Musical vs Myth: Hadestown
First performed in 2016 and set in a dystopian world reminiscent of America’s Great Depression, ‘Hadestown’ reimagines the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, while also exploring the marriage of Hades and Persephone. With songs written by Anaïs Mitchell, ‘Hadestown’ produces an enchanting and mournful take on this classic Greek tragedy.
In the original myth, Orpheus was the son of the Muse, Calliope (and sometimes the god Apollo.) A talented musician, Orpheus’ singing and playing were so beautiful that animals, trees and even rocks were said to join him in dance. His favoured instrument was the lyre, given to him by Apollo. Orpheus fell head over heels in love with the nymph, Eurydice, who returned his affection. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed for misery, and on their wedding night Eurydice tragically passed away. Distraught, Orpheus travelled to the underworld to retrieve her.
While Orpheus’ singing was beautiful enough to convince Hades to allow Eurydice to return to the mortal realm, Orpheus’ efforts were in vain. Part of the requirements of leaving were that Orpheus would not turn back to see if Eurydice was accompanying him. While Orpheus almost manged to lead Eurydice out, he could not help but glance back. Eurydice was returned to Hades’ realm, and Orpheus separated from her in the land of the living.
Set in a world where the estrangement of Hades and Persephone has spilled into the mortal world, ‘Hadestown’ remains very close to the original legend, while adding to and developing the source material. As a result of Hades and Persephone’s marital discord, spring and autumn have disappeared form the world, (‘it’s either burning hot or freezing cold’) with Hades keeping Persephone with him longer and longer, and then collecting her earlier and earlier each year. Orpheus is a young man with a musical gift, and plans to write a song so beautiful that it turns the world back the way it was. His plans are stymied when he meets, falls in love with, and marries Eurydice. Shortly after they get together, winter returns and food grows scarce. Orpheus is focused on his song and so does not notice as Eurydice grown more desperate. When Orpheus returns, he learns that Eurydice has boarded a train to Hadestown. Determined to get her back he follows her down, wins her freedom and, as in the original myth, loses it again, separating them both forever.
The musical opens by introducing its key figures; Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades, Persephone, and The Fates. These introductions are done by the god Hermes. While Apollo is generally the god most associated with Orpheus, in ‘Hadestown’ this role is taken by Hermes who acts a guardian, advisor and friend to Orpheus. In mythology, Hermes was a messenger to the gods, his roles included taking messages between Olympus and the Underworld, between the gods, and between Olympus and the mortal world. As narrator, Hermes acts as messenger between the audience and the actors on stage. He gives backgrounds on the characters and also translates their motivations for the audience.
In addition to acting as a narrator, Hermes also serves a similar role to the Greek Chorus of classical Greek theatre. The Greek Chorus appeared in many Greek plays, in both comedies and tragedies, and part of their role involved commenting on the moral and emotional impact of the play. They acted outside the narrative to indicate which characters were morally correct, and which characters the audience should not sympathise with. In Euripides’ ‘Medea’ for example, the chorus is initially on Medea’s side, as a wife betrayed by her husband for a younger woman. While initially on board with Medea’s revenge, the Chorus turns against her when she concocts a plan to murder her sons in order to punish her husband. She ceases to become a character of sympathy, and instead becomes a villain.
Similarly, Hermes’ reactions to the characters indicate how sympathetic they are in the narrative. Hades, for example, is consistently referred to in negative terms, while his wife Persephone is generally referred to positively. This is most apparent in Hermes’ relationship with Orpheus. Initially Hermes’ tone when talking about Orpheus is admiring and affectionate – ‘Orpheus was a poor boy, but he had a gift to give: he could make you see how the world could be… in spite of the way that it is.’ This changes as Orpheus continues to ignore Eurydice’s worries and Hermes becomes more stern and harsh with Orpheus, ordering him to ‘Look up!’. After Eurydice descends to the Underworld, Hades turns against Orpheus completely. When Orpheus appears, asking Hermes where Eurydice is, Hermes is curt and cold with him, ‘Why do you care? You’ll find another Muse somewhere?’. It is only when Orpheus expresses his regret, and his desperation to be reunited with Eurydice even if that means travelling to Hadestown that Hermes softens to him again and agrees to help.
Hermes then takes on his third role in the play, and one of his lesser-known attributes as a god – that of a psychopomp. Psychopomp is the term used for a figure from myth who guides souls to the afterlife. In Greek Myth, this is one of Hermes’ many roles – leading wandering souls to the Underworld. This becomes his most significant role in the musical. In his introduction he describes himself as ‘a man with feathers on his feet who could help you to your final destination’ he is also first introduced as standing at a station – as the railroad represents the way to the Underworld, then by standing at the station, Hermes represents a border between life and death. It is in this role that Hermes gives Orpheus instructions on how to travel to Hadestown without boarding the train (metaphorically dying) and without being discovered by Hades.
Under Hermes’ advice, Orpheus successfully sneaks into Hadestown and is reunited with Eurydice, where he learns the most heart-breaking thing of all. Eurydice had chosen to leave for the Underworld.
This is one of the more significant deviations from the myth. In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the two are separated by Eurydice’s death. She had no say in the matter. In the musical however, Eurydice is given agency over her own actions. She makes the choice out of desperation, but she still makes a choice. While the musical may deviate from the myth in that Eurydice is not killed, it still frames her choice in a way that harkens back to her original death and makes it clear that she is being manipulated. Hermes even refers to the conversation between her and Hades as ‘Songbird verses Rattlesnake’. This echoes Eurydice’s death by adder-bite, while also referencing back to the shows American-style setting, and the idea of Hades as a snake-oil salesman, selling Eurydice false promises to get her to Hadestown.
Though Hades is not particularly interested in Eurydice as anything except another bargaining chip in his wedding, he is still angered by Orpheus’ audacity in trying to come to Hadestown and remove Hades’ ‘property.’ He eventually challenged Orpheus to sing a song so sweet that even Hades is moved by it. Orpheus does so. The song, it turns out, was the same song that Hades and Persephone had once sung together, reminding the two of why they were once in love.
Hades agrees that Orpheus and Eurydice may leave together.
Of course, the story of Orpheus and Euridice has always been a tragedy. Their relationship was fated to failure. In the original myth, this was because Hymen, god of marriage, did not bless their union. In the musical however, it is because they are merely playing out an old story whose end is known – as Hermes’ says in the opening song, ‘It's a sad song! It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy’. This foretold doom is highlighted by the literal fates, the three gods who personify destiny. Their role in the musical is to ensure that this destined tragedy occurs. They are there to encourage Eurydice to travel to the Hadestown (‘Help yourself, to hell with the rest, even the one who loves you best’), they goad Hades into putting conditions on Eurydice’s release (‘If you let him go, you’re a spineless king and you’re never gonna get them in line again’), and they are even there to feed Orpheus’ doubts (‘Where is she? Where is she now?’), leading him to turn around and lose Eurydice forever.
While Orpheus is often criticised for turning around, particularly when he and Eurydice were so close to escape, it is important to know why he turned. Having left the Underworld, Orpheus would be unable return. His fear was that Hades was tricking him into leaving without Eurydice, and that he would be unable to return for her. These fears are echoed by the Orpheus of ‘Hadestown’, ‘Who am I to think that he wouldn't deceive me just to make me leave alone?’ However, in the musical there is an additional layer to this Orpheus’ fear. Having let down Eurydice once before, he is afraid that he will not be enough for her, and that she will not choose him and that he will lose her. Ironically, is exactly these doubts, encouraged by the Fates, that do lead to Orpheus losing her.
While ‘Hadestown’ does end sadly, it is a more complicated sadness than the original myth, which was merely tragic. In ‘Hadestown’ while Orpheus and Eurydice are separated, Orpheus does succeed in his original goal. He writes a song which reconciles Hades and Persephone and puts the world back to rights. Though it is a personal tragedy for the couple, the play ends with a bittersweet success – spring has come again.
Overall ‘Hadestown’ makes a clear homage to the early myths drawn from a genuine adoration of the source material that is clear with every line. The musical develops the story and characters further, to reimagine them in a more contemporary setting without losing any of the emotional impact of the original.