The Drunken Sisters

The tragic poets of Greece did not merely have to submit three interrelated tragedies for a single morning’s performance. The rules of the festivals required that the poets furnish an afterpiece called the satyr play. It was a reflection of the Greek sense of proportion that after those hours of horror and awe this afterpiece should be written in the comic spirit and should deal with some element in the plots of the preceding trilogy. Tradition says that Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides were great comic poets also, though very few of these satyr plays have survived. Thornton Wilder, having written a trilogy on the subject of the life of Alkestis, wrote also this short play to follow it. The reader is reminded that when Admetos, Ting of Thessaly, lay at the point of death, a message came from Apollo’s temple at Delphi saying that the King need not die if a volunteer could be found to die in his stead. His wife Alkestis offered her life; she died‚ but was later brought back from the underworld by Herakles. This play shows us how Apollo was able to obtain from the Fates that extension of Admetos’ life.


CLOTHO. What is it that goes first on four legs, then on two legs —? Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!

LACHESIS. You know it!

CLOTHO. Let me pretend that I don’t know it.

ATROPOS. There are no new riddles. We know them all.

LACHESIS. How boring our life is without riddles! Clotho, make up a riddle.

CLOTHO. Be quiet, then, and give me a moment to think. . . . What is it that . . . ? What is it that . . . ?

(Enter Apollo. He wears a cone-shaped straw hat with a wide brim to conceal his face. Three flagons are hanging from a rope around his neck.) APOLLO. I am Apollo. In the disguise of a kitchen boy.

I hate disguises. And I hate drunkenness — but see these bottles I have hanging around my neck?

I hate lies and stratagems; but I’ve come here to do crookedly what even Allfather Zeus could not do without guile.

These are the great sisters — the Fates. Clotho weaves the threads of life; Lachesis measures the length of each; Atropos cuts them short.

I have come to do a thing which has never been done before — to extend a human life; to arrest the scissors of Atropos.

Oh, to change the order of the universe.

ATROPOS. Sister! Your elbow! Do your work without striking me.

LACHESIS. This thread is s-o-o 1-o-o-ong! Never have I had to reach so far.

CLOTHO. Long and gray and dirty! All those years to a slave!

LACHESIS. So it is! (To Atropos) Cut it, dear sister. (Atropos cuts itclick!) And now this one; cut this. It’s a blue one — blue for bravery.

ATROPOS. So easy to see! (Click.)

LACHESIS. YOU almost cut that purple one, Atropos.

ATROPOS. This one? — purple for a king.

LACHESIS. Yes — watch what you’re doing, dear. It’s the life of Admctos, King of Thessaly.


LACHESIS. I’ve marked it clearly. He’s to die at sunset.

APOLLO (to the audience). No! No!

LACHESIS. He’s the favorite of Apollo, as was his father before him, and all that tiresome house of Thessaly. The Queen Alkestis will be a widow tonight.

APOLLO. Alkestis! Alkestis! — No.

LACHESIS. There’ll be howling in Thessaly. There’ll be rolling on the ground. Not now, dear, there’s an hour yet.

APOLLO. TO work! To work. Apollo the crooked. (He starts the motions of running furiously while remaining in one place. He complains noisily.) Oh, my back! Aïe, aïe. They beat me, but worst of all they’ve made me late. I’ll be beaten again.

LACHESIS. Who’s the sniveler?

APOLLO. Don’t stop me now. I haven’t a moment to talk. I’m late already. Besides, my errand’s a terrible secret. I can’t say a word.

ATROPOS. Throw your yarn around him, Clotho. What’s the fool doing with a secret? It’s we who have all the secrets.

(Clotho lassos him with thick strands of yarn. Apollo, crying piteously, falls to his knees, rises and falls repeatedly.)

APOLLO. Ladies, beautiful ladies, let me go. If I’m late all Olympus will be in an uproar. Aphrodite will be mad with fear — but, oh, already I’ve said too much. My orders were to come immediately, and to say nothing — especially not to women. The thing’s of no interest to men. Dear ladies, let me go,

ATROPOS. Pull on your yarn, sister.

APOLLO. You’re choking me. You’re squeezing me to death.

CLOTHO (forcefully). Stop your whining and tell your secret at once.

APOLLO. I can’t. I can’t.

LACHESIS. Pull harder. Boy, speak or strangle.

APOLLO. OW! OW! Wait! I’ll tell the half of it, if you let me go.

ATROPOS. Tell the whole or we’ll hang you up in the air in that noose.

APOLLO. I’ll tell. I’ll tell. But — (he looks about him fearfully) promise me! Swear by the Styx that you’ll not tell anyone, and swear by Lethe that you’ll forget it.

LACHESIS. We have only one oath — by Acheron. And we never swear by it, least of all to a sniveling slave. Tell us what you know, or you’ll be by all three rivers in a minute.

APOLLO. I tremble at what I am about to say. I ... sh ... I carry . . . here ... in these bottles . . . Oh, ladies, let me go. Let me go.

LACHESIS and APROPOS. Pull, sister.

APOLLO. NO! No! I am carrying the wine for . . . for Aphrodite. Once every ten days she renews her beauty . . . by . . . drinking this.

ATROPOS. Liar! Fool! She has nectar and ambrosia, as they all have.

APOLLO (confidentially). But is she not the fairest? . . . It is the love-gift of Hephaestos, from the vineyards of Dionysos; from grapes ripened under the eye of Apollo — of Apollo who tells no lies.

(The Sisters confidentially to one another in blissful anticipation)

LACHESIS. Sisters!

ATROPOS. Sisters!

CLOTHO. Sisters!

ATROPOS (like sugar). Pass the bottles up, dear boy.

APOLLO (in terror). Not that! Ladies! It is enough that I have told you the secret! Not that!

ATROPOS. Surely, Lachesis, you can find on your lap the thread of this worthless slave — a yellow one destined for a long life.

APOLLO (falling on his knees). Spare me!

ATROPOS. Look, that’s it — the sallow one, with the tangle in it of dishonesty, and the stiffness of obstinacy, and the ravel-ravel of stupidity. Pass it over to me, dear.

APOLLO (his forehead touching the floor). Oh, that I had never been born.

LACHESIS. This is it. (With a sigh) I’d planned to give him five score.

APOLLO (rising and extending the bottles, sobbing). Take them! Take them! I’ll be killed anyway. Aphrodite will kill me. My life’s over.

APROPOS {strongly, as the Sisters take the bottles). Not one more word out of you. Put your hand on your mouth. We’re tired of listening to you.

(Apollo, released of the noose, flings himself face down upon the ground, his shoulders heaving. The Sisters put the flagons to their lips. They drink and moan with pleasure.)

LACHESIS. Sisters!

ATROPOS. Sisters!

CLOTHO. Sisters!

LACHESIS. Sister, how do I look?

ATROPOS. Oh, I could eat you — and I?

CLOTHO. Sister, how do I look?

LACHESIS. Beautiful! Beautiful — and I?

ATROPOS. And not a mirror on all the mountain, or a bit of still water, to tell us which of us is the fairest.

LACHESIS (dreamily, passing her hand over her face). I feel like ... I feel as I did when Kronos followed me about, trying to catch me in a dark corner.

ATROPOS. Poseidon was beside himself — dashing across the plains trying to engulf me.

CLOTHO. My own father — who can blame him?— began to forget himself.

ATROPOS (whispering). This is not such a worthless fellow, after all. And he’s not bad-looking. Ask him what he sees.

LACHESIS. Ask him which of us is the fairest.

CLOTHO. Boy! Boy! You bay meek. I mean, you: you may thpcak. Thpeak to him, Lakethith — I’ve lotht my tongue.

LACHESIS. Boy, look at us well! You may tell us: which is the fairest?

(Each of the Sisters is drunk in a different way. Clotho becomes a little girl, Lachesis arrogant and quarrelsome, Atropos tearful.)

CLOTHO. Of courth, I’m the youngeth. I’ve alwayth been a darling. Everybody saith thimply everybody saith — Darling Clotho. Thweet Clotho.

LACHESIS (striking her). Yes, youngest and silliest — and vulgarest. I don’t care who the fool says is the fairest. I wouldn’t expect to find taste in a kitchen boy. Who cares for the admiration of the market place?

ATROPOS. No one has ever been just to me. People say that I’m cruel. I‘m not cruel. I’ve the tenderest heart in the world. I spend my life doing my duty, and what do I get for it? - - ingratitude !

(They start talking simultaneously. Lachesis is the loudest.)

LACHESIS. Go find a judge who knows beauty when he sees it. Not a shallow prettiness, like you, Clotho, nor a bitter face like yours, Atropos, but soul. Soul. Spirit. Majesty. Dignity. Soul.

CLOTHO. Of courth, I’m little. I’ve always been little. When I path’d everybody thaid: mi-mi-mimi; come here, you little darling. Mi-mi-mi-mi, you little darling.

ATROPOS. Hidden away on this mountain. One injustice after another. And what do I get for it? — ingratitude. The tenderest heart in the world — that’s what I have.

LACHESIS (silencing them). Hold your tongues, geese, and let’s put the question to this young man. Boy, get up. Don’t be afraid. Tell us: in your opinion, which of us is the fairest?

(Apollo has remained face downward on the ground. He now rises and gazes at the Sisters. He is blinded: he covers and uncovers his eyes, gazing first at one and then at another.)

APOLLO. What have I done? This splendor. What have I done? You, and you, and you! Kill me, if you will, but I cannot say which one is the fairest. (Falling on his knees) Oh, ladies — if so much beauty has not made you cruel — let me now go and hide myself. Aphrodite will hear of this. Let me escape to Crete and take up my old work.

ATROPOS. What was your former work, dear boy?

APOLLO. I help my father in the market place: I am a teller of stories and riddles.

(The Sisters are transfixed. Then almost with a scream)

THE SISTERS. What’s that? What’s that you said?

APOLLO. A teller of stories and riddles. Do the beautiful ladies enjoy riddles?

THE SISTERS (rocking from side to side and slapping one another). Sisters! Do we enjoy riddles!

ATROPOS. Oh, he would only know the old ones. Puh! The blind horse. The toe.

LACHESIS. The cloud. The eyelashes of Hera.

CLOTHO. What is it that first goes on four legs —?

ATROPOS. The porpoise. Etna.

APOLLO. Everyone knows those! I have some new ones —

THE SISTERS (again, a scream). New ones!

APOLLO (slowly). What is it that is necessary to — (He pauses. The Sisters are riveted.)

LACHESIS. GO on, boy, go on. What is it that is necessary to —

APOLLO. But — I only play for forfeits. See! If I lose . . .

CLOTHO. If you looth, you mutht tell uth which one is the faireth.

APOLLO. No! No! I dare not!

LACHESIS (sharply). Yes.

APOLLO. And if I win —

ATROPOS. Win? Idiot! Stupid. Slave! No one has ever won from us.

APOLLO. But if I win —

LACHESIS. He doesn’t know who we are!

APOLLO. But if I win —

CLOTHO. The fool talkth of winning!

APOLLO. If I win, you must grant me one wish. One wish, any wish.

LACHESIS. Yes, yes. Oh, what a tedious fellow. Go on with your riddle. What is it that is necessary to —

APOLLO. Swear by Acheron!

CLOTHO and LACHESIS. We swear! By Acheron! By Acheron!

APOLLO (to Atropos). You, too.

ATROPOS (after a moment’s brooding resistance, loudly). By Acheron!

Apollo. Then: ready?

LACHESIS. Wait! One moment. (Leaning toward Atropos, confidentially) The sun is near setting. Do not forget the thread of Ad — ! You know, the thread of Ad —!

ATROPOS. What? What Ad? What are you whispering about, silly?

LACHESIS. Not to forget the thread of Admetos, King of Thessaly. At sundown. Have you lost your shears, Atropos?

ATROPOS. Oh, stop your buzzing and fussing and tend to your own business. Of course 1 haven’t lost my shears. Go on with your riddle, boy.

APOLLO. So! I’11 give you as much time as it takes to recite the names of the Muses and their mother.

LACHESIS. Hm! Nine and one. Well, begin!

APOLLO. What is it that is necessary to every life — and that can save only one?

(The Sisters rock back and forth with closed eyes, mumbling the words of the riddle. Suddenly Apollo starts singing.)

APOLLO. Mnemosyne, mother of the nine; Polyhymnia, incense of the gods —

LACHESIS (shrieks). Don’t sing! Unfair!

CLOTHO. Stop your ears, sister.

ATROPOS. Unfair! What is that can save every life — (They put their fingers in their ears.)

APOLLO. Erato, voice of love;
Euterpe, help me now.

Calliope, thief of our souls;
Urania, clothed of the stars;
Clio of the backward glances;
Euterpe, help me now.

Terpsichore of the beautiful ankles;
Thalia of long laughter;
Melpomene, dreaded and welcome;
Euterpe, help me now.

(Then in a loud voice) Forfeit! Forfeit!

(Clotho and Atropos bury their faces in Lachesisneck, moaning.)

LACHESIS (in a dying voice). What is the answer?

APOLLO (flinging away his hat, triumphantly). Myself — Apollo the sun.

LACHESIS (savagely). Pah! What life can you save?

APOLLO. My forfeit! One wish! One life! The life of Admetos, King of Thessaly.

(A horrified clamor arises from the Sisters.)

THE SISTERS. Fraud. Impossible. Not to be thought of!

APOLLO. By Acheron.

THE SISTERS. Against all law. Zeus will judge. Fraud.

APOLLO. By Acheron.

THE SISTERS. Zeus! We will go to Zeus about it.

APOLLO. Zeus swears by Acheron and keeps his oath.

(Sudden silence.)

ATROPOS (decisive but ominous). You will have your wish — the life of King Admetos — but

APOLLO. I shall have the life of Admetos.


APOLLO. I shall have the life of Admetos. What is your but?

ATROPOS. Someone else must die in his stead.

APOLLO (lightly). Oh — choose some slave. Some gray and greasy thread on your lap, divine Lachesis.

LACHESIS (outraged). What? You ask me to take a life?

ATROPOS. You ask us to murder?

CLOTHO. Apollo thinks that we are criminals?

APOLLO (beginning to be fearful). Then — great sisters — how is this to be done?

LACHESIS. Me — an assassin? (She spreads her arms wide and says solemnly) Over my left hand is Chance; over my right hand is Necessity.

APOLLO. Then — gracious sisters — how will this be done?

LACHESIS. Someone must give his life for Admetos. Of free choice and will. Over such deaths we have no control. Neither Chance nor Necessity rules the free offering of the will. Someone must choose to die in the place of Admetos, King of Thessaly.

APOLLO (covering his face with his hands). No! No! I see it all! (With a loud cry) Alkestis! Alkestis! (And he runs stumbling from the scene.)