The ancient Greek myth that took over 2019
No one is certain where the character Orpheus comes from. He emerges out of the fog of time and memory in fragments; a piece of ancient Greek pottery here, a reference in a long-forgotten poem there. Some have chased his origins to the Middle East and India, tracing his archetype to "a fisher-god pulling up souls," and Earth deities that predated the birth of Christ by hundreds of years. Only one thing, really, can be certain: Wherever Orpheus came from, he is here to stay.
In particular, no single story had a wider-ranging influence on culture in 2019 than the tragedy of Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice. While the story has been reinterpreted by history's greatest artists for millennia, this year alone found the doomed lovers on Broadway and some of the world's most prestigious opera stages, as well as in a movie, a young adult novel, and songs by Hozier and Sara Bareilles. Sure, some stories are just so good that they have a way of getting recycled through the generations; still, one can't help but look at the reemergence of Orpheus and Eurydice this year and wonder, why all this, why now?
Hundreds of variations of the Orpheus and Eurydice story exist, but the basics usually go something like this: Orpheus was known to the ancient Greeks as the greatest musician to have ever lived; his music was so enchanting that it could charm even wild animals. When his bride, Eurydice, died shortly after their wedding (by stepping on a viper, many versions say), Orpheus descended into the underworld to convince Hades to release her from death. Hades agreed, but with one fateful condition: Orpheus couldn't look back at Eurydice until they were all the way out of the underworld. Orpheus agreed, but moments from stepping into the realm of the living, he was overcome — by forgetfulness? Doubt? Arrogance? — and looked back, dooming Eurydice to the underworld forever.
The myth is admittedly captivating; it's easy to see why everyone from Ovid to Peter Paul Rubens to Igor Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau wanted to portray it in their own mediums over the centuries. Naturally, contemporaneous politics have been absorbed into these reinterpretations: "One way to consider Orpheus' legacy is to chart the way he's been a flashpoint for debates about love, sexuality, and gender," notes Tim J. Myers, as just one example, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Sometimes this is intentional by the artists; say, when Jacques Offenbach wrote Orpheus in the Underworld to satirize the reign of Napoleon III in 1874. Other times, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has something of a mind of its own.
Take the case of Anaïs Mitchell, the singer-songwriter whose magnificent Hadestown won the 2019 Tony for Best Musical. Mitchell, though, started composing her song cycle long before this year began. After former President George W. Bush's re-election, Mitchell pulled from what she felt was America's oppressive capitalism, channeling the atmosphere into "her version of the myth," which "takes place in a fable-like world that looks and sounds a lot like Depression-era America. Orpheus is a singer who can't provide for Eurydice, and Hadestown is not so much the underworld as a kind of infernal factory," The New York Times writes.
But while Mitchell's Orpheus and Eurydice retelling might not have been born out of 2019 specifically, it still fits effortlessly into today's context. One of the show's biggest songs, "Why We Build the Wall," was originally intended to be nothing more than metaphorical. Only recently did the song begin to feel like it was "speaking directly about today's politics, rather than ancient mythology," reflected Mitchell for HuffPost. "People began to ask if it was written in response to the Trump campaign, when in reality, both Trump and the song were simply tapping into the same folk archetypes." A 2019 review of the musical in The New York Times even commended one of the show's actors for not "playing up the Trumpian parallels," despite those seemingly belonging more to the 2,000-year-old myth than Mitchell's writing.
In fact, most productions of Orpheus and Eurydice were not, seemingly, put on as political choices this year. The story has crossed international lines in 2019, with revivals at New York's Metropolitan Opera, London's English National Theater, Melbourne's Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and Toronto's National Ballet of Canada. The choice to stage the show here and now might be an unconscious response to its themes, which resonate for any variety of reasons today. For example, one 2019 production, put on by a theater in Michigan, explored the story by looking at it through the lens of the #MeToo movement. "What if it wasn't a snake that attacked Eurydice?" the theater, FRIB Laboratory, asks. "What if she didn't die and descend to Hades, but instead the world as she knew it crumbled around her after a sexual assault, becoming her own personal living hell?"
It is hard to ignore Orpheus and Eurydice's overarching theme of "don't look back" when on the cusp of a new decade, too. Take the 2019 film Portrait of a Lady On Fire, in which the two protagonists explore dueling interpretations of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. As David Sims beautifully describes the thoughts of the character Héloïse in The Atlantic, Orpheus' decision to turn around is "picking the cherished memory of his partner over an uncertain future — a sad choice but an undeniably poetic one." While Portrait of a Lady on Fire presents this only romantically, is it such a stretch to look at our position in 2019 as the same — the waning days filled with decade reminiscences, while the 2020s loom on the horizon as a sort of grim unknown?
Perhaps it is too much to assume there was any sort of conscious decision by 2019's creatives to revisit Orpheus and Eurydice this year specifically. The myth, if anything, is as enduring as a weed; for thousands of years, it has captivated people everywhere. Even knowing how the story ends, we still feel compelled to return to it over and over again.
Maybe we just needed it a little more this year. Maybe Orpheus and Eurydice reemerged organically, all on its own, as a kind of serendipitous reminder of the power of art and second chances. Maybe we just needed this moment to remember to always step forward, straight and true, into an uncertain light.
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