Welcome back to my second article unwrapping the Tony-winning musical Hadestown. Previously we’ve discussed how Anaïs Mitchell included politics in her magnus opus. Now we get into the poetry of her work. Join us as we walk through Hadestown, character parallels, and ask why Hades set this particular task to Orpheus.
Spoilers for Hadestown.
A Quick Recap
I’m guessing most of the readers have already read my previous article on the subject, so this won’t be an exhaustive summary. Hadestown is a modern-day retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, featuring poor girl looking for shelter Eurydice, song obsessed Orpheus looking to return the spring. This mortal couple parallels with Hades and Persephone, Hades reincarnated as a capitalist overlord in an effort to keep Persephone interested in him, and Persephone wine-drunk in an attempt to escape the fact that she doesn’t know her husband anymore. Hermes, as played by Andre de Shields, narrates the dual love story and tragedy.
Orpheus and Eurydice meet and fall in love, with Orpheus promising to protect her, and to bring back the spring. But when Hades emerges, to bring Persephone home in the fall, Orpheus becomes obsessed with his songwriting and the task it can fulfill. It falls to Eurydice to gather food and shelter for them both, and when the Fates steal everything she gathered, she makes a bargain with Hades and goes to Hadestown to work for him eternally. Orpheus sets out to find her when made aware of her disappearance by Hermes.
When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, he originally asks Hades for Eurydice to be freed. Hades commands his workers to drive him out and beat him, over the objections of Persephone. Persephone attempts to change Hades’s mind, but to no avail. Orpheus reminds the workers of who they were before the constant work in Hadestown, and leads a revolution to Hades Hades gives him one chance to convince him, and Orpheus’s song reminds him of who he was when he fell in love with Persephone. Hades agrees to let Eurydice and the other workers go, on the condition that Orpheus not turn around while he leads them out of hell. Orpheus fails, Eurydice and the workers return, but the musical ends with Persephone returning from the underworld, to bring spring again.
Epithets and Repeating Phrases
One of the things that Mitchell does really well is repetition. Whether it’s bynames or simply phrases taken from one context into another, she manages to weave these threads through her musical. Despite the fact that “Road to Hell 1” sets up the narrative of the story, it is “Any Way the Wind Blows” that sets up the epithets attached to our leading duo. Hermes sets up Eurydice as, “a hungry young girl,” (AWtWB), and Orpheus as “this poor boy,” (AWtWB). Those phrases will be repeated countless times throughout the musical. A curious thing about epithets is that in the religious sense of the term, they signified the aspect in which particular deity was worshipped. In this musical, the epithets register the way in which the characters largely differ from the original myths.
Eurydice has no agency in the original stories. We know that she loves Orpheus, but the plot begins when she is bitten by a snake, instead of a choice to enter the Underworld. Mitchell gives her a backstory as a transient, fleeing the wind and looking for food. Thus, her epithet of a hungry young girl reminds us of where she came from, and the reason she chose Hades and security over starvation and Orpheus.
With Orpheus, the epithet has a dual meaning. In the original myths, Orpheus sailed with Jason and the Argonauts before falling in love with Eurydice, gaining great renown. With the poor boy epithet, we see the ways in which Mitchell’s incarnation of Orpheus differs from that mythological source. He wears a dirty apron, working as a dishwasher and part-time entertainment in the beginning, and living off the land, and all the gifts he would give to Eurydice derive from what can be gathered from nature (WS). But in the context of “Chant 1”, we see a different side to the literal aspect. During his obsessive puzzling over the song and the romance of Hades and Persephone, Hermes again interjects, “Poor boy working on a song … He did not see the storm coming on” (C1). The surrounding lyrics Orpheus sings relate to Hades and Persephone also being blinded, and in this context, we see poor boy as a lament instead of a description. Orpheus is a poor boy, in some ways cursed by the gods with this song, with the attendant mania to finish it, and in that obsession cannot see the approaching darkness. It becomes something said by others, with shaking heads and sad voices. That poor boy.
The final repeating phrase related to Orpheus and Eurydice is both humorous and sad. When Orpheus goes to approach Eurydice, Hermes warns him not to come on too strong. He immediately asks her to come home with him. Eurydice asks Hermes, “Is he always like this? / [H] Yes.” (CHWM). It’s meant to be humorous, a joke that Orpheus thinks that this isn’t coming on too strong. But in “Chant 1”, we see this exchange repeated. Orpheus is busy singing his lament of la, la, la, and Eurydice asks the same question of Hermes, and gets the same response. It shows how much time he’s devoting to this song, and it also shows that it scares Eurydice, and how short a time she’s known him. He’s obsessive, and Eurydice hasn’t seen him like this before, so she asks the person who raised him. The exchange is the same, but the tone changes drastically.
An Ode to Road to Hell I and II
When my father first heard, “Road to Hell 1”, he called it a perfect opening number, given how it opens, how introduces you to the characters, and the music. My own opinion on this number, and its finale counterpart, strongly concurs. I could walk through both songs line by line, and gush about how it sets up the musical perfectly. But that would take approximately two eternities, and no one has time for that. So, I’ll pick out a few special lines, and point out how they work in first the opening, and then the closing number.
The first thing to highlight is the changing reprise exchange between Hermes and the Chorus, each separated by several introductions, that, “It’s an old tale from way back when … It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy … It’s a tale of love from long ago” (RtH1), the song finishes with all three reprises being repeated each after the other in reverse order. However, in “Road to Hell 2”, it begins with the three reprises in conjunction, and all three remain intertwined until the very end. In “Road to Hell 1”, they’re separated so that we won’t get the impact of what they all mean taken together at the very beginning. Combined with the light, joyous tone of the singers, it means we can somewhat ignore what they’re saying, to get caught in their enthusiasm. Whereas in “Road to Hell 2”, we understand the impact of all three themes, and we’re grieving with Orpheus as Eurydice descends back into the Underworld, so they remain together. The lack of music during the first half of the song and Hermes’s solo singing help emphasize that grief.
Secondly, and in a similar vein is the ending lines to both songs. “We’re gonna sing/ We’re gonna sing it again!/ Again!/ Again!” (RtH1), compares to, “And we’re gonna sing it again and again/ We’re gonna sing it again” (RtH2). There is a similar change in tone from Road to Hell 1 and 2, where the latter is more grief and a statement than the exaltation of the first song. But these lines are often taken in conjunction with the old tale, sad tale, love tale from the previous paragraph, and here Mitchell lets us know her thesis statement. She’s using this old, sad, romance to help us look at the current day, let us look at the politics of our leaders, at the state of the environment, and she’s also using it to let us see different aspects of Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades, and Persephone.
Finally, in a less thematic, but more emotional one, the way that Hermes’s use of the word friend changes. In the opening song, we learn that “[Orpheus’s] mama was a friend of mine” (RtH1). That friendship leads to Hermes partly raising Orpheus, but even when he’s grown, it is still his mother that is a more important relationship here. Then, in the end, he sings, of lessons he learned from Orpheus, “I learned that from a friend of mine” (RtH2). I think it’s a wonderful moment because it shows how Orpheus has matured that he has become someone that even a god can respect because of his tenacity.
Take Me Home – Couple Parallels
One of the things that Mitchell also does is create characters that parallel one another or that serve as foils, depending on the message she wants to send. In the concept of home and a secure relationship, the relationships between Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone serve as foils.
We see this from the very first moment that Orpheus and Eurydice meet. The first words that are exchanged between them are Orpheus saying, “Come home with me” (CHWM), in the song of the same title. The very first words he says to her are an offer of a home, of stability, of a fulfilling romantic relationship. We see this promise fulfilled in “All I’ve Ever Known”, where Eurydice speaks, and we see her truly fall in love with Orpheus and this life. A place where it’s “bright and warm/And shining like it never did before” (AIEK). Then, when Orpheus repeats his earlier offer of “Come home with me” (CHWM2), Eurydice rejoices that he’s found her, and wants to bring her home. Then, after the confrontation with Hades, when Orpheus is dazed now that he’s finished the song, Eurydice answers his question about what to do next with, “You take me home with you,” (P). From all of this, we can see that for Orpheus and Eurydice, home is love and stability and safety, though it’s a promise unfulfilled in the end.
But interwoven with this is Hades and Persephone, and their concept of home. We see a glimpse of when they were like in the beginning, in “Epic 1”, with the lines, “And he took her home to become his queen/ Where the sun never shone … The lady loved him and the kingdom they shared/ But without her above, not one flower would grow/ So King Hades agreed that for half of each year/ She would stay with him there in his world down below/ But the other half, she could walk in the sun” (E1). This is the one time where home is referred to Hadestown in reference to Hades and Persephone. But unlike Orpheus and Eurydice, this home cannot be something stable, something permanent.
That festers over thousands of years, and becomes Hades trying to make her stay with his improvements to the Underworld, which only succeeds in driving her further away. We see this in “Way Down Hadestown 1”, with her reactions to the oncoming winter. She screams, “Oh, come on! … That was not six months!” (WDH1), gathers up morphine and wine to dampen her senses during the months she spends in her nominal ‘home’, and accuses Hades with an, “You’re early!” (WDH1), when he emerges. There is the promise of reconciliation at the end, but there is no way their home will look like the supposed stability enshrined in Orpheus’s and Eurydice’s concept of home. Persephone must always leave and return, and they need to figure out how to make it work rather than it driving the two apart.
Why Hades Set This Task – Hades and Orpheus as Parallels
The fundamental basic thesis of Hadestown is that Hades and Orpheus are parallel characters, with similar experiences, but seemingly fundamentally different responses. This is most clear in “Epic 3”, where Orpheus explicitly calls out the similarities, with the lines, “And I know how it was because/ He was like me/ A man in love with a woman” (E3). Ignoring the heteronormative third line, the song goes on to explicitly parallel the moment when Hades and Persephone met with the moment Orpheus and Eurydice met, lifting lines from “All I’ve Ever Known”, “Epic 1”, and “Come Home With Me”.
But to me, the more interesting parallel besides these obvious ones is the one between Hades’s overall actions and Orpheus’s actions in Chant 1.
“The more he has, the more he holds/ The greater the weight of the world on his shoulders/ See how he labors beneath that load/ Afraid to look up, and afraid to let go/ So he keeps his head low, he keeps his back bending/ He’s grown so afraid that he’ll lose what he owns/ But what he doesn’t know is that what he’s defending/ Is already gone” (E3).
In “Chant 1”, Orpheus is determined to fix the spring (with the weight of the world’s climate on his shoulders). He works obsessively on the song to fix it (keeping his head down to the point he doesn’t see the oncoming storm). And he does it all for Eurydice, so that she will be safe, (but because of his obsessiveness, Eurydice alone gathered the supplies that the Fates stole that lead to her bargain with Hades).
But the difference between them is that Orpheus knows that Eurydice loves him and that circumstances drove them apart, not apathy. Hades’s own obsession grew from the lack of certainty that the love between him and Persephone is secure.
So, what does this have to do with Hades’s decision to set the task of walking without looking back to Orpheus? Fundamentally the challenge is about having faith in the other person. Orpheus has to have faith that Eurydice (and the workers) will follow him. Eurydice has to have faith that he will keep his word not to turn around. But because of the Fate’s interference, he lost that certainty and had to turn around, because he didn’t know what he could offer her. (Like how Hades kept reshaping the Underworld to try and please Persephone). Orpheus could have showed that trust is rewarded, that Hades and Persephone had a chance at reconciliation and victory.
But the end, Orpheus failed the same test that Hades failed. They both failed to trust that the love of their spouse (or spouse to be in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice) would be enough to keep them at their side. So they turned, either into a different person, or turned around, because of doubt and uncertainty.
Abundance and Want – Persephone and Eurydice as Foils
While Hades and Orpheus are uncomfortably close parallels, Persephone and Eurydice serve as foils. There are some parallels, in that both are young women who entered the Underworld initially happy, but who ultimately felt it was a prison, and due to strange circumstances are offered the chance to leave. However, the parallels are obvious, and the thing that makes them distinct but complementary characters are their backstories and their responses to the events that parallel their lives.
Persephone comes from a background of constant abundance. She walks in, “her mother’s green fields” (E1), and given that her mother is the goddess of the harvest, I would say that she never wanted for any food or flower. Then she becomes queen of the underworld, and Hades is willing to give her anything she asks, and plenty that she doesn’t ask for. Even her self-medication comes from overabundance. She drinks wine and imbibes morphine in an excessive manner, “a river of wine” (C1), and she thrives on the adulation of the workers in “Our Lady of the Underground”.
Eurydice, by contrast, comes from a place of constant want. She asks for food, matches, and shelter through the course of the musical. Her epithet is literally, ‘a hungry young girl,’ and the time she spends with Orpheus on the surface is the one time where she gets to cut loose and enjoy herself, dancing with Persephone in “Living It Up On Top”. The Fates steal the food she gathered for herself during “Chant 1”, and it is that theft that makes her turn to the wealth and security offered by Hades in “Hey Little Songbird”.
While these two women are foils, and that often inspires competition in literary figures, Persephone and Eurydice support one another. Persephone helps Eurydice learn to have fun, and it is Eurydice as well as Orpheus that makes Persephone think things could change in Hadestown.
In Conclusion – The Power of Stories
Anaïs Mitchell weaves politics into her musical, yes, but the poetry of it is what makes Hadestown stick in your mind. This is because Hadestown is an unapologetic believer in the power of stories to change people, and of reworking stories to update them for the modern day. Orpheus explicitly does this at Hermes’s prompting in “Epic 1”. Hermes reminds him of the story of Hades and Persephone, and Orpheus says, “Yeah, I remember now/ But that was long ago./ [Hermes] Tell it again though” (E1). It is that prompt that inspires the non-mono-syllabic parts of Orpheus’s song. Then, in “Epic 3”, we see the way that Hades responds to Orpheus’s reminder of the story and song that Hades thought long behind him.
Music has a way of helping people recall memories, and scholarly research on the subject brings up almost 500,000 results in Google Scholar. Stories have a power on their own, and I heartily recommend reading this poem-story-article by Ursula Le Guin. But to make my point I will merely quote a passage. “Tell me a story, great-aunt,/ so that I can sleep./ Tell me a story, Scheherazade,/ so that you can live./ Tell me a story, my soul,” (Le Guin 188). Stories are for sleep, for lessons, for living, they are food for the soul. Orpheus’s story is so great that it can change the mind of a god. It inspires tears, joy, and trenchant political analysis.
Hadestown inspires. Mitchell writes a story that lives in cycles. The actors, during “Road to Hell 2”, re-set the stage for the opening scene, with dialogue from the opening scene interspersed in the music. It ends with the intention of the characters to sing the song all over again.
Thank you for joining me on this journey into the poetry and politics of my favorite musical.