Coming to the public in June 2021
Thornton Wilder's "The Alcestiad"
Originally scheduled for 2020, we spent our "lockdown" time this past summer developing a new website and researching more about this important play.
Check out the new site at alcestiad.com
We will launch the socially-distanced outdoor show at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, NYC this coming June, and looking to bring it to several NYC parks afterward.
The struggle between Apollo and Death which frames Wilder's "Alcestiad" is the inspiration for this image by world renowned artist Luba Lukova. One ray of Apollo's light has broken the wall that surrounds Death's kingdom, making it possible for Apollo to bring back from the dead those who have given their lives in love of others.
Lukova's evocative images are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Denver Art Museum; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Hong Kong Heritage Museum; Centre de la Gravure et de l'Image imprimée, La Louvière, Belgium; the Library of Congress; and the World Bank, Washington, D.C. They have appeared in major newspapers and journals including the New York times.
Scroll down to find out more about Thornton Wilder, The Alcestiad, and Four Freedom's Park.
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.
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.
A letter from Thornton Wilder to his sister Isa before opening "The Alcestiad" at the Edinburgh Festival:
Arrived in Edinburgh yesterday 5:00pm.
So today first rehearsals in
And Tony's (Tyrone Guthrie) violently dramatic
direction. I must say its always
exciting. It's constantly 3 or 4 degrees
more grotesque or picturesque or violent
than I had imagined, but nobody's
likely to fall asleep.
Wait and see.
No sign of festival in Town yet, but lots of tourists. I have a big suite at 101 shillings a day. Is that awful.
Oh, isn't the food deplorable.
Mayonnaise-- solid, mustard and all that.
Visitors at all rehearsals--
Norwegian and Greek and English directors
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.