Il presente fascicolo raccoglie i risultati di un progetto, «Alcesti fra mito e scena», nato dalla collaborazione fra il Centro Teatrale Bresciano e la Facoltà di Lettere dell’Università Cattolica, sede di Brescia (corsi di Laurea in Scienze e Tecnologie delle Arti e dello Spettacolo e in Lettere). L’allestimento del dramma Alcesti o La recita dell’esilio di Giovanni Raboni per la regia di Cesare Lievi, Direttore artistico del CTB-Teatro Stabile di Brescia, nella stagione teatrale 2003-2004, presso il Teatro Santa Chiara, ha offerto l’occasione per approfondire le metamorfosi di un mito antico sulla scena moderna e contemporanea e per sperimentare la possibilità che studenti e docenti universitari diventino interlocutori del processo di lavoro registico, svolgendo la funzione che nei Paesi di lingua tedesca è propria del Dramaturg (a questo aspetto è specificamente dedicato l’intervento di R. Carpani, nella sezione introduttiva).
Starting out from Alcestis by Euripides, and from some modern revisitations (Quinault, Händel, Martello, Gluck, Alfieri, Hughes), two aspects of myth are investigated in this study: the possibility of eluding death by means of a replacement victim and the manner of resurrection. In relation to the theatre stage, the analysis focuses on the different way in which the search for a replacement to destine to Hades is positioned temporally in drama and the level of information possessed by the different characters with respect to the possibility of saving Admetus (who at times presides directly over the procurement of the sacrificial substitute, but at times appears unaware of the on-going events). Secondly, attention is directed to the manner of Alcestis’ resurrection, her recognition by Admetus and the ‘miraculous’, indeed fable-like character of her return to life.
The vitality of the myth of Alcestis in seventeenth-century literature is linked to new or mixed genres, such
as tragicomedy and drama for music, in which the structural and thematic peculiarities of the Euripidean
tragedy (first and foremost the happy end) are not only admitted but in fact acclaimed as ‘modern’ ingredients.
Starting from the examples of two dramas for music from the second half of the seventeenth century –
the libretto by Aurelio Aureli, Antigona delusa d’Alceste and the tragédie lyrique by Philippe Quinault,
Alceste ou le triomphe d’Alcyde – the essay focuses on the seventeenth-century rewritings, which enliven the
linearity of the ancient drama through the multiplication of the weird and wonderful ‘accidents’, as if in a
novel; it is shown here, however, that these innovations tend to elude the problematic nucleus of the myth,
offering a superficial and evasive interpretation. More faithful to the classical model is the tragicomedy
Alcesti o l’amor sincero (1665), attributed to Emanuele Tesauro: it too proposes a complex and radical rereading
of the tragedy, transforming it into a parable of court loyalty and expanding the eponymous motif of ‘sincerity’
into a highly perceptive reflection on the lability of knowledge of bonds of affection, an uncertainty
that corrupts such bonds and undermines traditional morality.
This paper addresses the combined presence, in Alcestis by Euripides, of the theme of love – within which new horizons are opened up, ‘uncovering’ the essential link between eros and thanatos and creating the myth of the survival of the couple in the other world – and the moral theme, which expresses a strongly critical attitude towards the privilege enjoyed by Admetus. The difficulty in accepting this combined presence, which characterizes the reception of the tragedy in contemporary criticism, is none other than the reflex of a profound and centuries-old cultural malaise that affects the modern response to Alcestis in numerous different versions of the latter. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth century the glorification of love and its thaumaturgy needed an ‘innocent’ Admetus who does not realize, until too late, that he has received the gift of life and who, as long as he can, rejects it firmly, thereby eliminating the otherworldly project which, in the Euripidean tragedy, precisely his ‘egoism’ allowed him to cultivate. In more recent scenarios, on the other hand, exemplary texts such as those by Browning and Yourcenar downplay the erotic theme as compared to a stark vision of human frailty and of the error men fall into by rejecting death, the locus of knowledge and values.
The finale of Alcestis by Euripides offers a dense web in which all the ironic elements, tensions and conflicts of the tragedy are concentrated. This is the aspect that has rendered – and still renders – any attempt by modern interpreters to situate this finale within a univocal hermeneutic pattern highly problematic. However, the enigma of Alcestis’ silence also struck the authors of two celebrated rewritings of the Euripidean tragedy, Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale and T.S. Eliot in Cocktail Party: in both cases it is precisely the author’s own personal reading of Alcestis’ silence that provides an emblematic clarification of the new semantic configuration by which the ancient myth is enriched. Both in Shakespeare and Eliot, the ‘resurrection’ of Alcestis undergoes the transition to an explicit or implicit christological assimilation, which unveiled in the eminently didactic intention of their works.
Around 1949 Corrado Alvaro began the draft of an Alcestis. What has come down to us is a manifestly pre- liminary and probably partial version. This article discusses, among other aspects, the hypothesis of the sin- gle-act play put forward by Aldo Maria Morace, recognized as an excellent editor of the text; his line of rea- soning is based on a series of arguments which, however, would appear to point towards a draft composed of several portions. The reading of the Alvarian drama is here carried out with intertextual reference to the Euripidean archetype, highlighting the inevitable blend of faithfulness and discards that characterises the modern reworkings as compared to the classical source, on the level of meaning no less than on that of struc- ture. The subtle play of allusions and citations is particularly interesting with regard to the allegorical conno- tations of Alvaro’s invention, those figures of life and death (the dressmaker's dummy, the garment to be tried on, the travel outfit, personal hygiene and body care, household furniture, moving house, the official from the electricity board, the broken switch, the bill to be paid) which transform daily domesticity into the meta- physics of existence. The impulse to revive the timeless myth of Alcestis was stirred in the writer from Calabria by the bleak atmosphere of the late postwar period, compressed as it was between the still searing memory of the unspeakable tragedy that had come to pass and the apocalyptic threat of a nuclear conflict. Between an Admetus, an inconsolable icon of the survivor, and a Feride who, resentful and sickened of life, unlike the ancient Pheres, is overwhelmed, like so many of his contemporaries, by a desperate cupio dissolvi, the female heroine is the only one who, in the eyes of Alvaro, can grant a measure of serenity. Thus the new Alcestis becomes the emissary of an optimism of hope, one who, fragile yet tenacious, refuses to surrender to the pessimism of fear and proceeds confidently towards life which begins anew every time.
In Le mystère d’Alceste by M. Yourcenar the sacrifice of Alcestis represents the tragic and inevitable conclu- sion of an unhappy marriage relationship, which since its very outset has compelled the heroine to ‘offer her- self in sacrifice’ when faced with the various expressions of narcisistic retreat that an Admetus entirely ded- icated to the cult of Apollo has adopted as the one and only horizon of his own existence. The death of Alcestis, far from embodying the altruistic response to a mysterious and cruel decision by the ‘envious gods’, thus appears, in the Yourcenarian pièce, as the literalisation of an entirely psychological sacrifice; conse- quently, the figure of Admetus cannot but be burdened, at least until the moment of the final redemption, with the weight of a verdict of condemnation. The new thematic-ideological structure that shapes the tragic mythos is noticeably influenced by the writer’s narrative production of this period, and, symmetrically, the various ‘modern’stories that lie at the centre of this universe – which displays many similarities with a genuine novel – have their unifying mythological parallel in the issues surrounding Admetus and Alcestis. In assigning the ‘brute’ Heracles the protagonist role of a positive antithesis of Apollo (as well as of Admetus) Yourcenar proves to have comprehended and exploited the primitivist reading of the symbolic relations between the fig- ures of Apollo and Heracles given in the mid-nineteenth century by the romantic historian Jules Michelet. Heracles is raised to the position of supreme representative of a Greece endowed with a ‘pure heart’, alien to all forms of Apollinean intellectualism and striving exclusively towards the arduous exercise of ‘virtue’. The exalted moral issue of which Heracles resolves to be the bearer decrees his christologic assimilation and yields its beneficial effects in the finale: looking at her own ‘sacrifice’ through the eyes of Heracles, Alcestis can rediscover her husband and be reunited with him.
Ferai by Odin Teatret, as directed by Eugenio Barba, is one of the most important stage productions of the second half of the twentieth century. Drawn up between 1968 and 1969, it started out from the myth of Alcestis and concentrated on the holocaust and social action as subjective responsibility, but in parallel it por- trayed a regressive people’s revolution, with ambiguous revolutionary leaders and a heroine who, ultimately, was ‘cynical’and aware of the cruel nature of power politics. The noteworthy text by the Danish writer Peter Seeberg was totally reworked in the stage re-elaboration by Barba and his group in the long tightly-woven montage of the improvisations on which it was overlaid in the form of fragments. In terms of its creation as a play, the piece linked hints of Alcestis by Euripides with a medieval story by Saxo Gramaticus relating to the Danish king Frode, who is said to have dominated a vast Nordic empire in the era of Augustus, and whose mummy was long exhibited by his warriors, after his death, as an emblem and cohesive force of imperial power. Thus the deceased tyrant, represented on the stage by the fetish of a shiny wooden egg, became Alcestis’ father and Fere, a city in Thessaly, coincided with the Faroe islands, in a process of intense con- tamination of southern Dionysian atmospheres with icy Scandinavian scenes. The play, as almost always in the work of Odin and Eugenio Barba, drew inspiring vitality and force from the association of extremes and opposites and, in the age of the most terse political drama, it offered a problematised approach as an open
The story of Alcestis and Admetus – an ancient myth of love and death whose roots lie in folklore, already revisited by Euripides – still retains its fascination today, both in writing and on the stage. Indeed, the advent of the new millennium seems to have prompted fertile revitalisations, perhaps partly on account of millenalistic influences. The four versions examined, all composed after the year 2000, are at first sight strikingly different from one another; yet they share some substantial priorities: in particular, the extreme creative freedom of dramatists and stage directors does not preclude an intimate faithfulness to the text and its underlying themes, from sacrifice spurred by love to the resurrection – real or presumed – of the lover. The latter node still remains unresolved, in the problematic finales that are often preferred to the classical happy end, and yet, when passing from one staging to another, Alcestis nevertheless continues to die and return to life on the stage: different each time and not necessarily veiled, but even so kept in life by that mystery that has been part of her since time immemorial.