The musical Hadestown first came on my radar early in 2019, a few months into my middle schooler’s Hamilton obsession. I was duly impressed with the latter’s theatrical and historical merits. But after a steady diet of the Schuyler Sisters, I was ready to see what else was on the contemporary Broadway scene.
But it wasn’t until about six months ago that I actually cued up a Hadestown playlist on YouTube. I was immediately swept away by the haunting melodies and intricate harmonies, but most of all, by the sense of yearning. I told my daughter, “You’ve got to listen to this.”
We listened together until household duties pulled me away, and my daughter continued the playlist on her own. The next day she said, “It’s a tragedy.”
“Yeah, that’s what Hermes said.”
“But it’s so stupid. I hate Orpheus!” (My daughter is an expressive.) “Don’t finish it.”
I didn’t. It was late winter/early pandemic/quarantine season, and I wasn’t prepared for a tragedy. But in September, fortified by three months of sun and fun with friends and family, I checked out the soundtrack and listened while working on my pigeons’ new house (in between use of power tools, a necessary evil).
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was new to me. The Greeks said that when Orpheus sang and played, rivers would change their course and trees uproot themselves to hear him. Anais Mitchell has worked a similar magic with Hadestown.
Its melodies and instrumentation capture not only transporting beauty, but the longing for a world in harmony. Intertwined with the Orpheus myth is the story of Hades, king of the underworld, who fell in love with Persephone, daughter of the goddess of spring. Winter is the consequence of Hades’ carrying the object of his desire off to the underworld for six months out of every year.
In “Come Home with Me,” Orpheus, the son of a muse and a mortal, courts the human Eurydice. He tell her he is writing, “A song to fix what’s wrong / Take what’s broken, make it whole. / A song so beautiful / It brings the world back into tune, / Back into time, / And all the flowers will bloom.”
Eurydice says, “I haven’t seen a spring or fall since–I can’t recall.”
She urges Orpheus to sing his song, but Orpheus protests that it isn’t finished. At length he offers what he’s got and wins his beloved. But in the process of completing his masterpiece, he neglects his bride. Hungry and cold, Eurydice succumbs to Hades’ alluring promises of food and shelter, not realizing they lead to death.
The brokenhearted Orpheus follows Eurydice to the underworld on foot. Moved by Orpheus’s music, Hades allows Eurydice to follow Orpheus back aboveground–on one condition. Orpheus must not look behind him before reaching the gates of the underworld. Within sight of his goal, Orpheus doubts and looks back, and Eurydice is lost to him forever.
Listening to Hadestown led to listening to a Literary Life podcast (“Why Read Pagan Myths?”) that yielded fascinating insights into Greek and Roman mythology in general and Orpheus in particular. Host Angelina Stanford reported that early Christians saw in the story parallels with the gospel. Whereas the half-god-half-man Orpheus descended into Hades to rescue his bride, Christ, the son of God, was crucified and resurrected to save humanity from sin and death.
The Apostles’ Creed, an early statement of faith, parts of which may date to the second century AD, states: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty … / and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord … / He descended into hell; / on the third day he rose again from the dead; / he ascended into heaven, / and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
Incidentally, in Plato’s Symposium (written in the fourth century BC), a companion of Socrates maintains that Orpheus failed in his quest because he was not willing to die. Instead he took the coward’s route to the underworld. Phaedrus, the speaker, cites other Greek myths in which the noble acts of individuals willing to die for love moved the gods to restore them to life.
The early church found further significance in the fact that in the original Orpheus myth, Eurydice dies of a snakebite. After Adam and Eve succumb to the serpent’s temptation to eat forbidden fruit, God tells the serpent (i.e. Satan): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, / and between your offspring and hers. / She will crush your head, / and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15 NIV).
Mitchell’s Hadestown is a fable not only of the perennial failure of human love but of greed and injustice. The souls in thrall to Hades are building a wall that will purportedly keep out poverty. Hades promises freedom, but they are, in fact, slaves.
“Come Home with Me” and other songs express a soul-rending longing for restoration of the created order, both natural and human–for justice, beauty, and balance. In “Wait for Me (Reprise)” Hermes, the narrator, dedicates his story to those who “sing in the darkest night” and “bloom in the bitter snow”–those who hope and love and try, even in the face of apparent failure and meaninglessness.
I can withstand–even delight in–the exquisite tragedy of Hadestown through the dark season because it reflects the same yearning represented in the Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” That yearning is fulfilled in the promise of Advent. Our Rescuer has come and is returning. And he will not–did not–fail. Because he was willing even to die (Romans 5: 6-8).