Don't Look Back? Orpheus and Eurydice Today

Mark Buchan |

What if it is love that makes us look backward?

A few months ago, I finally made it to a performance of the Tony-award-winning musical Hadestown, and the key dramatic moment made it worthwhile. The musical, which transports the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to a dystopian present, replete with starving artists and a climate off-kilter, begins strongly enough; the god Hermes, the story’s narrator, tells the tale of a descent to Hades in a musical form reminiscent of New Orleans jazz-blues. An analogy to the legendary tales of blues musicians bargaining with the devil, talent exchanged for souls, is in the air from the start. The show then stumbled through assorted reworkings of underworld myths, mixing the Orpheus and Eurydice story with the Hades-Persephone marriage, until the crucial moment: Orpheus disobeys the divine command, makes his fateful turn, and looks at Eurydice. The audience collectively gasped.

I presumed most of them knew the myth, though I’m not sure it matters. The show’s opening song suggested that this time the ending might be different, and this in part caused the surprise. All the same, it felt shocking and entirely authentic. In what might be good news for classicists, the new version was most powerful when it stuck to the opaque simplicity of the original story. But why does it make sense? Why, when Orpheus, as the modern saying goes, had one job to do, did he look back?

Ovid offers a plethora of reasons, all suggestive. I’ll highlight three that become motifs of the myth’s afterlife.

Nec procul afuerunt telluris margine summae: hic, ne deficeret metuens avidusque videndi flexit amans oculos; et protinus illa relapsa est… (Ovid, Met. X, 55–7)
Nor were they far from the edge of the top of the earth: Here, fearing that she was weakening, and greedy to see, Out of love he turned back his eyes; and immediately she slipped back.

First, Ovid suggests he feared she was “weakening”? “Deficeret” is particularly tricky to translate, hinting at both Eurydice’s possible abandonment of him (the verb could suggest a moral failure), as well as the more prosaic possibility that she lost her way. There may even be the broader existential problem of a mortal slipping back into her inevitable status as underworld shadow.

Second, we find that he was “greedy to see.” But to see what? The lack of an object is telling here, leaving us the far from easy task of supplying one. To see if she is still well? Surviving? Or just to see what one’s still-dead lover might look like? Perhaps, if we take oculos as the object of both the verbs (flexit and videndi), he might want to see how she is looking at him, in this moment of uncertainty. Orpheus looks to repeat the classic moment of “love at first sight,” of eyes meeting as a touchstone for the certainty of love to come. Of course this isn’t first sight, and the need for connection suggests he can’t trust her. Or perhaps the lack of object of videndi might be the point: is it because he doesn’t know what he will see that he wants so much to see it?

Finally, Ovid offers that he does this out of “love,” amans. This is the strangest of Ovid’s claims. Virgil at the end of the Georgics suggests it was a “sudden madness” that took over the incautious lover (Georgics 4.488), and that it should be forgiven. But perhaps the two poets are hinting at a more negative version of love than our modern eyes are used to seeing : is he the victim of the love-god, and as is so often the case in antiquity, acting in an irrational way precisely because of his love for her? The greediness to see her suggests a lack of control, as if his love is more than simple concern for her well-being. The myth hints at an ambiguity at the heart of love itself. On the one hand, it makes us mad, crazed, its victim, caring nothing for social mores or consequences. On the other hand, it links us to each other and is the building block of all our social relationships.

It should already be obvious, even from Ovid, that Orpheus’ mythic choice creates a proliferation of possible answers, even for a literary critic on a bad day. We can add to them by turning to Virgil, but this time his retelling of the tale in Aeneid 2. Orpheus’ choice sets up a puzzle: why would you look back if you know this would cause you to lose what you most desire? But when Aeneas loses his wife Creusa as he escapes from Troy, Virgil asks a different question: what kind of person doesn’t look back? Aeneas escapes from his version of hell, the burning Troy, with his father on his shoulders, his son holding his hand. In this version of the Orpheus story, Aeneas himself plays the role of the god, prescribing how the departure from Troy should proceed: he orders his wife to follow behind. And he never looks back — until, of course, it is too late. His speculation on what happened to her doubles the very fears that Ovid’s Orpheus anticipates:

heu, misero coniunx fatone erepta Creüsa substitit, erravitne via, seu lassa resedit, incertum; nec post oculis est reddita nostris. (Aen.2.738–40)
Alas, my wife Creusa halted, snatched away by a wretched fate, whether she wandered from the path, or sat down in exhaustion, it’s unclear; she was not returned to our sight.

Orpheus at least gets certainty, the knowledge that Eurydice had done none of these things. He also gets what Aeneas lacks: a final look at Eurydice, returned to his eyes in the underworld, if not to his life in the world above. But the comparison to Creusa makes more sense out of Ovid’s most puzzling claim, that Orpheus acted out of “love.” Each moment Aeneas fails to turn around, to show any concern for the trailing Creusa, is a moment of lack of love.

To read Aeneas’ choice alongside Orpheus’ choice suggests there may be no right answers. Instead, the decision of if, how, when you look back functions more like an unsolvable riddle: you may not find an objectively correct answer, but your answer will tell you something about yourself. The answers of Orpheus and Aeneas tell us how they weigh the relative pull of past, present and future. Aeneas is the kind of person who at first doesn’t look back, who chooses the future of Rome in accordance with the demands of fate, and yet somehow is always belatedly regretting this. The cost is Creusa, the first in a series of endless sacrifices (Dido, Palinurus, Turnus) that fate demands in exchange for Rome’s Brave New World. Orpheus is the kind of person who does look back. In exchange he loses his future with her, the price for a last sight of Eurydice in the present.

If what matters is what our interpretation tells us about ourselves, then the most important moment of Hadestown might be what happens to the audience after the shock of the “look back,” the way it opens up a space for us to offer our own answers, in a dynamic way, with those around us. This is a hypothesis we can all test out. For weeks after the performance, motivated in part by a search for inspiration, in part by simple curiosity, I asked friends why they thought he turned back. The answers were mostly self-revealing, and led to interesting conversations. Give it a try! The most common response was some version of the slightly cynical “Because he’s a guy!” — though the tone tended to differ depending on the gender of the speaker. It’s hard not to project our own current preoccupations with commitment and fidelity onto this moment, with men’s tongue-in-cheek knowingness (what lease can you expect from a “guy”?) balanced by women’s weary resignation. But at Hadestown, there was no time to get distance from the experience of their loss of each other: in the theater, we’re all romantics.

So what is Hadestown’s new take on Orpheus’ choice? Most of the drama tries to make sense of why they part in the first place. The modern Orpheus became a starving artist, a little too self-absorbed in his desire for the perfect song to pay quite enough attention to his new love. She, in response, keeps enigmatically repeating that she is “hungry,” and this hunger turns into a fascination with death, in the personified form of Hades himself. But in the closing song, when Hermes reprises the show’s first song, “Road to Hell,” Hermes suggests that, though knowing the story will end badly, we should keep singing it anyway: “Sing it again!” On stage, with Eurydice’s loss raw, it is a moving mixture of denial and mourning. The musical refers back to itself, and the Sisyphean labor of art to keep striving to redeem loss, every day, eight performances a week. This is all very neat, and even echoes Ovid. In his version, Orpheus’ trip to the near-top replaces the labor of Sisyphus, who has himself stopped, entranced by Orpheus’ music.

A different pay-off comes later, when the show is at its most modern. If my online experience is at all representative, a day or two after I returned to the outside world, I was bombarded with adverts on social media inviting me to return to “sing it again,” offering all sorts of discount codes for a return visit. The message of the show, “sing it again,” folds effortlessly into its own marketing strategy. This reminded me of the reaction of a friend to the show’s key melodic fragment, the “song of Orpheus” that repeats itself throughout, and promises to heal the world’s wounds, cure environmental catastrophe, keep hope alive. “It’s like an annoying advertising jingle,” she whispered. A heartfelt message of hope against hope, neatly aligned with a message to keep consuming, and with an annoyingly memorable jingle as its eleven-o’clock number. What could be more contemporary than that?


Mark Buchan is the author of Perfidy and Passion and The Limits of Heroism. He teaches writing at Rutgers University.

Mark Buchan

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