Should I care how Anäis Mitchell, creator of the musical Hadestown, adapts Greek myths to suit her purposes? I shouldn’t. Myths provide us with archetypal stories and characters, constantly shaped and reinterpreted over the centuries. For example, beautiful Helen, the Greek king Menelaus’s wife, caused the Trojan War, but how these events went down depends on the storyteller. In some versions, Helen was Aphrodite’s reward to the Trojan prince Paris, who dubbed Aphrodite the fairest goddess of all. In others, the wanton Helen seduced the hapless Paris. According to others, Paris kidnapped Helen, an innocent victim. Skilled interpreters can make of such stories what they will.
The currently touring Hadestown, which we saw this week, shapes Greek myths for its purposes, just like the Iliad, the Aeneid, the opera Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and many others. The messenger god Hermes acts as a kind of narrator. Orpheus, the musician, and Eurydice play out their ill-fated love. Hades and Persephone, king and queen of the underworld, oversee and control much of the action. The three Fates, a soulful girl group, sing the commentary.
Weirdly, although I loved and admired the music, staging, and performances, the tweaking of the myths by the show’s creator left me unsettled. Ms. Mitchell revised some of my favorite parts of the myths, and I departed the theater feeling a little sad that many audience members would believe that her version of the stories was the only one.
In traditional retellings, Eurydice dies from a snake bite, which is how she ends up in the underworld, from which Orpheus attempts to rescue her. In Hadestown, Eurydice wanders off and becomes lost and hungry. Because she’s starving, she succumbs to the god Hades and signs away her life to him. Her decision is forgivable, to be sure, but she has some agency: she’s betrayed her love for Orpheus by yielding herself to this villainous god.
Worse for me is tampering with the story of Persephone. I’ve recounted this favorite myth several times on this blog, using her Roman name, Proserpina. Her mother Demeter (Ceres, in Latin) is essential to most renditions of the myth. Hades grabs Persephone from a meadow, where she’s picking flowers with her friends. Ovid calls Hades (Pluto, in Roman versions) raptor, a word that has the same meaning in Latin and English: Persephone has no choice. She becomes Hades’s “wife,” but not of her own volition. Her mother Demeter brokers a deal whereby Persephone can return to earth for half the year. Demeter’s joy at her daughter’s return creates the bountiful blossoms and fertile growth of spring and summer.
In the musical, Hades and Persephone seem to be in love. When Persephone leaves Hades and returns to earth in the spring, she’s all on her own. No mention of Mom. Her glorious reappearance itself triggers the bountiful blossoms.
I miss Demeter.
Is this because I’m a mom? Sure.
As we leave the theater, I overhear some young people talking about not knowing the story ahead of time. In fact, the two sets of characters don’t usually overlap, except that Persephone rules the underworld, where Orpheus and Eurydice play out their drama. Today’s audience members are encountering an altered, 21st century rendering of some very ancient stories.
Ms. Mitchell has created over two hours of gorgeous music of various genres, filled with wordplay and poignancy. The road show performers are funny, enthusiastic, and virtuosic. I should be elated, but, being me, I’m a tad downcast.
Transforming a book into a movie is a somewhat different proposition, but I bet you can think of examples. When were you disappointed in the transformation? When were you pleased?