One of the most complex rock operas of the decade is Hadestown, conceptualized by musician Anaïs Mitchell and performed as a collaborative work with many artists and musicians. The rock opera has an apocalyptic, post-industrial Great Depression feel. In the words of Anaïs Mitchell, the work is meant to be a question about the limits of human compassion and cruelty:
Take global warming to its terrifying logical conclusion and imagine part of the world becomes uninhabitable and there are masses of hungry poor people looking for higher ground. [T]hen imagine you are lucky enough to live in relative wealth and security, though maybe you’ve sacrificed some freedoms to live that way. When the hordes are at the door, who among us would not be behind a big fence? These conditions exist already, but most of us don’t have to acknowledge them in a real way. (Themes of Hadestown, “History”)
The rock opera Hadestown uses the realm of Hades and its denizens in several ways. Firstly, it uses the landscape to highlight disparities of wealth and power among communities. Secondly, the connections it makes between characters — Hades and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, and the restless dead — emphasize these connections and provide raw human emotions to fuel the changes that happen in the story. Finally, the mythological landscape utilizes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in very unique ways, and we will explore all of these things here. This is the second of three posts. You can read the first one here.
Character and Hadestown
The landscape of Hadestown depicts the differences between haves and have-nots in a very extreme way, separating everyone via a long wall called the River Styx. Furthermore, the world has been turned on its head: death has metamorphosed from an unavoidable downside to human mortality into an idealized state — so much so that Eurydice would prefer to go down into death than stay cold and hungry with Orpheus. The figure of Hades has turned into the figure of Plouton, who is a withholder of wealth, a boss more concerned with security than with providing a good afterlife experience for his subjects. Persephone has turned from an innocent young woman thrust into a marriage she hadn’t anticipated into a rules-dodging speakeasy owner. The most interesting aspects of these characterizations of the Gods are how they intersect with the mythological roots of each.
“Mister Hades is a Mighty King”
Hades is the driving force of Hadestown‘s action. He is expressed in two primary ways in the action: as a manipulative king, and as the God of Wealth (Ploutôn). In the folk opera, all of these relate to his major character goal: keeping the Underworld in a state of peace to prevent the dead from rioting or giving him too much trouble. His love for Persephone — at least, until Orpheus makes the Underworld shake with the power of his song — takes a back seat to the more important issues of ownership and management expressed through his character.
As the ruler of the Underground and as the God of Wealth, Hades’s primary concern is the expansion of the Underworld and the consolidation of wealth (in other words, he has become the God of Withholding Wealth). The conditions of the world above and its jealousy of the wealth held by Hades have given him the perfect opportunity to unite the various denizens of his kingdom by sowing a spirit of fear towards the living. In “Why We Build the Wall,” a song set during the indoctrination of new workers, Hades characterizes the living as carriers of poverty (the “enemy”) and a threat to the freedom found in Hades. The rhetoric he uses echoes many sound bytes spoken by people against immigration and assistance for the poor — especially his threat that they will steal work from the dead. The common endeavor keeps the workers from questioning.
The Lord of Shades expresses his manipulativeness in other ways. In “Hey, Little Songbird,” Hades sees Eurydice and seduces her with the promise of wealth and purpose in the Underworld. “Hey, nobody sings on empty,” he says about money, and he’s willing to give her a role in Hadestown:
Hey, little songbird, you got something fine
You’d shine like a diamond down in the mine
And the choice is yours if you’re willing to choose
Seeing as you’ve got nothing to lose
And I could use a canary
This is a mirror of the seduction of Persephone, and it shows that Hades has a type: innocent figures who can bring him beauty and a connection with the world of the living. Persephone is beautiful, but Eurydice has a voice — and it is that voice he wants. And, of course, he is unwilling to give her back to Orpheus to upset the laws of nature.*
Our Lady of the Underground
Persephone has one of the most beautiful songs on the album, “Our Lady of the Underground.” This song in particular reminds me of the Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, we learn that “[h]appy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.” While Persephone is primarily an underworld deity, she cares about the fate of human beings and acts as our voice in a world that is otherwise separated from the one we know.
In Hadestown, Persephone is unique because she can go between the world of the dead and the world of the living as she pleases. The gifts she bestows to the dead are expressed “Our Lady of the Underground” through the creation of a speakeasy for people who crave “a little something from the good old days.” She offers the wind in a jar, the rain, sunshine, autumn leaves, and spring flowers (among other things) — all for a price. The interest shown in her bootlegged goods from the world of the living shows that a market exists in the Underworld for everything the dead have given up. Hades has obviously not succeeded completely at brainwashing the newly dead into believing the world of the living is evil; they desire what the living have and are willing to pay steep prices for it. This sets the stage for the shades’ riot after Orpheus is awarded Eurydice.
She shows a consistent advocacy for the living in her songs. In “How Long?” she pleads with Hades to pity Orpheus for his love of Eurydice. Orpheus’s sorrow “won’t fit in his chest / It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest / And his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest.” Hades retorts that he will not bend his own rules; relenting could plunge the world into chaos. While rational, it reveals the hardness of his heart and the importance of Persephone in bending his will. Finally, he says:
You and your pity don’t fit in my bed
You just burn like a fire in the pit of my bed
And I turn like a bird on a spit in my bed
How long, how long, how long?
The repetition of what Persephone said shows something striking. Hades relates his wife Persephone to Orpheus’s burning sorrow and himself to Orpheus’s heart. Her presence cracks his cold exterior and makes him feel almost alive again — “only a man/ With the taste of nectar upon his lips.” But Persephone’s victory cannot stop the inevitable.
A Brief Word on Hermes
Hermes also appears in the opera — as a hobo loitering near the train station to Hades. He and Orpheus have similar ideas about Hades (that the realm of the dead and its ruler are not as good as people make them out to be), and he gives Orpheus directions to the Underworld. This is a very conventional portrayal of Hermes, and it fits quite strongly with his spheres of influence (travel and guiding the dead). While I love his songs, thinking about him in the play’s context does not provide any new and meaningful interpretations.
Conclusion: The Cast is in Place
The characterization of various deities in Hadestown — primarily Hades and Persephone — provide the backbone of the action in the rock opera. Their actions and outlooks on life influence the actions of Orpheus, Eurydice, and all of the nameless dead in the play. The next (and final) discussion of Hadestown will bring all of this together through an examination of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, relying primarily on a comparison with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and relevant texts in the Perseus Digital Library.
* This manipulation of the situation reminds me of how Zeus tied Prometheus to the Caucasus and left him there just so he could have Herakles unbind him, increasing the power of that hero. Hades is increasing the power of Orpheus by breaking him down and taking things away from him. The journey into Hades is a sacrifice.
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