top of page

Hadestown - Striking, and a Pinnacle of Contemporary Theatre

by Ian Sturak

Hadestown recently came to the San Diego Civic Theater as part of its post-Broadway tour. The show, which premiered on Broadway a full decade after it was written in 2006, is, at first glance, a retelling of two Greek myths Orpheus’ travels into the underworld to retrieve his lover, Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone, who separation in the spring and reunion in the fall spurs the seasons. The show has what can only be described as a “New Orleans” vibe to it, recasting Hades as an industrial plutocrat who is restructuring the underworld, drilling for oil while the souls of the damned labor in his coal mine. The role is fitting, as the word “plutocrat” itself stems from Ploutōn, a Latinization of Hades’ name and a word that quite literally meant ‘wealth’. Hades was, to the Greeks, the owner of all the riches of the Earth - the diamonds, gold, and silver that they found below. To us, that precious wealth has taken a new material form - oil, coal, and other fossil fuels utilized by human industry in the past 200 years or so. To put it in Hades’ own words from the show, he “kept that furnace fed / With the fossils of the dead.” The production reimagines the “the king on the chromium throne,” as well as other characters of myth - the Fates, Persephone, Orpheus, and Eurydice - in a way that, if described, might seem heavy handed, but works incredibly well. It doesn’t feel like Greek myths lazily taken and dragged into a story they don’t belong in, it feels like a natural continuation of them. It doesn’t feel like the ancient stories have been degraded to fit with modern contexts, but elevated to them.

Part of why the adaptation of Greek mythology into a new setting works so well is that the show isn’t shy about rewriting the context of the myth. It uses the same themes in a work that stunningly comments on contemporary politics. Hades represents the industrialized capitalism that the show is fervent in denouncing. It so perfectly highlights modern-day political situations that Hades’ rallying cry to his workers is to “build the wall,” despite the show being written in 2006, a decade before Donald Trump would run with that same cry, representing the wealthy interests of corporatized America. Hades makes them cry out that, “We build the wall to keep us free,” because “The wall keeps out the enemy.”

And of that enemy? Hades makes them continue that, “The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free / That’s why we build the wall / We build the wall to keep us free.”

It’s a totalitarian workplace - Hades, a factory owner, oppressing his workers - a powerful commentary on the modern-day Republican party. When Orpheus does descend into the underworld to save his love, Eurydice, he tells the workers, “If it's true what they say / I'll be on my way / But who are they to say what the truth is anyway? / 'Cause the ones who tell the lies / Are the solemnest to swear.”

His cries echo contemporary leftist rhetoric, denouncing a ruling class, denouncing corruption. He makes references to loaded dice, rigged card games; they’re references that firmly place him as an allegory to modern-day advocates. And when the coal miners hear what he has to say, they rise up behind him, saying “If it's true what they say / What's the purpose of a man? / Just to turn his eyes away? / Just to throw up both his hands? / What's the use of his backbone / If he never stands upright?”

It’s a workers’ revolution in its most classic form, impossible to not recognize. The workers' cries are the cries of unions being formed today, a courageous resistance to oppression - and it's clear where the author of the play stands on these issues. Anaïs Mitchell, the author of the show, has said in interviews that she was inspired by Les Misérables, a classic of the theatre world, to write about social issues in her show. The show brings light to climate change as well - Hades’ position as the “king of the mine,” building up a “neon necropolis” leads to Persephone recounting on how, up above, the “The harvest dies and people starve / Oceans rise and overflow” and then definitively stating that “It ain't right and it ain't natural.” However, it never strays far from the story in advocating for these political issues - the harvests being bad are key to the original myths of Hades and Persephone, the world dying without Persephone as she spent winter in the land of the dead.

That love between Hades and Persephone is key to the show. Political advocacy isn’t the only aspect of the show inspired by Les Misérables - it also borrows its central theme, of love ultimately being what drives people. The show doesn’t have Hades as an unsympathetic villain, cold and distant; Hades’ cruel factorized hell, the underground that he’s ripped apart for oil and coal, all stems out of his fear of losing Persephone, the woman he loves. The show demonstrates how greed stems from those dark places, from a fear of losing people, and from a fear of letting go. In this way, as Hades’ and Persephones’ relationship degrades to the extent of Persephone requires “morphine in the tin” and bottles of wine and vodka to make it through the wintertime, Hades seeks more and more of the wealth - trying and trying to avoid losing her. It's his love, his longing, that drives him as a villain in the story. It’s him failing to realize that his blind grabs for material wealth, for anything he can get, for the wall he constructs to block out poverty and block out what he sees as the enemy, is all his own coping for losing Persephone, for seeing his true wealth degrade. It’s grief, and it’s a universal theme. When Orpheus, following his own love into the underworld, finally plays for Hades and Persephone, he sings an old tune - a tune of when they were lovers. It’s an enchanting scene on stage, and Hades and Persephone dance together, with the promise that they’ll see each other again next winter. For a second, the love between Hades and Persephone is healed by the music of Orpheus, and it seems like he’s been redeemed. It seems like he’s ready to let go of his greed, of all that he’s acquired in his misguided way.

But of course, that’s not how the story ends. Hades gives Orpheus permission to leave, but with the classic condition that he can’t turn around to check and see if Eurydice is behind him. When he does, he loses Eurydice, forever. It was the inevitable ending to the show, and it’s how the story goes, but it doesn’t make it any less tragic at the moment. Hermes, the narrator of the show, sings about how tragedy is why the story is told, and why we continue on despite melancholy events. On stage, we see Orpheus and Eurydice meeting for the first time, again. And it highlights why Hadestown is truly one of the greatest productions of contemporary theatre - it doesn’t feel like a movie that’s been awkwardly placed on stage, it feels like the stage is a part of the show’s identity. It’s not like most classical theatre productions, with the scenery switching as sets in a movie would switch, with long bouts of dialogue punctuating the areas between songs, and the orchestra hidden down below. Instead, Hadestown embraces the fact that it's an on-stage production, highlighting an emerging drive in contemporary theatre. There’s only one set, but the lighting is used spectacularly on it, orange representing the fires of Hades, blue representing the themes of love. Oil lamps are swung across the stage as Orpheus descends, and - most intriguingly - it isn’t played with a full orchestra but instead a select band, one which is fully visible on stage. The set is actually catered to them, more so than it is to the actors. The actors aren’t in a movie, they’re up on a stage, and the performance knows it and embraces it. This, more than anything else, demonstrates why Hadestown is such a wonderful show - it feels like theatre, it’s almost personified by a drive to keep live performance alive because it isn’t like so many static shows that exist on the discounted budget of what could be easily translated to film. It can solely take the form of a live performance - and it’s that characterization that truly makes it one of the best of its kind.


bottom of page