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Historically Speaking-Hadestown

I wrote this for another project I work on, but my editor thought papers might enjoy it also, so here you go


This article does not fit in with my traditional column, yet it does  have a historical component and my editor felt that my Historically Speaking readers might enjoy it. With the traveling Broadway production “Hadestown” currently crossing the nation, I thought I would make a few comments about the show. Most of all, I loved it. Amazing production on all levels. “Hadestown” is a retelling of the Greek myths of Hades and Persephone as well as Orpheus and Eurydice.

Instead of being all Greek columns, the play is a modern adaption set in what seemed like a 1920s or ’30s New Orleans flophouse or bar which would fit easily on the set of a Tennessee Williams play. The style of the music is a perfect accompaniment to the setting with Dixieland, jazz, and a good dose of blues all wrapped up in a Broadway sound. The music was nothing short of stunning with incredible harmonies from the Muses and rich, almost haunting melodies. Many of the songs were playful, with plenty of trombone, but also songs, like “All I’ve Ever Known,” were as romantic and powerful as any song on Broadway.

I would say “Hadestown” was music-driven, especially the first act, the way a play like “Phantom” is where the music is stronger than the story. The opposite is a play like “Come from Away,” in which the story is stronger than the music. The set is very modern in that the orchestra is on stage and often interacts with the characters. The set is also minimal and is not really important to the show. There is only a slight change when going from the bar to Hadestown and the only special effect is the rotating turntable on stage that has become common with many recent plays.

I was familiar with Hades and Persephone, the tale about two gods – Hades, the god of the underworld, and Persephone, goddess of seasons – who fell in love, but Persephone’s mother (Demeter, goddess of Agriculture) could not bear being without her daughter. A deal was struck that Persephone would spend half the year with Hades and half the year with her mother. Hence, spring and summer she spent with her mother and fall and winter with Hades.

I was not familiar with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Without giving too much away, Orpheus was the son of the muse of poetry. He had the gift of song and could charm all things living and even inanimate objects with his voice. He fell in love with Eurydice, a tree nymph. The play does slightly stray from the myth. In the myth, Eurydice is bitten by a snake on her wedding day and dies, while in the play she makes a choice to go to Hades. Either way Orpheus must save her from the underworld.

Starting with the act one finale, featuring a powerful song entitled “Why We Build the Wall,” the play does shift some towards the storyline and takes on a political tone. I do not have issues with political undertones in works of art. I assign novels each semester to my history classes with the caveat that any great piece of literature worth reading has a message or moral for the reader. My issue is that, in our current environment of political correctness, all the messages from songs, TV, movies, and Broadway have messages from only one side. “Hadestown” is no different. In one of the most intense songs of the show, Hades is in his realm, singing to the people under his control. The song is a call-and-response song, in which Hades sings, “Why do we build this wall,” and is answered by the chorus “We build the wall to keep us free.” Hades then asks, “How does the wall keep us free?” and they answer, “The wall keeps out the enemy.” Hades asks why are they the enemy and the answer is “Because they want what we have got.” In the production I watched, Hades was played by a tall dark-haired man with an absolutely amazing baritone voice, but he might as well be played by a blond with slightly orange skin and a tie too long.

While the play does seem to take the standard Broadway liberal side, what is interesting is it was written in 2006, years before anyone other than the Simpsons could have predicted the Trump presidency or his signature slogan of “Build That Wall.” Also, it is interesting that if Hades is serving as the antagonist, then his convincing of Eurydice to come to Hadestown as her only option for survival can be seen as critical of big government. Recognizing she is starving because she can’t find food in the winter, Hades tries to convince Eurydice to leave her love by singing:

“Hey, little songbird, let me guess:
He’s some kind of poet and he’s penniless?
Give him your hand, he’ll give you his hand-to-mouth
He’ll write you a poem when the power’s out
Hey, why not fly south for the winter?
Hey, little songbird, look all around you
See how the vipers and vultures surround you
They’ll take you down, they’ll pick you clean
If you stick around such a desperate scene
See, people get mean when the chips are down”

Hades convinces Eurydice that she will only be safe in Hadestown where he can take care of her. Of course, once she decides to leave the world, she is imprisoned like the rest who came to see Hadestown as their only protection. Big Government becomes her prison.

My advice is this: no matter your political leaning, see the show. Know that there are some political messages, but don’t let that distract you from a stunning musical. Turn off your political brain and focus on the other messages – rekindling relationships that have struggled, or the power of love and beauty. I thought Hades’ internal struggle of mercy verses control is timeless both in politics and relationships and definitely in parenting. Then there is the final message of trust. How much do we trust those we love, especially with our own human weaknesses. Yes, it does seem as if the right always has to be the ones giving in to the left for art, but to let that stand in your way of this show would be unfortunate enough to be a Greek tragedy.

Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.

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