A Modern Day Eurydice
Don’t Look by Gina Doherty is a play inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Eurydice. The popular tale, in a nutshell, tells how Orpheus, an extremely gifted young musician, woos and marries a nymph named Eurydice. The two are inseparable, until one day Eurydice dies from a snakebite and descends into the underworld. Determined to get her back, Orpheus uses his music to charm Hades, the god of the underworld, into giving him one chance to free Eurydice, on the grounds that Orpheus may not look at his wife as he leads her back into the world of the living. The two navigate the caverns of the underworld together, and they are almost free, until in one careless moment Orpheus glances back at his wife. The terms of the agreement broken, Eurydice is sealed back into the underworld, and Orpheus returns to living world alone, where he never loves again. (In some versions he is also murdered by the maenads, the raving female followers of Dionysus who resented his rejection of other women.)
Over the years, Orpheus and Eurydice’s tragic story has been reimagined across numerous media, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 A.D.) to the poetry of H.D. (“Eurydice”), to even the surrealist or science fiction work of Jean Cocteau (The Orphic Trilogy) or Phillip K. Dick (Orpheus with Clay Feet, 1964). On stage, Pina Bausch has her 1975 dance Overture to Orpheus and Eurydice (set to the score of William Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice) and Sarah Ruhl has her popular 2004 play Eurydice (recently remounted in Chicago by Boho Theatre). And the list goes on.
So why does this story still speak to audiences after thousands of years and so many retellings? I think it has to do with how the story exists at an intersection between a few different popular romantic tropes. Orpheus and Eurydice are one of civilization’s first doomed star-crossed lovers, and we see their tradition echoed in couples from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic’s Jack and Rose. Commenting on that particular film in his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek observes that in such narratives, the death of one (or both) of the lovers is actually necessary to preserve the possibility of their love; were these couples’ relationships allowed to progress, the realities of their inherent incompatibility—their backgrounds, their families, their class—would eventually catch up to them and tear them apart. By dying at the height of their love, however, it allows a hope to remain that perhaps they could’ve beaten the odds and maintained their perfect love forever. The Eurydice story itself isn’t that melodramatic, but it does embody this idea of the perfect relationship that, by being cut short, is actually preserved in its honeymoon perfection, rather than being subjected to the realistic challenges of maintaining a relationship over a long period of time. And Don’t Look experiments with this structure by adding those elements we observe in other doomed couples—the contrasting personalities, the threat of being from different worlds—to further ask the question of whether perfect love is sustainable or not among the complexities of modern life.
The Eurydice myth also speaks to the ubiquitous trope of “the one that got away”—visible in everything from The Great Gatsby to Citizen Kane to How I Met Your Mother (and a vast amount of popular music). In these scenarios, the protagonist enjoys a relationship (or perhaps only a brief encounter) with a seemingly perfect partner, only to have life and circumstance eventually draw the couple apart. Alone, and unable to recreate that connection with anyone else, the character is left with the weight of reflecting on the relationship that could’ve been, or even the conundrum of whether or not what they experienced was really perfect love or not. I would also argue that this is a subcategory of the greater and even more universal theme of the unrealized dream, like what we see in Death of a Salesman or Of Mice and Men—which helps explain why Orpheus’s plight can be felt so universally by so many audiences. While we feel Orpheus’s pain at losing his wife, the myth isn’t just about how death can interrupt love—it’s about how a few pivotal decisions or moments of weakness can deprive someone of their greatest desires. Not everyone has a romantic “one that got away,” but almost everyone has been faced with the reality of how fragile the things they value in life really are, and feel the lasting pain of at least one crucial mistake that they wish they go could back to and do over.
Speaking of do-overs, lastly, Orpheus and Eurydice also resonate with one of our other deepest, universal longings—the desire to reconnect with loved ones who have died. According the Pew Research Center, most U.S. adults believe in some form of afterlife (72%). The Abrahamic faiths all include at least some denominations that believe in an afterlife, Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and Baha’is believe death is followed by a spiritual journey of the soul towards God. In philosophy, some, like process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that there should be a distinction between a subjective afterlife and an objective afterlife, the reality of our experiences and decisions continuing to have an active relationship to the living even if we are not subjectively conscious of them following our death. And even those without any affiliation have considerable populations of afterlife believers, including some who aren’t otherwise interested in religious questions. In other words, most people think death is not the final frontier, and carry at least some hope that they will be reunited with those they have lost in some form, and the Eurydice story offers a faint glimpse of what such a reunion may feel like. And for those who don’t believe, it still offers a cathartic fantasy and the opportunity to reflect on what such a reunion may be like. And in either case, reunions with the dead are still something that remain impossible in life as we know it, no matter how much we may want death not to be quite the absolute that it is. Fiction is filled with unrealized aspirations—lost loves, lost fortunes, O’Neill-eque pipe dreams that never quite come true. But of all our unrealized aspirations, the inability to counter death is the ultimate dream deferred.