Euripides has long been regarded, amongst the ancient Greek tragedians, as the most amenable to us today. That is to say, to retrospective eyes, the most “modern” and forward-looking. This is not to adopt a sort of progressivist view of history, but simply to say he adumbrated radical, existential concerns and is in some sorts, perhaps like Marcus Aurelius, one who anticipates the need for a Christian theology.


He certainly seems to have been somewhat isolated in his own age, and may have compromised by introducing important themes (as “irony” in Philip Vellacott’s terms) behind a screen of the popular dramatic panoply expected by his audience. He lost out in the prize-winning stakes to his contemporary, Sophocles (Aeschylus had preceded them both by a generation or so) and was mocked by Aristophanes. Nevertheless, after his death, when Sophocles, his rival, appeared in mourning dress, Euripides’s considerable reputation was not diminished.


The translations produced for Penguin Books in the 1950s and 1960s by Philip Vellacott remain the staple sources for non-Greek readers today. One should not overlook nevertheless that they are in themselves products of recognisably modern times (nobody any longer finds it easy to access Euripides via the more “classic” versions of Gilbert Murray, though, happily, his collected versions of Euripides are still available in hardcover). Vellacott aspires to poetry and uses a loose English hexameter style which is alien to British poetry but is nonetheless flexible and compelling. It sets up an acoustic of anapaests[1] in the inner ear which is pleasingly intermittent. This medium has recently and most impressively been used in David Raeburn’s complete edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2004), also in Penguin Classics, as it was― memorably ― by Kimon Friar in 1958 in his Herculean five-year collaborative translation with Nikos Kazantzakis of his verse epic, The Odyssey – A Modern Sequel.[2] But as far as I know, Vellacott was not producing a commission for the theatre, but a very ambitious and extensive series of translations of classical dramas for publication. He was therefore not pressed by the exigencies of the modern theatre. His versions therefore remain “faithful” to the text as we have it, complete in the case of Alcestis, with careful notes about difficulties and departures, and accordingly a useful benchmark.


The same cannot be said of Ted Hughes’s late version of the same play, late in the sense that Hughes seemed to turn to translation of classical verse drama ― Racine’s Phèdre, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Tales from Ovid, and Euripides’s Alcestis ― in the last years of his life when he may already have been aware of his illness. All were commissions or at least were performed soon after his death in 1998.


What are the barriers that today separate us from such ― perhaps forbiddingly classical ― antique Greek drama? There is no doubt that, like opera in the 19th century, this was the mass popular entertainment of its day, dazzling to contemplate or even imagine in the massive, rotund stone theatre at Epidaurus; yet equally like opera it is something of a fossil in the world of cinema, rock festival and massive electronic stimulation. Nevertheless, theatre itself, though marginalised and increasingly ill-attended, continues to host highly successful productions of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, all of whom have a perennial appeal, on radio as well as stage. My impression is that Aristophanes, though comic, fares less well. In many ways radio has a chastity and potential for auditory imagination which solves many of the problems of communication and brings the viewer closer to the reader.


The Hughes version of Alcestis, completed after a five-year intermission, is touted as being somewhat unfree, by implication, as he


goes beyond mere translation to an inspired rethinking of the story in terms of his own vision of human suffering.[3]


This is more than a little unfair, since a comparison with Vellacott reveals that many of Hughes’s best flourishes are present in the Euripides original. True, Euripides presumably does not refer to the dead as


dead / Forever. / They return to the pool of atoms (p. 2.)


But the comments on marriage, one of Euripides’s core modern concerns, are there in all versions. Hughes allows Alcestis to say in her final appeal to her husband, Admetus,


Protect my children, be their mother,

And guide them

Into strong marriages. (p. 12)


Chorus 2 (Hughes follows Vellacott in slicing up the problematic Greek Chorus: more on this below), after some echoes of Crow and Eliot (both Faber and Hughes are well within their rights to draw on these literary reserves), makes the comment:


Never say marriage

Brings more happiness to those who marry

Than it brings pain.

Think of all the marriages you have known. (pp. 16-17)


Of course there are


additions to the text [which] include an expanded burlesque treatment of Hercules’s drunk scene and an episode involving Prometheus and his vulture (cover blurb)


but these seem wholly justified by the requirement to produce a lively stage production. Actors must love Hughes’s chewy yet naturalistic lines. On first opening his ‘version’, one is inclined to think that this is a novel on legs. The pages quickly turn. The impact on audiences must be immediate. Hughes is a great Shakespearean and has written an immensely ambitious book about his hero[4] and therefore had a vivid appreciation of the necessity for variety and diversity in a two-hour live performance; he therefore welcomed the irruption of grieving servants and rude mechanicals to cavort with Hercules who, in the original text, is hardly inebriated.[5]


So, do we need “powerful” versions like this of Euripides? Undoubtedly, especially when, as with Hughes, there is an underlying armature of constant fidelity to the original text, through which the unmistakable concerns of Euripides are transmitted and even clarified.


Alcestis is not supposed to be a prime tragic work. It is a ‘satyr’ play, usually the last of a series of four, which includes popular appearances of nymphs and satyrs. Yet we have a complete text which begins with an unmistakable announcement of tragic ambition in monologues by Apollo and Death, which subsequently migrate into a dialogue between these two polar characters, who enjoy an almost allergic opposition; in Vellacott’s text (Apollo is speaking):


And I too must leave this house,

Which I love dearly, to avoid the taint of death.[6]


These two characters provide the structure ― the warp and weft ― of the play but never reappear. On this structure are woven the dilemmas of love and sacrifice, relationships between men and women in marriage, the view of women as chattels, the ultimately bleak vision of the universe and, of overwhelming importance to Euripides, the rôles of what he calls Chance and Necessity in human destiny. There is no need  any longer for the author to conceal any of this behind any screen of irony: it is fully explicit in both modern translations.


Let us deal with the pre-Christian metaphysics first and then turn to the problem of the Chorus, which seems to me an obstacle to be chiselled away at.


No Christian really believes in Fate. The ancients had gloomy and deterministic views of the universe, with events emanating from mischievous gods and goddesses who provided extraordinarily poor rôle-models, however comic they are made to appear by Ovid. The narratives are endless. Even if one resorts, as many do, to the most lively and capacious modern treatment, that by Robert Graves in his The Greek Myths, one finds a welter of fast moving detail that scarcely allows the stories to breathe, so vast are the tracts to be covered. No doubt Graves felt this method to be forced upon him.


For a Christian there is the Will of God. This eliminates randomness of all kinds (pace Heisenberg) and Necessity, if this be understood as the opposite of free will. One may therefore describe Euripides as peculiarly prescient in his accurate anticipation of the need for a Christian theology. His concerns were all the right ones. One may doubt his audience’s appetite for philosophy. Still more, one may doubt the appetite of any audience, ancient or modern, for the bleak tragic vision. But from a Christian point of view we cannot but admire the full unveiling of a hostile Fate, as we might say; a controlling but malign and usually arbitrary reality.


All is well here, however, given that Alcestis is somehow resurrected by the obliging Hercules, who yanks Death by means of a mighty arm around his neck and brings the lady home surrounded by nothing worse than a three-day aura of silence.


Let us turn to the problem of the Chorus. This has puzzled and ultimately defeated most translators and modern audiences, including Ezra Pound, who complained mildly to TS Eliot about all the groaning women of Canterbury who appear in the faux-Greek but much performed Murder in the Cathedral. Yet it is precisely the presence of the author and his narratives that make Euripides seem, in the Hughes version, so much like a novel on legs. That is, we have plenty of dialogue but also an unceasing flow of reinforcing commentary, often interpreted as superfluous and therefore banal, in the form of the frequent interventions by the Chorus.


This is recognised in a further, older but interesting translation of Ten Plays by Euripides by Moses Hadas and John McLean.[7] This is a prose but lively rendition in which all the interventions by the Chorus are rendered in italic print. This, it seems to me, brings us closer to the authorial nature of the Chorus, at least on the page. It remains difficult to translate to the stage, particularly as Euripides insists at times on a single, unfragmented Chorus who interacts as a person with the character of Admetus:


I had a kinsman lost his only son,

A boy worth weeping for. Nevertheless,

Though childless in old age,

Yet patiently through the grey downward years

He bore his sorrow. (Vellacott, p. 72; Chorus is speaking)


Admetus has just responded to an intervention by a solo Chorus, as follows:


You touched my heart where the wound lies. (Vellacott, p. 71)


This gives Chorus the opportunity to propose to the stricken Admetus the first great metaphysical theme, before closing in almost as a therapist:


CHORUS: Chance has come upon you; you cannot wrestle with chance.

ADMETUS: I cannot. (Vellacott, p. 71)


Notice that these examples involve true interpersonal interactions. They are therefore noteworthy as exceptions. For the most part Chorus operates as an independent nexus of authorial digression and popular entertainment. Sometimes Chorus moves towards or among characters on stage but is strangely ignored, as if a ghost or, when plural, a company of ghosts. Bear in mind that it is given to Chorus to provide poetic masterpieces, structured antiphonally in Strophe and Antistrophe, as well as semi-redundant commentary. It is said that Greek prisoners in Syracuse were released if they were able to recite some of these, rather as Leadbelly used to sing his way serially out of prisons in the southern United States.


One example is the ‘Hymn to Apollo’ (pp. 61-62 in Vellacott) which is noteworthy. Here is the Antistrophe:


Spotted lynxes loved his music and came

To feed beside his flock,

And a tawny herd of lions

Came from the glen of Orthrys;

And around your lute, Apollo,

Dappled fawns, stepping out

Slender-footed from the high shady fir-trees

Danced for joy to your enchanting notes. (Vellacott, p. 61)


This is worth at least a year or two of time off for good behaviour.


However Chorus is not the sole source of lyricism. Lyricism is implicit even in the despair of Admetus, when he says:


The sunlight wakes no pleasure in my eyes;

My foot treads the firm earth and feels no joy (Vellacott, p.70)


But this effectively reminds us that to tread the earth and be lit by the sun are pleasurably life-affirming if unconscious joys. Chorus is quick to remind Admetus that


In mortal life different events occur

To crush now one man, now another. (Vellacott, p. 71)


Chorus is right. The bleak vision of the universe is realistic, even though it highlights the necessity for still absent hope.


But one can see the dilemma for a producer if Chorus is sometimes an individual with a history, sometimes a group of ghosts, sometimes a poetry recital, sometimes an on-stage existential therapist, and so on. How on earth can one realise this in a stage performance with all its visual commitments? (Radio provides more melting opportunities.) One possibility is to have something like quadraphonic speakers with selections of Choral contribution floating across the stage, as in the text, at times single, at times split into three or more voices, at times interacting with characters, as Hamlet interacts with his own thoughts, at times singing or reciting.


In truth, it seems to me that we are dealing with hidden, novel-like aspects which are integral to the original Euripidean construction and concept. These should not really be a problem, because they introduce precisely the focus of interest, diversity and relief afforded by the rude mechanicals and eloquent vulture of Hughes.


My point, then, is to get Chorus off the stage altogether but to introduce a narrative flow and diversity of interest of a novel without in any way impeding, but rather enhancing, the action on the stage. I propose this merely as one possible solution, having never directed a play in my life.

[1] “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib.

[2] Because of Kazantzakis’s insistence on exclusive use of the demotiki, many modern Greeks actually prefer to read the English version. It is reckoned to be his most enduring work and Friar’s translation is, ironically, a masterpiece of kingly speech.

[3] Euripides, Alcestis, in a new version by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1999; cover blurb. All subsequent page references are to this first edition.

[5] Vellacott points out some exuberant but transient rhyming.

[6] Euripides, Alcestis, Hippolytus, Iphigenia in Tauris. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953, 1974, p. 43. All subsequent page references are to this latter edition.

[7] Dial Press, 1936; Liberal Arts Press, 1950; Bantam Classic Books, 1981, 2006.