I’ve been listening to Hadestown on a continuous loop for the last week at work, and I think I’m finally familiar with it to start picking apart the story. The basic structure of the musical is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but set in something like the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. I originally didn’t get why this particular setting would be so vital to the story as a whole, but it’s become more clear to me over time. The core of the standard Orpheus myth is Orpheus’s devotion to Eurydice even beyond death; he challenges Hades to reclaim his dead bride and wins but only on the condition that he can leave the Underworld without looking back to make sure Hades has kept his word. Because the ancient Greeks weren’t really in the business of giving their heroes happy endings, Orpheus almost makes it, but just before he emerges he glances over his shoulder and Eurydice’s spirit, which had been silently following him, vanishes.
Taken at face value, there’s a pretty clear motif around the finality death and the futility of trying to do anything besides accept its inevitability. Orpheus can win temporarily, but that’s small comfort. What Hadestown does with this basic story is expand and complicate it with additional thematic layers around the nature of love and the tension between craving both freedom and security. Hades and Persephone, who lack much in the way of personality and motivation beyond their role as generic rulers of the afterlife, become deeply textured when recast as a work obsessed industrialist and his unhappy, freedom craving wife. Orpheus and Eurydice, who are also relatively flat in the original story, also become interesting foils to the gods with whom they get entangled.
The parallel love stories of the two couples work as a study in alternate pathways. The great tragedy of Hades and Persephone (here with a rewritten history that considers them as lovers whose relationship soured rather than an abductor who caught and tricked his unwilling victim into marriage) is that Hades, who has become preoccupied with creating a great artificial monument to his love for his wife, has lost touch with what she genuinely loves. Hades is consumed with proving that he can keep Persephone, and he’s descended into obsession with work for work’s sake because he sees only uncertainty and instability in the prospect of letting go. Persephone remembers the early days of their relationship fondly, but she’s continually repulsed by Hades’s inability to see how he drives her away. That she takes her obligatory winters in his factory town as an opportunity to smuggle in some memories of better times for Hades’s trapped workers. The musical puts heavy emphasis on Persephone’s higher nature as a fertility goddess; the opening scene shows her delighting in providing food and drink for the revelers before Hades arrives to take her back to his home for the winter. That Hades seems totally oblivious to what Persephone clearly enjoys doing (perhaps partly because he’s unaware of what she gets up to when he’s not looking) underlines how far fallen their relationship is.
On the flip side are Orpheus and Eurydice, here a pair of young lovers who are just beginning in a world that’s full of possibility and uncertainty. Orpheus has his head in the clouds, preoccupied with writing his songs and enjoying life in the moment. Eurydice loves this about him, but as the winter sets in and things become harder, she feels the pinch of Orpheus’s idle attitude. Hades offers her the security of a steady job, and she accepts because her beloved has gone off to compose without doing any preparation for the lean times. Persephone’s contempt for Hades’s industry is inverted into Eurydice’s worry over Orpheus’s lack of forethought. Both sets of lovers have their problems.
What I keep striking on with the dynamic between the four main characters is the tension between work as security and idleness as freedom. Orpheus is presented as foolish for not considering the onset of winter, which is what makes Hades’s offer to Eurydice feel appealing, at least in the short term. There’s the inevitable betrayal as she learns that working for Hades means giving up all freedom for the rest of her life, but that central need to be warm and well fed is a real one, and it’s undeniable that a moderated version of Hades’s offer wouldn’t be the worst thing. The real problem (as I see it, anyway) is that Hades’s version of work is meaningless make-work. He builds the wall around Hadestown because it gives his employees something to do and it feeds his obsession with security, not because it actually serves a real purpose. The Dust Bowl setting figures in significantly here, as this is all contextualized by a larger economic crisis where the government genuinely was generating public works projects that had the primary purpose of giving people something to do so that they could collect a paycheck. The indignity was largely considered to be the lack of available work instead of the more basic lack of available resources (I’m currently reading Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber which has many things to say about the fictions we tell ourselves to justify the distribution of resources). Hades’s offer sounds like relief in this context, and in a world of extreme scarcity, it sort of is. Persephone’s contempt and Orpheus’s carefree attitude with regard to work are rooted in the privilege of having their needs met automatically.
There’s a lot more to this version of the story that could still be pulled apart, but I think that’s enough for the time being. I’m fascinated with the dynamics among the central characters, particularly with how Hades is portrayed. His error seems to me to be one of degree rather than kind, and although he still leaves Orpheus in a bind with the deal they strike, I can’t bring myself to see him as a villain. I need to think some more about how he’s characterized and the way his flaws drive the rest of the action in the story.