The Orpheus myth never goes out of date
In Robert Lepage’s solo turn Needles and Opium–an evocative odyssey into the drug addictions and lost loves that haunted Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis as they embarked on simultaneous transatlantic flights in 1949 the Canadian theatremaker’s alter-ego, a contemporary character identified only as Robert, reveals his own romantic travails to a hypnotherapist. “I don’t want to be Orpheus,” Robert confides, but within moments he is suspended on wires high above the stage, spinning circles in the air, while below him a telephone sounds an incessant busy signal and the stage turns a deep, burnished red, a reflected vision of hell.
Lepage may be a reluctant Orpheus, but he gives the ancient myth a satisfyingly modern twist; how many artists, after all, would illustrate a legendary story of descent by sending its hero hurtling upward through space? Lepage’s allusion to the story, however, isn’t merely a clever sight gag. With a spate of recent and forthcoming works by contemporary artists, it seems that Orpheus is, indeed, in the air.
Composer Philip Glass’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film Orphee will premiere in May at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Playwright Craig Lucas’s original opera theatre piece Orpheus in Love, written in collaboration with composer Gerald Busby, concluded its run at New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre in January. Theatre director and video artist Johannes Birringer undertook what he describes as a postmodern deconstruction of the myth last spring at Chicago’s Northwestern University. These three original works represent only a small number of the many and varied modern adaptations of the story, which has itself been continuously reinvented virtually from the moment Orpheus first appeared in the annals of Greek mythology.
A source for Virgil, Ovid, Plato and Pindar as well as the basis of the first surviving opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607, the Orpheus story has been a cornerstone of music, film and literature, enticing everyone from Rainer Maria Rilke and Tennessee Williams to experimental theatre artist Reza Abdoh, whose 1991 The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice propeled the myth into a bombed-out, gender-scrambled future.
In most versions of the myth, Orpheus, a poet-musician capable of charming not only living creatures but even stones with his lyre, descends into the Underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice, who has died after being bitten by a snake. His music overwhelms King Hades, who agrees to release Eurydice on the condition that Orpheus not speak to or look at her until they have fully ascended. Orpheus fails on the very threshold of the world of the living, Eurydice returns to Hades forever, and Orpheus is left to his fate: death at the hands of the Bacchants, the female worshipers of Dionysus.
Is the ongoing proliferation of adaptations simply part of a neverending cycle in which the myth is continuously resurrected? Several artists suggest that transforming the tale is a rite of passage. “It’s such a potent story,” Philip Glass says, “that in any generation there are dozens of them; people can approach it in so many different ways.” Craig Lucas confides that he initially rejected the myth for that very reason. “I said, ‘We can’t do Orpheus because everybody else in music has done it,'” he recounts. “And Gerald said, ‘But that’s the reason to do it; we should do it again.'”
The concerns put forth by the artists, however, indicate that these new works are haunted by the modern world in ways that will forever recast the way the myth is understood. “New opera involves issues of seeing how music relates to ideology and culture,” Johannes Birringer argues; in his rendering, titled Orpheus and Eurydike, multiple narratives, citational references and overlapping performances including 22 women who simultaneously but independently portray “Eurydike” serve Birringer’s attempt “to break into the myth without having to repeat the story boy loses girl and tries to get her back.”
The creators of these new versions of Orpheus make reference to video and modern technology, to Freud and Jung, to the horror of AIDS, to disintegration and fragmentation. Even Glass (whose adaptation of Orphee promises to be the most traditional of the three works) was drawn to Cocteau’s film because it emphasizes the artist in relation to his peers and his place in society, and because, in a twist of plot that the composer considers Cocteau’s most striking contribution to the myth, at its end Orpheus is murdered by a fellow poet.
I have the impression that my film of Orpheus would astonish if it were shown in Athens would scandalize. The keepers of the myths would not understand that myths die if they are not adapted to the times.
Jean Cocteau, Past TenseOrder now
“Opera has always been a hybrid for me, drawing its material from other sources,” Philip Glass explains. “It occurred to me to try to work somehow in the area of film and opera, which is something that hasn’t been done; operas have never been made from movies, but at this point, movies have become like a kind of contemporary literature.”
If Glass isn’t the busiest contemporary composer, he is certainly among the most prolific. Orphee, his eleventh opera (and the third to be produced at American Rep, after The Juniper Tree and The Fall of the House of Usher), is the first of a series of pieces the composer hopes to base on the films of Jean Cocteau. (“I can’t reveal the other plans because I don’t have the rights yet,” he says, “but I’m very interested in bringing actual film and live performance together, and I’m heading in that direction.”)
Glass adapted the film scenario, noting that, although he had to change the scenic situation, he was able to preserve Cocteau’s text almost entirely without changes. “It’s a perfect vehicle for an opera,” he relates, “because basically you have a classic opera situation with two star-crossed couples and two love affairs that are not going to work out. It’s kind of wonderful, and yet it becomes a very practical piece too, because the focus is very clearly on these two relationships. I could do a piece that was really a chamber opera, using four principals and three other small parts, and a small orchestra of 12.”
Cocteau’s film, set in modern-day Paris, focuses on the poet Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, and the Princess and Heurtebise, who represent Death and her chauffeur. It reflects Cocteau’s fascination with mirrors and with modern technology (from roaring motorcycles to the car radio through which Orpheus communicates with the Underworld) and is famous as a landmark of surrealist cinema.
Glass describes his adaptation as a French opera with “a strange kind of abstraction to the vocal lines–they’re very lyrical, but at the same time they don’t quite fit the harmonies, and it leaves everything in a kind of misty, unsettled way.” He was drawn to the film, he explains, because of the way Cocteau himself transforms the myth.
“The traditional questions that Orpheus raises are the ideas of mortality, immortality, art and life. There’s a line in the film where the Princess says, ‘For a poet to become immortal a sacrifice has to be made.’ This is the basis of what Orphee is about: What is that sacrifice and how is it made, what do we give up to become immortal, what is immortality? How does a work become immortal and a person remain mortal? These are the questions, and of course for any artist these are intriguing questions.
“What Cocteau does is add another element which isn’t there in the others,” Glass attests. “He emphasizes the relationship of the artist to society, and not just society, but the relationship of the artist to the world of his fellow artists. Cocteau has Orpheus killed by his fellow poets. The conflict that Orpheus has in the film is with his contemporary artists, with his colleagues. This is a point that’s sometimes missed, but this is the special twist that Cocteau has given to it.”
…the difference between a story and a painting or photograph is that in a story you can write, He’s still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can’t show ‘still.’ You can just show him being alive.
Susan Sontag, “The Way We Live Now”
It’s a safe bet that something bad will happen in a play by Craig Lucas. In each of his best-known works (including Blue Window, Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss and the film Longtime Companion) relationships end with a cruel, unanticipated immediacy and the world proves tenuous, fragile, capable of being shattered in an instant. The Orpheus story, focusing as it does on love and loss, seems an ideal subject for Lucas, for whom even the most sentimental moment can be infused with pain.
Discussing his work, Lucas disclaims the validity of recognizing any single interpretation over another. “I think that people have the right to bring their own experience to plays and movies,” he avows, “and I think it’s disenfranchising for authors to say, ‘This is what I meant.'” But while Orpheus in Love is not overtly about AIDS, and the word itself is never mentioned (although in one affecting moment Orpheus wears a prominent red ribbon, the symbol of solidarity for persons with AIDS), its shadow is long and resolute. When I point out that just minutes into our conversation he has used the word “plague” three times in three different contexts, Lucas retorts, “Well, we’re in one.”
Lucas and Busby developed Orpheus after collaborating on a series of concert pieces; “Gerald pointed out to me,” Lucas notes, “that they are all about loss, about people trying to find their place in relationships, and all about death.” Structuring the piece as a multilayered exploration of memory, the authors emphasized themes of passion and commitment, setting the opera almost entirely on and around an oversized bed designed by Derek McLane. The first act takes place on the threshold of the Underworld; in the second act, much of which takes place at a small community college where Orpheus is employed, the characters Orpheus and Eurydice, his father and childhood piano teacher compete to tell their stories, finally achieving resolution and peace.
“We wanted to put the audience through a journey that would be in some ways as inexplicable as falling asleep, as going into a dream place,” Lucas states. “Where do we touch the dead? In dreams. Although I don’t believe that the dead respond to us, I do believe that we carry the dead with us.
“In an odd sense,” he continues, “there’s only one character in this story; everybody else is dead. But there are conflicts that we have with those people that impede or in some way inform how we live.” Eurydice’s sudden, inexplicable death (in this version, she steps in front of a car and is killed on her honeymoon) thus becomes a metaphor for knowing when to hold on, and when to let go.
Lucas allows that “audiences are understandably wary of dream states; they can be scarier than the audience wants them to be. The trick is to get them on the ride.” With director Kirsten Sanderson, Lucas and Busby take the audience on a journey that is both gentle and jarring. For Lucas, the Freudian concept of “primitive process” underscores the work.
“I think what Freud means by primitive process,” he explains, “is something that comes from the unconscious that has an effect–like a smack, or a dousing with water, or the sudden appearance of smoke–and that we can’t necessarily analyze or describe, something ineffable. Gerald and I talked about this in relation to music and the power of music, trying to get past the limitation of our mortality, sex as a place where the ego disappears.”
What ultimately drives Orpheus in Love, however, is desire, and what remains at its end is a sense of longing–that even if Eurydice cannot return from the Underworld, her death, however pointless and cruel, can be a salve for bereavement.
“We don’t get to choose all the things that happen to us. The only thing we do get to choose is what we make of our fates,” Lucas believes. “I think the danger of being a survivor, of living with pain–of living with AIDS, for that matter–is that it’s very awesomely seductive to close down, to stop engaging in the world. The only way to move on is to pass through that grief and anger.”
For centuries music was used…to represent and praise the many images of women, but she was always the creation of the male imagination…Male phantasies, longings and fears were projected onto her but the realities of women’s everyday existence were ignored.
The Orpheus story ends with a woman silenced forever and a man torn apart and destroyed. Johannes Birringer’s Orpheus and Eurydike begins what the director calls a “ritual of screaming,” while video screens play images of dismembered women’s bodies and show “body parts flying around” as sound, text and image all compete for the attention of the audience. Dispensing with Orpheus as a character some 20 minutes into the production, Birringer’s opera is nothing less than a radical rethinking of the traditional interpretations and assumptions associated the myth.
“When I thought about the artist figure in the myth, Orpheus as composer/musician,” Birringer explains, “it was clear that this is a romantic concept that underlies a lot of stories we have in our culture about love and loss. It’s a convenient male myth in that the loss always seems to involve the death or the sacrifice of a woman, which then is immortalized and aggrandized in the poetry and the music that the suffering poet writes.
“I did not want to make another Orpheus and Eurydice,” he continues, “but to create a new work without somebody having to die or needing to be sacrificed. And I felt the only way to do that is to create an opera that deals with women’s stories and perhaps their myths. In other words, I tried to find the voice of Eurydice.”
A German-born director and video artist who worked with dance/theatre artist Pina Bausch in the early 1980s and has been on Northwestern’s Performance Studies faculty since 1990, Birringer drew extensively on postmodern feminist and cultural theory in preparing the new opera. Working with an ensemble of performers who were collectively responsible for the choreography; three modern composers–Gwynne Winsberg, Patricia Morehead and Tim Tobias; and live action juxtaposed with video, Birringer set out “to show critically the way the myth reproduces itself in terms of the way men look at women.”
The use of video (which included scenes from the rehearsal process, scenes filmed especially for the production and excerpts from films by Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Sally Potter and others) to explode the conventions of the mythic narrative proved especially useful, Birringer says, to the women in the company.
“They were constantly having to ask themselves what it meant to them to be looked at on the stage or in film, and what this crucial turn in the myth–in the Ovidian and Virgilian versions Orpheus is given Eurydice back under the guideline not to look at her–actually means.
“Men are often not looking,” he goes on, “but seeing something they want to see. That’s why the opera also made a turn into investigating a compositional mode which would not be a linear story, as in many male myths and many conventional theatrical and operatic plots. Our piece is constantly moving backwards and forwards, and in a sense retrieving women’s stories from alongside, inside and outside of this myth.”
Even as Birringer lists the many issues the opera explores “the male gaze, the mythic narrative and its deconstruction, the deconstruction of opera conventions, sexual politics in opera and one’s own sexual politics, the whole question of how you look, what do you look at when you have multiple visual narratives”–and points to the collaborative nature of its production, his place as director at the top of the hierarchy of power cannot be ignored. His own role is something Birringer both acknowledges and disclaims. “Instead of my looking at women I wanted to listen to them,” he says. “That was my contribution.”
If every age creates its own Orpheus, then ours–which denies him the heroic stature found in most versions of the myth and the elevation to the gods accorded him in Monteverdi and Gluck’s operas–may be particularly bleak. If every Orpheus reflects a quest, however, then each of these new opera/theatre works may represent new developments in the ongoing critical discourse between creative artists and the world in which they live.
Eurydice will never return from the Underworld, and Orpheus will never fail to seek for her with hope, longing and despair. Glass, Lucas and Busby, and Birringer reveal what his search means for the modern age by showing what must be given up, as well as what might be gained.