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Hadestown: Mythology Remixed

[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Hadestown is a brilliant reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And not just because of the play’s updated setting; while transposing the plot to a Dust Bowl/Great Depression era company town—with the protagonist as the archetypal “starving artist,” Hades as a greedy industrialist, and Persephone as the proprietress of an underground speakeasy, delivering a bountiful “harvest” of wine and spirits to weary laborers—is certainly clever, cleverness alone does not necessarily a great adaptation make. Its true excellence lies in how it elaborates upon the ancient source material, adding complexity and nuance to the familiar tale.

One such embellishment is the fleshed-out relationship between Hades and Persephone; whereas the Lord of the Underworld and his abducted bride were happily wed in the original version, their marriage here is decidedly rockier. In keeping with the traditional canon, this iteration of Persephone is allowed to venture beyond her husband’s domain for six months of every year, thereby bringing spring to the lands outside of the kingdom’s walls (at this point, I should acknowledge that the narrative often vacillates between literalism and symbolism—which is absolutely fine by me, but could possibly alienate less adventurous audiences). And in her absence, insecurity—the nagging fear that she might abandon him for good—drives Hades to the brink of madness. Desperate to prove himself worthy of her love, he has performed a series of increasingly Herculean feats—his miners tunnel deep into the earth, extracting precious metals from mere stone; his furnaces burn red hot even in the dead of winter, smelting and reshaping raw ore; and his vast electrical grid ensures that his factories remain illuminated and operational twenty-four hours a day—in a misguided effort to impress her enough to expedite her return.

This is, of course, a futile endeavor: Persephone, being an avatar of nature, considers this desecration of the natural order to be utterly obscene—a betrayal of everything that she represents. Her resentment only serves to exacerbate Hades’ possessiveness; he permits her fewer opportunities to visit the surface and frequently cuts her excursions short, thus throwing the seasons into disarray.

In this context, the challenge that Hades issues to Orpheus during the show’s climax resonates with new significance. Navigating the perilous path back home in darkness and solitude, forbidden from glancing behind to confirm that Eurydice is indeed following him, our hero’s conflict perfectly mirrors the test of faith that his villainous counterpart must endure each time Persephone departs. Despite his sincerity and conviction, however, the singer’s experiences within the borders of Hadestown have irreparably tarnished his innocence; having witnessed oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization firsthand, his previously optimistic worldview is now thoroughly tainted by doubt. A notorious swindler like Hades wouldn’t hesitate to stack the odds in his own favor, after all; and Eurydice’s loyalty is hardly unwavering…

This narrative parallelism and thematic cohesion—juxtaposing the principal characters via mutual flaws, vulnerabilities, and moral failings—enriches Hadestown considerably, elevating it to the level of masterpiece. It may be an “old song,” but its imaginative innovations—a faster tempo, a few additional verses, some minor tweaks to the lyrics—radically transform its meaning and emotional impact. Which just goes to that a story never really goes stale, no matter how intimately you know it; a bit of extra spice can completely alter its flavor. And with each retelling, each reinvention, each variation on the well-worn formula, the author touches immortality.

Orpheus—folklore’s most iconic defier of death—would be pleased.

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