[Begun on the regional Amtrak back to Boston, completed much, much later when the internet was reliable enough to allow me to finish my day's work first.]
The last time I caught an evening train out of Penn Station, it was early April and the sky at eight o'clock was already dark. Now I'm looking at railyards and construction scaffolding and cranes by that smoky peach-blue light for which there should be an English adjective, but I've never heard one. It's a wonderful color for seeing a city at a distance. The river looks like folded metal; the skyline looks like a set behind a scrim. I'm pretty sure I learned how to describe cities from Tanith Lee's Paradys. From a height, I glanced behind me once, and saw the river, a scimitar of pure metal, white-hot, as the City lapsed in the shallows of the dying afternoon.
I was not expecting to love Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin's Hadestown
even better than the original album
, but I am not entirely surprised. It is not just that the ellipses of the original songs are fleshed out into a full through-composed score which allows even its gods the depth of tragedy or that at least a third of the music is new since the original recording, although the new music is half of the show's power. The haunting opener "Any Way the Wind Blows" explicitly strengthens the Dust Bowl, Depression echoes of the original setting, pointing up the harshness of the world and the stakes for Eurydike who has already known what it is to starve: in the fever of a world in flames, in the season of the hurricanes, flood'll get you if the fire don't . . . in the valley of the exodus, in the belly of a bowl of dust . . . Sisters gone, gone the gypsy route. Brothers gone, gone for a job down south. Gone the same way as the shantytown and the traveling show—any way the wind blows
. Where we were originally introduced to the lovers with the playfully combative call-and-response "Wedding Song," the show first gives them a courtship between Eurydike's experienced wariness and Orpheus' dreamy arrogance, to be echoed devastatingly when they meet again in the underworld: it is called "Come Home with Me." When steel-hard, coin-cold Hades is softened in the second act by Orpheus' simple retelling of his love for Persephone when it was awestruck and new, the Fates' "Word to the Wise" recalls him to his responsibilities as the unforgiving king of walls and floodlights, to the very same self-doubt and mistrust and anxiety that will in turn, inexorably, cause the poet to look back. It's not even just the sprechstimme narration of Hermes, the cardsharp of the gods with his hip flask and his rolled-up sleeves and his nattily feathered fedora, although his scratchy confidence man's storytelling ensures that the only moments of dialogue in the show without some kind of rhyme or musical support are the ones that land like blows. Blessed among epic traditions, it's the reperformance and the recontextualization.
I can explain this best with two songs that I happen to love, because they're katabatic. "Way Down Hadestown" is the third track on the original album, after Orpheus and Eurydike's "Wedding Song" and Orpheus' "Epic I," the first version of the song with which he will turn a god's heart. It is our introduction to Hermes, bawling "All aboard!" before the music kicks off; it is our introduction to Persephone, as if she just stepped onto the platform with a suitcase in her hand, waiting for the god of the railway depot to conduct her to the other world. In the show, Hermes has been our master of ceremonies for six or eight songs already; we have watched Orpheus and Eurydike fall in love in the blossoming days of spring and summer, "living it up on top" with Persephone who makes the most of her half-year in the light, patron of fruit and wine and flowers and things that grow, like love. Now it is autumn and all of a sudden the song takes on a specific and immediate importance: it is a New Orleans jazz funeral for Persephone, a trombone-wailing, fiddle-slanging processional—second line umbrella not excluded—accompanying her to her annual death. Winter's nigh and summer's over—I hear that high and lonesome sound of my husband coming for to bring me home to Hadestown. Way down Hadestown, way down under the ground.
A train whistle wails twice, blown by Hermes; a dry white light makes a blinding tunnel between the audience's seats, the headlights of Hades' oncoming train.1
The god who should not be seen steps out of its nothing-colored glare, silhouetted in the haze like three-dimensional film noir. "You're early," his wife spits, her carpetbag full of flowers and a flask and even a little morphine—those multi-purpose poppies—against the worst of winter. His voice is dark and amused, deep as a seam of coal: "I missed you." And she's gone. Which brings me to "Wait for Me." In the original recording, it is the duet of Orpheus guided by Hades: the god whispering the perils and tricks of the underworld, the poet following, calling over and over to his lost love, Wait for me, I'm coming . . .
Onstage, it is explicit that the "long way down" is the roundabout route that the living must take with no coin to cross the Styx—he's some kind of poet and he's penniless
—but it is not a solitary journey. The Fates prepare the way, transforming the open sky of the upper world into the industrial ceiling of Hadestown with its fan-grilled electric lights instead of moon or sun or stars: set them swinging in time with Orpheus' singing, slow as the drag of a nightmare. The rest of the cast join in with him, the gods and the Moirai and the dead, Eurydike with her hood pulled up like Persephone, her light snuffed out, not knowing that anyone is coming for her. Wait for me, I'm coming with you, I'm coming, too . . .
She will sing the same words to Orpheus as he begins the long walk out of the underworld and she follows with the same dreamlike slow motion, an insubstantial shade struggling against the event horizon of death. The expanded script of Hadestown
parallels Hades/Persephone and Orpheus/Eurydike throughout, down to the casting of two white men and two women of color. Take it from an old man,
Hades cynically counseled Orpheus, just as Persephone encouraged Eurydike to take the advice of a woman of my age
, both of them speaking of the inevitable breaking of love. When Orpheus turns back at the threshold of the upper air with the light behind him, it is the same pattern, fixed and repeating as figures moving around the curve of a vase. "You're early," Eurydike breathes, the last thing she will ever say to her husband. Orpheus' voice is caught in his throat, small as the snapped stem of a flower: "I missed you." And she's gone. I loved both "Way Down Hadestown" and "Wait for Me" when I heard them for the first time six years ago; now they are a significant part of the reason I want a recording of this cast. ("Any Way the Wind Blows" is also incompletely stuck in my head.)
The set is simple. The theater looks like it would be a black box in its natural habitat; this show built it into an amphitheatre. The seven-piece orchestra occupies a section of bleachers opposite the audience's entrance, beneath the catwalk and the door in the blank brick wall that leads to the upper world. A tree grows out of the bandstand, twisting its branches like the tines of antlers up into the stage lighting; it sheds paper blossoms in spring for Persephone's return and autumn leaves the color of iron rust for her departure in the fall. The cast carry on a handful of props at best—kerosene lanterns for the Fates, Persephone's carpetbag, Orpheus' guitar. Eurydike's winter coat that is not heavy enough to keep the road-weary cold from her back. A coin. There are two or three old-time-radio-style microphones2
that can be moved from the bandstand to the circle of center stage; Hades commands one to seduce Eurydike with the deep black river of "Hey, Little Songbird" or catechize the denizens of Hadestown in the anti-revival "Why We Build the Wall," while another is reserved for intimate duets between mortal lovers or gods. The costumes suggest the 1930's and are full of little touches, entirely extratextual nods to the myth. The Fates are never named, but the tall lynx-slim blonde one must be Atropos because she wears a pair of shears in a holster at her side; the pendant on the breast of dark-skinned Lachesis with her tightly cropped crimson hair is a folded slide ruler in its leather sheath; sharp-smiling Klotho with her dark hair braided atop her head wears three cords of undyed yarn across her chest like a bandolier. Persephone is dressed in slinky, summery green wrapped ankle to shoulder with a trellis of blooming vines; the lacy edge of a poppy-red slip just peeks out from beneath its hem. There are flowers in her hair, but their petals are as split and red as pomegranates. Hades wears dark glasses—the signature of anonymity, as good in the movies as a helm of invisibility—which he removes only once safely under the earth and even then his eyes are narrowed in a skeptical sneer, except for one vulnerable, precisely timed moment when he is reminded of something he thought forever lost: the smell of the flowers she held in her hand and the pollen that fell from her fingertips . . . a man with a taste of nectar upon his lips
. Hermes with the step-right-up showmanship of a carnival talker captions the first meeting of Eurydike with Hades as "Songbird vs. Rattlesnake," shivering a matchbox's rattle to signal that the god himself is the serpent that caused her death. And the Fates are not malevolent, but they are the immutable way the world goes: they do not drive the story to tragedy; it always was—was going to be, has been—one. There is a fragile hope in the parting of Hades and Persephone, the gods who have eternity to get it right. We who are human have one shot and sometimes we get it wrong. We try. Goodnight, brothers, goodnight.
The production runs through the end of the month, which means next Sunday; I strongly encourage anyone in the New York area and even some people who aren't to see about tickets if they can. I am told that there will be a recording of the NYTW cast, and I am just waiting until I can throw money at it, but some of the more piercing moments will not be audible, like the transformation of the instrumental "Lovers' Desire" into a dance between Persephone and Hades, their first moment of affectionate connection in millennia, or the way that Hades' token of promised wealth and luxury, folded into Eurydike's hand as he leaves her, is the same coin with which she pays Hermes for her own death. I saw all of the original cast except for Hermes and Atropos and I have to say that they were as iconic and indelible in their roles as everyone else onstage. The whole thing was eminently worth the exhaustion and flurry of travel, even if I seem to have paid for my own descent-and-return in the time-honored fashion, leaving behind part of my pants and an unexpected amount of blood.3
I will describe the rest of the trip tomorrow. It was also lovely. Right now I'm going to see about sleeping before dawn.
1. I realized then that I was hearing a different song inside my head, conjured by nothing more than the stagecraft and the slant chime of the folk tradition. Go tell the ballroom lady, dressed all in worldly pride, that death's dark train is coming—prepare to take a ride. There's a little black train a-coming . . . I can't prove it's intentional as opposed to a side effect of drawing on the same symbol-set as the relevant folk songs, because there are no lyrical or musical allusions that I was able to detect, but I found it extremely resonant either way. I always heard the owe my soul to the company store of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" behind Mitchell's Hades who rules over miners of mines, diggers of graves, they bowed down to Hades who gave them work and they bowed down to Hades who made them sweat, who paid them their wages and set them about digging and dredging and dragging the depths of the earth to turn its insides out yet whose realm is inescapable because Mr. Hades is a mean old boss with a silver whistle and a golden scale—an eye for an eye and he weighs the cost, a lie for a lie and your soul for sale, sold to the king on the chromium throne, thrown to the bottom of a Sing Sing cell, but the likeness leaps out even more strongly when Eurydike, newly arrived in Hadestown, literally signs her life away behind the closed doors of Hades' office. The show is scattered with moments like these, intermingled with the classical ones: two oral traditions in tandem.
2. derspatchel, if it turns out there's video of this show, I will play it for you and you will tell me exactly what make and model the microphones were, because I can describe them if you give me time but not so technically that the internet will cough up the documentation I want.
3. Due to wholly unrelated incidents, I hasten to add! I pay weird travel prices with New York. In April, my hat broke (and was resurrected thanks to the good offices of Salmagundi, but still). This time, the zipper on the fly of my corduroys rather startlingly disintegrated—tiny metal teeth went flying—requiring me to purchase some safety pins from a drugstore in order to go among decent people without comment and all I'm going to say about the blister on my heel is that my pain thresholds must have come back up in the last ten years, because I wasn't expecting to walk down Broadway from 31st Street to 12th and then from East 4th Street to the World Trade Center in perceptible but otherwise manageable discomfort and then take my shoes off to find that my sock looked like it belonged to one of Cinderella's older sisters according to Grimm. I just looked at my original statement and realized it sounded like Theseus, that one time he quite literally left his ass in Hades.