Working on a play about Eurydice, we found it helpful to know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as a bit about the artistic history of retelling Eurydice’s story to make it her own.
We chose to explore the story of Eurydice because we wanted to explore issues of information and communication. We had already decided to work with found text, a medium that tends to produce fractured language. Found text inherently acknowledges the dissonance between the source text and the resulting script and, in doing so, results in a text that is aware of its ability or failure to communicate. And what better story to use to explore (mis)-meaning and (mis)-communication than that of Eurydice?
The thing is, the story of Eurydice became a story about communication and voice vs. voicelessness long before we started working on it. It was when artists started to re-envision Eurydice’s story to her a full voice of her own that this became a myth about more than love and music and almost doing the impossible. When Eurydice spoke, it became a story about storytelling itself – a story about womanhood, agency, information, and empowerment. It was the perfect story for us to explore found text and information because it already had a rich history of interpretation and self-reflection.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes was one of the first retellings of this myth that I encountered. I remember reading this poem and feeling a certain relief that, for once, the way Eurydice melted did not seem simply cosmically unfair.
But there is a lot more to what Rilke writes, and a lot more to the conversation.
The next versions of Eurydice’s story that I encountered was that of Jorie Grahm’s poem Orpheus and Eurydice. Now might be a good time to admit that I tried to write a paper about this poem in undergrad, but was not terribly successful. That said, I started that paper because I love this poem, even if I cannot articulate what it is I like about it or what it says.
I know that I love the rhythm of this poem. I love the way the language reflects on itself and then has to struggle to hold itself together, but continues to push meaning forward (even if I can’t tell you what it means). I know that I love that I don’t have to be able to tell you what is going on in the poem to love it.
It was falling in love with this poem that made me want to search for other versions, to see how else this conversation had developed. And there is plenty more.
One thing we found is that much of the conversation that takes place through re-envisioning Eurydice’s story is driven by women who, when looking at it, see a reflection of a history of denying women legitimate agency. There is a full tradition now of women facing that history by giving Eurydice a voice of her own.
Margaret Attwood’s Orpheus and Eurydice Cycle participates in that conversation.
We also came across Carol Anne Duffy’s Eurydice.
(If you look at the comments section, you will find an illustration of the dangers of teaching a retelling of any story like Eurydice’s without discussing prior versions that it is responding to. It was seeing comments like these that made me take my mother seriously when she mentioned that we might want to make sure the audience had a refresher of the story before diving into the play. Hello program notes!)
I have spent the least time with this one, but found it while using the internet and search engines to get started on this project. (Yes, I sent out an email to everyone working on the project at the time titled “4 am web research.”) So I’ll throw in H.D.’s Eurydice as well.
Themes? Discovering and then claiming what belongs to a self, the idea of the gaze, control of history – these poems gave Eurydice a rich history and a strength long before we got to her. Eurydice was already the story of reclaiming a voice, of actively examining history, of self-reflection.
What we wanted to do, though, was, like so many artists before us, let Eurydice find a voice of her own, but not with her own language. We wanted to capitalize on the fact that, at the heart of this conversation is the fact that Eurydice lives inside of other people’s language. She exists in stories that people tell about Orpheus, stories that do not give her any agency. The issue that fascinates people when they look at this story is that the story of Eurydice seems to explore the power that language has to shape culture and history.
So if Eurydice exits in the language of those who tell her story, what happens if, when she tries to tell her own story, she cannot generate her own language but must use pre-formed phrases from her world, a world that is made of the same language that she is? To a certain extent, this is the same issue we face every day, though perhaps more extreme.
In exploring this language-world with Eurydice, the ways it can and also cannot express, we get a chance to explore our own world. We explore the way language does and does not define us, does and does not shape the way we talk about the things that matter to us, does and does not interpret the world for us. We have Eurydice to thank for this. And the history of artists who made Eurydice the powerful figure she is.
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