With 8 wins at the Tony awards, Anaïs Mitchell’s new musical Hadestown burst into the public consciousness. With her retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth through the medium of folk, jazz, and blues music, Mitchell taps into a rich history. But in this third iteration of her work, she also focuses on modern history and topics of interest, despite her ancient source material. This two-part article will attempt to unpack the politics and poetry that underly Hadestown. Let’s start with the politics.
Spoilers for the musical Hadestown. All citations from the musical are the acronym of the song the quotation comes from. Reprises get a numerical annotation after the acronym.
So, What Happened?
Hadestown begins with Hermes introducing us to our cast of characters. We meet the chorus, the Fates, Hades, Persephone, Hermes, and, of course, Orpheus and Eurydice. When those two meet, Orpheus immediately falls in love with her. Eurydice has doubts, but upon learning that Orpheus is working on a song to rebalance the seasons, she agrees to try. Their relationship develops over the course of a summer. Hades takes Persephone back to Hadestown, and we discover that they keep arguing, which is what’s causing the off-kilter seasons.
Persephone rejects Hades, and he rejects her. The Fates steal the food Eurydice gathered to sustain them that winter, and Orpheus buries himself in songwriting. Hades comes across Eurydice and offers her a place in Hadestown, which after some angst, she accepts. Hades sings the famous song, “Why Do We Build The Wall” upon her arrival. Orpheus discovers Eurydice is missing and journeys to Hadestown after her. Eurydice discovers that Hades’ workers lose all sense of individuality and personality working for him and regrets her choice. Orpheus arrives and reunites with Eurydice. When Hades reveals the contract Eurydice signed was binding, he orders his workers to beat up Orpheus. He crawls off and sings a song that starts a worker’s revolution.
Orpheus and the workers return, and Hades gives Orpheus a chance to sing a song. Orpheus sings about Hades and Persephone’s love, which they had forgotten. Hades is moved, and he and Persephone reconcile. He agrees to let Orpheus, Eurydice, and the workers go, but Orpheus must go in front, and Eurydice in back. And if he turns around, she and the workers must return. Orpheus begins his test. The Fates sing, and he turns around right before the end. Hermes sings about how they keep singing in hopes that it’ll turn out this time.
Hades as a Capitalist Figure
From the very first line about Hades, we begin to see him as a figure that benefits heavily from capitalism. We see him as “the king of the mine/ Almighty Mr. Hades!” (RTH1). The metaphor of Hades as overseer of a mining company or as the unquestioned ruler continue all through the musical. More specifically, the comparisons between Hades and an oil baron continue. “His black gold flows/ In the world down below” (C1). The line black gold and the fact that he’s described as a miner make the oil connection clear. Much like other wealthy oil refiners, Hades’ wealth is legendary. The Fates sing to Eurydice about how all money comes from Hades, and how he owns everything in the world up above and below.
Unlike Rockefeller, Hades is no philanthropist. Instead, he focuses his wealth on ‘improving’ the life of his wife through exploiting his workers.
“Lover, you were gone so long/ Lover, I was lonesome/ So I built a foundry/ In the ground beneath your feet/ Here, I fashioned things of steel/ Oil drums and automobiles/ Then I kept that furnace fed/ With the fossils of the dead/ Lover, when you feel that fire/ Think of it as my desire/ Think of it as my desire for you!” (C1).
Hades spends his summers creating greater shows of wealth and power to convince his wife to stay, ultimately driving her away. That is Hades’ tragedy, that he always needs to produce more to feel wealthy and secure in his wife’s love.
But ultimately, despite the ironic tragedy that is Hades, the same traits that make him powerful set him up as the antagonist. He keeps Persephone with him for longer and longer, causing the suffering of Eurydice as she starves in the inclement weather. The workers he uses to build his wall and work the mine are more sympathetic to the audience than their overseer.
Hades as a Trumpian Figure
Speaking of antagonist figures, several parallels can be drawn between the current (hopefully soon to be former) president and Hades. The capitalist links in the section make part of the connection. But one particular song makes the connection easier, despite the fact that it predated his presidential campaign by almost a decade.
I’m speaking, of course, of “Why We Build the Wall,” the last song of the first act of the musical. Even the title gives the connection away. But the lyrics further connect it. The song is call and response, and one of the most pertinent verses is this response from the chorus, “Who do we call the enemy?/ The enemy is poverty/ And the wall keeps out the enemy” (WWBtW). Given Trump’s disdain for immigrants, whom he paints as poor people coming to steal American jobs, and his attempt to build a border wall to keep them out, it’s painfully appropriate.
Even the call and response nature of the song fits with Trump’s agenda. Mitchell points out in an article for the Huffington Post: “It wasn’t just that Trump made the building of “the Wall” central to his initial platform, it was the call-and-response style chants at his rallies. “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” “Mexico!”” Given that the format of the song is Hades singing a question and the workers singing back a response, the chanting works well.
Trump’s narcissism matches Hades in moments as well. In the lead up to the final climactic song, Orpheus sings two lines about Hades, who immediately chuckles and asks. “Oh, it’s about me?” (E3). Given that Trump names all of his business ventures after himself, and didn’t understand why Washington didn’t do the same, the narcissistic brush tars them both well.
But, due to the timing of Mitchell’s writing the story, she has the luxury of engaging with anti-Trumpian politics and existing outside them as well. The song reads both as a critique of isolationism and of the current administration depending on the ‘reader’s’ view.
The Workers, Wage Slavery, and Company Scrip
A large part of the reason that the workers come off more sympathetically than Hades, despite having next to no personality, is because they have no personality. We first meet the workers in Chant 1, singing the refrain that makes up the majority of their lines. “Low, keep your head, keep your head low/ Oh, you gotta keep your head low/ If you wanna keep your head/ Oh, you gotta keep your head low” (C1). That depiction of the worker desperate not to be noticed and toiling away confirms some suspicions from earlier in the play that will be further confirmed later. In brief, he workers in Hadestown are wage slaves that are being paid in company scrip.
Hermes’s earliest line about the workers of Hadestown sets everything up. “Everybody slaves by the sweat of his brow/ The wage is nothing and the work is hard” (WDH1). Given that wage slavery involves paying people less than their labor is worth, that seems to be going along nicely. Also given that company scrip often flourishes in company towns, where the company pays in ‘money’ that no one outside the company will accept, it paints a very grim picture.
One of the lines Mitchell changed in rewriting Hadestown for the Broadway stage was, “Your place on the assembly line/ Replaces all your memories” (WDH2). Constant menial labor with next to no reward and a contract that will keep you there eternally erases your personality. Eurydice notices that the workers don’t listen or speak, save to sing their refrain. Which makes it especially poignant in “If It’s True,” when we see the workers singing, “We hear him” (IIT). Because in so many ways, that song is symbolic for revolution and unionization. That one three word phrase tells us so much. It is people given a chance at freedom and given a choice about who they will be for the first time in too long.
One of the more important socio-political issues that Mitchell addresses in Hadestown is climate change. In fact, you could say it’s more important to the plot than the Trump parallels. Mitchell paints a fairly straightforward picture of climate change with her lyrics and the effects they have on her characters.
We first meet Eurydice proper, outside her introduction, in the song “Any Way the Wind Blows,” where she laments the wind’s ability to do just that. In fact, her first lyrics are this: “The weather ain’t the way it was before/ Ain’t no spring or fall at all anymore/ It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold/ Any way the wind blows” (AWtWB). Given that the first name we had for climate change was global warming, and that temperatures have been more volatile than they used to be, with all the wind pattern changes that implies, Mitchell hits the nail on the head.
Beyond Eurydice, Persephone also comments on climate change. She laments that her fights with Hades have caused many problems with the climate. “The harvest dies and people starve/ Oceans rise and overflow/ It ain’t right and it ain’t natural” (C1). Crop patterns have been changing, along with the constant threat of the oceans rising due to glacier melt.
Mitchell gets the effects of climate change correct. But the way she causes them in her narrative is both a good real life parallel and an oversimplification. In Hadestown, climate change derives from Hades and Persephone’s fighting. This works as a parallel to the real world in that Hades’s industrialism causes their fights, and the link between industry and climate change is obvious. But it doesn’t work in that it makes the solution too simple. The couple just needs to go to musical marriage counseling and the weather starts to fix itself. The actual fight against climate change is more complicated than that. However, this is my only complaint about the musical, and it’s a minor one at that.
In Conclusion (For Now)
One of the things that I admire about Mitchell’s work in Hadestown is how she manages to interact with current political issues and to stay out of them. She critiques capitalism with the character of Hades, but the Trumpian parallels that really make him villainous come from a song she wrote in 2008. She deals with worker politics and unions but in a way that’s understated. Climate change is part of the main plot in an era where climate change denial is at an all time high.
There are even political issues that I couldn’t cover here for time’s sake. Eurydice lives in poverty and that fuels her decisions, and the musical doesn’t condemn her for making that decision. “Epic” 3 is a call for radical empathy in that it argues that you should understand the motives of your opponent. Mitchell brings her politics into her work with understated poetry and gorgeous refrains.
Next time, we’ll look at the actual poetry and poetic genius that fuels the other half of the story, that makes the politics work. See you next month!
Image Courtesy of the 2019 Broadway Production