Last Sunday, Greek mythology stood onstage and received a twenty-first century crown of laurels. Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s concept-album-turned-Broadway-musical, won eight Tonys and brought the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice back into the spotlight. Not back, exactly. It never left.
The story is simple: boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Girl dies. Boy goes to the underworld. Boy sings his grief for the gods. The gods allow boy to lead girl home … as long as he doesn’t look back. For step after step after step after step. Almost there. Almost there. And then he looks back. She is gone.
Almost a month before the Tonys, I was already humming about the hellbound boy with a lyre. Sara Bareilles’s most recent album offers its own tribute: track 13, named after the demigod himself. “No fear, don’t you turn like Orpheus, just stay here / Hold me in the dark, and when the day appears / We’ll say / We did not give up on love today.” I replayed it over and over. A moment’s allusion saturated the song in meaning.
And on Monday night, watching Tony highlights on my couch, I wore a T-shirt from another Orpheus and Eurydice retelling. Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses uses Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem to show the scene over and over again. When Calvin performed the play in 2014, I stood backstage each night with the wardrobe crew and heard Orpheus lose Eurydice once, twice, seven times. Even with my arms full of chiffon and safety pins, my heart ached every time.
To quote Hadestown’s Hermes (André De Shields), “it’s a sad song / It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy / But we sing it anyway.” The more time I spend with the Orpheus myth, the more places I discover it: the Gluck opera, a Rodin statue, a She & Him song. Century after century of creators have retold the story in their own voice. So many lyrics, poems, and stories, and I’m not even close to summarizing the Wikipedia page.
But why return to this story at all? Why would a host of creative souls return to the brink of death? For one, Orpheus is a musician, a boy with a lyre. (Or, in Hadestown, with a guitar.) It is a story about a storyteller, a story that suggests that perhaps even death can be swayed by a song. It is a story that longs for resurrection.
Orpheus and Eurydice remind us—remind me—that a story gains meaning in the retelling. Of course the tale meant something the first time, but each re-telling is a re-layering and re-envisioning. Romance, longing, loss—these are themes the ancients knew and themes we know today. In the many centuries of death and love and loss since this story was first told, when would we not return to this story?
Play on, Orpheus. I’m ready to hear the story again.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.