Beasts and monsters, expertly handled

By Robert Macfarlane
Click to follow

Alcestis / The Oresteia versions by Ted Hughes (Faber £7.99 / £12.99)

Alcestis / The Oresteia versions by Ted Hughes (Faber £7.99 / £12.99)

Ted Hughes died a year ago, but his oeuvre has continued to grow. During the summer, Faber published his version of Aeschylus's blood-boltered trilogy The Oresteia, now followed by his adaptation of the Euripidean tragi-comedy Alcestis. These plays are the fruits of Hughes's prolific final years - together with Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998) they constitute a formidable body of late work, flatly disproving those who thought Hughes a spent force at the end of the 1980s.

It is not unknown for the diagnosis of a terminal illness to provoke an extraordinary burst of creative energy. When Anthony Burgess was told in 1959 that he had an inoperable brain tumour and 12 months to live, he began a frenzy of writing that resulted - once the prognosis had been proved incorrect - in more than 50 books and hundreds of essays and articles. Hughes was found to have bowel cancer in 1997, and the news prompted him to put his house in order. He arranged for his papers to be sold to Emory University in the USA, fired off salvoes of letters to friends and adversaries, and with characteristic energy set about completing several major writing projects, including The Oresteia and Alcestis.

The covers of both books very firmly identify these as "versions" rather than "translations", and Hughes has made much of his mandate to improvise rather than to render faithfully. Alcestis is the most changed. The poetry is littered with late 20th-century idioms and objects; there are "nuclear bombs", "molecules" and "lasers". Characters also get updated; Orpheus is metamorphosed into Bob Dylan (or is it Tom Waits?): he carries a guitar instead of the more conventional lyre, and sings with a "voice of asbestos", while Heracles becomes a boozy wrestler with a conscience. This manner of modernising is reminiscent of Tales from Ovid, where Gods punish mortals with "mass electrocution" rather than thunderbolts, and Phaeton applies high-factor sunblock before taking a ride in the solar chariot.

Alcestis was Hughes's last work, completed only a few months before his death, and the traces of his sickness are everywhere apparent. He clearly felt a strong affinity for Admetos, the Greek king condemned to die. Admetos's fatal curse becomes in Hughes's version "a terminal illness", and the Chorus laments the failure of "specialists" and "medicine" to reverse the illness. Most strikingly, Death (a taciturn character in Euripides) is given a long, contemptuous speech by Hughes in which he derides Apollo, the god of healing:

Your silly sickroom screen of giggling faces, Your quiverful of hypodermic syringes That you call arrows of inspiration. Man is deluded and his ludicrous gods Are his delusion. Death is death is death.

As well as adjusting the diction of Alcestis, Hughes tinkers with the structure of the play. The plot of the original is simple enough: Fate has decreed that Admetos, King of Thessaly, will die young. But due to a loophole in divine law, someone close to him can die in his stead. His young wife Alcestis agrees to stand in, and is duly carried off by Death. Heracles, on the way to his eighth labour (the taming of Diomed's man-eating horses), stops in at Admetos's palace for the night and gets roaringly drunk, unaware that the house is in mourning. With the grandness of gesture available only to demi-gods, he decides to make up for his behaviour by descending to Hades and wrestling Death ("I need to get my double nelson / On an immortal neck") until Alcestis is restored to life.

Hughes adapts this narrative in two ways - he expands and exaggerates Heracles's drunk scene into a burlesque play-within-a-play, and he adds a new episode involving Prometheus, Heracles and a vulture. The combined effect of the changes is to shift the balance of the action from Admetos to Heracles and consequently to tilt the play more steeply towards comedy. For all its calamitous potential, and despite the grim echoes of his own situation, Hughes turns Alcestis into an essentially positive play.

The same cannot be said for The Oresteia, a cycle so slicked with blood that Hughes seems occasionally pushed to find sufficient synonyms for gore. The trilogy, set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan war, is an archetypal, ultra-violent family drama with a supernatural twist: father kills daughter, mother kills father, son kills mother and mother's lover, and then the Eumenides - horrific miscegenations of harpy, gorgon and leprous corpse - pursue son across the known globe to punish his matricide. Hughes was an expert handler of beasts and monsters, and, as Birthday Letters showed, a connoisseur of signs, portents and omens. These specialities, together with his fascination for etymology, ritual and myth, made him an ideal translator of the cycle.

Hughes takes far fewer liberties with The Oresteia than with Alcestis. There is no fiddling with plot lines, no unprecedented levity, no contemporary vocabulary. The stripped-down language of his version deals only in objects and abstracts common to all human history - blood, bodies, weapons, vengeance, suffering - and the effect is astonishingly powerful. It is also emphatically of Hughes's own making; he does not simply lacquer over the Greek, but reforges Aeschylus's diction into something entirely his own. Joseph Brodsky observed that "poets' biographies are present in the sound they make", and there is certainly much of Hughes in the flinty, percussive rhythms and the angular consonants of this verse. Hughes mined his consonants from the Northern deposits of speech, from the guttural dialects of his Yorkshire fatherland, and from the pure Anglo-Saxon and Norse elements to the language; he derived his stress-based rhythms from an English poetic tradition that included the Gawain-poet, Shakespeare, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The combination results here in a version of The Oresteia that is indigenous both to the Northern European tradition, and to Hughes. It is a stark, magnificent achievement.