“Our Lady of the Upside Down”: Persephone’s Rebirth in Hadestown (2019)

Part III of III

Hadestown makes old material relevant and suggests that act of storytelling is a way to examine contemporary trauma and create voices in places which were once suppressed. By turning back, as the musical and its characters do, perhaps we can see things we did not before. In retelling the story of Orpheus, Hadestown gives voices to those previously voiceless. The most prominent example of this is its characterization of Eurydice and Persephone, both of whom are traditionally silent, and their myths told from others’ perspective. Hadestown breaks this traditional model by giving these women voices and agency while also experimenting with these suppressed spaces and drawing the audiences’ attention to these oppressive conventions.

As such, the musical introduces mythic tradition while also challenging it using Eurydice and Persephone. Eurydice is a prominent example of how Mitchell’s work focuses on equally fallible and sympathetic characters, those who we can not judge for doubting themselves or succumbing to doubt as we recognize that capacity in ourselves (Mitchell in Oosterhuis 117). However, the musical also refuses to classify Eurydice’s behaviour as solely sympathetic, as one relates to her flaws and mistakes, but still wishes she had not made them. While the musical demonstrates that Eurydice is not perfect, it also shows that neither are the Gods, which means that no character, not even a God, is morally superior to another.  

Persephone’s characterization continues this conversation on coping, suppression, and survival. Rather than creating a strictly antagonistic relationship, Hadestown suggests that Hades and Persephone fell deeply in love, but over time, the two are no longer synchronized. As Rachel Syme notes, in her review of the musical, Hades “did not abduct her, as he does in the ancient myth; he wooed her, he made promises” about equality and respect, but ones he never fulfilled. In the myth, whenever Persephone is on earth, for six months of each year, her Mother Demeter and the earth rejoice, and summer arrives. When she is in the underworld with her husband, the earth mourns, and we get winter. The musical reframes this myth by suggesting that Hades is concerned that Persephone may choose to stay on earth forever. Faced with the “doubt that his lover will ever come back” (“Epic I), Hades corrosive industry keeps rapidly expanding and he has been taking Persephone earlier each year, causing the seasons to be confused and wrong. Persephone tries to ignore this situation by drowning it out with alcohol, but she is ultimately stuck between two worlds and feels as if she has no ability to stop this system.

Like Eurydice, Persephone is present but has little to no dialogue in Ovid and Virgil’s Orpheus myth. We also generally hear from her mother or Hades perspectives on how she became Queen of the Underworld in addition to the Goddess of Spring. The musical drastically changes this passive characterization by making Persephone someone who holds great power but is suppressed by her husband and herself, with drink. Like our world, she has become deeply pessimistic and voluntarily blind.

This voluntary blindness is introduced in the song “Livin It Up on Top”, where Persephone returns to earth, late, and causes the seasons to skip spring and go straight to an extreme summer. Once she arrives, Persephone explains her current motto, noting “Brother when you’re down, you’re down. When you’re up, your up. If you ain’t six-feet underground, you’re living it up on top”, which summarizes her approach to living in the moment and not thinking about the world or consequences. She emphasizes this disregard with “Let’s not talk about hard times, pour the wine its summertime”, and forget what is happening around you. This song introduces us to the new Persephone, or who she has become to reflect contemporary climate change, where, like the earth itself, she is objectified and disorientated.  

Persephone also represents the alternative to Orpheus’ optimism. Orpheus describes this outlook in “Chant”, noting “And Lady Persephone’s blinded by a river of wine, livin’ in an oblivion” when she is not “Livin’ it Up on Top”. Persephone has stopped fighting to move upstream and instead chooses oblivion, to live without any true emotions. Persephone’s inaction should not suggest that she does not deeply care for humanity, just that she has given up hope that things can ever change.

She describes this as a combination of guilt and resentment in her solo “Lady Underground”, which is the first number after intermission. Although it features the voices of the workers, Persephone is the only one on stage, meaning that the song is directed to the audience. Here, she mocks her husband’s economic system by commercializing nature and running it like a bar or brothel. In most of her lines, Persephone plays with double meaning, referring to sex and commodity in addition to our need for nature. Persephone offers artificial and commodified nature, enough for a fix, but not enough to solve anything. The way she associates nature with commodity also suggests that in this new climate, natural resources like rain and sunshine are rare and drug-like. She describes this as “I got the rain on tap at the bar” and later as “You want the moon? Yeah, I got her too. She’s right here waiting in my pay-per-view”. Persephone’s characterization of the moon and rain also relates to her lack of agency, as she can only offer glimpses or a taste of the natural world, and even then, it comes at a price.

Persephone also tries to exert her power in this song, first by naming herself as the “Lady of the Upside Down”, which suggests that she has some power over this distorted environment, and then by breaking the fourth wall. After loudly declaring that “There’s a crack in the wall”, Persephone begins to introduce the orchestra members to the audience. She uses their real names and thus breaks the illusion of stage and real. Although she can not tear down her husband’s walls, she can disrupt the narrative’s, as she essentially pauses the story to highlight its instruments or mechanics. As a result, Persephone troubles the distinction between real and now, God and climate change. The narrative has begun to spill out from the mythic and into the here and now.

Just before Persephone breaks these distinctions, she asks the audience and workers, “When was the last time you saw the sky?”, which can be read literally but also symbolically as our lost hope for the world. Like Persephone, the musical implies that we have become willingly “blinded by the sadness of it all”, and that our inaction is a consequence of being too upset to change things. Therefore, Persephone is not as blind as Orpheus suggests, but like the world itself, she is paralyzed. This does not stop her from knowing what is going on, or from deciding that Hades’ possession and commercialization are unnatural, but it does prevent her from challenging it.

If we read Persephone as an embodiment of the planet, or nature, then her characterization is thus a direct commentary on the current state of the world. The myth of Persephone has changed based on our contemporary culture and is thus a layered and complicated portrayal of 21st century climate change politics.

Persephone is also the most powerful figure in Hadestown because she is the original storyteller of the musical; she is the one to bring the story of Orpheus and Eurydice back to earth. After Orpheus fails, Persephone returns to earth “With a love song” (“Road to Hell Reprise”) to share, meaning that she has framed Orpheus’ story not just as a tragedy, but a romance. She and Eurydice also close the musical with “We Raise our Cups”, with Persephone getting the final words “Goodnight brothers, goodnight”. Because Persephone is the one who toasts “To Orpheus and all of us”, she has taken on the poet’s role. Here, she praises how optimism and hope can cultivate in harsh landscapes, noting “But the ones who bloom in the bitter snow, we raise our cups to them”, which praises not just optimistic people, but the very struggle to remain optimistic and “bloom”. As such, “We Raise our Cups” suggest that by paying respect to Orpheus’ attempt to change the world or this narrative, Persephone becomes a storyteller and shares his optimism.

Like Orpheus, Persephone and Eurydice can see, “the way the world could be in spite of the way that it is” (“All I’ve Ever Known: In Spite of Herself”), and while they can not change things, they can watch and encourage others to do so by leading this toast. This suggests that Orpheus’ failure is beside the point but represents something broader about storytelling and audience. Hadestown therefore masterfully poses these questions around climate change and adaptation, by balances what Orpheus calls “the world we dream about, and…the one we live in now” using mythology.

Works Cited

Oosterhuis, Dave. “Orpheus, the Original Penniless Poet: Plutus/Pluto in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown.Syllecta Classica, vol. 23, 2012, pp. 103-126.

Syme, Rachel. “Amber Gray’s Ferocious Twist on the Goddess Persephone in Hadestown.” The New Yorker, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/amber-grays-ferocious-twist-on-the-goddess-persephone-in-hadestown