Monday, October 7, 2013

FOREVER WALTZ and the Fascination with Orpheus and Eurydice

The Forever Waltz, the Glyn Maxwell play directed by Leah Cassella that opened last week in ISU's Centennial West 207, is inspired by a Greek myth. Note that it is inspired by, and not a direct retelling of, the classic story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus is a wonderfully talented musician, so skilled that his music enchanted gods, people and animals alike. He loves a woman named Eurydice, but she dies on their wedding day. Because of the beauty of the songs he creates after her death, Orpheus is allowed to travel to the Underworld to get her back. He can bring Eurydice back to the world of the living only if he walks ahead of her all the way and does not turn back to see her. He must trust that she is there, following him, and never look back, or she will return to Hades forever.

Of course, he looks back at the last moment and loses his Eurydice forever.

There is something about that myth that has inspired all sorts of artists, and it's intriguing to look at the different paths their work takes. "Sir Orfeo," a Middle English poem from around the 13th century, mixes Orpheus with Celtic folklore and fairy stories, while Christoph Willibald Gluck's 18th century opera Orfeo ed Euridice starts after she's dead and then offers a happy ending with another chance at life for "Euridice," as she's spelled for Gluck.

Composer Harrison Birtwistle has continued to come back to Orpheus and Eurydice in his work, with The Mask of Orpheus, a free-form opera with alternate plot lines first staged in 1986, The Second Mrs. Kong in 1994, adding King Kong and Vermeer to the mythological mix, and The Corridor, all about the fateful journey back from the Underworld, in 2009.

The most famous modern take on the story may be Marcel Camus' 1959 film Black Orpheus, based on the Brazilian play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes. Orpheus is now Orfeu, a trolley driver who meets a beautiful passenger during Carnaval in Rio, with the tragic love story played to a samba beat.

There's also a sonnet sequence by Rainer Maria Rilke, an album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds called Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Neil Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman, Roberta Gellis's romance novel Enchanted Fire that turns Eurydice into a sorceress; Salmon Rushdie's alt-reality novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, about the romance and careers of pop stars Vina and Ormus, and a rock opera simply called Orpheus and Eurydice by Russian composer Alexander Zhurbin.

And then there are the stage versions... Jean Anouilh wrote his Eurydice during World War II, and that wartime cynicism combined with dark fantasy and sexual overtones gives the story a different flavor; Tennessee Williams turns Orpheus into a wild young man named Val who plays guitar and wreaks havoc in a Southern dry goods store in Orpheus Descending; Naomi Iizuka includes the myth in Polaroid Stories, her 1997 version of Ovid's Metamorphoses transmogrified into an urban landscape of street kids, violence and drugs, with Orpheus as an abusive boyfriend who threatens to go to hell and back to keep Eurydice by his side; Mary Zimmerman uses it as one of the stories in her own 2002 Metamorphoses, focusing on the instant Orpheus turns back, repeating it again and again as one heartrending, beautifully choreographed moment in time; and Sarah Ruhl focuses on Eurydice and what she feels and wants, showing her time in the Underworld, where she has found her father and may just want to stay in her 2003 play simply called Eurydice.

Why is this myth catnip for composers, authors, filmmakers and playwrights? For some, it's about the cracks in the romantic ideal, the idea that deathless love may be foiled by death after all. For others, it's about the depths of passion, trust and betrayal that accompany love. Or maybe it's simply the ambiguity in the Greek myth, as different artists ponder the masculine and the feminine and the power dynamics of love and sex in different places among different classes and societies.

To see Glyn Maxwell's own unique version of Orpheus and Eurydice, you can find The Forever Waltz at CW 207 this Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday the 12th. For ISU, actors Martin Hanna and Lizzy Haberstroh appear as Mobile and Evie, accompanied by a mysterious guitar-playing guide called Watts, played by Eddie Curley. For tickets, click here for Ticketmaster, or call 309-438-2535 between 11 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday or one hour before performances to reach the ISU CPA box office.

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