“Working on a Song”: The Role of the Adaptor in Hadestown (2019)

Part II of III

Anaïs Mitchell’s musical emphasizes the act of storytelling by focusing on storytellers, specifically Hermes and Orpheus. Both figures adapt stories by reciting myths to the audience and other characters, thus informing the characters about their world but also the viewers about mythology. As such, the musical involves two types of stories: in-media and out, or to the audience.

Hermes and Orpheus switch between these models as they alternate between directly addressing the audience and then the characters. The musical emphasizes this in its introduction song “Road to Hell”, which teaches us about the various Gods and their attributes. For example, Hermes’ line “And there were three old women all dressed the same, and they were always singing in the back of your mind” explains who the Fates are in addition what they will do in the musical; create anxiety. These introductions thus have a dual purpose as they educate us about a figure’s role in mythology, but also, more specifically, their role in this version of mythology. This gestures to the musical’s broader theme of dual myths, or myths within myths.

Hadestown is never just telling one myth, but rather, a mix of overlapping stories. When Hermes calls the narrative “an old song” in this introduction, he is not just referring to the story of Orpheus, but also the stories around him, like Hades and Persephone. Likewise, Hermes is also self-reflexively referring to the very musical number he is performing, which is performed nightly and has done since Mitchell’s first production, making it “an old song”.

“It’s An Old Song”: Hermes the Storyteller

Hermes is the most prominent figure to navigate between in-text and audience, as he often talks to the audience. This engagement is unique because Hermes is the one of only character to switch between singing and talking, as illustrated in “Any Way the Wind Blows”, where Hermes goes from singing “And his way of seeing things” to speaking “So I took him underneath my wing”. This rapid switching accentuates certain phrases and wording, but also creates a more complex listening experience. Because Hermes never uses just one way to tell his story, he transits between traditional musical theater and the traditional storytelling. This style also suggests that like the material itself, the act of retelling is equally complex.

Additionally, this relates to Hermes mythic role as the messenger God, as it is his responsibility to keep the story or message on track by negotiating these complexities. Occasionally he interrupts the narrative to transition into the next, like his first line in “Way Down Hadestown”. His cry, “On the road to hell there was a railroad line”, abruptly interrupts Orpheus and Eurydice’s love duet, “All I’ve Ever Known”, and returns the characters to the narrative momentum. It also interrupts Orpheus and Eurydice’s line “Then it will always be like this”, which signals to the audience that love will not always be like this as the plot must continue.

Hermes does not always enjoy his role as a storyteller, but it is his job to tell the story no matter what happens, or what pain it involves. Being a storyteller thus means having a duty and responsibility to the story, which Hermes illustrates by introducing events and figures, and orchestrating the entire narrative. For example, in his final song, “Road to Hell Reprise”, Hermes is clearly devastated about Orpheus and Eurydice, especially as Orpheus acts as his surrogate son. Despite this personal loss, Hermes continues his story because he is responsible for it. He guides the audience through this “old song” (“Road to Hell”) but ultimately to the same spot where we began, singing about “a tragedy from way back when” (“Road to Hell Reprise”) but now from a new perspective.

At the same time, Hermes is not in control of the narrative details, just the presentation of it. The same can be said of the myth of Orpheus in Hadestown, where the basic plot points stay the same, but the context and drama changes. In other words, like the musical itself, Hermes retells the myth without having any power to change the ending. This additionally means that Hadestown focuses less on this ending, or Orpheus’ failure, and more on the journey to that ending, or “Road to Hell” but not Hell itself. 

“In Spite of the Way that It is”: Orpheus as Storyteller

Orpheus has a similar storyteller role but is more inexperienced than Hermes. This naivety explains why Orpheus tries change the stories around him, rather than just retelling them. Although Orpheus somewhat succeeds at changing the story around him, his reward is momentary and comes at a cost.

For example, Orpheus’ character arch is motivated by optimism, which inspires both his stories and his need to tell stories. When Hermes describes Orpheus, he notes “You might say he was naïve to the ways of the world, but he had a way with words” (“Any Way the Wind Blows”) because he is still innocent, which gives him a different perspective than any other character. The musical continues to emphasize Orpheus’ naivety in “Epic I”, where Orpheus sings about Hades and Persephone for the first time. Here, Orpheus takes a story Hermes once told him and performs a close reading. This introduces a new version of the myth to the audience, one which reconfigures Persephone’s abduction into a consensual love story.  

Orpheus’ reading of Persephone is complicated by the ensuing song, “Livin’ It Up on Top”, where a slightly intoxicated Persephone enters and summer begins. Persephone follows Orpheus’ version of the myth, but the musical also demonstrates that time has past, and she is no longer in the idealized relationship which Orpheus imagines. He captures the beginning of the myth, or that missing part which the other characters have forgotten or moved away from. However, his optimism blinds him to the rest of the story, or what has happened since. This suggests that without a steady storyteller, myths are left to develop on their own and can distort. Hades and Persephone demonstrate this as they are still stuck in the same arrangement which Orpheus described in “Epic I”, and as a result, neither of them can move away from this narrative, and both are resentful. Hadestown thus troubles the role of the storyteller, and their responsibility to the story, or what happens if it is left alone. The storyteller’s role as an adaptor similarly relates to the broader need to adapt to changing circumstances, those which figures like Eurydice frequently sing about.

The musical also argues that because music and stories balance what ‘could be’ with ‘what is’, they have monumental power and the ability to tear down walls; political, emotional, and physical. In “Wait for Me”, the walls around Hadestown open to Orpheus’ song, and foreshadow Orpheus’ later breakdown of Hades. Because the walls and stone repeat Orpheus in this song, “It sounds like drumming”, his song impacts not just people but the environment. As they repeat back, the musical connects man with environment. This moment, where the gates open, also suggests that Orpheus’ ability to walk forward is monumental, which explains the difficulty he later faces when trying to escape with Eurydice. The musical argues that it is a challenge to keep going, even if you know how the story will end. Orpheus ignores this ending and focuses on the journey itself, which he can only do because of how naïve he is.

Hadestown emphasizes moving forward in the song “A Gathering Storm”, where Eurydice realizes how absorbing Orpheus’ song writing is, and that it is up to her to stop them from starving. As she realizes this, she says “Okay, finish it”, which is directed to Orpheus, but also indirectly to Hermes, who is narrating the scene. In an immediate sense, Eurydice is talking to Orpheus about finishing his world changing song. However, she is also talking to Hermes about moving the plot forward. In this moment, Eurydice understands that she can not change where the story is going, but she can accept that it must keep going. Unlike Orpheus, Eurydice knows that she cannot stop the narrative momentum. As such, Orpheus’ blind optimism prevents him from seeing the entire myth, which contrasts figures like Eurydice, who can no longer see where it started or what it could be. Orpheus’ optimism is admirable, but with the knowledge of why he failed, the musical suggests that its audience can learn from him and do more. As such, the musical juxtaposes “the world we dream about” with the hope that one day it becomes “the one we live in now” (“Livin’ it Up on Top”).