The last big new show to make waves on Broadway prior to the pandemic was, by its own admission, “an old song.” Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is a folk-music adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from Greek and Roman mythology, transplanted to a setting that suggests Depression-Era America. Though its road to Broadway was a long and circuitous one, its impact once it got there was immediate, and it won eight of the 13 Tonys for which it was nominated in 2019.

In its outline, Hadestown more or less follows the traditional arc of the tale. Orpheus is a poet and musician who sings and plays the lyre (“a liar and a player,” Mitchell’s version of Eurydice notes wryly). He and Eurydice fall in love and marry, but their happiness is short-lived. Alienation between Hades, god of the underworld, and his wife, the vibrant Persephone, has caused spring’s arrival to be delayed, and Orpheus wanders from Eurydice while attempting to write a song that will heal the hurt. The self-sufficient Eurydice, feeling herself abandoned (as she has been so often before), allows herself to be drawn down to Hadestown. Upon realizing she is gone, the living Orpheus descends into Hadestown too, where he sings a song to reunite Persephone and Hades. Hades is moved but wary of showing weakness, so he allows the couple to leave—provided Orpheus can keep his eyes ahead and away from his wife until they are back in the realm of the living. Plagued by self-doubt, at the last minute Orpheus looks back, as we have always known he will (but hoped he wouldn’t).

In Ovid’s account . . . Orpheus decides he has had enough and descends with the goal of bringing his wife back. He is aware, however, that her return can only ever be temporary . . .

Throughout her musical, Mitchell deliberately plays with anachronisms while keeping the storyline faithful to its antecedents. In doing so, she suggests that the old myths have something valuable to tell contemporary audiences. And the message of the Orpheus myth has always been one of the most poignant and the most tragic: that all humans must die. There is indeed an affinity to the classical pagan tale in Mitchell’s 21st-century iteration, one that tells us much about our own day—especially when compared to another telling of the same story, the medieval poem Sir Orfeo.

There may or may not have been a real Orpheus; early Greek accounts treat him more as a historical figure than as a myth. While Aristotle apparently doubted his existence, other early writers regarded him as a pre-Homeric poet, though even among these, he was often given a divine or supernatural ancestry. Though invoked in some form by writers as early as Plato, Orpheus’s pursuit of Eurydice in the underworld doesn’t seem to have been a key feature of his story until long after he had already achieved recognition as a legendary lyricist.

Perhaps the most famous ancient version of the tale comes not from the Greek but from the Roman poet Ovid’s compendium of mythical stories, Metamorphoses. His Orpheus’s singing and actions occupy a good bit of Book 10, though only the first few lines concern his journey to retrieve Eurydice. In Ovid’s account, Eurydice has died of a snakebite, and after a period of mourning, Orpheus decides he has had enough and descends with the goal of bringing his wife back. He is aware, however, that her return can only ever be temporary, telling Hades (or rather, his Roman equivalent, Pluto),

“All things, including us, belong to you,
and after we delay a little while,
sooner or later we all hurry down
to this one place. All men come to this spot.
It is our final home, and you possess
the longest rule over the human race.
My wife will also come under your sway,
when, as a mature woman, she has lived
her full span of years. I am asking this
as a favour to me, and if the Fates
deny my wife this gift, my mind is set—
I have no wish to journey back. You gods
can then rejoice that both of us are dead.”

Pluto agrees, under the familiar terms. But Eurydice is still hobbled by the snakebite that first ended her life. In Ovid’s take, then, Orpheus casts his fateful backward glance out of a superabundance of love: he is concerned that his wife cannot keep up with him because of her injured foot. Thus, “Eurydice / made no complaint at all about her husband / (what could she object to except the fact / that she was loved?)”

Rather than a resignation in the face of death, contemporary skeptics relocate their eschatology to this world.

The ancient Greeks never collected their mythical stories systematically or with an eye toward authoritative texts the way that “people of the Book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims) would. Though some early writers like Hesiod would draw stories together, the Roman Ovid is actually one of the most thorough collectors of the old tales. Even in his case, though, the selection is tactical, playing into his title—the Metamorphoses, or, more familiarly, the Transformations. All of his tales deal with the subject of change in some form or another, and the Orpheus account could be said to deal with the ultimate transformation: death.

Though there was never a standard version of any Greek myth, Ovid could assume his educated readers were familiar with the basics, even as he shaped the story to his purposes. In adapting the Orpheus myth to a present-day matrix, Anaïs Mitchell consciously reminds her own audience of their familiarity with the story. The musical’s narrative voice, Hermes, frequently references the heritage of the storyline in the opening song, “Road to Hell”:

It’s an old song
It’s an old tale from way back when
It’s an old song
And we’re gonna sing it again

*          *          *

It’s a sad song
It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song
But we sing it anyway

Hermes’s words indicate that, though Hadestown is a modern musical adaptation of an ancient narrative poem, it participates in another classical genre: dramatic tragedy. A modern audience hearing the term tragedy will immediately be conditioned to expect the death of a major character, even more so than an ancient Greek or Roman audience—classical tragedy did not automatically end with such a death, or even with sadness at all (e.g., Sophocles’s Philoctetes or Euripides’s Helen).

In the same song, Hermes dangles in front of us the possibility of a new outcome:

See, someone’s got to tell the tale
Whether or not it turns out well
Maybe it will turn out this time
On the road to Hell
On the railroad line

Yet these lines come right before his assertion that the tale is a tragedy. And the truest and most heartbreaking aspect of the Orpheus myth has always been the fundamental truth that, as the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes puts it, “Out of death lead no ways.”

In Mitchell’s take, Orpheus finally looks back for a different reason: his fear that, as a poet, he is inadequate to the practical (borderline pragmatic) Eurydice who has survived by living “any way the wind blows.” But the end result is the same: death reclaims her.

While the musical’s Hadestown, like the Greek and Roman afterlife, is not technically a complete oblivion, it is emblematic of the final cessation of meaningful life. In this regard, Hadestown demonstrates a pagan immanence not unlike its antecedents. In “Way Down Hadestown,” the Fates proclaim, “Mr. Hades is a mighty king / Must be making some mighty big deals / Seems like he owns everything.” This resembles Orpheus’s appeal in the Metamorphosis, when he tells Hades, “All things, including us, belong to you.”

But the lines also demonstrate one key difference, a distinction between classical pagan immanence and contemporary pagan immanence: the sociopolitical dimension (“Must be making some mighty big deals”). In the Broadway show, with its quasi-Depression setting, Hades is depicted as an authoritarian industrial magnate. The souls in his kingdom become workers for his factories or his Wall.

This proceeds from competing responses to the myth’s ultimate message. Most inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world were resigned to death as a reality; to attempt to circumvent it (as Orpheus does) was an exercise in futility. While specific philosophies differed, they mostly shared an acceptance that life was lived in the shadow of death. Notwithstanding nods to Elysium or other possible means of joining the gods, a good number of predecessors or contemporaries of Ovid would see Hades as their destination, with no better eschatology on the horizon.

Many contemporary artists (like Mitchell) choose an alternate response to the same eschatology. Rather than a resignation in the face of death, skeptics inhabiting Western secularism often relocate their eschatology to this world. Since we can know of no better life beyond the grave (and likely no life at all), it becomes incumbent on us to throw all our efforts into making this life the best one. And yet these attempts will always inevitably run aground on the reality that even our best immanent utopia will be imperfect and will still end for us with our death.

It makes sense, then, that Mitchell would keep the tale’s parable on the inevitability of death while adding a level of social critique that would have been alien to most in the Greco-Roman world. Her Orpheus becomes the existential poet-prophet, one of the birds “who sing in the dead of night,” the flowers “who bloom in the bitter snow,” as Persephone names them in the show’s last song, “We Raise Our Cups.”

Like Orpheus before him, Orfeo’s music charms a king in a country of death. But his is a better harp, suggestive of a richer music, one that harmonizes the fallen wilderness of decay with the hope of a transcendent eschaton.

Yet this final tribute belies just how bleak the play’s philosophy is in the end, precisely because Mitchell conflates the metaphysical and the political in her imagery. Orpheus gains the opportunity to reclaim Eurydice in part because he inspires Hades’s workers to pay attention to him (“If It’s True”). As the lovers are about to leave, Eurydice suggests that they might be trailblazers for other oppressed workers: “We’ll show the way / If we can do it, so can they” (“Promises”).

But of course, they can’t do it. Orpheus is unsuccessful even with Eurydice, let alone any other workers. And it would be absurd to suggest otherwise, since, as Ovid reminds us, “all things” and “all men” belong to Hades.

The tale of Orpheus has never ceased being popular in Western culture, since the classical literature that carried it forward was so often a part of standard education long after the Greco-Roman world that generated it had fizzled out. That world was eventually supplanted by the Christendom of the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most famous of several medieval versions is the Middle English lay Sir Orfeo, written anonymously in either the 13th or the 14th century. Popularly, it has retained some readership because it was translated by J. R. R. Tolkien and packaged with his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl (though it is clearly by a different poet than those works).

Once again, the outlines of the pagan myth are evident, even as it is shaped for, in this case, a medieval British audience. Sir Orfeo himself here is a minstrel-king, whose wife Heurodis has premonitions that she will be taken to the realm of the fairy king. When this eventually occurs, Orfeo goes into a despairing exile for years until one day he sees her. Following Heurodis and the ladies attending her, Orfeo finds himself in the fairy king’s domain, which is populated with humans abducted while alive but near death. Enchanted by Orfeo’s harp music, the fairy king offers him a reward, and Orfeo chooses his queen. They walk out of the fairy king’s castle and … successfully return to England:

He thanked him well, on knees did bend;
his wife he took then by the hand,
and departed swiftly from that land,
and from that country went in haste;
the way he came he now retraced.
Long was the road. The journey passed;
to Winchester he came at last . . .

This seemingly casual reversal of the classic Orphean pattern is almost shocking, both in the success of Orfeo’s quest and the apparent ease with which it is described. What is left of the “old tale” if it is stripped of its most affecting lesson—the universality of death?

The literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey addresses this apparent disjunction in his excellent essay “Sir Orfeo’s Harp: Music for the End of Time.” One clear approach is to read Orfeo Christologically, a move not out of bounds for theologically minded medieval writers. Orfeo’s reclamation of Heurodis thus becomes a variant on the Harrowing of Hell, understood as Christ’s descent into the underworld on Holy Saturday to free the righteous captives. Granting the validity of this reading, Jeffrey nonetheless finds it limited: “if medieval readers were expected to see the story from the outset as an allegory of the Christian plan of redemption, presumably there would have been little or no suspense in this casting of the story—merely the expectation of a customary resolution” (159).

The answer, he suggests, lies not so much in Orfeo as in his instrument: the harp. An instrument with associations both pagan (Apollo) and biblical (David), the harp took on rich symbolic layers in the Middle Ages, emblematic of redemptive and cosmic harmony. In the poem, Orfeo becomes typologically bisected: his initial exile following Heurodis’s loss ties him to Adam in the wilderness, yet his journey to fairy land does carry messianic (incarnational) overtones. Orfeo, Jeffrey suggests, “is indeed both an Adam and a Christ. He comprises in his experience two worlds. The key to their reconciliation is the skill of the harper” (167).

Like Orpheus before him, Orfeo’s music charms a king in a country of death. But his is a better harp, suggestive of a richer music, one that harmonizes the fallen wilderness of decay with the hope of a transcendent eschaton. Orfeo’s successful ransoming of his bride is indeed a shock even to the medieval reader, who knew as well as we know what the end is supposed to be. This may be part of what drew Tolkien to the poem, for subtle as it seems, Orfeo’s return home with Heurodis is a sort of eucatastrophe, a dramatic reversal from despair to supreme joy and homecoming. “The restoration of Heurodis,” Jeffrey contends, “comes as a shock, as a ‘new story,’ and the resolution which these final lines offer to her unexpected and marvelous release follows from a simple, yet powerful catharsis . . . in which history in the end becomes poetry—music for the end of time” (170).

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is an ancient and timeless one, though each of its retellings is circumscribed by and embedded within its own distinct cultural narrative. Ovid, like many of his progenitors, foregrounds the inevitability of the final and most seemingly permanent of transformations. Mitchell, like her Greco-Roman literary forebears, keeps the emphasis on death. But while she retains this pagan immanence, her drama seeks to resist classical pagan fatalism with a paean to altruistic social action. In the end, however, this desire for justice remains implicitly thwarted by the long horizon of Hades’s dominionOrpheus (and all who come after him) must fail in showing the way out.

The Orfeo poet denies neither the intense sorrow of death nor the need for good living in this life, but his tale is buoyed by a hope that the pale king’s word is not the final one. Christ the man could unite godhead and humanity, and Christ the harp can harmonize the agony of creation’s groaning with a music for the end of time. The old song gets played again on an instrument that makes all things new.