Essays and Criticism
Orpheus Descending in Terms of the Orpheus and Eurydice Myth
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has fascinated poets, playwrights, and composers from the Renaissance to the modern era. Since a central element of the myth is the power of music, it has not surprisingly been the subject of numerous operas, including a version of Williams's Orpheus Descending, with libretto by J. D. McClatchy and music by Bruce Say lor (1994). Plays such as Eurydice by French dramatist Jean Anouilh, and Orpheus by Jean Cocteau (1926; made into a film by Cocteau in 1950), and films such as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus (1959) are testament to the enduring nature of the myth.
The Orpheus story was not, however, part of Williams's original concept of the play, which initially emerged as Battle of Angels. In this play, one of Williams's earliest, Val Xavier was not a singer but a writer, and therefore no Orpheus. But when the play failed so miserably in 1940, Williams refused to abandon it. Over the course of seventeen years, he rewrote it five times until it reemerged as Orpheus Descending in 1957. Williams's typescripts show that the new title did not appear until 1953, and it is clear that the playwright was intrigued by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
Orpheus was a minstrel, the son of the god Apollo. He learned to play the lyre with such beauty that he could charm wild animals, and even trees and stones. The trees would uproot themselves and move, just to be nearer to his music. Orpheus' s story is told most fully in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice, but on the very day of their wedding, Eurydice was bitten by a snake in a field and died. Orpheus mourned her but was determined to bring her back from Hades. Descending into the underworld, he reached Pluto and Persephone, the shadowy realm's king and queen, and appealed to them, accompanying his words with the music of his lyre. As he made his plea, the ghosts were in tears and everything else in Hades stood still. Moved, Pluto and Persephone granted Orpheus his request to take Eurydice back with him to the world of the living. There was only one condition, which was that Orpheus should not look back at her until they were safely home. As he led his wife back almost to the surface of the earth, Orpheus became afraid that Eurydice's strength was failing, and he also desired to see her. So he looked back. At that point, Eurydice faded away, dying for a second time, and was lost to Orpheus forever.
Williams's interest in the myth is apparent from the poem he wrote called "Orpheus Descending,’’ which was published in his collection of poems In the Winter of Cities (1956). In this poem, Orpheus's attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld is doomed to failure:
for you must learn, even you, what we have learned,
that some things are marked by their nature to be not
but only longed for and sought for a while and
And so it is that Val Xavier must fail. He is Williams's modern-day Orpheus who descends to the Hades of a small southern town where Lady Torrance, the equivalent of Eurydice, is enduring a living death. Although the parallels with the myth should not be pushed too far (Lady Torrance, for example, is a highly emotional and spirited woman, far removed from the passive Eurydice of the legend), they do explain the significant role ascribed in the play to music. As in Shakespeare's plays, music often has significance beyond its immediate context, as a symbol of harmony. It is also used as an indication of the kind of "lyric space'' (a term used by Jack E. Wallace in his essay "The Image of Theater in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending") in which deep and sincere feelings can be expressed, and life reaches upwards to a fleeting glimpse of freedom and transcendence. Furthermore, music is a symbol of purity, as Val's comment to Lady about his guitar makes clear: "It washes me clean like water when anything unclean has touched me." The power of music is also conveyed when Val explains to Lady about the autographs of musicians on his guitar. He...
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