“Orpheus with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.”
—William Shakespeare, Orpheus
“On the road to Hell there was a railroad line/And a poor boy workin’ on a song/His mama was a friend of mine/And this boy was a muse’s son… On the railroad line on the road to Hell/There was a young girl looking for something to eat/And brother, thus begins the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice…” (Road to Hell). The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragic romance that has captured the imaginations of poets, musicians, and painters across time and across various mediums of art. It has inspired numerous operas, poems, songs, movies, and even musicals. But what draws artists to certain stories again and again? What makes people want to tell and retell this particular myth? While the recent adaptation, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, gives the Orpheus and Eurydice myth a modern twist, it also retains and deepens several essential elements from its source material. Hadestown breathes new life into the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in the process of adapting the story for a contemporary audience, the creative decisions in keeping certain themes and symbols make for a unique experience that remains faithful to the heart of the myth.
The critically acclaimed musical Hadestown, written by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, stars Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon) as Eurydice and musician Reeve Carney (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) as Orpheus. Originally conceived in 2006 as a community theatre project, Hadestown took its first few steps in Vermont, and was later workshopped in New York, Edmonton, and London following the expansion of its creative team. After seeing director Rachel Chavkin’s work in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, creator Mitchell reached out to Chavkin to collaborate with her on her own musical. Following its successful run in London’s National Theatre, Hadestown made its Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 2019 to explosive praise from both critics and general audiences. Part of Hadestown’s eclectic charm is its combination of musical and narrative styles; its music, for example, was described as “genre-defying… [it] blends modern American folk music with New Orleans-inspired jazz” (TonyAwards.Com). With fourteen Tony nominations in 2019, Hadestown took home eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, and continued its run until March 2020. Hadestown is set to return to the stage in June 2021 when Broadway is anticipated to open once again.
Hadestown is a fascinating study because it is a patchwork of the new and the old, of tradition and innovation. Its combination of musical motifs and songwriting structures is only the tip of the iceberg. Hadestown brings together the opposite ends of a spectrum, in a thematic, musical, and narrative sense, while retaining the same driving forces and emotional arcs of the original myth. Certain secondary plotlines in the story—the decay of the earth, the boom of industrialization, and the resulting dehumanization and exploitation of workers, for instance—may have been deviations from its source material, but these new additions and changes strengthen and deepen the original themes rather than diluting its message and meaning. Three of the most prominent, memorable, and essential elements of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth are story, song, and sorrow, and the ways in which Hadestown explores them are what make it a brilliant adaptation, and a brilliant story.
Hadestown’s narrative style is a nod to the ways the people of the past would have first heard, circulated, and remembered myths and folktales in their day. The musical works as a story within a story. Hermes, the messenger god, narrates the musical from start to finish, and is the one who introduces the characters to the audience. Despite the combination of musical influences across different time periods, of costume design references to different eras, and of similarities to events in history (such as the Great Depression), Hermes immediately warns the audience not to expect a fixed time or place: “Once upon a time there was a railroad line/Don’t ask where, brother, don’t ask when” (Road to Hell). The combination of old and new styles makes the setting and the characters more familiar to the audience, while keeping them far away enough to prevent the audience from associating the story with a single time or place. As the story unfolds, Hermes gives his own metatextual commentary and provides hints and insights into the characters’ decisions, though he does not interfere with its inevitable ending. The tiny seeds of foreshadowing he sows throughout his narration only fall into place when the story comes full circle in Road to Hell (Reprise).
The timelessness of the myth is also reflected in the cyclical nature of the musical, which Hermes details at the very beginning of the musical (“It’s an old tale from way back when/It’s an old song/And we’re gonna sing it again”, Road to Hell) and at the very end (“It’s a sad song/It’s a sad tale/It’s a tragedy/It’s a sad song/But we sing it anyway/‘Cause here’s the thing/To know how it ends/And still begin to sing it again/As if it might turn out this time/I learned that from a friend of mine”, Road to Hell (Reprise)). The repeated usage and transformation of musical themes and lyrics and the voices of the Fates speaking directly to the audience (“Go ahead and lay the blame/Talk of virtue/Talk of sin/Wouldn’t you have done the same/In her shoes/In her skin?”) adds to the effect (Gone, I’m Gone). Even the characters within the story feel a sense of nostalgia or familiarity. Orpheus and Eurydice, for instance, are inexplicably pulled towards and drawn into each other from the moment they meet.
“I don’t know how or why
Or who am I that I should get to hold you.
But when I saw you all alone against the sky
It’s like I’d known you all along.
I knew you before we met,
And I don’t even know you yet.
All I know is you’re someone I have always known.”
—Anaïs Mitchell, All I’ve Ever Known
The characters themselves seem unaware that they are living out the same story Hermes continues to tell and retell. But within the story he’s telling, they tell their own stories: stories about the places they have come from (Eurydice in Any Way the Wind Blows) and stories about why have been driven to do the things they do (Hades in Why We Build the Wall). Orpheus, in a slight deviation from the original myth, embarks on two journeys: the first to rescue his lover Eurydice, and the second to understand the true story behind Hades and Persephone’s estrangement. The former is a journey he decides to take, and the latter is a journey he becomes swept up in. And when he reaches the underworld and must entertain Hades with a story, the story he tells the King of the Underworld turns out to be two stories in one. As he sings of Hades and Persephone’s love, he also sings of his own love for Eurydice. He sings about the love they felt during their courtship, and the love that brought him all the way to the Underworld to bring her back home. It is the forgotten story of their love that brings the gods together again, and it is through story that Orpheus first saves Eurydice.
“[Orpheus] dared to descend to Styx by the Tænarian gate, and amid the phantom inhabitants and ghosts that had enjoyed the tomb, he went to Persephone, and him that held these unpleasing realms, the Ruler of the shades; and touching his strings in concert with his words, he thus said, “O ye Deities of the world that lies beneath the earth, to which we all come at last, each that is born to mortality; if I may be allowed, and you suffer me to speak the truth, laying aside the artful expressions of a deceitful tongue; I have not descended hither from curiosity to see dark Tartarus, nor to bind the threefold throat of the Medusæan monster, bristling with serpents. But my wife was the cause of my coming; into whom a serpent, trodden upon by her, diffused its poison, and cut short her growing years. I was wishful to be able to endure this, and I will not deny that I have endeavoured to do so. Love has proved the stronger. That God is well known in the regions above. Whether he be so here, too, I am uncertain; but yet I imagine that even here he is; and if the story of the rape of former days is not untrue, ’twas love that united you two together. By these places filled with horrors, by this vast Chaos, and by the silence of these boundless realms, I entreat you, weave over again the quick-spun thread of the life of Eurydice.”
—Ovid, Book the Tenth, Fable I of Metamorphoses
But in Hadestown, story cannot be separated from song. During the first act, Hermes admits to the audience that Orpheus, the son of a Muse, is “touched by the gods themselves”, and that he “took the boy underneath [his] wing [because [he] liked to hear him sing/And his way of seeing things” (Road to Hell, Come Home with Me). Orpheus is a dreamer and a songwriter with a gift for words. Hermes, however, says that Orpheus’s gift comes from his ability to “make you see how the world could be” (All I’ve Ever Known [Intro]). Song therefore comes to represent hope, and as Orpheus spreads song, he also spreads hope for a better future. When he first meets Eurydice, she is cynical and world-weary, and has learned from experience that the only person she can afford to place her trust in is herself: “People turn on you just like the wind/Everybody is a fair weather friend/In the end, you’re better off alone/Any way the wind blows” (Any Way the Wind Blows). When Orpheus clumsily attempts to woo her with singing, she cuts off his romantic expressions with regular conversational speech. It is only after she realises the genuine feeling behind his words and sees the power behind his new song that she allows herself to sing with him. In doing so, she allows herself to hope that a better world can and will come into fruition, despite the barrenness of her current circumstances.
“I’m workin’ on a song…
A song to fix what’s wrong,
Take what’s broken, make it whole.
A song so beautiful
It brings the world back into tune,
Back into time,
And all the flowers will bloom…”
—Anaïs Mitchell, Come Home with Me
Orpheus is working on this particular song because he believes it will bring back spring and restore the “cycle of the seed and the sickle” (Epic I). By restoring the earth and the rhythm of sowing and reaping, he would also restore the cycles of “the lives of the people/And the birds in their flight” (Epic I). He is aware from the start that the people’s suffering and the earth’s suffering are connected. Later on in Chant, while working ceaselessly on his song, Orpheus realises in a moment of painful clarity the underlying problem, which affects every form of life on earth. The root of all of this suffering is not simply the absence of spring; it is neither Persephone’s negligence of the earth, nor Hades’s bad timing when he comes to the surface to retrieve her for the winter. The true cause of the chaos in the world above is caused by the turmoil in the world below. Hades and Persephone have grown to resent the other. “Hades and Persephone,” Hermes reminds Orpheus, while he works on his song. “Remember how it used to be/Their love that made the world go round?” (Epic I) There is a crack in that foundation, and it has created a butterfly effect in both the Underworld and the world above.
“And that is the reason we’re on this road
And the seasons are wrong,
And the wind is so strong…
That’s why times are so hard.
It’s because of the gods—
The gods have forgotten the song of their love.”
—Anaïs Mitchell, Chant
This new urgency creates momentum for Orpheus to complete his song and “bring the world back into tune” (Come Home with Me). By doing so, he can help erase the people’s suffering, and prevent further damage done to the natural world. Song, however, also comes to represent fantasy and detachment from reality. Orpheus, desperate to perfect the song, misses all signs of an oncoming storm. He loses Eurydice because of his failure to provide for her, comfort her, and shelter her—he loses her because in his desperation, he has momentarily forgotten the song of their love. Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld unwittingly prepares the stage for him to finish his song and sing it before Hades and Persephone. But though he writes his song to remind the gods of their love and to restore spring to his world, he sings his song in order to save his lover from an eternity of slavery in Hadestown. He sings in order to remind them both of their love for one another—he sings to assure Eurydice that he has come this far for her, and that he will always remember their love. In one stroke, Orpheus restores Hades and Persephone’s love, and also proves and affirms his own for Eurydice. Spring returns to Hades and Persephone’s love, and spring is restored in the world above. It is a new and fragile beginning for the King and Queen of the Underworld, but with their renewed feelings for each other, they are willing to try again.
“Spring has come again. The Earth is
Like a child that has learned to recite a poem…”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus: Number 21
With this, the last and most profound element comes into play: sorrow. Throughout the musical (and indeed the myth itself), the characters are haunted by a distinct feeling of wrongness. They feel it in the absence of spring or fall (“it’s either blazing hot or freezing cold”), the tension between Hades and Persephone, the treatment of the Hadestown workers (Any Way the Wind Blows)… The cycle of giving and taking is no longer balanced in people and in the cycles of nature. There is a dissonance in the world, and Orpheus seeks to pull it back into harmony. In the original myth, the effect of Orpheus’s song is as stirring as a stone plunging into still waters: “The bloodless spirits wept. Tantalus did not catch at the retreating water, and the wheel of Ixion stood still, as though in amazement; the birds did not tear the liver of Tityus; and the granddaughters of Belus paused at their urns; thou, too, Sisyphus, didst seat thyself on thy stone. The story is that then, for the first time, the cheeks of the Eumenides, overcome by his music, were wet with tears” (Ovid, Metamorphoses). His song in the myth focuses solely on the pain of losing his love, and his sorrow tears at the hearts of his listeners. The sources of conflict that Hadestown adds widens the scope of Orpheus’s pain. But though his song does pierce Hades’s heart, Hades does not allow him to save Eurydice and leave the Underworld without paying a price.
“Only one thing to be done:
Let them go but let there be some term to be agreed upon.
Orpheus the undersigned shall not turn to look behind.
She’s out of sight and he’s out of his mind.
Every coward seems courageous in the safety of a crowd.
Bravery can be contagious when the band is playing loud.
Nothing makes a man so bold
As a woman’s smile and a hand to hold.
But all alone his blood runs thin
And doubt comes—doubt comes in…”
—Anaïs Mitchell, His Kiss, The Riot
Orpheus must trust Eurydice and walk before her on the way out of the Underworld. It is a test for Eurydice: a test of her faithfulness, her strength of will, and of her love for Orpheus. And it is also a test for Orpheus. Hermes warns Orpheus that the real struggle will not lie in the journey back to the surface. It is the battle in his mind that will push him to his limits: “I’ll tell you where the real road lies:/Between your ears, behind your eyes” (Wait for Me (Reprise)). Hadestown adds another layer to this internal war. It is not only Orpheus’s lack of trust in Eurydice’s constancy that eventually causes him to fail the test, and to lose Eurydice permanently; it is also because of his own doubt in himself. He has failed her once already, and he does not know if he deserves her, or the trust of the Hadestown workers, who are watching them journey onwards. “Who do I think I am?” he wonders. “Who am I to think that she would follow me into the cold and dark again?” (Doubt Comes In). He asks himself if he can pave the way for the workers. He asks himself if he can trust that Hades isn’t trying to trick him. He asks himself where Eurydice is. And here lies the tragedy of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, despite Eurydice’s assurances that “[he is] not alone/[she is] right behind you/And [she has] been all along”, turns around (Doubt Comes In).
“[Orpheus] ascended the steep and gloomy path which led to the realms of life and light. All went well until he was just about to pass the extreme limits of Hades, when, forgetting for the moment the hard condition, he turned to convince himself that his beloved wife was really behind him. The glance was fatal, and destroyed all his hopes of happiness; for, as he yearningly stretched out his arms to embrace her, she was caught back, and vanished from his sight for ever.”
—E.M. Berens, The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
“The ascending path is mounted in deep silence, steep, dark, and enveloped in deepening gloom. And now they were not far from the verge of the upper earth. He, enamoured, fearing lest she should flag, and impatient to behold her, turned his eyes; and immediately she sank back again. She, hapless one! both stretching out her arms, and struggling to be grasped, and to grasp him, caught nothing but the fleeting air. And now, dying a second time, she did not at all complain of her husband; for why should she complain of being beloved? And now she pronounced the last farewell, which scarcely did he catch with his ears; and again was she hurried back to the same place.”
—Ovid, Book the Tenth, Fable I of Metamorphoses
“It’s a sad song/It’s a sad tale/It’s a tragedy/It’s a sad song/But we sing it anyway,” Hermes concludes. “It’s a love song/It’s a tale of a love from long ago/It’s a sad song/We keep singing even so/It’s an old song/It’s an old tale from way back when/And we’re gonna sing it again and again” (Road to Hell (Reprise)). There is sorrow woven into the fabric of the narrative, sorrow that cannot be removed from it without fundamentally changing the story. But there is also hope, and joy, and the beauty of learning to love someone over and over again despite the mistakes you may make along the way. And perhaps this is the appeal of this old tale. There is something about the marriage of joy and sorrow, of gain and loss, of life and death that captivates and stirs the artist’s imagination. Such stories speak to what it means to be human. Such stories are the ones that not only survive the test of time, but are also retold, repackaged, and reimagined, so that people will remember them. Such stories make you believe that one day, the cycles of loss, grief, and death will be broken for good. This story has a sad ending, and the image of Orpheus staring into the darkness, into the nothingness where Eurydice used to be is a haunting one. But Hadestown insists that the story is worth the telling, because Orpheus and Eurydice try. They try to love, they try to hold onto what they love, and they try to regain what they have lost. And what comes from the sorrow is an enduring hope that one day, someday, the story will end differently. Orpheus will see the coming of spring again, and the world will finally be made right. And whenever he turns, he will see Eurydice; whenever Eurydice turns, he will be there, the way he promised.
In Rilke’s sixteenth sonnet to Orpheus, he says, “it can be said we endure together/The knowing in part, the fragmentation, as if it were the whole.” This separating and joining of the fragmentation in relation to the whole also permeates Hadestown ‘s interpretation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural, the tiny and the colossal, the temporariness of mortality and the permanence of eternity is echoed in the three sites of conflict. They fit into each other like Matryoshka dolls: the imbalance of the natural world, Hades and Persephone’s strained marriage, and the division between Orpheus and Eurydice. They are all drawn into each other and interwoven together by the characters’ choices until it becomes apparent that if one problem is solved, the rest must be restored, too. And if the rest are restored, the one must too be drawn into tune. Spring has returned to the world. Hades and Persephone have reconciled, but if they forget their love again, there will be a song to remind them of it once more. On a greater scale, this is the hope that draws people back into the myth: if one story can, however imperfectly, come full circle over and over again with the hope that things will end differently, then maybe one day, the cycles of loss, grief, and death will be broken for good. There will be joy, joy made all the greater because we will have left behind the sorrow and suffering behind forever. The better world we cannot help but dream of will be before us: a world full of story and song, a world finally made right.
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time writing final papers, crying over Jason Robert Brown musicals, devouring her latest favourite book (it’s Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities this month), and working on her next writing project. You can also find her in her little corner of the world: herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
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Original Broadway Cast of Hadestown, and Anaïs Mitchell. “Hadestown (Original Broadway Cast Recording).” Spotify, 26 July 2019, open.spotify.com/album/1J1yxODbNlqKbwRqJxYJUP?si=jS44K4RcSMCak8yTNQuClw.
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Ovid. “Metamorphoses VIII-XI.” Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/26073/26073-h/Met_VIII-XI.html.
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