Road to Hell
There’s no curtain to raise on the small stage in the Walter Kerr Theatre off of Times Square, but Hermes the narrator, our guide on the journey to hell and back simply invites us into his story with an introduction of the main characters: the three fates, a bar filled with a working-class chorus, a husband and wife with a complicated relationship—Hades and Persephone, and the poet and singer Orpheus and his lover Eurydice. If you know the classic Greek myth, you know that Eurydice dies and Orpheus follows her to hell to bring her back. Hades, at Persephone’s encouragement, offers to let her leave… if Orpheus is able to lead her out of hell without turning to see if she follows. It’s a total mind game that Hades plays with Orpheus. Can Orpheus trust that Hades will really let Eurydice leave? — Will she willingly follow Orpheus out? You can guess what happens: Just as Orpheus reaches the top, sunlight shining on him, he checks to see if Eurydice is behind him, meets her eyes, then sees her no more; destined back to hell as Orpheus loses Hades’ challenge.
It’s a sad story, really. We have all been cheering for the couple, and for the other citizens of hell who hope to follow the successful pair out of the underworld. In the back of my mind, I long for it to end differently, for them to be gloriously reunited back up on top, to “live happily every after.” It’s a tragedy.
When you think about intersections, you don’t typically set Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in conversation with a tragic Greek myth. But when you happen to acquire
tickets to both Broadway productions on your first-ever trip to New York City, you can’t help but compare the apparent similarities of the two tragedies. Aaron Sorkin’s script of Lee’s classic novel offers the tragic tale told with three participatory narrators: Atticus Finch’s daughter and son, Scout and Jem, and their friend, Dill. The three young people sort out their memories of a fateful summer by asking us to journey with their childish innocence through a courtroom, a small community, and a close-knit family to figure out some painful realities. Two men are dead—Tom Robinson, the compassionate black man falsely convicted of assaulting a white woman and shot by prison guards; and Bob Ewell, the man who accused Robinson of assaulting his daughter and killed when he “fell on his knife” after attacking the Fitch children. It’s a tragedy.
But here’s my creative intersecting of the two productions: I propose that they are both hopeful tragedies. Paradox? Perhaps. But hear me out. A tragedy in its simplest form has an unhappy ending, especially for the main character. The main character is ruined, destroyed, defeated, or ends in sorrow. On the surface, both productions appear tragic— an innocent Robinson is dead and his family left without their father, Orpheus and Eurydice are separated for eternity. Hades triumphs; Death wins. (White) Power and supremacy reign. So where’s the hope in that, you ask? Good question.
Let me answer by backing up a step. As we sit in the audience, or turn the pages of a book, we imagine that the main characters are the ones Hermes and Scout, Jem, and Dill tell us about. We suppose the protagonists are Atticus and Tom Robinson, Orpheus and Eurydice. What we may not recognize is that they are us and we aren’t merely the audience, but the protagonists [theatre nerds: the fourth wall is broken repeatedly in both shows]. Myths and classic stories like these remind us of our own part in stories like these—stories of love and separation; of poverty and power; of disillusionment and injustice.
Where is the hope in knowing that we’re the main characters? So if you’ve actually seen Hadestown, you’ll know that it didn’t actually end with Orpheus losing Eurydice. Well, it did and it didn’t. Here’s Hermes’ take on the separation and loss:
It’s a sad song It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy It’s a sad song But we sing it anyway
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 I learned that from a friend of mine
See, Orpheus was a poor boy But he had a gift to give: He could make you see how the world could be, In spite of the way that it is
Hope is being able to see the way the world could be, in spite of the way it is. Hope is knowing the tragedies of life—the injustices, the losses, the suffering—yet singing anyway. What is perceived as a tragedy may, from a higher distance, truly be shalom, joy, rightness. Scout and Jem discover their frightful “monster” Boo Radley is a frightened human seeking human touch. The townspeople are confronted with their prejudice. Could we imagine a world that isn’t bigoted and fearful, but driven by compassion for others? In spite of the way it is now?
Can we imagine a world where Eurydice enters the bar, meets Orpheus, and they face the cold and the hunger and the poverty together? That’s how the story and the musical really end. Hopeful tragedies. I’d like to think that’s life. We know it’s hard, we know there is pain, suffering, injustice. If we leave it there, then life is merely despair.
But I believe in the Kingdom. The Kingdom come, and the Kingdom coming. I believe the One who helps us see how the world will be, in spite of the way that it is. I believe the One who called us to care for the homeless, the hungry, the poor together. I believe the One who poured out His privilege, his rights, for the sake of others, who said, “don’t be afraid” and “love your neighbor” and who asks His people to do likewise. Life is a tragedy. But we hope. We sing anyway.