I... actually kind of like this meme.
We all know the Orpheus myth. O. and E. are deeply in love and about to be married, and it's wonderful. Then, alas, she gets bitten by a deadly snake and hustled down to the underworld. O. mourns. O. resolves to go find her. O. travels to the underworld. The darkness closes in around him. The cold seeps into his heart. But he sings, and pleads. His music resonates in the otherworldly space and he wins a reprieve from Hades. He leaves with E. and with a command: don't look at her. They journey towards the surface. Time passes; who knows how much. And at some point, something transpires and twists inside his heart and he turns around - to lose her for ever.
And it's that whole "human condition" thing, right? Why do we do the one thing we shouldn't do? Everybody has a different answer for why Orpheus looks back, and that's as it should be.
But the one thing we know for sure is what this meme gets one hundred percent right: at a certain point, for good or for ill, seeing Eurydice, herself, complete, becomes more important than the mission. Even though the mission is to save her. And I guess I kinda get that.
The thing is, the rest of us are thinking about the mission. Orpheus is thinking about her. Because he's the only one of us who really knows her.
We don't know who Eurydice is - not in any of the ways that matter. We don't know what she's like; we only know a tiny part of her story.
Backing up a little: I'm talking about all of this because I'm in the midst of a really wonderful Boston Early Music Festival project that centers in on the Orpheus myth. Philippe Jaroussky (as Orpheus) and Amanda Forsythe (as Eurydice) sing together in an incredible pastiche of three of the early operas centering around the story - by Monteverdi, Rossi, and Sartori. Using material from each, they weave the story together; but here's a cool catch. Eurydice doesn't necessarily have a huge role in any of them (she's the damsel to be rescued, after all; it's particularly crazy in Monteverdi where she sings one response and then dies offstage) BUT when you string all three together, you can actually piece together a pretty great role for her (which Amanda is, naturally, knocking out of the park all the way into the next country.)
And once you see a real, active, Eurydice singing in front of you for a lot of the show, the question of "Who is she?" tends to bubble back up. So, I did an experiment. I asked whoever I was around a simple question.
"How do you think Orpheus and Eurydice first met?"
The answers were interesting.
There were a lot of variations on "Well, Orpheus was playing and Eurydice heard him and just fell in love with him right away."
There were a few folks who said "Maybe Orpheus was playing and Eurydice was dancing." I'm kind of into this idea of Eurydice as dancer/interpreter. Some folks thought she could be a singer.
Really, pretty much no one thought she was an instrumentalist herself, which I get, but also seems weird. Musicians do have a distressing habit of falling for each other. But maybe we all just shy away from the inherent awkwardness of Eurydice playing an instrument when she's literally marrying Orpheus. In a way, it's trickier to give her some musical agency than to give her none.
And yet, she's gotta have some. Some sensitivity, some tenderness, at the very least some ability to listen with intent and feeling. Eurydice as an active listener; someone who brings life to music; I played with that idea for a while.
You know when things got interesting, though? When I began chatting with two younger women about this. The two musicians' daughters on the tour were the ones who were willing to get the wildest, right off the bat.
"Maybe they were childhood friends, but then one left for 5 years... so that when they saw each other again they fell right in love."
"And since Orpheus says he sang sadly in the woods, it must have been..."
"Eurydice! Maybe she went to Egypt!"
"Maybe while she was in Egypt, she helped build the pyramids!"
"Maybe she brought some architecture tips from Greece!"
"Maybe she stayed there for 5 years and because she was so important to the Egyptians, she needed to leave part of herself there... and so she had a child that stayed in Egypt... but afterwards she felt incomplete without it... which is why she tricked Orpheus into looking back so that she would actually stay in the underworld"
Now that is some intense fan fiction I can get behind.
We'll never know Eurydice. And perhaps that's fine; it allows every potential self of hers to bloom with equal vigor. It keeps the door open. And not knowing her, it also keeps the mystery of why Orpheus looked back alive. Who was he looking at? What would cause him to turn away from his task, towards ultimate despair for them both?
One way or another, their story ends when he sees her face.
So I hope - for both their sakes - that that one look holds a whole universe inside it.
(Come see this show if you're able; it's just gorgeous beyond belief!)
All my best,