I recently had the pleasure of seeing a touring Broadway performance of Hadestown, a musical written by Anaïs Mitchell that retells the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. I was familiar with the original album, but had not seen the songs in their story context, which, when combined with new songs, brought to light new facets of the show. As ever, spoilers ahead. I will also be going by the story as it is presented in Hadestown, so if there are differences between it and the original myth, that’s why.
The story revolves around the couple of Orpheus, a divinely musically gifted if poor musician and the lovely if world-hardened Eurydice. Orpheus of course falls in love at first sight, wooing her with the promise of a song that can set the out-of-balance world to rights. When his promises seem to fail in the face of the harsh reality of living, Eurydice goes to Hadestown, where she cuts a deal with Hades to trade her vibrant and love-filled–if hard–life for the unassailable nothingness of death. After learning of her decision, Orpheus goes to rescue her, eventually convincing Hades to release her, though with a strange condition. In order for them both to make it, Eurydice must follow behind Orpheus. If he turns back to check if she’s there before they reach the surface, she’s doomed to a life in Hades. As this is a tragedy, he of course doubts and looks back at the last second, damning the faithful Eurydice to the gloom.
How it works
Most storytellers are aware of the two broad strokes for ancient stories. There are tragedies, most often presented as cautionary tales to warn us off from bad behaviors and vice, and comedies, which deal in lighter fare, often ending with a wedding or otherwise happy ending. What makes Hadestown unique is that it presents itself as a tragedy not to point us to the bad behavior we are to avoid–faithlessness, doubt, covetousness, etc.–but to the hope that humans can learn from these tragedies and do better in future.
The way it accomplishes this is actually set up rather sneakily in the first song, “Road to Hell.” The character of Hermes, who serves as narrator, introduces the main characters that will be featured, explaining that the story they’re singing is an old and sad song, but one which they will be presenting again for the audience. For people who are already familiar with the myth, this comes as no great surprise. Orpheus is a well known tragedy with an ending they already know.
Where this pays off, however, is at the end of the show, where the song is reprised. The song comes right after Orpheus has turned around. It begins with a reminder that this is a sad and old song that has always ended the same way no matter how many times it’s been told. But then, it goes on to proudly proclaim (with more hopeful music behind it) that in the face of this fact, the cast are still going to sing it again and again and again with the hope that someday, maybe the ending might change.
Why it’s effective
The Bible defines faith as the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11: 1). I couldn’t help but think of this verse while listening to this show. Because the fact is, hope is something that you have when you are waiting for something. It is the expectation that such a thing will come to pass, even if all indicators point to this not happening.
To that end, I believe hope is best shown in stories where, by all reason, hope should be lost. In Hadestown, they are telling a story that has been told for thousands of years. There’s no reason they should expect Orpheus to make it every time they start singing it again. But the fact that they do proves their resilience, their hope that things will someday get better and that, someday, Orpheus will not turn around. That someday their love can and will prosper.
It’s easy to think that using a story with a happy ending would be the best way to provide hope to others. After all, shouldn’t that inspire people to believe that they too can attain that same happiness after the credits roll? However, when I think of the points in stories where hope shines brightest, it is always, always, when characters are knocked down, at their worst, and for all intents and purposes, already defeated. It is the courage to get up, to keep fighting, and to start the song again, even knowing it could end just as badly as the first (or thousandth) time, that gives others the hope they need to do the same in their own lives.
Hadestown flips the tragedy genre on its head by being not cautionary but prescriptive, not because of the actions the characters take, but because of the response it hopes to provoke in its audience. It is not a story which warns viewers of what will happen if they too, fall, but one which encourages them to stand and to, with compassion for those who have gone before, succeed where others have failed, with all the promise and hope that such encouragement brings. In a world full of dark and punishing stories, I think that’s a step in the right direction.
What about you? Where have you seen hope in stories and how did that manifest? Can you think of other prescriptive tragedies? Let me know in the comments and if you want more Story Shots like this make sure to follow my blog or newsletter using the sidebar links (you may need to exit mobile only mode).