Dylan’s “False Prophet” and Wilder’s Alcestiad: A Supposal

In “False Prophet,” from the album Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), Bob Dylan sings:

I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go

On the surface, the words in bold sound like an existentialist riff on Socrates’s famous remark in Plato’s Apology 38a that “the unexamined life [or, better, ‘the life without examination’] is not worth living” (ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς [ho de anexetastos bios ou biōtos]).[1]

And they may well be. But what if there’s a bit more to it? I wondered about this the other day while finishing Thornton Wilder’s Alcestiad.[2] Wilder’s play is based on the ancient myth of Alcestis, our best source for which is Euripides’s eponymous play. In the story, Alcestis’s husband, Admetus, is fated to die. But Apollo wants him to live, for Apollo in disguise had been Admetus’s servant, and had been treated exceedingly well. Apollo gets the Fates to agree, but on a condition: he must find someone to die in his place. No one will do it, until his wife, Alcestis, volunteers. She does so–but then is brought back from the dead by Hercules and reunited with her husband.

That story is the basic frame for Wilder’s play, but he makes many modifications. His single play in three acts mirrors a Greek tragic trilogy of three plays, and by the third act we are well beyond Euripides. It is long after Alcestis has returned from the land of the dead; Admetus is now dead, along with a couple of the children they had after her return, and a usurping king, Agis, rules in his place, and the land of Thessaly, where the action occurs, is ravaged by plague. That is where we will pick up the thread.

Near the end of the final act, the illegitimate ruler Agis has lost a child of his own from the plague. As he laments the death of Laodamia, his twelve-year-old daughter,[3] that has just occurred off-stage, he has the following exchange with Alcestis, who had died earlier in the play and yet still lives:

ALCESTIS: The bitterness of death, King Agis, is part pain–but that is not all. The last bitterness of death is not parting–though that is great grief.[4] I died…once. What is the last bitterness of death, King Agis?

AGIS: Tell me!

ALCESTIS: It is the despair that one has not lived. It is the despair that one’s life has been without meaning. That it has been nonsense; happy or unhappy, that it has been senseless. “Father, help me.”[5]

I quote Wilder’s play from the Library of America edition.

“[N]ot lived”; “without meaning”: That’s quite close to (and in the same order as) Dylan’s “unlived meaningless life.”

If we keep in mind The Alcestiad, it turns out that other possibilities arise for “False Prophet.” What if the song is, at least in part, a weirdly kaleidoscopic reimagining of characters and themes from the play? Here are some–I don’t want to say pieces of evidence, but…intimations, perhaps?

For example, why does the speaker of the song appear to be a woman (“I’m nobody’s bride”)?[6] In Wilder’s play, Alcestis initially does not want to get married. She wants to go to Delphi and the god Apollo. She ends up marrying Admetus anyway, but by Act 3 he is dead. Dylan’s speaker also appears to be, like Alcestis, resurrected; for why does he (or she) say, in that same final stanza, “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died”?

Or go back to the beginning of the song. If you’ve read The Alcestiad, you might notice that the mood of the opening of “False Prophet” is very similar to Act 3 of the play, whence the previously quoted exchange also comes. By Act 3, Alcestis has been reduced to the status of a slave, marking time from one day to another until the end. Her husband is dead; two of her children are dead; her only surviving son, Epimenes, is (she thinks) far away forever. Compare Dylan’s lyrics:

Another day without end – another ship going out
Another day of anger[7] – bitterness and doubt
I know how it happened – I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in

I can’t prove it, of course; but if you’ve read any Wilder, that last line might sound extremely, well, Wilderian to you. It’s the kind of thing he says, though to my knowledge he nowhere says exactly that.

Or what about the next stanza?

Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too

Consider the staging of The Alcestiad: there is literally an entryway to the Underworld as part of the set. Alcestis goes there (Dylan, stanza 3: “I go where only the lonely can go”), and Hercules brings her back. Next to it is a spring, to which Alcestis– who is “old, broken, in rags”–is on her way to fill her water jar at the beginning of the third act[8]. Compare the speaker’s appearance in Dylan, stanza 7: “You don’t know me darlin’-you never would guess/I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest”; Alcestis, too, is unrecognizable to her son Epimenes in Act 3. I don’t know who Mary Lou and Miss Pearl are; but I do know that three other women–Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos–are responsible for sending people down below in The Drunken Sisters, Wilder’s pseudo-satyr-play epilogue to The Alcestiad.

None of this is to say that Dylan is not doing his own thing with Wilder (assuming for the sake of argument that he’s doing anything with Wilder at all). For instance, the central character is inverted from Wilder’s in certain respects. We have already seen that Dylan’s speaker is angry, while Wilder’s central character (as I mentioned in a footnote) is not. Dylan’s speaker is also vengeful (stanza 7, “I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head”), while Alcestis explicitly eschews vengeance (“A man who has known the joys of revenge may never know any other joy”).

Still, she does gain a kind of mastery over her opponent, King Agis, in the end. Ponder the following back-and-forth that occurs just after the dialogue quoted above:

ALCESTIS: Love is not the meaning. It is one of the signs that there is a meaning–it is only one of the signs that there is a meaning. Laodamia is in despair and asks that you help her. That is what death is–it is despair. Her life is vain and empty, until you give it a meaning.

AGIS: What meaning could I give it?

ALCESTIS: (Quietly.) You are a brutal, cruel, and ignorant man.

Brief silence.

You killed my Laodamia. Three times. Senselessly. Even you do not know how many times you have killed Laodamia.


ALCESTIS: You don’t know. Go back to your kingdom. There, and only there, can you help Laodamia.

AGIS comes up the path and, passing her, goes toward the palace door.

All the dead, King Agis…(She points to the entrance to the underworld.) all those millions lie imploring us to show them that their lives were not empty and foolish.

AGIS: And what is this meaning that I can give to Laodamia’s life?

ALCESTIS: Today you have begun to understand that.

AGIS: (His head against the post of the palace door.) No.

ALCESTIS: I was taught these things. Even I. You will learn them, King Agis….Through Laodamia’s suffering you will learn them.[9]

Broken, he goes through the palace door.

Even if this is not vengeance, it is a kind of victory, and Agis prepares to return to Thrace whence he came. For Agis is a foreigner and a usurper, a ruler with no real right to rule in Thessaly, where the play takes place; and he is here bested–in a sense, ruled–by his better. In light of that, Dylan’s penultimate stanza perhaps takes on new resonance:

Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain

Note, too, that Alcestis’s means of victory over Agis is a sort of prophecy about his approaching painful discovery of what gives life meaning. Alcestis may not be a false prophet–but is she a true one? Let us not forget that Apollo, a character in the play and the god to whom Alcestis is particularly devoted, is the god of prophecy. And if she is a true prophet, what does that mean for Dylan’s “false prophet”?

After this dialogue, Apollo instructs Alcestis to go into his grove. He tells her that “[i]t is not a hill” that she must climb, in contrast to where the “City of God” is in Dylan’s lyric (stanza 8, “The City of God is there on the hill”). Yet the location of Apollo’s grove bears a strange resemblance to another couplet in Dylan’s song, part of which has already been quoted. In stanza 5, Dylan’s speaker says:

Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side

Keeping in mind that a garden and a grove are not all that different–think of the Garden of Eden–look at the following two lines:

APOLLO: A few more steps, Alcestis. Through the gate…and across the road…and into my grove.

ALCESTIS: So far…and so high…

In Dylan’s song, others get buried and go to the Underworld, but the speaker seems not to–even if he or she has been there before. Similarly in Wilder’s play: the grove is where Apollo directs Alcestis to go, though she herself would rather sink down into death (“It is too far. Let me find my grave here”). Apollo denies that Alcestis will have the grave that she wants. Cryptically, he tells her, “You will not have that ending. You are the first of a great number that will not have that ending.” In other words, for her the god has prepared the grove, not the grave.

This remark of Apollo’s may be an intimation of the coming of Christianity: The resurrected Alcestis is not to die at the end of this story. If that is the sort of thing Wilder is doing, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for him. He makes just such a move quite explicitly in The Woman of Andros, where Chryses prefigures Christ and remarks about the “burden” (that is, the Messiah) being readied in “the land that was soon to be called Holy” bookend a supremely humane story about the twilight and limitations of paganism.

Do we see this move refracted in “False Prophet”? Again, maybe. The speaker is on a quest for the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend (stanza 6, “I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail”), the cup from the Last Supper which gives eternal life.[10] He or she has somehow died and risen again, and, as noted above,[11] it might be implied that he or she is no longer subject to death. It is “the rest” who are to be buried (stanza 4, “[Y]ou can bury the rest”). But even for them there is hope, for it is indicated that “the rest” can be saved: those addressed in the song are instructed to “pray for their souls.”

Later, the addressee seems to change and the speaker (Alcestis? Christ?) addresses the Devil (stanza 8, “Oh you poor Devil”) and points to the…the what? The “City of God,” which is “there on the hill.” This evokes, besides Augustine’s long apologetic work of the same name, the “city that is set on an hill” of Matthew 5:14; but it is perhaps also where the cross is. In contrast to Wilder, the hill completes the garden, where the fountain–the water of life? the Grail?–is.

So let’s revisit the vengeance referred to in the song. What if it is vengeance on the Devil and death? What if the song is, at least in part, about the defeat of death and the victory of life–not only about judgment, but also about salvation? If the speaker (or one of them) is Christ or a Christ-figure (that is, Alcestis), such a conjecture is not absurd.

But it can remain only a conjecture. Wilder never makes explicit what gives meaning to life. Neither does Dylan. But both works make the reader think about the question, and maybe suggest an answer. In so far as they do, it is arguable that they suggest an answer along the same lines. But it is left to the reader or listener to make what connections he will.[12]


1 Richard Thomas discusses this song in “‘And I Crossed the Rubicon’: Another Classical Dylan” (Dylan Review 2.1 [Summer 2020], 45-46), and even the first line of this stanza, but he does not comment on the second.
2 Wilder, like Dylan, finds in the classical world an artistically usable past.
3 For the plague, Wilder is presumably drawing on other classical sources such as Book 1 of Homer’s Iliad and, especially, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King; his novel The Ides of March makes clear his debt to Sophocles, as does his essay on Oedipus the King.
4 This is itself presumably an allusion to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
5 These are the words of the girl that she had, according to King Agis, repeated to him in the agony of death.
6 Ingredient to Wilder’s writing is the presence of central female characters: cf. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Woman of Andros, and Our Town, in addition to the work presently under discussion.
7 It is true that Alcestis is not angry; however, one can always fall back on artistic license for such variations.
8 Dylan has a water-source, too: stanza 5, “We can sit in the shade by the fountain side.” But his is in a garden; more on this below.
9 Wilder here draws on the classical dictum that one learns through suffering. This dictum given most forceful expression, perhaps, in the parodos of the Agamemnon (177), where Aeschylus’s chorus says that, by Zeus’s ordinance, learning comes through suffering (πάθει μάθος [pathei mathos]). This passage would be quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in his remarks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
10 Many readers will be familiar with it from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dylan namechecks Indiana Jones on “I Contain Multitudes” on Rough and Rowdy Ways.
11 The speaker’s “ghostly appearance” also reminds us that he or she has been to the realm of the dead and back.
12 I do not pretend that the foregoing is the interpretation of “False Prophet.” I’m not even certain it’s an interpretation. My claim is more modest: it’s plausible that such an interpretation could be suggested by the lyrics. Dylan’s lyrics are notoriously difficult to pin down. With the lyrics on his more recent albums, the difficulty of their elusiveness is due in large measure to their allusivity. The lyrics often seem like fragments of other lyrics. Every song contains in itself many potential songs with many potential singers. But if what I have said helps anyone to attend more closely to the text–of both Wilder and Dylan–I’m satisfied.


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