Keith Sagar: "Alcestis"

Introductory Talk on Alcestis for the Performance at the Lowry in Salford, by Northern Broadsides. © Keith Sagar, 2000

[Introductory matter]

When Tony Harrison wrote his version of Sophocles's The Trackers in 1988, he created the part of Silenus, the leader of the satyrs, specially for Barrie Rutter, who had already worked with him in The Oresteia and The Mysteries. He exploited Rutter's Yorkshire accent; and the satyrs became clog dancers. Barrie Rutter's experience of working in these productions led him to conceive of a theatre company of northern actors using their native idiom to present largely classical plays and Shakespeare in northern mills in a style accessible to popular audiences such as those to whom Greek plays and medieval mysteries were presented. This company, Northern Broadsides, has been operating for several years, and recently won a grant of £100,000 for its innovative work.

Rutter had for some time been an admirer of Ted Hughes:

"I wrote to Ted Hughes once to congratulate him on one of his works, and he wrote back saying his tuning fork had always been in the Calder Valley. After that, we kept corresponding until his death".

Shortly before his death Hughes gave the manuscript of Alcestis to Rutter with the express wish that it should receive its premiere in the Calder Valley.

Here Keith Sagar, author and editor of several books on Hughes (most recently The Laughter of Foxes, Liverpool University Press, 2000) puts Alcestis in the context first of Greek theatre, then of Hughes's life and work.  


By far the most important religious festival in ancient Athens, the equivalent of our Easter, celebrated the annual rebirth of Dionysos, the god of nature, wildness and wine. The worship of Dionysos sought to keep a balance between the civic values of patriarchal Athenian society, law and order, intellect, culture, (all under the aegis of Apollo and Athena herself), and everything the city walls excluded — untamed nature, the passions, the female. Dionysos was always attended by his Maenads or Bacchantes — wild women intoxicated, if not with wine, then with the spirit of the god, and satyrs, who represented men at their least civilized, their most bestial. Their realm was the wooded hills beyond the control of the city.

The pattern of the Great Dionysia was that on three of the days of the festival some 15—17000 people (including many visitors from elsewhere) would gather at first light for the performance of three tragedies (often in the form of a trilogy) and a satyr play by the same author, who was also responsible for staging his plays. These would be over before noon. There would then be a long break through the hottest part of the day. The audience would reassemble in the late afternoon for the performance of a comedy by a different author.

Of the several thousand plays that must have been written in the fifth century alone, only a tiny proportion has survived, including only one complete trilogy, The Oresteia, and only one and a half satyr plays, the Cyclops of Euripides and the Trackers of Sophocles. Of the 80 or so plays written by Aeschylus only seven have survived. Of the 120 by Sophocles, only seven, and of the 88 by Euripides, only eighteen.

We must never forget that Greek drama remained, throughout the fifth century, total theatre, using music, song and ballet. Not only the chorus, but the actors also would frequently burst into song, as in a modern musical. An original performance of a Greek tragedy was probably a good deal closer to West Side Story than to any of the stiff, emasculated theatre productions we used to get. Nor must we forget the difference it makes that we are speaking of open-air, theatre drenched by the Mediterranean sun. ›Theatre‹ in Greek meant a seeing-place. The actors saw the audience as clearly as the audience saw the actors. They were united in a shared experience. Greek tragedy is, in Tony Harrison's words, "open-eyed about suffering". Its whole point is to bring dark things into the light (as Oedipus says) where we can look at them together.

›Tragedy‹ meant ›goat song‹ in Greek. We have little idea of what the word came to mean to the Greeks as a description of a play. The essential subject-matter of Greek tragedy (as perhaps of all great literature) was the relationship between man, nature and the gods, or, in Sophocles' words "the encounters of man with more than man". Tragedy usually expressed what happened to society, the family and the individual psyche when the balance between Dionysos and Apollo, between men and the gods, between male and female, between body and mind, was lost, usually through hubris, that suicidal pride which leads men to behave as though they are gods, or independent of Necessity.

Our own idea of tragedy derives largely from Aristotle and from Shakespeare. But Aristotle in his Poetics was not attempting to define or even describe tragedy. He was writing a book of advice to would-be playwrights. His advice was simple: study the best of the ancient tragedies and use it as a model. And the best seemed to him to be far and away Oedipus the King by Sophocles. However, many of the surviving tragedies are nothing like Oedipus the King. The oldest of them, Aeschylus' The Persians is half history play. Even the Oresteia itself, tragic enough in its first two parts, does not have, in our sense, a tragic ending. Moreover, Sophocles' contemporaries seem not to have been as impressed by Oedipus the King as Aristotle was a century later, since in the year Sophocles entered it for the Great Dionysia he came only second.

It seems that there were no hard and fast rules about the form and content of the tragedies. The convention was that they should draw their plots and characters from the body of inherited myth, though the myths could be very freely reinterpreted. Some of the tragedies are characterized by the greatest suffering and vilest crimes ever depicted on a stage, but others are light in touch and have happy endings. For centuries Shakespeare's problem plays and late romances were neglected simply because they did not fit into the neat pigeon-holes of tragedy or comedy. We should hesitate before trying to make Greek plays fit our later categories.

The satyr plays were farcical and vulgar, burlesques rather than satires. The Satyr play was so called because it employed a chorus of satyrs led by Silenus. The satyrs were as unheroic and grossly physical as it is possible to get. They had abundant hair and beards, broad noses, pointed ears, horse tails, and large, permanently erect phalluses. They represented natural as opposed to civilized man, everything man shares with the beasts. Their characteristics were naive curiosity, acquisitiveness, lust, drunkenness, lying, boasting and cowardice. They were completely amoral.

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About the Author

Keith Sagar, formerly Reader in English Literature at Manchester University, is the author of several books of criticism on Ted Hughes, including The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes and Ted Hughes and Nature: 'Terror and Exultation'.

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