The Many Masks
of Orpheus
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 10/8/13

In Greek mythology, Orpheus wears many masks. This half-human, half-divine mortal is a poet, singer and musician—his instrument, the lyre—as well as a magician, founder of mystery cults, healer and grief-stricken spouse, who dares follow his dead young wife, Eurydice, into the underworld, hell-bent on reclaiming her. Writers, composers, choreographers and other artists have long found inspiration in ancient accounts of him—a tradition that thrives in the modern era.

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Orpheus and Eurydice  (Greek mythological figures)
to  Sonnets to Orpheus  (Rainer Maria Rilke | poem cycle | 1922)

The best-known of the Orpheus stories is twice tragic. Orpheus, a singer and lyre player whose music is so sublime it tames wild beasts and even moves the trees and rocks to dance, marries the nymph Eurydice; when she is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies, the inconsolable Orpheus descends through a cave into the underworld to implore its rulers, Hades and Persephone, to release his young bride. Moved by Orpheus’s music, they consent—on one condition. They will allow Eurydice to follow him as he climbs to the world of the living, but he must not turn around to check on her progress. He agrees, and all goes well until the moment Orpheus reaches the surface. Unable to resist the impulse, he looks behind him, watching with horror as Eurydice, her arms stretching toward him, is drawn back into the depths.

Humans’ inability to rescue those they love from death is one of many themes in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke composed this two-part cycle of 55 poems in February 1922, three years after the death, at 19, of Wera Ouckama Knoop, a young dancer he knew. He dedicated the collection to her.

Sonnets to Orpheus  (Rainer Maria Rilke | poem cycle | 1922)
to  Jean Cocteau  (1889–1963 | French writer, artist and filmmaker)

For German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) as for the mythmaking Greeks, Orpheus was the archetypal artist—a mortal being whose creations somehow triumph over death, leaving an “inexhaustible trace” (Sonnets to Orpheus, part I, poem 26) that survives their maker. For all the horror of the ancient stories that inspired Rilke—including Orpheus’s murder and dismemberment by frenzied maenads—his Sonnets to Orpheus is a mystically joyous work, one that enjoins its readers to “Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing” (II, 13).

A life-affirming spirit similarly imbues Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus (Orphée), which Cocteau adapted from his 1926 play of the same name (coincidentally, Rilke had been translating the play into German at the time of his death). Set in World War II–scarred Paris, this semisurrealist film takes on the Orpheus myth with more magic than mysticism. Weird, scary things happen, but the movie ends with a waking-from-a-dream reunion between Orphée (played by Cocteau’s longtime lover Jean Marais) and Eurydice (Marie Déa) that seems pulled from the same playbook as The Wizard of Oz.

Tennessee Williams  (1911–1983 | American writer)
to  Jean Cocteau  (1889–1963 | French writer, artist and filmmaker)

An artistic polymath, Jean Cocteau wrote poetry, novels and plays; was an illustrator and designer; and directed 11 movies, a number of which (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, 1946) count as masterpieces of French cinema. The Blood of a Poet (1932), Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960) comprise his Orphic trilogy. Intentionally puzzling, their narratives proceed by a kind of dream logic (only Orpheus hews at all closely to the Greek myth). But all are chockablock with arresting images, and all explore themes of the relation of the artist to his creation, journeys to other worlds and—key to their shared “Orphic” quality—death and resurrection.

The Orpheus myth also repeatedly informed the work of American playwright Tennessee Williams, who coadapted his 1957 play Orpheus Descending for director Sidney Lumet’s film The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando as a modern-day Orpheus of sorts. Brando’s character, Val Xavier, is a guitar- (not lyre-) playing drifter who wanders into a small Southern town where he sets the local womenfolk (played outstandingly by Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward and Maureen Stapleton) ablaze with desire. By film’s end, they’re not the only ones on fire.

Orpheus and Eurydice  (Greek mythological figures)
to  Tennessee Williams  (1911–1983 | American writer)

The Orpheus myth doesn’t end with Eurydice’s disappearance back into the underworld. It concludes with Orpheus’s death, which is especially grisly: The poet-singer is attacked by a group of maenads (female devotees of the wine god Dionysus), who in their ecstatic frenzy rip apart his body. In one version, the maenads murder Orpheus—who has forsaken the love of women after losing Eurydice and instead dallies with young men—because he is immune to their charms.

Acts of sparagmos (Greek for tearing a living creature limb from limb) and omophagy (the eating of the deceased’s raw flesh) seem to have played a role in the ceremonies of Orphic mystery cults. Those violent, macabre rites—along with the ancient identification of Orpheus with homosexuality—furnished material central to the story line of Tennessee Williams’s 1958 play Suddenly, Last Summer and its film adaptation (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, screenplay by Gore Vidal), released the following year. To reveal how those elements figure in Suddenly, Last Summer’s plot would be unfair to those who haven’t seen the flick, which stars Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn in the most over-the-top performance of her career.

Orpheus and Eurydice  (Greek mythological figures)
to  Orpheus in Opera

Orpheus and Eurydice’s saga seems tailor-made for the grand emotions of opera, and indeed composers have been creating operas about the doomed lovers since the form’s inception, around the turn of the 17th century. The earliest opera whose music is extant, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, from 1600, is based on the story, and more than 60 composers—Lully, Telemann, Haydn and Offenbach among them—have set it to music. Enduringly popular examples include Claudio Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus, 1607), widely considered the first operatic masterpiece, and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). Gluck wrote the Orfeo role for renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni; recordings by present-day countertenors such as David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky and Jochen Kowalski approximate the ravishing, vocally transgender effect.

Modern opera composers (e.g., Milhaud, Henze) have likewise found inspiration in Orpheus. The most ambitious, musically and dramatically, of the latter-day retellings is British composer Harrison Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus (1986; libretto by Peter Zinovieff). Other composers and librettists introduced significant changes (Gluck’s opera isn’t the only one to tack on a happy ending), but Birtwistle’s version is unique in its presentation of several Orpheus-myth variants from contradictory ancient sources.

Orpheus in Opera
to  Black Orpheus  (Marcel Camus (dir.) | film | 1959)

After Orpheus is torn to shreds by berserk bacchantes, the Muses pluck his lyre from the carnage and carry it to the heavens, where it becomes the constellation Lyra. Orpheus was beloved by all the Muses (one of them, Calliope, is his mother in some versions of the myth), so it makes sense that not just composers but artists across disciplines—choreographers included—should find their imagination transported by the Orpheus story. In recent years modern-dance choreographers Pina Bausch (1940–2009) and Mark Morris (b. 1956) both created dances set to the music of Christoph Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. They followed in the footsteps, as it were, of George Balanchine (1904–1983), who collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky on 1948’s Orpheus for the New York City Ballet. (The lyre designed by its set and costume designer, Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, remained the company’s insignia for decades.)

Orpheus can also dance to a Latin rhythm: Marcel Camus’s film Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) sets the tragic romance amid the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, with throngs of revelers—and, in a pivotal scene, Orfeu and Eurydice themselves—moving to the beat of Afro-Brazilian samba.

Orpheus and Eurydice  (Greek mythological figures)
to  Black Orpheus  (Marcel Camus (dir.) | film | 1959)

Classical sources give differing accounts of Eurydice’s death—her first death, that is. In one she’s being pursued by a satyr when she steps on the snake that bites her. In another a beekeeper, Aristaeus, is putting the moves on her when she flees, is bitten and dies. And in yet another she is simply outdoors dancing with some naiad girlfriends when she fatally encounters the serpent. All these accounts are sad, but none is as wrenching as the scene of Eurydice’s death in Marcel Camus’s woeful yet irrepressible film Black Orpheus, in which the Orpheus character himself is accidentally responsible for his beloved’s demise.

With Breno Mello as Orfeu, a guitar-strumming, streetwise scamp who falls hard for country girl Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), this Brazilian movie has captivated viewers, and broken their hearts, since its 1959 release. Its soundtrack, featuring bossa nova songs by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, is likewise memorable. A 1999 remake, Orfeu (directed by Carlos Diegues, with additional music by Caetano Veloso), updates the story and intensifies its violence by pitting Orfeu in a contest for Eurydice against a vicious gang lord intent on ruling Rio’s slums.