Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, and the Postmodern Underworld

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Conference Proceeding

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Sarah Ruhl writes in her opening stage directions for her play Eurydice that the “underworld should resemble the world of Alice in Wonderland more than it resembles Hades.” In Hadestown, which is a musical adaptation of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth, Anaïs Mitchell takes the opposite approach, using a Hades which is depicted as an industrial hell along with the actual characters of Hades and Persephone. Both Ruhl’s and Mitchell’s interpretations of the classical Eurydice and Orpheus story are postmodern approaches that interestingly de-emphasize the focus on Orpheus, the putative hero, himself, and instead turn the audience’s attention toward the marginal and catalytic characters. The devil in Ruhl’s play, the counterpart to Mitchell’s Hades, is depicted first as A Nasty Interesting Man and later as The Lord of the Underworld; both playwrights’ devils are charismatic power brokers who would clearly be right at home in contemporary capitalist society. Both works also adapt the role of the Chorus, which in Greek tragedy comments on the action but is not empowered to alter it. In Ruhl's Eurydice, the chorus is depicted as the three Stones, who “might be played as if they are nasty children at a birthday party,” while in Mitchell’s play, there are three Fates—“three sisters, vicious and delicious, voices in the head”—but also a chorus present in the New Orleans bar at the beginning who transform into the voices of Workers condemned to toil for Hades in the underworld.

This paper proposes to put Ruhl’s and Mitchell’s plays in conversation with one another, arguing that while the two versions of the myth have very different thematic emphases (Ruhl’s piece is ultimately more about language and memory, while Mitchell's is perhaps more about the conditions that allow or prevent love), both encourage us to see the Orpheus story in transformative ways that make room for both psychological realism and the presence of the magical.

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