Described as a folk opera, Hadestown is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For those unfamiliar with the millennia-old tale, it is a tragic love story in which the titular characters are separated by death on their wedding day and are separated a second time when Orpheus’ attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld ultimately proves unsuccessful. In keeping with Greek tradition, the myth is one of many morality tales meant to underline the inevitability of one’s fate, no matter how well-intentioned or pure-hearted the efforts to avoid it.
This 21st century adaptation, the brainchild of Americana musician Anaïs Mitchell, has a mind of its own. In a setting loosely based on the Depression-era Dust Bowl, Hades, king of Hadestown and employer of the miners who reside there, is the only source of gainful employment and serves in part as a symbol of capitalism. The withered relationship between him and his wife Persephone is credited with causing what amounts to climate change, as the mortals above “haven’t seen a spring or fall,” having only known the extremes of summer and winter.
Making its first appearance in Mitchell’s native Vermont in 2006, Hadestown premiered on Broadway in 2019. That year, the musical won eight of the fourteen Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, a testament not only to the collective genius of its creator, director, and cast but also to the cultural chord Hadestown had struck. Delayed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its 2021 tour was, in a word, timely. Earlier reviews connected the prescient lyrics of “Why We Build the Wall” to the promise of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon We have work, and they have none And our work is never done… And the war is never won The enemy is poverty And the wall keeps out the enemy And we build the wall to keep us free
Today, the cyclical and bitterly ironic nature of these lyrics hits close to home for the Texas National Guard, stationed at the border in service of Operation Lone Star. Tasked with preventing poverty-driven illegal immigration and drug smuggling, while themselves underpaid and underappreciated—as demonstrated by cuts to their tuition assistance benefits and further indignities—the troops have been hit by a wave of suicides.
Our troops are not alone in their suffering. In late fall of this year, drug overdose was reported as the leading cause of death for people ages 18-45. With poverty, unemployment, and other stressful circumstances among the known risk factors for opioid misuse and addiction, this uptick in fatalities is hardly surprising. As Persephone of Hadestown sings to the haggard miners in her speakeasy:
Give me morphine in the tin
Give me a crate of the fruit of the vine Takes a lot of medicine To make it through the wintertime
Those who were forced into unemployment by the first-wave lockdown, as well as those who had the opportunity to work from home for the first time in their lives, now echo the question posed by Orpheus in “Livin’ It Up On Top”:
Now why would a man of his own free will Go to work all day in the mine, in the mill? Why would he trade the sunshine
For a couple of nickels and dimes?
Despite many companies reporting peak profits during the pandemic, stagnant wages and mass layoffs remain features of the 2021 workplace. Members of the retail and service industry, as well as the working class, have had to reckon with their own disposability, while also contending with a rate of food insecurity that has doubled nationwide.
Everybody hungry Everybody tired Everybody slaves by the sweat of his brow The wage is nothing, and the work is hard It’s a graveyard in Hadestown
Unlike the miners of Hadestown—who require Orpheus’ high ideals and questioning mind as a catalyst for the mere consideration of even mild rebellion—American workers have exercised greater agency over their fates, with John Deere and Kellogg workers going on strike this year, successfully negotiating for better compensation and benefits. To say nothing of the countless stores across the retail and service industry that are still struggling to find workers because wages are so low (and the continued risk to health and happiness so high), there is little incentive for potential workers to pursue employment within the industry.
Although the message of futility in exerting one’s own will over that of the powers-that-be remains undeniably present in Hadestown, another, more potent message is clear: However futile the fight against the status quo may be, this take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is, as the lyrics state, “a love song for anyone who tries.” In an effort to dissuade Orpheus from freeing Eurydice and inciting the miners to riot, the Fates of Hadestown sing, “Why the struggle? Why the strain…? Nothing changes.” The reality of the world we live in now proves that everything changes, and the struggle and the strain in pursuit of “the world we dream about” is worth it.