Excerpts from Isabel Wilder’s foreword to
The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder
“… at the age of seven or eight in Madison, Wisconsin, he first heard the name Alcestis while reading or being read to from Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable. The story of the daughter of King Pelias, princess of princesses in the myth and the song of pre-Christian Greece, captured his imagination—and his heart… The thread of her white yarn was knotted into his bit of fabric and she became a benign insistence in his inner consciousness, that hidden storehouse which is an author’s source and springboard. She was the haunting shadow of a play that would take years to write.”
The book that introduced Thornton Wilder to the myth of Alcestis
“Alcestis, of course, had been entrusted with messages and heaped with laurel wreaths long before Thornton heard her name. In his play, brought back from hell to live again in the Golden Light of Apollo, she is not permitted a human end. The God steals her from Death and insists upon her perpetual life…. Apollo leads her to His Evergreen Grove where she still wanders, a symbol, a myth, a truth for us all: one who escaped from darkness to be herself a light on the horizon comprehensible to the spirit of Christian humanism." --Isabel Wilder
Drawing of Admetus and Alcestis from first edition of Wilder's "The Alcestiad"
The play premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955 under the title "A Life in the Sun." Irene Worth played Alcestis.
It was directed by Tyrone Guthrie.
In a 1997 conversation with Magis Artistic Director George Drance, Ms. Worth shared that this role was one of her favorites, and the moment where Alcestis saves her husband Admetus by offering her own life stood out for her as one of the most vivid of her entire theatrical career. Since that conversation, Magis has been exploring this text and looking for the right moment to bring a production of it to a contemporary audience.
Irene Worth as Alcestis in the 1955 production
Wilder began working on it in 1939 just after finishing "Our Town" (1938), and kept coming back to it as he wrote "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942), and "The Matchmaker" (1954), looking into his own life experiences serving in two World Wars and surviving the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Fascinated with the character of Alcestis from the original ancient Greek play be Euripides, and re-envisioning her through the lens of the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the play became wildly popular in Europe, while audiences in the United States had developed a less philosophical palate. It was translated into German and enjoyed a very long run in the Schauspielhaus in Zürich.
Graphic from program of 1957 production
"Käte Hamburger, in her volume on classical figures in modern literature, From Sophocles to Sartre, wrote: “Wilder’s work is the most significant interpretation of the [Alcestis] theme in modern world literature.”… It seemed inevitable that when he started searching for a subject for an opera libretto for Louise Talma, whose musical compositions he admired greatly, the circle would be completed. The opera, also entitled “The Alcestiad,” was six years in the making. The final curtain came down to storybook, thunderous applause… yet the critics’ reviews were mixed. One veiled but definite complaint that came through in the most unsympathetic was that women should not write operas, another that the music was too modern. " -Isabel Wilder
“… although he did not himself take time from other projects to revise the English text of “The Alcestiad”… it is a work that reflects successfully some of his most abiding convictions about the verities of human experience. Thornton Wilder’s tapestry is finished. With the publication of “The Alcestiad with The Drunken Sisters” and the telling of its story, the final design comes clear, revealing all that he did with his portion of the alphabet, with his talents, with the years given to him and, most of all, with what he believed and tried to share. Now that the last length of Alcestis’s huge ball of yarn has been unwound and the last stitch knotted there are no further mysteries on the subject to be guarded at Delphi. "
Press release for the opera
Portion of a letter from Thornton Wilder to Harold Clurman about preparations for the 1957 Zurich production
NOTES ON THE ALCESTIAD
BY THORNTON WILDER
Alcestis chose to die for her husband. We are often told that soldiers die for their country, that reformers and men of science lay down their lives for us. Who commands them? Whence, and how do they receive the command?
The story of Alcestis has been retold many times. When her husband Admetus, King of Thessaly, was mortally ill, someone volunteered to die in his stead. Alcestis assumes the sacrifice and dies. The mighty Hercules happened to arrive at the palace during the funeral; he descended into the underworld, strove with Death, and brought her back to life. The second act of my play retells this story. There is, however, another legend involving King Admetus. Zeus, the father of gods and men, commanded Apollo to descend to earth and to live for one year as a man among men. Apollo chose to live as a herdsman in the fields of King Admetus. The story serves as the basis of my first act. My third act makes free use of the tradition that Admetus and Alcestis in their old age were supplanted by a tyrant and lived on as slaves in the palace where they had once been the rulers.
On one level, my play recounts the life of a woman–of many women–from bewildered bride to sorely tested wife to overburdened old age. On another level it is a wildly romantic story of gods and men, of death and hell and resurrection, of great loves and great trials, of usurpation and revenge. On another level, however, it is a comedy about a very serious matter.
These legends seem at first glance to be clear enough. One would say that they had been retold for our edification; they are exemplary. Yet on closer view many of them–the stories of Oedipus, of the sacrifice of Isaac, of Cassandra–give the impression of having been retained down the ages because they are ambiguous and puzzling. We are told that Apollo loved Admetus and Alcestis. If so, how strangely he exhibited it. It must make for considerable discomfort to have the god of the sun, of healing and song, housed among one’s farm workers. And why should divine love impose on a devoted couple the decision as to which should die for the other? And why (though the question has been asked so many millions of times) should the omnipotent friend permit some noble human beings to end their days in humiliation and suffering?
Following some meditations of Soren Kierkegaard, I have written a comedy about the extreme difficulty of any dialogue between heaven and earth, about the misunderstandings that result from the ‘incommensurability of things human and divine.’ Kierkegaard described God under the image of ‘the unhappy lover.’ If He revealed Himself to us in His glory, we would fall down in abasement, but abasement is not love. If He divested Himself of the divine attributes in order to come nearer to us, that would be an act of condescension. This is a play about how Apollo searched for a language in which he could converse with Admetus and Alcestis and with their innumerable descendants; and about how Alcestis, through many a blunder, learned how to listen and interpret the things that Apollo was so urgently trying to say to her. Yet I am aware of other levels, and perhaps deeper ones that will only become apparent to me later.