Throughout history Eurydice has been portrayed as a voiceless cypher next to the vocal brilliance of her husband Orpheus. But does the ENO’s 2019 programme of Gluck, Offenbach and Glass alter this? asks our writer Miriam Al Jamil.
…‘Orpheus,’ she cried,
‘what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you?
See, the cruel Fates recall me, and sleep hides my swimming eyes,
Farewell, now: I am taken, wrapped round by vast night,
stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.’
She spoke, and suddenly fled, far from his eyes,
like smoke vanishing in thin air, and never saw him more,
though he grasped in vain at shadows, and longed
to speak further…
Virgil Georgics (Bk IV, 453-527, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’).
T’ho’ dead, she haunts me still, my wife!
In death my torment, as in life.
The Songs and Recitative of Orpheus: an English burletta, which is introduced in a farce of two acts, called a New Rehearsal: or a Peep behind the curtain, etc. by David Garrick (London: T. Becket & P. A. de Hondt, 1767).
How final is our death? However fervently we wish it, can it be beaten? How powerful is the face of the loved one in our desire for her return? The Orpheus myth penetrates the deep mysteries of nature’s constant renewal, the cycles that determine our fragile grasp on existence, and challenges the certainty of loss with the hope of reversing its inevitable grief. But for humans, our passage between life and death is always one way.
Stories by Ovid and Virgil in the fifth century give Orpheus a wife. Virgil emphasised Orpheus’ role as an ardent lover who challenged death, and, as Ann Wroe observed, ‘both his love and his art were pitted against annihilation and although he failed, they became immortal’ (Ann Wroe, Orpheus: The Song of Life, 2011). Eurydice, as with most women in Greek myths, is fair game. While escaping from potential rape by Antaeus, she succumbs instead to a snake bite and dies for the first time. Her husband Orpheus persuades the king and queen of the Underworld to allow him to reclaim his wife but this is only agreed on the condition that he does not look back at her. As he cannot resist the urge to meet the gaze of Eurydice, the most fundamental of human contact marks the moment of an irretrievable second extinction and sets a pattern for so many tales and legends that weave through our cultural heritage. In the Bible, Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt for disobeying the angel’s command and turning to look back at the city of Sodom. How many maidens in towers could only experience the world through the reflection of a mirror? Looking back directly always incurs a penalty. But Eurydice is surely the victim of her husband’s weakness not her own.
Orpheus’s story has been retold through hundreds of dramatic and operatic productions. The four English National Opera (ENO) productions created during the Autumn 2019 season covered three centuries of engagement with the story, interpreted through the needs and priorities of the time, shaped and layered through multiple perspectives and sometimes bewildering staging and effects. The story centres on a married couple, a more subtle but bruising portrayal of romantic love than one of parted single lovers, and expectations build on the hope of restoration, renewal, and continuance rather than on the awakening of a new relationship.
Gluck‘s opera is largely realised through dance (Studio Wayne McGregor), an essential element of eighteenth-century performance but one which renders the staging more abstract. Eurydice is a passive victim, voiceless in the first half and manipulated by the whim of the gods. Unlike the other operas in the ENO season, she pleads with Orpheus to look at her, taking his refusal as a sign that he no longer loves her. She is therefore complicit in her second death and returns to her tomb. Failure is in misunderstanding and female weakness as much as in Orpheus’s lack of resolve. This emphasis is unique to this operatic version of the myth and hints at the traditions of popular drama in which a scolding, suspicious or scheming wife drives the plot at a time when women had little actual power within a marriage. Eurydice’s complaint of neglect and insistence that Orpheus turns to her was a common feature of eighteenth-century operatic interpretations, (see Orpheus and Eurydice: A Grand serious Opera, translated from the Italian,1792). However, with the true eighteenth-century preference for happy endings, Gluck’s gods take pity on Orpheus in his grief and restore the couple to each other to bear witness to the power of love.
Offenbach‘s offering is more menacing and shows Eurydice as the victim of an abduction by Pluto, after suffering the stillbirth of her child. The manipulation of mortals by selfish, spiteful and uncaring gods descends into a riotous parody of Parisian decadence as Jupiter, disguised as a fly, attempts to rape and claim Eurydice for himself. Eurydice is imprisoned in a seedy room with a drunken old man in a raincoat as her keeper. Later, dressed as a Bacchante, she leads the intoxicated gods in a wild can-can, the dance which Offenbach popularised in this opera. Though the gods recognise the genuine love between Orpheus and Eurydice, the final condition imposed on their journey out of Hell is undermined by Jupiter’s manipulation and an explosion that distracts Orpheus, thus propelling Eurydice to her doom. Her story echoes nineteenth-century novels about vulnerable or ‘fallen’ women and the Parisian underworld which consumed them. This opera gives Eurydice outrage and fighting spirit; her backstory is told, but ultimately her fate is unavoidable. Bacchus ‘buys’ her from Jupiter, marking the fact that she must sink into helpless depravity. It is all together a tale of callous exploitation and unlike Gluck, Offenbach saw no need to provide a happy ending.
ENO’s two twentieth-century operas (those by Birtwhistle and Philip Glass) return to the myth as a cycle. Birtwhistle’s characters are capable of multiple simultaneous realities. Orpheus and Eurydice appear on stage in three manifestations: man/woman; myth; hero. Their wedding day is filled with omens which play out through parallel scenes. Vignettes described as ‘Passing Clouds’ intersperse the plot with ‘dumb shows’ related to myths of birth, death and metamorphosis, those of Dionysus and Adonis, the nymph Dryope and King Pentheus. Ultimately, Orpheus joins Eurydice by freeing himself from his ‘earthly chains’ and as the programme concludes: ‘The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice’s love lives on. [They] form a new language, a new species, a new way of life. Orpheus the man finally sleeps in peace, free of memory’. Birtwhistle’s cerebral vision of the myth renders it almost unproducible. Glass based his opera on Jean Cocteau’s films Orphée (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960) and viewing these films first would help an audience to make sense of his opera, which references them throughout. Cocteau was concerned with the life and immortality of the poet, and saw all art as ‘autobiographical and the totality of an oeuvre is nothing less than a life itself’. Glass was fascinated by the bohemian Paris of Cocteau’s art and the weaving of the Orpheus and Narcissus myth together into a narrative about creativity and obsessive solipsism. As a result, Eurydice has less agency in the opera and her marriage is dysfunctional. She walks among the shades before Orpheus appears, among the fantasy figures invented by Cocteau.
Women writers have claimed Eurydice as their own, for example Carol Ann Duffy, whose wonderful interpretation of Eurydice’s thoughts on Orpheus paint an alternative picture of loss and individual will:
Like it or not,
I must follow him back to our life –
Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife –
to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes.
Octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
elegies, limericks, villanelles,
histories, myths… (from ‘Eurydice’ in The World’s Wife,1999).
In her renowned version of the myth, the twentieth-century poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) also focuses on Orpheus’ arrogance:
If you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past. (from ‘Eurydice‘, in Collected Poems, 1912-1944).
H. D.’s Eurydice realises that she simply reflects Orpheus’s ego, rather like Cocteau’s all-embracing poetic self-love. Women writers seem more alert to the realities of husband/wife relationships underlying the myth, the expectations and disappointments, the rethinking and accommodation which must be made to human nature. Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 play Eurydice is about regret, memory and lack of communication. Eurydice tells her father whom she meets in the underworld that Orpheus is only concerned about his music: ‘Inside his head there is always something more beautiful,’ she tells him. Victorian poets usually dwelt on the love story, but few have explored the part of Orpheus’ story which hints at pederasty. Albrecht Dürer’s 1494 pen drawing depicts maenads killing Orpheus, ostensibly for rejecting them after his return alone from the underworld, but a small child can be seen running from the scene (see below).
Adjustment to loss is an inevitable part of human life. The delicate balance between self-love and sacrifice, self-respect and empathy, which are woven into a partnership are intensely private but also part of universal experience and subject to judgement and social censure. Early myths imagined Eurydice simply as Orpheus’ lost companion. Unlike Persephone, she was unable to move between the upper and underworld, and was subject to the machinations of the gods and efforts of a flawed husband to decide her fate. But her story has received attention from women writers, and she is among other mythical women who have been given an alternative voice, one that is extremely relevant and provocative for our times.
About Miriam Al Jamil
Miriam Al Jamil has a B.Ed. in English and Education from Wolfson College, Cambridge, and MAs from The University of Kent, Canterbury, and King’s College, London. She is now researching towards a PhD at Birkbeck College, London. Her current research is on women’s engagement with classical sculpture in the eighteenth century, a subject which was inspired by her earlier work on the Townley collection of Grand Tour sculpture at the British Museum. Miriam has given conference papers at BSECS Oxford, King’s College, London, the British Museum and the V&A. She is part of the Burney Society UK, the Johnson Society of London and is a key member of The Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837; she regularly gives talks, papers and chairs panels for all three academic groups. She has contributed a chapter to Antiquity and Enlightenment, a forthcoming Brill Publication, regularly writes reviews for London Student, Lucy Writers and is fine arts review editor for BSECS Criticks online. She can be contacted on email@example.com or via twitter @MiriamJamil
This feature was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
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Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.