About a year ago, I took a Reading Broadly course in which the theme was Hell and the Underworld. One of the things we read was the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as told in Ovid’s Metamorphose (which is a book on my list to review later). And since then, and my discovery of the Anais Mitchell album Hadestown (something else I could review) I’ve been obsessed with the story.
I recently heard of an adaptation of the myth written by French playwright, Jean Anouilh called Eurydice. Using the Barnes and Noble gift card my aunt gave me for Christmas, I bought a copy of the play and gave it a read.
Eurydice takes place in France in the 1930s. Orpheus is a traveling musician who wanders from place to place with his dissolute father. Eurydice is an actress in a low rent theater troupe, lead by her mother and mother’s lover. The two meet, fall madly in love, and decide to run off together. She ditches her previous lover Mathias, which causes his suicide and Orpheus to question her purity because patriarchy.
The bliss of Orpheus and Eurydice is interrupted by the appearance of the mysterious Monsieur Henri and Dulac, the manager of Eurydice’s theater troupe, with whom she was also having an affair. Orpheus learns that Eurydice died in a bus crash while trying to escape from Dulac when he thought she was out getting groceries. He is devastated.
While reading Eurydice, I found several comparisons with Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind. Both plays have a very odd style of dialogue which feels a bit stream of consciousness at points and the characters have a tendency to wax poetical and philosophical at times. There is also the character of M. Henri, who is very similar to The Masked Man in Spring Awakening; both are mysterious and possibly supernatural figures who deliver the play’s moral with a healthy serving of glib cynicism. M. Henri’s scene with the grieving Orpheus at the end of Eurydice reminded me of The Masked Man’s conversation with Melchior, after he has returned home to find that his beloved Wendla has died under questionable circumstances. But while The Masked Man convinces the suicidal Melchior to go on with his life, M. Henri has different plans for Orpheus.
M. Henri resurrects Eurydice from the dead and promises Orpheus that he can have her back if he can sit by her side all night without looking at her. As they sit together, Orpheus questions Eurydice about her affair with Dulac. She explains that their relationship was only because of sexual extortion. He is hesitant to believe her and wants to look into her eyes, the only way he can tell if she is telling the truth or not. His suspicion backfires on him and he looses her again. Mr. Henri tells him that only way for them to be together is for Orpheus to join her in death. Orpheus kills himself off stage and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice.
Eurydice is a exploration of the nature of love and relationships. The love between Orpheus and Eurydice is sudden and overpowering but the play is uncertain about whether or not their relationship will last. M. Henri’s moral at the end of the play is that relationships, like all things, become mundane after a while and even if the couple stays happy and in love, the relationship will lose some of its original magic. Perhaps the beauty of love is that it is fragile and uncertain.
“Orpheus. No! Her love for me would have lasted forever, until she was old beside me, and I was old beside her.
M. Henri. No, little man. You’re all the same. You thirst for eternity, and after the first kiss you’re green with fear because you have a vague feeling that it can never last. Vows are soon exhausted, Then you build houses, because stone at least will endure. You have a child. You lightly stake the happiness of that tiny, innocent recruit to this uncertain battle on the most fragile thing in the world-your love of man and woman. And it dissolves and crumbles. It falls to pieces exactly as if you’d made no vows at all.”
(Jean Anouilh: Five Plays Page 119)
The only way for Orpheus and Eurydice to have the love they want is in death where they will always remain young and beautiful and the circumstances of life will not separate them. As M. Henri puts it “Life would never have allowed you to keep Eurydice” (Page 117).
I would like to see Eurydice performed lived since this is the best way to get a sense of play since that is how it was intended to be experienced. Perhaps that is the best thing you can say after reading a play.