I need to name that I’ve been a fan of Anaïs Mitchell since I was a teenager and saw her on tour with Ani Difranco in 2006. Then, a year ago, one of my lovers went all the way to Canada from San Francisco to see Hadestown, which I had not heard about yet. He played the album for me on Spotify and I was moved to tears and at the same time rolling my eyes at the love story between Eurydice and Orpheus, and pushed into a sacred rage when “Why We Build The Wall” came on - which is, with the immigration issues our world is facing, always close to home and my heart.
I didn’t know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and was faintly familiar with Hades and Persephone, so when this love of mine informed me that Hadestown was on in London, I immediately bought tickets. Written by Anaïs Mitchell and directed by Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown became the thing I was looking forward to, the highlight of my time in London.
I was delighted to be introduced to the legends with this full, fleshed, and modern mythic interpretation. I was impressed as the performance went on with the weaving of labor rights, climate change, the immigration crisis, and the tragedy of trust in love. I couldn’t help but find myself deeply grateful and moved by how Mitchell and Chavkin integrated these modern crisis with the mythic stories of ancient Greece.
Persephone, “stolen” by Hades into the underworld - loves Hades and is seduced by her love for him. She returns above to visit her mother, Demeter, Goddess of fertility and harvest and when she does, she brings Spring and Summer. But Hades comes too early to bring her back into the underworld out of his longing for her - changing mid-summer into winter, and mid-winter into spring when she becomes suffocated by the heat of the underworld. Heat produced by miners, by the coal and oil he extracts from the Earth to keep her warm so she doesn’t have to go out, so he can keep her there. What I would call a classic interpretation and weaving of our current climate change and love crisis. As humans, we want to keep our lovers (and the Earth) for ourselves instead of letting them move with their cycles. In healthy partnerships, we won’t always be together in all seasons if we are truly in touch with the movements and callings of our lives.
But Hades, thinking that Persephone wants a warm environment, creates an excruciatingly unbearable one, not realizing that she IS the warmth. But she only unfolds her gift of creation when she is in her right place, yet her potential is muffled by her love intoxication and “loyalty” to Hades when she is in the underworld. Literally intoxicating herself and the workers to tolerate it all. When she is with Hades, she becomes cold and distant from him, yearning for her return above. Meanwhile, he is gaining power and strength and fortune by exploiting workers and the resources of the underworld to keep her there. A toxic love if I’ve ever seen one. Persephone calls him out on on this in several occasions, making it clear that it isn’t working for her and demonstrates compassion and solidarity with the workers, explicitly asking him to free them along with Orpheus and Eurydice when his heart is opened by the music of Orpheus.
When Orpheus arrives to the underworld, Hades makes it very clear that they are building a wall to keep out people who are trying to take the exploited workers jobs. They build the wall to “keep out the enemy… to keep us free, because we have, and they have not, because they want what we have got”. In the illusion of belonging and security that Hades provides to Eurydice, even she is seduced by the false idea of protection from the very identity she came in with. She sings, “What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon. We have work and they have none”. Even though she has become an exploited worker, building a wall to a place that promises warmth, food, and shelter to keep out her own kind, and this time, it is her love, Orpheus.
This speaks volumes to the current refuge and immigration crisis throughout the world. That industrialized and developed countries have work, security, food, and shelter - and the people who seek it or come into these places, what is known in some cultures as the true “wasteland” and here, as the “underworld” - yet modernized countries and cities are the reason other places are impoverished and war torn.
While industrialized countries are seductive with their wealth and resources, they manipulate the very thing that humans crave - represented as Persephone - which consist of love and connection, of being part of cycles and a wholeness. Our overheated cities, those in the seats of power in “first world” countries - are using resources from the earth causing climate change, poverty, and war in other places while refusing to accept the misplaced and impoverished on the other side of its own walls.
If only a song and a love story could change it.
Yet this is exactly the message of Hadestown. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragedy, but the song is sung over and over again even when we know it ends without the fulfillment of love. The tragedy is trust, as I see it. Eurydice doesn’t trust that Orpheus’ love is enough so she makes a deal with the devil. When Orpheus makes a deal with the devil to release her, he doesn’t trust that she will actually follow him, and breaks the deal by looking behind him to make sure she is there. And of course she is, but because he didn’t trust her, he loses her again. She didn’t trust him in the beginning, so as he is redeeming his love to her, he shows that in turn, doesn’t trust her.
Nick Harkaway, in his interpretation of Orpheus as the wise fool, writes “An admirable, passionate fool who believes in something more than the everyday; someone who can see the shape of things as they ought to be, not how they are. That kind of fool changes the world, but if left unchecked, will keep changing it until it’s broken all over again. Artists of all sorts are notorious for tinkering with what is already wonderful, for not knowing when to stop looking backward. A balance is necessary between passion and practicality, between inspiration and peace.”
With this, Hadestown is a clear call to the world to be a wise fool. That we can learn to trust love and not look behind us at the hurts that have come before. Hadestown calls on us to move forward through the shadows, the underworld, to the world our hearts know is possible. Hades wouldn't have to exploit others if he trusted that Persephone would come on her own. Orpheus, initiated, would have taken himself through to the above knowing that a world with Eurydice is there waiting for him… All of us, as initiated humans, have the potential to move humanity through this dark era, and our own dark worlds, if we could trust in love.