The most riveting moment in the wildly successful folk opera Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell is Hades’ song “Why We Build the Wall.” In Greek myths, Hades is the god who rules souls in the Underworld. In Mitchell’s play, Hades is a factory owner, tyrant, or some combination thereof; he presides over workers who can never leave his realm, Hadestown, once they enter. As performed by Patrick Page whose bass baritone voice is so deep it makes one dream of death, Hades nearly convinces the audience, even as he horrifies them (or at least this viewer), that his food and security may count for more than Orpheus’ songs celebrating love and hope. Orpheus’ lover, Eurydice, will have to choose between these two men. Shivering and hungry, she eventually chooses the security that Hades offers. When she departs to sign a contract allowing her to work in Hadestown, it remains unclear whether Hades uses rape or reason to convince her to accept his terms: work and food means permanent internment.
In classical myths, a snake, that phallic creature par excellence, bites Eurydice as she is trying to escape Aristaeus, a cowherd trying to rape her. The snake’s bite consigns her to the Underworld, where Orpheus will venture to save her. Persephone was once taken by Hades to the Underworld, where she ate the pomegranate seeds he offered. Because the pomegranate signified fertility in the ancient Mediterranean—its seeds stand for children or semen—Persephone’s eating (did she choose or was she forced? does it matter?) amounts to her concession: she is bound to be Hades’ wife, and the vast number of souls she oversees will suffice for children. Persephone, however, is allowed to leave Hades during springtime. Eurydice is not so lucky. Hadestown draws out the similarities between these two females: neither secures her safety; neither can free herself from Hades’ charisma or control.
As Eurydice travels to Hadestown, the song “Why we build the wall” rocks the theater. Hades asks smugly—smugly because like all despots he knows the desperation of his people and the answer he will elicit— “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?” A chorus of three females, called Cereberus after the three-headed dog that guards the Underworld, answers, “We build the wall to keep us free.” The call and response continues. “How does the wall keep us free, my children, my children?” The chorus answers, “The wall keeps out the enemy. Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty.” “What do we have that they should want?” “We have a wall to work upon, we have work and they none.” Hades’ offer of safety, work, and food appears to be irresistible. His deep baritone voice promises a floor capable of supporting all fears even as his walls create a prison that destroys all freedom and hope. Eurydice and Persephone join the chorus.
The significance of “Why We Build the Wall” for Americans, many of whom have cast their vote for now President-elect Trump, who promised to build a wall between the States and Mexico, is unmistakable. The abbreviated video of the song on the Hadestown’s website uses news clips to draw parallels between the song and political realities of America 2016. This song about walls, however, was written ten years ago, when, only a few years earlier, Doris Lessing (1919–2013), poet, essayist, and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote about the dangers of wall building in her short story “The Reason For It,” published in The Grandmothers (2003). Lessing describes how a leader DeRod causes the collapse of his once peaceful and wealthy kingdom because he does not understand its institutions and the values they sustained. His second wife “a tall striking woman, obviously a Barbarian [sic]” and the children of his two wives who counsel him, buoyed by DeRod’s ignorance and indifference, undo and destroy what they did not understand or appreciate. When food shortages are caused by the conscription of farmers and herdsmen forced to build a wall to keep out Barbarians, as they are called in the story, Lessing writes, “This was the moment of evident, apparently irreversible, change, when DeRod decided to build his wall. After that, the falling off was swift and in every possible way.”
Walls have a funny way of destroying those who build them: they make their builders invisible and hence dead to the world and people on the other side. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” published in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, captures the death-dealing separation that walls between neighbors create. Frost’s speaker contemplates why he and his neighbor continue to repair their wall.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
I read this poem as a child long before I shared a stone wall, homegrown vegetables, and friendship with neighbors—the best one could imagine or hope for—in New England. The sentiment of Frost’s poem made sense to me before and after I migrated there. Hadestown was last performed in July 2016 at the New York Theater Workshop. In ancient myth and Mitchell’s folk opera, Orpheus doesn’t manage to save Eurydice. Even so, I like to imagine that you can hear her and Persephone leading a loud chorus of mostly women singing over Hades’ deep tones and false promises: “something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.” I like to imagine the ways that love, Frost’s well-chosen word, still trumps hate.