Hadestown, which tells a version of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recently took home a total of eight Tony Awards, including "Best Musical." Hadestown writer Anais Mitchell isn't the only one fascinated by the ancient myth. Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, the Paul Shorey Professor of Greek and Chair of the Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr, is the author of Redefining Ancient Orphism and Myths of the Underworld Journey. He shares some of his thoughts on the enduring relevance and appeal of the myth below.
What is it about this material that makes it so enduring?
The Orpheus myth always involves two themes that are timeless and universal—love and death—so any telling spun from these materials will have that kind of appeal. Myths in general are “mythic” insofar as the story can be reworked to bring out the ideas and emotions that the teller wants to evoke while still maintaining the essential plot line of the story. People throughout the ages have found fruitful and productive vessels in the Greek myths, like the Orpheus myth, tales that they can work with to tell their own story. That continued usability is what it means for it to be a classic.
What tend to be the constants in these retellings?
Myths are always changing with each telling, but we recognize the myth from certain elements in any story that always stay the same. It might be the names of the characters: Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone, figures who are familiar from the Classical tradition. But more often it is the storyline: the lover misses his beloved so much that he even goes down into the underworld to try to get her back; this story appears in cultures all around the world in all times in human history.
Death is a fundamental part of human life; awareness of our own mortality is an essential part of the human condition. And one of the most terrifying things about death is the prospect of being separated—irrevocably—from those we love. The Orpheus myth, in all its forms, provides an outlet, an opportunity for expressing thoughts and feelings about that timeless and universal problem.
Hadestown weaves in another story familiar from the mythic tradition, the tale of Hades and Persephone. The story of a young girl taken away from her mother and brought to live with a terrifying husband in a strange, new world from which she can never fully get away is another tale that has found resonance throughout the ages, especially for women. Again the themes of love and death make for a powerful tale, and different versions play in various ways with the attachments formed by love and the separations wrought by death. In some the trauma of the separation of mother and daughter is foregrounded, but others highlight the attachment of love that forges new identities for Persephone and her husband.
Why do artists come back to these particular characters and themes?
I think the Orpheus myth has a particular appeal for artists because Orpheus himself is an artist, the poetic singer beyond compare. So, any telling of the Orpheus story is also a way of talking about the power of art, as well as the power of love and the power of death. Various versions of the story play up the metatheatrical aspects to different extents, but the power of music against the power of death is a wonderful theme to set to music.
There are lots of ways of telling a story about a journey to the land of the dead, and, as I have argued, the particular way that the story frames the obstacles to that journey, the solutions found to those obstacles, and the final results achieved, is what makes the meaning in the story. Other mythic heroes who venture into the underworld, such as Herakles or Odysseus, do so with their characteristically heroic attributes of strength, cunning, and courage, motivated to win glory for themselves, but Orpheus goes armed only with the power of song. The Roman versions of Vergil and Ovid emphasize the power of the poet, and it is not accidental that some of the earliest operas, such as those by Peri and Monteverdi, take the story of Orpheus in their attempts to recreate the genre of ancient Greek tragedy. In other stories about Orpheus, his music has the power to out-enchant the Sirens, to still the clashing rocks, to charm wild beasts, and even to make the trees and rocks follow him along the mountainsides. The songs of Orpheus are famed for their divine power; his hymns and rituals are more potent than any others to charm and please the gods. I explore this side of the Orpheus tradition in one of my recent books, and it is fascinating to see how the figure of Orpheus is used again and again to represent this kind of ancient poetic power with an extraordinary connection with the divine.
So, I think that it is always tempting for artists to try to give voice to this extraordinary music with their own poetic and musical voices, and there have been some outstanding examples throughout the ages (Gluck’s opera and Rilke’s poems are perhaps among the best known). To make your music the music of the divine Orpheus is to channel the power of that tradition, to highlight the power of your own artistic expression.
Artists also return to these materials because there is always something to be said, in each culture, in each generation, about these ideas. The setting can be tailored to express ideas about the social, political, or economic situation of the time, and I would be fascinated to see how the industrial setting of Hadestown plays out in the musical itself as a comment on our own era. So too, the interactions of the lovers in each version reflect the dynamics and tensions of the world from which the telling comes; it is not surprising, for example, that Hadestown seems to give more voice to the female characters of Eurydice and Persephone than the ancient versions.
Edmonds latest book is Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World.