‘Hadestown’: A Tragedy About Trying

The new Broadway musical Hadestown, a folk-opera retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recently won eight Tony Awards, including the overall award for “Best Musical.”

Acclaimed by critics and based on a 2010 concept album by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown is an insightful reflection of today’s culture and can be a powerful discussion starter about humanity’s sin and God’s grace.

Accurate View of Human Nature

Hadestown is billed as the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice set in an apocalyptic, Great Depression-era setting and told in the style of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The music is a combination of jazz, blues, and folk Americana with tight harmony and soulful timbre. The plot is a retelling of the Greek myth. Orpheus, the greatest singer in the world, descends to the underworld to rescue his love from the clutches of Hades, but ultimately fails in his quest when doubts overcome his faith. Though the musical’s plot points won’t surprise anyone familiar with classic mythology, it’s the creative adaptation of this story—its little details and tone—that have made the musical a success.

The original myth of Orpheus and Eurydice emphasized fate and the inability of humanity to thwart the will of the gods. The tone in this new version has shifted somewhat: It now recognizes humanity’s “fatal flaw” as our natural succumbing to fleshly desires under situations of pressure. Both Eurydice and Orpheus fail when given the choice between doing what’s right or giving into the flesh. It’s a sad story, as the narrator of the play sings, but it’s one that resonates. Principles don’t hold “when the chips are down,” the Fates sing to Eurydice. People try their hardest to be good, and often succeed when things are easy. But when times are hard, they can’t help themselves. “Wouldn’t you have done the same?” the Fates ask the audience, forcing us to consider our own weakness and fallibility.

This is a close to a Christian view of humanity’s fallen state. We are created in the image of God with a sense of right and wrong, with a desire to be virtuous. And yet, it is literally outside of our power to do what we desire all the time. Paul puts it this way:

For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Rom. 7:18–19)

We are broken. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t get ourselves out of our own mess.

The next theological step, of course, is to say, “BUT GOD.” We were dead . . . but God, who is rich in mercy, saved us while we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:4-5). We can’t be righteous . . . but God gives us hope and a future. He brings us out of the underworld, out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). God turns what would be a tragedy into a beautiful, hopeful story of joy. Because he entered the story himself.

God turns what would be a tragedy into a beautiful, hopeful story of joy. Because God entered the story himself.

In Christianity, hope comes from outside ourselves. But where does hope come from when one has a depressingly realistic view of humanity’s inability to withstand temptation—yet without hope of divine redemption?

Self-Deception and False Hope

Hope in Hadestown comes from persuading ourselves that things might change, even while we know this is likely self-deception. The story is for everyone who tries, the narrator (Hermes) proclaims at the outset and end of the production.

At the close of the musical, Hermes launches back into the beginning of the tale. Euridice and Orpheus have tried, failed, and yearn for another chance—that, for them, won’t come again. Even knowing how the story ends, however, Hermes declares that he will sing it again:

It’s an old song
And we’re going to sing it again and again . . .

Cause, here’s the thing:
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time,
I learned that from a friend of mine [Orpheus].

See, Orpheus was a poor boy
But he had a gift to give:
He could make you see how the world could be
In spite of the way that it is.

Can you see it?

Even having sung it a million times already, Hermes sings the tale again, hoping afresh it might turn out differently this time. We have to try to create the world we want, he asserts, even knowing that when we’ve tried a million times before, we’ve failed. We must have hope that our efforts might be enough this time, even though they’ve never been before.

In the story, Hades and Persephone (king and queen of the Underworld) embody this ideal. Though their relationship is broken, their final interaction reveals that it may be healed . . . later.

“How ‘bout you and I?” Persephone asks Hades after he’d agreed to let Orpheus and Euridice try to leave. “Are we going to try again?”

“It’s almost spring,” Hades replies, indicating Persephone must leave his realm and return to the surface of Earth. “We’ll try again next fall.”

“Wait for me?”

“I will.”

The musical doesn’t reveal what happens after Persephone returns next fall. Will trying be successful? Perhaps, but that’s not the point of the show. The point, as we hear so often in today’s world, is not the destination; it’s the journey. It’s about the drama of struggle more than the drama of resolution.

Just Do Better

The story of Hadestown is about trying. Failing, yes, but trying nonetheless. And that is what resonates with today’s secular American society. When we really stop to consider ourselves, our lives, our fallibility, life seems bleak. No person without God will ever be the person they truly want to be. But functionally, we can’t live that way. It would be too hopeless. God created us to have hope, to seek and delight in goodness. Humanity has always looked for that hope, trying to manufacture a way out of the mess we’re in. So what is the modern answer to this conundrum?

According to Hadestown, it is to lie to ourselves. To say that, yes, the story has always ended in tragedy when we’ve told it before, but maybe this time it won’t. Maybe this time, if we just try even harder, we can resist temptation. Pick ourselves up, move on from our mistakes, do better. And if not this time, then surely the next will be different. Why? Because it has to be. Otherwise, life is too bleak. We need something to believe in. Modern secular society tells us to believe in ourselves, even when we recognize that all the evidence indicates we shouldn’t.

Modern secular society tells us to believe in ourselves, even when we recognize that all the evidence indicates that we shouldn’t.

This paradoxical note is where the musical ends, celebrating Orpheus for trying, even though he failed. But it’s also where our conversations with the world can begin.

We can recognize the deep, resonating truth of Hadestown: that we are unable to rescue ourselves. And as Christians, we can also recognize the musical’s lie: that our only hope is to convince ourselves, despite the evidence, that the story might turn out differently next time if we just keep trying. As Christians, we can rejoice in our knowledge that the story will turn out better in the end. And this is not because our valiant efforts finally paid off, or that we saved ourselves. Rather, it’s because we embraced the Savior—and his efforts were, are, and will be enough, each time the story is told.

‘Hadestown’: A Tragedy About Trying

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