Art Through the Ages: The Retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice

Brian Hornfeldt

Staff Writer/Social Media Manager

Since the first painter picked up their brush, art has had a close relationship with its audience. It’s often influenced by the current fads and culturally significant innovations of the period. As history has progressed, so too has the style and medium of art, ranging from abstract paintings to written songs to AI-generated poems. Though, even as our styles and interpretations of how to create art have changed, our global society still appreciates the pieces that have come from past artists. In fact, a unique blending of this ancient art and our modern artistic representations has emerged during our history, leading to the creation of new works that both honor their predecessors and include a modernized pull that helps to attract new audiences.

An example of this blending comes from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, two lovers from ancient Greece, who are separated when a snake bite takes Eurydice’s life. Vowing to save her, Orpheus travels to the Underworld in an effort to convince Hades and Persephone to let him take her back with him. After playing a magical song infused with his sorrows, Hades agrees that Orpheus may return to the Overworld with his lover, but only on the condition that he doesn’t turn back to face Eurydice until they reach the exit. Orpheus agrees, and travels with Eurydice behind him, until he is just steps before the gate, and his fears take hold, forcing him to turn back for one look. After meeting each other’s gaze, Eurydice is swept back into the Underworld. Orpheus begs for another chance, but Hades denies him entry a second time, sending him back to the Overworld, where he lives in sorrow. He is ultimately killed by a group of Maenads after he rejects their affections, and he is then allowed to reunite with his love at last. 

This story is a timeless classic from ancient Greece and one of the most well-known myths from the period. In recent years, however, the story has been adapted to better fit a modern audience while still appreciating the original mythos that the story is based on. The adaptation “Hadestown” takes the original story, which you can read here, and turns it into an upbeat musical set in the deep South during the mid-1920s. The musical reinterprets and reimagines the story, portraying Hades as a cold, wealthy factory owner who has lost what is truly important to him through his greed. Orpheus and Eurydice are two poor lovers who are to be wed. Orpheus is a songwriter, working on a song that will restore the spring that has been lost, and Eurydice works to support them during the harsh winter. Hades bargains with Eurydice during a brutal winter storm, where she finds herself close to death working to support herself and Orpheus. He offers her an end to her pain if she comes to work in his factory. She agrees and is sent to The Underworld to work forever. Orpheus travels to rescue her, finding himself in a position similar to his original counterpart, where he must travel with her to the surface without turning back to look at her. Unfortunately, Orpheus turns back at the last moment, and she is swept back to the Underworld. In the musical’s case, the story offers some solace for the viewer, saying:

“Cause, here’s the thing:
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time”

This ending is much more optimistic than the original and establishes a connection to the original as well. Those who know the original story still come to see the musical interpretation, knowing that it will end the same as it always does.

I believe that Hadestown is a perfect example of blending old works with newer works of art, as it takes the original story and adds modern elements to the mix. Thus, creating a new work that pays respects to its original predecessor, while establishing itself as a new and unique iteration.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, featured


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