Hadestown, Hope, and Failure

It's a sad song

It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy

It's a sad song

But we sing it anyway

— Road to Hell (Reprise)

Hermes stands over a defeated Orpheus. The boy watches his lover sink back into the Underworld. He was only a few steps away from life but he doubted and looked back, breaking his contract with Hades. Eurydice must now remain in hell, and Orpheus can never go back. It's a sad song that turns out the same every time, so why sing it?

Hadestown is a musical written by Anaïs Mitchell in 2006. She recorded a concept album and the show eventually made it to Broadway in 2019. It is based on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I love it.

I am not a connoisseur of musical theater. Not until Hamilton did I really start to appreciate the medium, and it was only because of my wife that I discovered Hadestown (she teaches Latin). At first I thought it was interesting, not quite as smart or complex as Hamilton, but still good. Yet as I listened repeatedly (mainly because the music is phenomenal) the story started to sink its hooks in me.

There are a lot of worthy themes in Hadestown: faith, trust, love, fear... But the one I want to talk about, the one that is stuck in my mind, is hope that sings in the face of failure.

Orpheus the Naive?

And this poor boy, he wore his heart out on his sleeve

You might say he was naive to the ways of the world.

— Anyway the Wind Blows

Orpheus is a bit of a sap, and he is often played for laughs. Hades comes back for Persephone early, plunging the world into a dark winter. Then Orpheus comes along singing about bringing the world “back into tune.” His hope sticks out like an unwelcome gust of fresh air in a world where the wind is always foul.

This outlook is contrasted with the outlook of Eurydice, his lover, who as Hermes says “was no stranger to the world.” She is a “hungry young girl” who drifts from town to town when the wind changes. She runs from everywhere and everyone she's ever met because her experience has taught her that “everybody is a fair weather friend.” She, and everyone else in the world of men, can't imagine a better world because this dark one is the only one they've ever known.

In “Wedding Song”, Eurydice tests Orpheus not on his love for her but his ability to provide. She asks about the wedding bands, the table and the bed. It is only after Orpheus sings his song and grows a flower with it, thereby providing proof that he can do what he says he can, that she starts to accept him.

Hermes summarizes it this way:

When she fell she fell in spite of herself In love with Orpheus

— All I've Ever Known

It is difficult to judge either Eurydice or Orpheus. His naivety about the world leads him to neglect her by focusing on his song, and her worldliness leads her to betray him by accepting Hades's offer. Perhaps they were destined for a tragedy.

The Failure

Orpheus finishes his song, but by the time he does Eurydice is already dead. Hermes gives him a hard time, but when it is clear that Orpheus will go “to the end of time” to get Eurydice back, Hermes explains that there is another way to get to Hades without a ticket.

Orpheus makes an impossible journey into the Underworld. He crosses the river Styx and sings his song to make the stones of Hades' wall weep and let him in. He arrives in Hadestown and finds Eurydice, but he also finds the King of the Underworld.

Hades is not at all pleased that a poor boy with a lyre was able to cross his borders, but he is also bemused. He invites Orpheus to sing him a song before banishing him to the graveyard. Orpheus steps to the microphone and sings. He sings about Hades and his love for Persephone. He sings about the love that turns the seasons, and he sings to Hades the melody that the King used to woo Persephone.

Against all odds the song works. Hades's heart is softened and Orpheus is given a chance to leave the Underworld, but there is a test. Eurydice must walk behind Orpheus, and if he looks back she remains in the Underworld forever.

But Orpheus fails.

Why?

Hadestown could have addressed or rewrote Orpheus's failure and made it easier to swallow. The myth is ambiguous and Mitchell was already taking liberties with it, but she chose to dwell on the moment. The audience is forced to sit with the tragedy as Eurydice sinks back down, but why?

There was plenty of room for re-writing. In some versions of the myth Orpheus dies at the hands of Maenads. The musical could have continued, seeing Orpheus reuniting with Eurydice in the Underworld. There are echoes of this in the closing moments, where we hear Eurydice's voice and the coming of spring, but Orpheus's failure is the end of the plot. We are reminded throughout the last song that “It's a sad song,” and lest we forget that, Hermes reminds us that we are not here to “correct” the myth:

Don't ask why, brother, don't ask how

He could have come so close

The song was written long ago

And that it is how it goes

— Road to Hell (Reprise)

So why are we here? Hermes does not provide a direct answer, instead referencing the hope that Orpheus had for changing the world “in spite of the way that it is.” He asks us if we can see it, hear it and feel that hope “like a train.”

There are hints that Orpheus, in spite of losing Eurydice, was able to make spring come again and “bring the world back into tune.” But he does not get his love, and the last line of the musical brings us back to the beginning “We're gonna sing it again.”

A better place to find the reason that Hadestown dwells on tragedy is in the epilogue, which is usually sung by Persephone and company after the audience is done clapping and getting ready to leave. She asks us to “raise a cup” for Orpheus, and goes on to explain why they are singing.

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright

Our praise is not for them

But the ones who sing in the dead of night

We raise our cups to them

...

Some flowers bloom where the green grass grows

Our praise is not for them

But the ones who bloom in the bitter snow

We raise our cups to them

...

To Orpheus and all of us

Goodnight, brothers, goodnight

— We Raise Our Cups

Failure and tragedy are inevitable. They strike whether we expect them or want them to. Hadestown, rather than shy from tragedy or try to correct it, uses the myth to dive into the mixed feelings of loss, pain, guilt and shattered hope that swirl when tragedy strikes. And it ends with a celebration of the human spirit that keeps singing anyway.