Over the long holiday weekend, I saw a production of Hadestown at the New York Theater Workshop. A folk-opera set somewhere in the rust belt during the depression, Hadestown joins the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with the story of Hades and Persephone into one of the most powerful, exciting, and disturbing meditations on power, freedom, and love that I’ve ever seen.
In Hadestown Persephone relishes her six months in the sun, bringing liquor and music to the surface, before her husband drags her back down. It’s during this period that Eurydice and Orpheus meet. But once in the underworld, it’s consistently clear that they are two people who, having once loved each other are now unavoidably furious with each other, and what looms between the is the story of who each of them are — Persephone inconstant; Hades powerful.
Meanwhile, on the surface, Eurydice is hungry. Is the hunger of poverty? Is this the hunger of someone overshadowed by her lover’s obsession with his talents? Is this the hunger of the ambitious? While lyrically the physical hunger of poverty is most clearly called out, these other issues are never absent and Eurydice eventually catches a train to Hadestown to have her hunger met.
There, she signs a contract to work for Hades and when he spits her out onto the factory floor after whatever “happens behind closed doors” the other women on the factory floor (the Fates who are the chorus throughout the show) tell her she’s trapped here now. Forever. Eurydice is shocked. She’s different. Special. He said! Behind closed doors….
Don’t they always?
As the rest of the show unfolds, we see how the talents of supposedly great men — Orpheus to sing, Hades to build industry — render women invisible from their own stories and systematically block men from having the emotional skills to actually get the things they want.
Many romance readers will naturally have a strong inclination towards the young/new love story of Eurydice and Orpheus, but for me Persephone and Hades’s story was chilling and fascinating. Let’s be clear, this is a show where Hades sings a song about how the best way to chain a woman is with diamonds and gold, but at no point does the show indict the women for doing what they need to do to survive, for being seduced, for showing their talents any which way they can, or for wanting better from the ultimate failures of their men.
As someone who often writes love stories about what happens after the happily ever after, and about the burdens of success and public life on private existence, Hadestown was painfully in my sweet spot. I was raised to be Persephone, and to witness her endurance was remarkable. I thought often of the heroine of our upcoming poly romance, The Art of Three.
Since this is a romance blog, I do feel obligated to note this is not a show with an HEA. In a way, it has no ending at all — it’s about storytelling and a single iteration of a story that is always told in an eternal, endless circle, making the wedding band the story itself. We are bound to it, whether we wish to be or not.
I also feel obligated to note that the show is most effective if you know as little as possible going in, particularly in regard to a political moment that is accidentally shocking (the show began development ten years ago, that one of the songs intersects terrifying with current U.S. politics is an odd fluke).
Hadestown is currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop through July 31 (I’m hoping for another extension so Erin can see it when she is in New York in August). A concept album that is not terribly reflective of the current state of the show exists, and a cast recording of this production has been made and is due out sometime soon.