Hadestown is a musical that has been with me now for nearly two years. I found it in my senior year fall, a time of great change and shifts. It felt perfect to me then. And now, in my sophomore year of college, it still feels perfect. No matter how much I changed in that time - and trust me, I changed immensely in that time - Hadestown stuck with me. I anticipate it will stick with me for years to come.
Now, anyone who knows me well knows of my devotion to Greek tragedy and mythology. I'm translating Antigone, after all. What appeals to me is the raw humanity at the core of these Ancient Greek stories, something that cannot be washed away with time because at our core us humans don't change. With a good translation and a solid team, what stems from Ancient Greece can feel as vital and living as any fresh new play.
Hadestown is particularly interesting in this regard, as it falls into the realm of adaptation of these myths. Not only does it acknowledge that the ancient stories still hold relevance in modern day, it draws out new dimensions of the Orpheus and Eurydice mythology to create something that feels entirely new. The summer 2016 production of the musical at New York Theatre Workshop felt remarkably timely, asking "Why We Build The Wall" while a certain presidential candidate was advocating for the exact same thing. (Hadestown did not shy away from this direct connection, including clips in the official music video for the song.)
The thing is, that song that sounds like it was written for the 2016 election was actually composed 10 years prior. Initially, Hadestown was a response to the re-election to George W. Bush. Creator Anaïs Mitchell explains, "George W. Bush was elected my freshman year of college, then I got out of school and he was re-elected. I was coming out of school as this idealistic person who believes music could change the world...Coming out into this world where you have to make money and George W. Bush gets elected twice, there was this feeling of: The world is how it is. It doesn’t matter who you are, what kind of art you make. I think Hadestown was a playing field for those ideas." Then, when the concept album came out in 2010, it felt like a reaction to recession. It seems that the story of political anger has repeated itself, and Hadestown has continued to feel relevant and vital because of it. In that way, it is timeless.
Within its content, Hadestown still resists the notion of set time. The setting is likened to Great Depression-Dust Bowl era, but there is nothing firmly set in any time. Some moments even lean into the anachronistic, such as Persephone mentioning "pay-per-view." Some have tossed around idea of Hadestown as a post-apocalyptic world with "gods" in a kind of new Dust Bowl, which is not impossible. But, again, there is no confirmation for any one time - and, in my opinion, that is how it should be. Hadestown isn't about when the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice takes place. It is about their story, their utterly timeless myth.
What entrances me about Hadestown, most of all, is the timeless idea of storytelling itself. At the end of show, once Orpheus has turned and sentenced Eurydice to stay in Hadestown forever, our narrator Hermes explains that even though this story is old and sad he will continue to sing it over and over. He explains:
Anaïs Mitchell feels that these lines are really her speaking through the work. "Why do we tell this tale again and again?" she asks. "I don’t quite know, but I know that the act of telling is worthwhile. We still have got to live, to make art, to love each other, whether or not the end is going to be sad." The story doesn't start or stop existing at any given time - we keep telling it throughout time because it needs to be told and it is never firmly locked to any specific time.
In Anne Bogart's first essay from A Director Prepares, "Memory," she explains "if theatre was a verb, it would be 'to remember.'" She explains that we must reach back into our personal histories, our influences, our cultures, and bring all of it into the room with us when we create art. By these acts of memory, we can gain new understandings and innovate. I feel that Hadestown demonstrates this incredibly - we keep telling this story, remembering everything, and continuing to find breath within it. The myth of the past becomes utterly present.
Hadestown has many merits that I can gladly list. But above all else is the message that drives me an artist: we must keep singing the stories over and over again, experiencing and remembering, living and breathing.
One day I hope to see Hadestown. One day I hope to direct it. I can't say when either of these things will happen, but I will wait. And then I will sing the song again and again.
Photo by Joan Marcus.