon him? And is the salvation of Alcestis a true mystery, a sardonic “and so they lived happily ever after,” or simply the convenient end of an entertainment?
These questions continue to puzzle classicists, despite radical shifts in the way we read classical texts. Since Wilson wrote in the 1960s, no literary-critical school has influenced classical scholarship so much as feminist studies has; and the Alcestis has proved an especially rich vehicle for scholars interested in demonstrating the extent to which literary production in classical Greece reflected the “patriarchal” bias of Athenian society during its cultural heyday. “The genre of the Alcestis,” the classicist Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz has written in a stimulating if perhaps too ideologically rigid study of Euripides’ handling of female characters, “…depends on gender. On the surface, it is comic: death leads to life, and a funeral resolves into a wedding. But is it a happy ending for Alcestis as well as for Admetos? Although funeral and wedding may seem to be opposites, they come to much the same thing for this woman.”4
But you don’t have to be a feminist hard-liner to have your doubts about Admetos. Even at the very beginning of the drama, as Alcestis lies dying within the house, the King’s self-involvement takes your breath away. It is true that the laments he utters in his exchange with the dying Alcestis are all fairly conventional (“Don’t forsake me,” “I am nothing without you”) and yet their cumulative effect is unsettling: gradually, it strikes you that for Admetos this domestic disaster is all about him. Alcestis’ death, he cries, is “heavier than any death of my own”—an appeal for sympathy that’s a bit much, considering that she’s dying precisely because he was afraid to. He’s Periclean Athens’s answer to the fellow in the joke about the classic definition of chutzpah—the one who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.
Admetos makes the dying Alcestis several somewhat excessive promises: among them, a vow to ban all revelry for a full year, and an oath never to take another woman into his house. Yet by the end of the play he will have broken both: first when he allows Herakles to be feted with wine and music, and then when he accepts, as a man might accept a new bride, the anonymous veiled woman into his household—before he knows she’s Alcestis.5 Most bizarrely, he declares that he will have an artisan fashion a statue of Alcestis, which he will take to bed and caress as if it were she—a “cold pleasure,” to be sure, but one that will help to assuage his loss. For some critics, this has a fetishistic, doth-protest-too-much quality; whatever you make of it, it’s striking that, having promised to mourn Alcestis forever, her husband begins, before she even dies, to seek comfort (however cold) for himself.
So the husband is as a weak man in the first part of the play. But he must be so, since whatever “tragic”—or, for that matter, dramatic—development Euripides’ play has depends on Admetos’ evolution—on his starting out as a less than admirable man who comes to realize that the existence he has purchased with his wife’s life isn’t worth having precisely because he has lost her. “Now I understand,” he exclaims at the play’s climax, right before Herakles enters with the resurrected Alcestis. Even so, the King is no hero: Alcestis’ miraculous return from the grave yanks her husband back from the brink of truly tragic self-knowledge, the kind he’d have acquired if he had had to live with his loss, as characters in “real” tragedies do. (When they don’t kill themselves, that is.)
As it is, Admetos gets to eat his cake and have it, too. “Many readers will feel [his grief] does not change him enough,” the Harvard classicist Charles Segal tartly observed in one of several penetrating essays he’s written on this play.6 Richmond Lattimore, who translated the Alcestis for the University of Chicago Greek Drama series nearly half a century ago, was moved, similarly, to question Admetos’ character, using the bemused rhetorical-question mode into which those who have grappled with the Alcestis keep falling, no doubt because the work’s violent wobbling between genres makes any definitive pronouncement seem foolhardy. “If a husband lets his wife die for him,” Lattimore asked, “what manner of man must that husband be?”
Hughes’s Alcestis adaptation invites us to believe that this is, in fact, the wrong question to be asking. His version is wholly unconcerned with Admetos’ flaws, not least because in his version, Admetos has no flaws. Everything in Euripides that suggests we ought to question the husband’s character has here been excised; instead, it’s God who gets the rough treatment. It’s a striking alteration.
The cleanup job begins early on. In Euripides’ play we learn that Apollo, in gratitude for being well treated chez Admetos, has promised the mortal king that he will be able to avoid his death if he can find someone to die in his place; Admetos tries all his loved ones in turn until finally his wife agrees to die for him. But in Hughes’s version, Admetos is spared the embarrassing (indeed, damning) task of begging his relatives—and wife—for volunteers; here, it’s Apollo who “canvasses” for substitutes. In fact, even Apollo doesn’t have to ask Alcestis, as in Euripides’ play Admetos most certainly does: she just volunteers. (It’s interesting that Hughes’s heroine is more faithful to her counterpart in the original than his Admetos is; and when he gives her lines that Euripides didn’t—as when, in her farewell to her daughter, she pathetically exclaims, “She will not even know what I looked like”—the drama is enhanced.)
Similarly, Hughes smoothes away any sign of what Charles Segal calls the “unthinking self-centredness of the husband.”7 He erases the solipsistic whininess from Admetos’ laments at the beginning of the play. The breathtakingly self-involved utterances that Euripides puts in Admetos’ mouth, well-translated by Lattimore—“sorrow for all who love you—most of all for me/and for the children” and “Ah, [‘good-bye’ is] a bitter word for me to hear,/heavier than any death of my own”—here become the considerably less galling “Fight against it, Alcestis./ Fight for your children, for me” and “Good-bye!—don’t use that word./ Only live, live, live, live.” (For American readers, at least, the latter will have an unfortunate Auntie Mame-ish ring.)
Most strikingly, Hughes eradicates any sense of the strange excessiveness of Admetos’ promise to build a replica of his wife, which in the new version becomes a dismissive, indeed incredulous, rhetorical question: “What shall I do,/Have some sculptor make a model of you? Stretch out with it, on our bed,/ Call it Alcestis, whisper to it?/Tell it all I would have told you?/Embrace it—horrible!—stroke it!/Knowing it can never be you….” Hughes’s subtle rewriting inverts the whole point of the scene. The original hints disturbingly at the husband’s readiness to accept a substitute for the dead wife; the new version emphasizes the husband’s steadfast fidelity. (To further deflect blame from Admetos, Hughes makes Pheres particularly disgusting. Here the old man not only refuses to die for his son, but “screeches” and “wails” at the younger man to “Die…clear off and die.”)
Hughes’s alterations, ostensibly mi-nor, ultimately sap the strength of Euripides’ dramatic climaxes. In the original, the climactic scene in which a veiled, voiceless Alcestis returns home to her husband on Herakles’ arm owes much of its eerieness precisely to Admetos’ deathbed promise, which has prepared us for the idea, however odd, that the king will settle for an inhuman facsimile of his dead wife; and lo and behold, at the “happy” ending we see him holding hands with something that could well be such a dummy. But since Hughes has dispensed with Admetos’ vow, the climax loses all of its creepy potential. Once again, the translator’s embarrassment about the grand, bizarre qualities that so often characterize tragic action and diction takes its toll in dramatic effectiveness.
What leads us to a fleeting suspicion that Herakles’ companion is, in fact, nothing more than a statue is the figure’s total silence during a lengthy exchange between Admetos and Herakles—a muteness that clearly disturbs the other characters and, precisely because we’re afraid the silent woman might be just a simulacrum, a revenant, ought to disturb us, the audience, too. In Euripides, an agitated Admetos turns to Herakles and demands: “But why does she just stand there, voiceless?” Fred Chappell’s rendering for the Penn Series, otherwise marred by gimmicks (each scene is introduced by musical directions in Italian, as if it were an opera: “allegro calmando; poi accelerando”), nicely conveys Admetos’ agitation: “But why does my Alcestis stand so silent?” In Hughes’s version, an ever-polite Admetos blandly murmurs, “Will she speak?” You wonder whether he cares.
On the face of it, at least part of the reason for Hughes’s shifting of emphasis—and any suspicion of moral weakness—away from Admetos is that he wants his adaptation to be a grand dramatic and poetic statement about the triumph of the human spirit, about mortality and the victory of love over death. The husband and wife are idealized, whereas there’s a lot of complaining about “God” and his pettiness and cruel indifference to human suffering (“As usual, God is silent”). To bolster this cosmic interpretation of the original, Hughes adds, in the Herakles scene, elaborate riffs on Aeschylus’ anti-authoritarian Prometheus Bound, with its questioning of Zeus’ justice, and on Euripides’ own profoundly anti-religious Madness of Herakles (in which the hero, freshly returned home from his labors, is temporarily maddened by a vengeful goddess and in his delusion murders his wife and children). And Hughes’s dark mutterings about “nuclear bomb[s] spewing a long cloud/of consequences” and the accusatory descriptions of God as “the maker of the atom” who is served by “electro-technocrats” suggest as well that the poet had not given up his preference for primitive Nature over cold Culture.
Yet even as Hughes ups the thematic ante in his adaptation, formal problems seriously undercut his ambitions; perhaps inevitably when dealing with the Alcestis, the translation is, even more than his others, marred by the poet’s inability to find a suitable tone. In what looks like an attempt to convey the tonal variety of Euripides’ hybrid drama, Hughes experiments more than previously with slangy, playful diction. The results can be odd, and often betray the dignity of the original where it is, in fact, dignified. “You may call me a god./You may call me whatever you like,” Hughes’s Apollo says in his prologue speech, which in the original is crucial for setting the mournful tone of the entire first half. It’s a bizarre thing for Apollo to say: characters in Greek tragedies get zapped by thunderbolts for even less presumptuous haggling with divinities. (The Alcestis begins, in fact, with a dire reference to Zeus’ incineration of the hubristic Aesculapius, Apollo’s son, who dared to raise the dead—the first allusion to the all-important theme of resurrection.) Apollo goes on: “The dead must die forever./That is what the thunder said. The dead/Are dead are dead are dead are dead/Forever….” You suspect Hughes is trying here to convey the thudding infinite nothingness of death, but bits like this are unfortunate reminders that the translator was also a prolific author of children’s books. The intrusion of comic informality is hard enough to adjust to in Euripides’ Alcestis, where the biggest moral problem is a husband’s gross inadequacies; but it’s a disaster in Hughes’s Alcestis, where the big moral problem is God’s gross inadequacies.
Hughes wasn’t the first widower poet for whom the opportunity to translate the Alcestis served as the vehicle for a corrective shift in emphases. In Robert Browning’s long historical poem Balaustion’s Adventure (the subtitle is “Including a Transcript of Euripides”), which was composed after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, a poetess comes to Athens from Rhodes to meet Euripides, and then sets about adapting the Alcestis. But her version—and, by extension, the Browning version—turns out to be a redemptive one. In it, “a new Admetos” rejects out of hand Alcestis’ offer to die in his place: “‘Tis well that I depart, and thou remain,” he tells his wife, with whom, indeed, he gets to enjoy a fairy-tale posterity. (“The two,” Browning writes, “lived together long and well.”) Hughes’s adaptation renovates Euripides along comparable lines. If the ancient dramatist’s Alcestis forces us to ask “If a husband lets his wife die for him, what manner of man must that husband be?” then the contemporary poet’s Alcestis asks “If God lets people die, what manner of god must He be?” In Hughes, as in Browning, there are no guilty husbands—no profound delving into the emotional (if not moral) squalor that often goes with being the survivor. There are just guilty abstractions.
Disturbing silences like the one with which Euripides’ Alcestis concludes are a leitmotif in the drama of Plath and Hughes. In Bitter Fame, her biography of Plath, Anne Stevenson describes a tiff between Plath and Olwyn Hughes that took place during the Christmas holidays in 1960: depending on whose side you’re on, the episode demonstrates either Plath’s irrationality or Olwyn Hughes’s coldness. In response to a remark of Olwyn’s that she was “awfully critical,” Plath “glared accusingly” at her sister-in-law but refused to respond, keeping up her “unnerving stare” in total silence. “Why doesn’t she say something?” Olwyn recalled thinking. (That would have been an excellent translation of Admetos’ climactic line, conveying vividly the frustration and unease of someone faced with this particular brand of passive-aggressiveness.) Just a few years ago, Olwyn Hughes, in a letter to Janet Malcolm, was clearly still smarting from what Malcolm, in her book about Plath and Hughes entitled The Silent Woman, called Plath’s “Medusan,” “deadly, punishing” speechlessness.
But if Plath was, like Alcestis, the “silent woman,” Hughes himself was the silent man—aggressively, punishingly so, at least in the eyes of those who wanted to know more about the characters in this famous literary/domestic “tragedy,” the passions of whose “characters” only the language of Greek myth and classical drama, it sometimes seems, can capture. (“They have eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld,” Malcolm wrote; “I go about full with the darkness of my flame, like Phèdre…,” Plath herself wrote.) When Hughes’s Birthday Letters appeared in 1997, it met with a variety of reactions: horror, joy, shock, surprise, anxiety, enthusiasm, etc. But what everyone agreed on was that it was, in essence, a relief: finally, Hughes was speaking.
And why not? “Ted Hughes’s history seems to be uncommonly bare of the moments of mercy that allow one to undo or redo one’s actions and thus feel that life isn’t entirely tragic,” Malcolm wrote. Birthday Letters was viewed by many as a kind of second chance, an opportunity to undo, or perhaps to redo, his public image with respect to his dead wife. (The same is true of the personal effects—passports, letters, photographs, manuscripts—that had belonged to Hughes, and which appear to have been the bases for several of the “Letters.” “He is thought of by critics as being so self-protective and so unrevealing of himself,” said Stephen Enniss, the curator of literary collections at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. “I think the archive will make him appear more human, more sympathetic than the detached voice and aloofness we had known.”)
Writers—even those who appear aloof and voiceless about their private lives—can reveal themselves inadvertently. Reading Malcolm’s description of the trapped Hughes, I found it hard not to think of Euripides’ Alcestis, a play that notoriously allows a flawed man to undo and redo the fatal past. The undoings and redoings you find in Hughes’s almost inadvertently moving adaptation of that work—the elisions, omissions, and reconfigurations—suggest that the poet’s most revealing public utterance with respect to Plath may not have been the Birthday Letters after all. In her way—her “veiled” way—the most eloquent figure, among so many strange and tragic silences, has turned out to be Euripides’ silent woman.
April 27, 2000
Helen Vendler, The Music of What Happens (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 198, 200. ↩
Vendler, The Music of What Happens, p. 197. ↩
John Wilson, editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Euripides’ Alcestis: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 1. ↩
Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women (Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 70-71. ↩
Some textual critics, among them the editor of the most recent Oxford edition of the Greek text, have argued that two crucial lines in the “handing over” scene are spurious, and would delete them. If accepted, such a deletion would make the scene read as Admetos knows before he accepts her hand that the woman Herakles presents him with is in fact Alcestis. I am persuaded, however, by the analysis of Michael R. Halleran, who argues on both structural and ritual grounds—the versification here replicates that of two earlier, crucial lines, and the scene seems to replay key features of the Greek wedding ceremony—that the lines are genuine. (“Text and Ceremony at the Close of Euripides’ Alkestis,” Eranos, Vol. 86 (1988), pp. 123-139. ↩
Now collected in an elegant volume entitled Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrows: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba (Duke University Press, 1993). ↩
Segal, Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrows, p. 51. ↩