| Arts & Culture
Music Choosing Survival Over Love in ‘Hadestown’
Eurydice’s decision to choose comfort could be read as a betrayal. But it is a survival response, an instinct to protect the self.
This past year of social distancing has felt like a regression to childhood in that my life revolves around my mother’s work.
My mom and I live in my childhood home, which has slowly evolved to house two offices, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. The living room, previously a room of entertainment and bonding, is now her office. Constant calls about inventory and transportation logistics fill the room.
She has fallen victim to the lack of separation between work and home, so she is always working. I wake up to her customer service voice, and my brain immediately turns to work. If I lounge in bed too long, she asks if I have something to do. At one point around the fall, I learned to avoid her nagging about my not working enough by staying at my desk for the same amount of time she does, or for eight hours, whichever comes first.
Before we both started working from home, my schedule was relatively free from her influence, not counting nights we tried to have dinner together and planned weekend outings. The entangling of her schedule with mine reminds me of our after-school pickup routine. She would get me from school, swing by Subway or Togo’s to get me food, drop me off at home, then return to work. Once she came home, I would have her full attention for dinnertime. We would eat dinner while sharing our respective days and watching TV: Family Feud , Jeopardy! , Wheel of Fortune , all leading up to prime time. That’s when I would go to sleep or finish homework, and she would tackle the bit of work she had to bring home.
We’ve replicated this dinnertime routine during the pandemic, this time with the help of streaming. We ran through some of the classic Black sitcoms available on Netflix— Girlfriends , The Game , Half & Half . Watching these shows, I realized something: I’ve never heard my mom joke about me getting married or giving her grandbabies. I pointed this out to her once or twice, as we watched the typical “Black mother nags over her daughter’s fertility” jokes, to see if she would follow suit.
She said they were being ridiculous. My love life, or lack thereof, was never as important as making sure that my grades as a child—and career as an adult—were good enough. My work was the part of my life worth the nagging, the concern.
My response to this familiar concern: shutting the door to my childhood bedroom and listening to music to destress. When Spotify isn’t enough, I turn on the YouTube app on my phone or TV to bring back the feelings of unabashed awe and admiration that were my favorite part of being a teenager. I pull up old Broadway performances to reexperience that magic, and what often does the trick is Hadestown , the musical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
I first read the myth in seventh grade. The story of the man who could move hell and nature with his song and the woman he loved who died in a meadow right after their wedding. Orpheus sings his way through the Underworld and convinces King Hades to give him back Eurydice, but only if he walks the path back to the earth alone and doesn’t turn around to check if Eurydice is behind him.
At the last second, steps away from the surface, Orpheus is overcome with doubt and turns back to check if Eurydice is there. She’s behind him, seen for a moment before she’s sucked back into the Underworld. It’s a tragic tale of love and loss and triumph, sabotaged by doubt. It was my favorite Greek myth.
Hadestown , written by Anaïs Mitchell, opened on Broadway in April 2019. The musical expands the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, interweaving their tale with the story of Hades and his wife Persephone, who spends half her time in the Underworld and half her time on the earth, which causes the cycle of the seasons (winter when she’s in the Underworld, spring when she’s on earth). In the world of Hadestown , the spring season is getting shorter and the winters are getting colder, making it more difficult for mortals to survive on the surface. The only chance for the world to get back in tune, to restore the rhythm of the seasons, is for Orpheus to finish his one great song that will set everything right again.
The musical also builds out the character of Eurydice, whose life before and courtship with Orpheus isn’t depicted in the original myth. She isn’t given agency as a character in the myth; she falls for Orpheus because “no maiden could have resisted the power of his song,” and she dies of a random viper sting directly after the wedding, according to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology . Hadestown amplifies Eurydice as a character, giving her a downtrodden backstory and a sarcastic, fiercely independent personality, with The Fates representing her own cynicism as they sing in her head. It makes for a great contrast between the characters, with Orpheus’s earnestness slowly chipping away at Eurydice’s self-preservation.
After a whirlwind courtship during the spring, a time of celebration and relative ease prompted by Persephone’s return to the land of the living, things get harder once Hades collects Persephone and winter storms return. At this point in the show, Orpheus disappears for a while, only heard through drafts of his one great song, and the focus shifts to Eurydice, seeking food and fire alone before the oncoming storm.
Eurydice struggles against the wind. Her cries for Orpheus go unheard, and she loses her coat and bag—that is to say, all she has—before encountering Hades in a meadow. This is the turn, a reinterpretation of the deadly sting in the myth: There is no viper to whisk Eurydice away, but only Hades, his seductive song, and his offer of shelter in a moment of utter despair. And so, Eurydice accepts the invitation to the Underworld, to Hadestown.
Eurydice’s decision to leave her love for the promise of satiety and comfort could be read as betrayal or selfishness. The musical fights that interpretation and breaks the fourth wall: The Fates tell the audience that they cannot know what they would have done in the situation “when you have a belly full.” Even before that moment, I understood Eurydice’s decision. It is a survival response, an instinct to protect the self that had been deep-rooted in Eurydice’s character since her introductory song. She sings, “People turn on you just like the wind / Everybody is a fair-weather friend / In the end you’re better off alone / Any way the wind blows.” It’s an instinct that my mom has instilled in me since my youth—to always look out for myself because the real world, when I’m no longer with her, won’t be as kind.
My mother’s sense of self-preservation is only subsumed by her love for me. She very much depends on herself, solves her problems often without help, and only slows down to show care or concern for me or my grandmother. Whenever I’ve asked her for advice about an interpersonal conflict in my life—whether it was a teenage fight with a friend or agonizing over a crush in college—her response has been some variation of, “They’re stupid, you don’t need them, just focus on your work.” I’ve grown up with the “You make sure that you’re all right before anything else” ethos drilled into my brain.
This tendency toward self-preservation, as a value my mother both practices and teaches, got her through life as my main caretaker. My father is a long-haul truck driver and was only home every two or three weeks for most of my childhood. My mom kept everything going while working a demanding job. And she has had a successful career, working her way up the ranks at her organization to earn six figures without a college degree. She’s a Black woman who flouted white America’s narrative that Black single mothers can’t properly raise children; she has made a comfortable and lovely life for herself and her daughter.
I understood Eurydice’s decision. It is a survival response, an instinct to protect the self.
The women in my family share this tendency for self-preservation. My mother was raised by a Black woman who came to California from Texas as a teenager in the 1950s. Though my grandmother had men in her life, including my biological grandfather and the man my mother called her father, my mom insists that Granny raised her and her siblings essentially by herself. On the other side of my family, my Granny Katie left my grandfather while pregnant with their fifth child and raised her five kids alone while pursuing a nursing career.
Black women have passed on a legacy of self-preservation against racism and gendered violence for generations. This self-preservation helps them get through the day-to-day, the menial work, the cooking, the housekeeping, and the child-rearing that can’t be passed off to hired help. Though the role of Eurydice in Hadestown wasn’t originated by a Black woman (the first to play the role was the Filipino American actor Eva Noblezada), it is still telling that the role was played by a woman of color opposite a white male Orpheus.
The moment where the couple separates in the song “A Gathering Storm,” where Orpheus leaves to work on his song and Eurydice is left to gather food and firewood, felt reminiscent of a social structure where women of color are focused on survival while white men do what they wish.
When I read the Orpheus myth as a kid, his autonomy to do whatever he wanted drew me to him. At the time, I was dealing with a lot of life changes that I had no control over. I had transferred to a new school in seventh grade, when friend groups had already been decided in the sixth, and I was lonely. Then I would sit at home and read about the son of a Muse who could go on adventures and win over anyone, even the king of the Underworld, through his music.
He became my favorite hero, because maybe, when I was older and an expert at an artform, I too could have total control over my life and be happy. I didn’t know back then that society afforded this kind of total freedom, to go anywhere and do anything, only to white men. That Black women could get punished or shot on a white person’s whim.
Orpheus hits different as a grown Black woman and a working artist (manifested as a freelance writer). Hadestown ’s Orpheus is consumed by his work on the song that’s supposed to heal the world, to the detriment of his relationship with Eurydice. She goes to Hadestown after crying out for Orpheus for two songs, but he is too consumed by his songwriting to hear her. Even when Hermes, his mentor, tries to warn him about the storm, he doesn’t listen.
“So oblivious!” Hermes says.
Eurydice is left to scrounge for the basics of survival, while Orpheus is supposedly focused so much on his work that he ignores the weather’s change. After all, Orpheus is a True Artist, sustained and nourished by his own art. It’s a role that typically goes to a tortured but brilliant white man; Hadestown ’s Orpheus may be less tortured than Hemingway or Van Gogh, but he fits the bill.
I didn’t know back then that society afforded this kind of total freedom, to go anywhere and do anything, only to white men.
It made me wonder how he had survived previous winters, before I remembered that Orpheus has always been the uncomplicated hero. In the original myth, he’s not affected by danger or fear or even death. The musical takes the same route, with his basic needs, if not taken care of, then completely forgotten. It’s an immense amount of privilege to not have to worry about survival, to just work on artistic or heroic endeavors without worrying about hunger or poverty. That privilege is an integral part of the myth of the True Artist, and it may be why white men tend to get this distinction. After all, even the most famous artists of color, the Baldwins and Angelous, still had to worry about surviving, if not hunger or homelessness, then at least a racist society.
Hadestown ’s final opinion on the dilemma of love and art versus work and self-preservation are pretty clear. Eurydice’s decision to save herself leads to indentured servitude, mining the Underworld for a low-key dictator and slowly losing her memories and sense of self. Orpheus is the hero, who cracks the wall of Hadestown and brings hope to all the workers, prompting them to rise up and demand more than their lot. But, of course, as with most myths, there is a tragic ending.
In Greek mythology, heroes are often overcome by their hamartia, or their fatal flaw—a physical or mental weakness that is intertwined with the source of their strengths. The most common hamartia is hubris, or excessive overconfidence. That hubris is great when heroes are psyching themselves up for a battle, but not that great when they say they’re better than the gods and, as a result, earn said gods’ wrath.
In the original myth, it’s implied that Orpheus’ fatal flaw is his lack of faith: As he exits the Underworld, he fails to keep his agreement with Hades and turns around to look at Eurydice before they’re both safe in the land of the living. In Hadestown , we get to hear what Orpheus is thinking as he climbs to the surface through the song “Doubt Comes In.” In the song, he asks, “Who do I think I am? Who am I to think that she would follow me into the cold and dark again?”
This self-doubt is what differentiates Orpheus and Eurydice: While Orpheus doubts himself, Eurydice doubts the world and its fickle men. When Orpheus proves himself and finds her in the Underworld, Eurydice realizes that her shelter in Hadestown comes at too great a cost and leaves with her beloved.
She tells Orpheus, “I don’t need gold, I don’t need silver / Just bread when I’m hungry / Fire when I’m cold / Don’t need a ring on my finger / Just a steady hand to hold.” She wants the same security she has always wanted, but she now trusts him to provide for them both.
Eurydice’s change of heart and reconciliation with Orpheus is one of the weaker parts of the musical. Upon multiple listens, it feels more like something that has to happen for the plot rather than a genuine characterization. Much of this stretch of the play is spent on the standoff between Orpheus and Hades. Eurydice is relegated to the background for a twenty-two-minute stretch, reappearing when she needs to tell Orpheus she will go with him. From there, the play continues as the myth, with Orpheus succumbing to his doubt and Eurydice returning to the Underworld with barely a word. And Hadestown becomes a sad song.
Whenever I listen to that stretch of the second act, which I usually skip, I wonder what my mom, or my grandmas, would have done in Eurydice’s place. I imagine that their decisions would have less to do with Orpheus or love, more to do with themselves and survival: stay in the Underworld, or return back to the surface—to life? If the myth of Orpheus were a story of my ancestors, Eurydice would return to the surface with Orpheus and then leave him. (After all, Eurydice and Orpheus don’t share children or a marriage license.) In the retellings, he would be reduced to “that man”—like the men in our stories without qualifiers: “your grandfather,” “your mother’s biological father.” To see Orpheus as the unambiguous hero is no longer fulfilling. As a teenager, I was charmed by his music. As an adult, I have my doubts.
I haven’t watched Hadestown with my mother yet. Its run at the Pantages Theater was postponed last year, but hopefully the tour production will make it to Los Angeles soon. When it does, I’m going to take her, and I’ll ask her what decision she thinks Eurydice should have made. I’m hoping that conversation will lead to a larger one, about her past with my dad and maybe her other ex-boyfriends. We’ll talk for hours, about topics I never would have approached as a teenager.
Instead, we’ll both be grown women, discussing the choices she made, and the ones I’ll have to make as I move through this difficult world.