It is no secret that Hadestown is a clever adaptation of an ancient myth – the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and their fight against death itself. Mitchell’s Hadestown has spun this into a more modern tale in which the divide of the classes, capitalism and the fight between living free and living comfortably stand at the forefront.
Throughout the Musical, references throughout song and performance are made to the Ancient Greek source material.
Most obviously, the play draws references to Hades, the underworld, in which the god of the dead keeps souls as slaves and workers. There are various references that establish Hadestown as the same underworld as that in the myth. ‘The River Styx’, originally holding the souls of the dead, is now a wall that keeps those souls occupied and hard at work. ‘Hound dogs hounding round the gates'(Wait for me I) protect Hades’ kingdom, potentially a reference to the three headed guard dog Sirius. The Underworld is, as the name suggests, implied to be underground, and compared to the land of the dead in many places.
This is where ‘Hadestown’ becomes a little ambiguous. Whilst comparisons to the land of the dead are made, referring to the location of Hadestown as ‘six feet underground'(Wait for me I), and stating that ‘a lot of souls have to die to keep the rust belts rolling’ (Way down Hadestown II), it is contradictorily also stated that Eurydice’s existence there makes her ‘dead to the world’ rather than actually dead, and Orpheus himself does not treat her original disappearances with any air of permanency and sees it more as a betrayal than a grievous loss of life.
Nonetheless Hermes, when describing the way to Hadestown, warns that the town would ‘pluck the heart right out of your chest and stuff your mouth with cotton’ (Wait for me I), similar to a Diener preparing a corpse for eternal rest.
A few more subtle references are made to the original landscape of the myths involved.
When Hades strikes a deal with Eurydice to take her to the underworld, he rattles a bag of coins. This temptation with money resembles the sound of a rattle snake, which Hades is described as by Hermes (“Songbird versus Rattle snake”, when the chips are down). Whilst Christian theology would attribute this reference as a portrayal of Hades as temptation to sin like the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, it also represents a connection to Eurydice’s fate in the myth. She dies to snake bites in a pit of vipers, and is hence brought to Hades by a snake, just like the Lord of the Underworld is portrayed as in the musical.
When Hades presents the ticket to the train to her, it is in the form of two silver coins. This is a reference to Charon, who would ask two coins as payment for passage across the River Styx, where he took souls on their way to the underworld.
There are a number of lines in the music that elegantly link back to the story’s mythological origin. In ‘Word to the wise’, the fates deliver a ‘snippet of advise’, drawing reference to Atropos, the fate that would cut the thread of an individual’s life with a shear to end it.
During ‘Chant II’, Persephone tells Eurydice that she now knew the taste of ‘the fruit of Mr. Hades’ ways’ and recommends that she ‘spit it out whilst [she] still [has] time.’.
This may be a reference to the six pomegranate seeds Persephone ate, which condemned her to stay in the underworld six months of every year.
Orpheus, who plays a guitar in the musical, is described lyrically to be ‘strumming his lyre’, and describes the lyre as his preferred instrument in ‘Living it up on Top’. The lyre of course was Orpheus’ choice of instrument in the original story.
Within the song lyrics and some of its naming convetions, Hadestown seems to insist that the musical is placed within that very world of myths. It toes an ambiguous line between the reality of its source material within the world and its own metaphorical adaptation of that. Whether the underworld as the realm of the dead is real within the story however bears little significance for the meaningfulness of the plot.
Anais Mitchell herself described the story as dealing in Archetypes, and as such its characters function as symbols that carry meaning and purpose in an overarching narrative and lesson. Like the ancient myths, Persephone, Hades and Orpheus all personify elements of life and humanity that make it easier to picture such aspects and understand how they interact. The marriage of death and rebirth as well as the human struggle and ray of hope that fights within that circle only to be foiled and try again are illustrated beautifully in this musical and its lyrical references draw us back to these simple meanings skillfully.