Orpheus is Hip Again

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.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

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.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

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.

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.

Orpheus and Eurydice–a retelling from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Once upon a time there was a man called Orpheus.  He was an artist—a poet, a singer, a lyre-player (which is sort of like a harpist without the drama).  His music was ethereal.  He was so talented, when he played his lyre and sang his songs, the trees lifted their roots and moved to be closer to him.  The rocks rolled over too, drawn by his melody and magic.  Of course animals gathered.  People were transfixed.  He was a World Singer: he cast spells on the world with his songs. The child of Calliope (the Muse of Epic poetry and the reason that “epic” means “great”) and Apollo (the God of Music and Light and Healing and Civilization and Just About Everything Light Can Symbolize), he seems like he should have been a god himself, but he was nevertheless wholly mortal.  And he was phenomenal.
Orpheus loved Eurydice.  He loved her with the kind of love they tell about in stories (like this one).  The day he married her was the happiest day of his life–and the saddest. When the ceremony was over, Eurydice, on her way to the celebration, stepped on a viper, and it bit her heel.  She died on the spot.  Orpheus was undone.
He more than mourned.  He wasted.  For months.
Then he mobilized and strategized.  He was not the kind of hero to challenge the gods.  Not the kind of hero to undertake a katabasis—underworld journeys were not his style.  His strength lay in his music, not his muscles.  He was no Hercules.  Still, his love fueled his imagination, bringing images to his eyes and songs to his lips, and he went to Hades to get her back.

They heard him coming.  His music compelled everyone there to listen and react, to draw near him, to respond to him.  His song was so sad and so consuming, all who heard it wept.  Persephone was a fountain of tears from the moment he stepped off the ferry, rivers of tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on to her dress.  The river Styx swelled with tears the dead shouldn’t have been able to cry.  The Furies, who had never wept before and who have never wept again, cried burning tears they could not control.  Hades relented.  He would give this Orpheus his wife; of course he would.  But he named one condition:  Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld ahead of Eurydice, leading her out, but without looking back to be sure she followed. If he looked back, she would go back to Hades, where she belonged, and Orpheus would never get back in to try a second time.
Of course he looked. He tried, honestly he tried, and he made it quite far, really.  He walked up a long staircase that wound around the curves and crevices of the rocky walls of hell, and he kept a slow, steady, rhythmic pace, so that she could certainly keep up.  He had to trust that she would follow, that she could follow.  He had to trust that nothing would grab her, that her injured foot didn’t slow her down, that the climb wasn’t exhausting, that Hades wasn’t lying.  That’s a lot to trust.  And his love made him vulnerable.  What if she had fallen behind?  This was his only chance.  Of course he looked.
When he did, she began slipping down, her near-solid form losing its substance and floating down the steps away from him.  He reached and tried to grasp her hand, but only closed a fist.  He shot his arms out to embrace her one last time, and there was nothing to embrace.  Her voice filtered up from the depths, saying she loved him, she forgave him, she would remember him.  She loved him.  And he lost her.  Twice.
Anger possessed him.  He swore he would never love another woman like that again, and he didn’t.  He couldn’t open himself up to that kind of pain again, and he couldn’t forget Eurydice anyway.  He kept the pain like a memento, and instead he turned to young boys to satisfy his body and his music to satiate his soul.  And he loved her.
The women of Thrace grew to hate him for his love.  It was irrational.  There were lots of lovely Thracian girls and women who should have been able to give him a good life.  He chose none of them.  His shunning women entirely and turning to boys was the last straw.  One hellish night during the Bacchanale, they turned on him.  They came for him with their wild, ivy-strewn hair and their tattered dresses, lifting a thyrsus in the air and shrieking.  “There he is!” they yelled, “the one who spurns our love!”  They swung their staffs, and Orpheus started playing.  They threw rocks, and the rocks fell at his feet, rolling gently toward him, looking oddly repentant.  The spears they threw changed direction in mid-air, avoiding him at the last second.
But more women came.  Throng after throng, and while the first ones fell in his power, the growing number of howling women eventually drowned out his song.  He sang louder, but more women arrived.  The last to arrive heard nothing but their sisters’ screeching, and they got near and ripped and tore at Orpheus.  Their sacred staffs were used as weapons–sacrilege and murder and madness all together.  They mauled him like a pack of savage predators.  They pulled him limb from limb, harp from hand.  They threw his head and his lyre in the river and exulted as they bobbed in the stream.  Orpheus was dead.  But his head kept singing, and the lyre made music on the waves.
And all Creation wept.
As his head tumbled near the shore, a snake opened its mouth and poised to strike.  Apollo, mourning father, froze the snake in stone; it gapes still.  Orpheus’s severed head kept singing.

Finally, though, his journey ended.  On the shores of the Styx, he crossed with purpose, leaning out over the side of the ferry, anxious to find his Eurydice.  She was there.  She smiled.  She took his hand and led him over the fields, and they walk there still, taking turns leading and following, neither worried that the other will fall behind.