He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.
Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)
His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.
When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.
But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.
This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.
In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.
The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.
When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?
The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.
But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.
Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.