Once upon a time – back when I was in theatre school – we put on a play about Orpheus and Eurydice. (The story is a part of Greek mythology, and I’m sure wikipedia has all the details.)
In theatre, one of the main activities on the first day of rehearsals, after going around the room and introducing ourselves to the group, is a read-through of the play. We sit around a table (or, more often, several tables pushed together) and all the actors read their parts out loud, with scripts in hand. It always starts a little flat, with actors feeling awkward and self-conscious with all these new people. It’s not intended to be a dramatic reading at all, just an introduction, but by the end of the play there’s usually more acting going on, more emotion in the voices. This is the first time we hear the play, the first time we get a sense of what it will become, of who the characters will be. It brings the text alive for the first time.
For this play about Orpheus and Eurydice, we did the read-through in a classroom, not in a rehearsal hall which is the usual setting. I can’t remember why. This classroom was on the top floor of the school, only just big enough to fit us all in. It was a warm afternoon in early summer, and we could see the dust motes in the sunlight pouring through the windows. We kept the overhead fluorescents off, and the whole thing felt more comfortable, less formal, than our usual read-throughs.
The text of the play was quite stylized, and something about the warm, somnolent feel of the summer afternoon melded with the words to create a thing of beauty. The reading was quiet and understated, but that allowed the tragedy of the story full reign. This interpretation of the myth was grappling with why Eurydice would choose to go back to Hades rather than escape with her lover, Orpheus. The idea was that her father was in Hades, having died when Eurydice was little, and the relationship between them was beautiful and heartbreaking. And that reunion was held up against the anguish of Orpheus at Eurydice’s death on their wedding night and his attempts to get her back.
There were a number of symbolic elements in the play, but in this perfect, nebulous read-through, everything fit. Everything worked. It became one of my favourite plays of all time on that day.
And then the director got hold of it.
The result was awful. Just… awful. None of the symbolic elements worked. The beautiful stylized language became flat and awkward. The character of the father, who I had loved, was pushed to become a hard, nasal, accountant type. It broke my heart.
I wasn’t in that production. I ended up working as crew backstage. I operated the stage left elevator door, and my friend operated the stage right elevator door (the characters entered and exited Hades via elevator), and between cues we sat backstage together in the dark. Half the time we mimed slitting our wrists to the play’s incredibly depressing soundtrack of French accordion music. The rest of the time we talked about how the play should have been done. We both had a LOT of opinions.
I’ve always wanted to see that play done properly. I nearly booked a trip to New York for it, once, but in the end I couldn’t make the dates line up with my work schedule. One day, though.
All of this to explain, really, why I’m writing a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s blog: “I want you to write a story about Hell.”