DAY OF THE DEAD... A Radio Drama Essays

Orpheus Lives! Tellings and Retellings of an Ancient Myth in Modern Times

By Frederick Greenhalgh

Among the many Greek myths involving the underworld, there is one regarding the Thracian poet, Orpheus. Unlike the bold Hercules or Odysseus, who trek to the underworld as part of their heroic journeys, Orpheus was motivated by the loss of his fiancée, Eurydice. According to Ovid, she was bit by a deadly snake while dancing with Naiads on their wedding day. Orpheus, unsatisfied by his mourning in the mortal realm, descends “through the gate of Taenarus to the Styx, to try to rouse the sympathy of the shades as well.” (Metamorphoses 225) Orpheus pleads for the return of his love while playing the lyre to Hades and Persephone, Lord and Lady of the Underworld. His plea is so moving that the underworld stands still:

Tantalus made no effort to reach the waters that ever shrank away, Ixion’s wheel stood still in wonder, the vultures ceased to gnaw Tityus’ liver, the daughter of Danaus rested from their pitchers, and Sisyphus sat idle on his rock. Then for the first time, they say, the cheeks of the furies were wet with tears, for they were overcome by his singing. (Metamorphoses 226)

Hades and Persephone cannot bear to refuse Orpheus’s plea, and grant Eurydice’s release, on one condition: that Orpheus does not look back at her until he leaves the underworld. He agrees, but at the very last moment, anxious that she has fallen behind, he turns to look at her—and indeed, she falls away “with a last farewell which scarcely reach[es] his ears” (226).

Orpheus doesn’t take the second loss of Eurydice very well. He vainly attempts to cross Styx again for seven days before returning to the surface-world, where he spurns all women in favor of the affection of young boys. Orpheus at length seeks isolation in the wild, but cannot find refuge even there. A group of Ciconian women (a Thracian tribe allied with Dionysus), enraged at Orpheus’s change in sexual preference, descend upon him while he sings to a group of captivated wildlife. They first hurl stones and spears, which are so charmed by his singing that at first they refuse to strike him. The women, undaunted, begin to assault nearby birds, and then chase farmers out of their fields and take up the farm tools as weapons. Orpheus is brutally torn to shreds, and his head and lyre, still singing, land in the river Hebrus, and are carried to the island of Lesbos. For all the tragedy, Orpheus and Eurydice are at last reunited in the underworld (247).

As in all mythology, there is a great deal of speculation behind the supposed meaning of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. There are hints to the death-rebirth fertility cycle, for example: Orpheus directly references the rape of Persephone by Hades in his plea for pity. Orpheus himself is connected strongly to fertility, sex, and music, and he is said to be the only mortal initiated to both Apollo and Dionysus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus) . For my purposes, however, I embraced a more literal interpretation of the myth. In his book Myth: Its Function & Meaning in Ancient & Other Culture, G.S. Kirk asserts that one of the functions of myth is to “reveal, in dramatic circumstances, the irreversible order of nature or decree of the gods; for it tends to substantiate the dogma by a practical demonstration of the impossibility of evading it” (Myth 259). Thus, “the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is another example ... that mortals cannot as a rule be retrieved from the dead ... in the end human frailty asserted itself, and frailty means death” (259). This assertion of human frailty—essentially that Orpheus’s lack of faith, lack of discipline, or other second-guessing lead to his wife’s second death—is an interpretation embraced by numerous authors, playwrights, and filmmakers in their retellings of the story. In particular, the “looking back” moment, echoed in the story of Lot’s wife and elsewhere in mythology, suggests something profound about the human condition, and is included in nearly every telling of the story.

One of the most influential retellings, both on my work and on mainstream society, was the film Black Orpheus, which sets the myth in the context of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival (to be fair, its success mostly lay in its stellar soundtrack rather than its deft handling of the myth). In this version, Eurydice, retaining her Greek name, arrives into the chaotic city in the beginning throes of the festival. The viewer, as jarred by the strange environment as she is, journeys with her as she searches for her cousin, Serafina. Eurydice bumps into Orpheus, a cheery, light-hearted trolley driver, who drives her to the outskirts of the city. Here, Eurydice is greeted by Hermes, who tells her to return to the trolley station should she become lost during the festival. Eurydice continues onward to find her sister, who reintroduces her to Orpheus, and the two of them bond romantically, much to chagrin of Orpheus’s fiancée, Mira (whom, for reasons unclear, Orpheus has no interest in). Though they spend one night of lovemaking together, the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice seems preordained to failure, as a specter of death is chasing her. As Orpheus fights off the spirit once, it vanishes into the air with the nonchalant words, “I’m in no hurry.”

The following day—Carnival itself—Serafina prefers to stay at home with her lover rather than march in the parade, and sends Eurydice to dance in her place as the lady of the sun, a character who, incidentally, parades beside Orpheus. The ruse is later discovered by the jealous Mira, who attempts to kill Eurydice, but her hand is stayed by that of the death specter. While Orpheus leaves Eurydice’s side to claim an award for his role in the parade, Eurydice is stocked in the trolley station by Death. In an ironic turn of events, it is Orpheus who accidentally kills her as he rushes to the rescue, turning power to the rail-line that she is holding onto for safety.

Here, indeed, frailty (or at least poor judgment) is the cause of death, even if death seemed inevitable. The conclusion of the movie transposes the contents of the myth to the post-Carnival comedown. As Carnival concludes, energetic, upbeat drumming that persisted in the background during the film ceases, replaced by police sirens and industrial noise. Orpheus is nearly arrested as he searches for the morgue, where Eurydice has been taken, and he is sent to a nearly abandoned office building filled with papers when he asks where to search for missing persons. As he searches vainly in this Kafkfaesque nightmare, a janitor approaches him and brings him to a Macumba Ceremony (a spiritual practice that bears much resemblance to Voodoo--the patrons are in white, there is drumming, chanting, dancing, and an altar adorned with flowers, fruits, and other offerings). While at this ceremony he contacts the spirit of Eurydice very briefly, only to turn to look at her and alienate her forever, as in the myth. He leaves, distraught, but Hermes reappears to bring Orpheus to the morgue, and he retrieves Eurydice’s body. Remaining true to the myth, the jealous Mira, representing the Ciconian women, charges at him and Orpheus is thrown to his death off a mountain.

While tragic, the tale of Black Orpheus brings in the themes of rebirth at the end. Earlier in the story, two neighborhood children talk wildly of Orpheus’s skill as a musician, and his ability to raise the sun with the power of his music. On the day following Orpheus and Eurydice’s lovemaking, he is shown to do just that feat, playing a majestic Bossa Nova song to accompany the sunrise. Before he is dashed to pieces at the end, he muses over the body of Eurydice, singing “The happiness of the poor is the great illusion of Carnival, we work all year long...” He accepts his death with a quiet acceptance, and later that morning, the two neighborhood children rush down, carrying Orpheus’s guitar, and play to raise the sun. They are successful, and they dance. The cycle is complete.

Other retellings are not as triumphant. Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending bears little structural resemblance to the original Orpheus myth, but uses an Orpheus-like character to explore a sort of underworld—the ascetic, conformist, and racist rural South. Val, a drifter dressed in snakeskin bearing a guitar, turns up one rainy night at a dry goods store in some unknown small Southern town. He is emphatic on his mission to leave town, but the proprietor of the store offers him a job and he decides to stick around. Though he clearly has a troubled past, he adamantly states that he has reformed his ways, and repeatedly puts down the invitations of the seductive Carol, saying that “I don’t run like that anymore.”

Despite Val’s efforts to evade trouble, it finds him. Women in town flirt with him, and though he doesn’t respond to their advances, he still gains the reputation of a provocateur. Lady, the store’s proprietress, is in a dysfunctional marriage to an acerbic man dying of cancer and is under constant scrutiny from the town’s people regarding her behavior as a married woman. She is a woman with high creative dreams that have been systematically inhibited by the culture around her, and Val’s appearance in her life sparks, despite their best attempts to repress it, a burning, uncontrollable passion. More than just sexual, her relationship with Val and the values he embodies—freedom, creativity, wildness—allows her to escape the confines of her dying husband’s control and live fully again. Yet, as in the myth, it all ends tragically. The affair between lady and Val is discovered, the husband fires a shot that kills lady before dying himself, and Val is grabbed by an angry mob of townspeople who promise to burn him alive.

Williams’s use of Orpheus is as a metaphor, rather than a structure, and his interpretation of the underworld refers more to hell than to the emotionless landscape of the Greeks. Retellings fall on all points of this spectrum—close readings, such as Black Orpheus, and broader thematic references, such as Orpheus Descending. The French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, for example, created a trilogy of films based loosely on Orpheus, and while the landscape of the underworld seems consistent with the Greek notions, the story structure is completely the filmmaker’s creation. Sarah Ruhl wrote a play called Eurydice, telling the story from Eurydice’s point-of-view. Numerous operas were inspired by the story, and, like all Greek literature, there are a myriad of translations of Ovid to choose from (not the least of which is a verse translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who juxtaposes the story of Eurydice with an Irish poem in his book The Midnight Verdict).

My use of the myth falls somewhere between the two extremes. Structurally, there is a strong reliance on the myth—the Orpheus-like protagonist, “the kid,” makes a metaphorical descent to the underworld (embodied in this case by the landscape of New Orleans’s French Quarter), pleads his case to the guardian of the Dead (in the form of Baron Samedi, a raucous spirit derived from the Voodoo pantheon), and retrieves Eurydice only to lose her again by looking back at the last moment. But beyond these surface-level similarities, there are some core differences between my telling of the myth and those of Ovid and others.

One of the tricky parts with Ovid’s telling of the tale is the lack of detail in Orpheus’s journey, but this has not stopped modern retellings from filling in the blanks. Neil Gaiman, in a series inspired by Orpheus in his Sandman graphic novel, fully illustrates Orpheus’s descent, highlighting Hermes’s role as a guide through the underworld. Similarly, in Black Orpheus Hermes appears multiple times to offer advice, guidance, or direction. Therefore, one of my first decisions was to create a Hermes-like character, in this case, the crass, fast-talking, sassy Cajun drifter called “Messenger.” This character appears just as the kid is traveling from Slide to New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, an appropriate moment, if any, to begin introducing the underworld. The Messenger talks the kid into buying some mysterious mask crafted by a “hoodoo man in the bayou” before he elicits enough details about the kid’s quest to offer his services as a guide. The kid initially refuses, but after being rebuffed by a taxicab driver, accepts. The Messenger then brings the kid on a lengthy journey through the underworld, starting at his favorite bar. The kid then meets “Paps,” an old blues player whose signature mark is a pair of sunglasses with “only one cracked lens” (an image directly derived from Baron Samedi). Both Paps and Messenger intuitively know that the kid is looking for a girl, and once Paps discovers that the Messenger is waylaying the kid’s journey, he spurs them onward.

At length, the Messenger brings the kid to a hostel, the last known whereabouts of the girlfriend, Emily (aka Eurydice). The Messenger makes off, but not without coaxing a little more money out of the kid and the kid, finally on his own, enters the next stage of the journey. While in a strict interpretation of the myth he might be arriving at the place to ask for Eurydice back, I decided to keep the journey of exploration through the underworld going. The kid thinks he spots Emily at the hostel, and is both embarrassed and beaten-up because of the mistake; he then leaves for Bourbon St. with a group of travelers. There, he finally meets Emily—in the flesh!—but she repudiates him and he is left to drifting and depression. While the kid is hanging out in the gutter with a couple of street people, Paps reappears and invites the kid to play some songs with him by the Mississippi River; Paps imparts music and advice to the kid, before mysteriously disappearing the following morning.

The liberal interpretation of the journey and the encounters of Orpheus became driven by the character—the kid—as he began to exert a presence in the story, and by the blank space left by Ovid’s rather brisk telling of the journey to the underworld (a feat attempted by very few mortals, yet accomplished in only a few lines!). As I worked out the details of the relationship between the kid and Emily, I found that the literal usage of Orpheus and Eurydice would not fit. The story is really about a young man discovering himself through music, and the gravity of the mythic structure—an established, beloved poet, and a cursed wedding day—would overwhelm the alternative message I sought to tell. And so, the love became more trivial, at least, in the objective, life and death sort of way; the only “death” here is of an illusion—an imagined love, a phantom to begin with! The power of rebirth—of the restoration of the kid’s faith in himself, in life, in his music—leads to a more triumphant conclusion than allowed for in the tragic mechanics of the original myth.

Thus, rather than being a literal retelling, Day of the Dead is a story inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The kid embodies the values of Orpheus, his talent, his joie de vivre, his ability to charm and inspire others, but the story does not involve the grave peril of the original myth. This may offend classical purists, but the wide range of interpretations that precede me, plus the oral tradition of the original myth itself, suggest that my telling is as true as any other, if taken within the confines of its own context. And indeed, there is something dark and grave beneath the surface of Day of the Dead, something unspoken, unmentioned, but impossibly existent, the proverbial “elephant in the corner”: Hurricane Katrina. The story happens in a New Orleans that no longer exists; the naiveté of the modern-city is gone, the bon temps darkly touched, the faith that the citizens had in science and civilization forever rattled. To set the underworld in a post-Katrina would almost be more appropriate, but as I mentioned in the introduction, impossible for me to do within the framework of my own experience. And so instead, the story exists, like any good myth, in a place and time unshaken by recent events, not tied to one moment in history, but depicted in a place that exists nowhere now but in the memories of those who lived there once.

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