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"Why We Build the Wall": Hadestown in Trump's America

Claire Catenaccio

Duke University

Hadestown, a new stage musical opening on Broadway in 2019, sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in post-apocalyptic Depression-era New Orleans, a far-away half-mythological world with uncanny similarities to today’s America. This paper will focus on one song from the musical – “Why We Build the Wall” – which has taken on political resonance since the election of 2016 and President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Hadestown is currently being redesigned for its Broadway debut, and the artistic team – led by director Rachel Chavkin and designer Rachel Hauck – must make decisions about the most effective way to stage this powerful, provocative song in its new context. Hadestown thus offers scholars of Greek drama a case study of how contemporary theater artists navigate the contentious ideas of border, identity, nationality, and culture, especially when making the transition from a small, independent production to a large-scale, commercially viable Broadway show.  

This paper will feature a video clip of “Why We Build the Wall” from the New York Theater Workshop production, and will also draw on an interview with designer Rachel Hauck about her evolving plans for the set. At the time of this abstract submission, the interview has been scheduled for Fall 2018 (after the show’s summer workshop residency), but not yet conducted. The insights I gain from my discussion with Ms. Hauck will shape the argument I make in this paper. Theater is always urgent in its time: this interview will provide an opportunity to peek behind the curtain as contemporary politics reshape the show.

Hadestown was initially developed by the singer and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006, as a community theater venture that traveled through her native state of Vermont. In 2010 Mitchell released Hadestown as a concept album, featuring vocals by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Greg Brown, and Ani DiFranco. Mitchell then reworked the script for the stage, and a production directed by Rachel Chavkin ran at New York Theater Workshop in 2016. After closing in New York City, the show ran in 2017 in Edmonton, Alberta, in preparation for its Broadway debut; a live album made with the New York cast was released in the spring of 2018. Each incarnation of the project has received numerous accolades and critical acclaim.  

In the New York Theater Workshop production, Orpheus (played by Damon Daunno) is an idealistic drifter with a high, soulful tenor and an acoustic guitar. Eurydice (Nabiyah Be), his beloved, is far more practical. Like so many young people who have come of age since the financial crisis, she worries about security. Eurydice is seduced by the rhetoric of Hades (Patrick Page), a Southern plutocrat with a rumbling bass voice, who rules over a walled company town that offers its inhabitants the protection of the almighty dollar.

At the end of Act I, Eurydice arrives in Hadestown. She joins the ensemble for the song “Why We Build the Wall.” This call-and-response lays out the inverted, ironic logic of the Underworld. Hades asks, “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?” The desperate, damned ensemble answers, “We build the wall to keep us free.” This anthem at once represents the lure of the Hadestown and the limitations that will eventually make Eurydice long to follow Orpheus back to the upper world.

When Anaïs Mitchell wrote these lyrics, in the mid-aughts, the wall around the city of Hades stood for the fear that caused struggling souls, like Eurydice, to choose the safety of death instead of the chaos of life. In interviews, Mitchell has referred to her desire to keep Hadestown firmly on the “metaphorical plain.” Since the production in New York, however, Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico has changed audience reactions to the song. Many have hailed Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” as a prophetic song of protest. Popular responses to the song will shape the ongoing aesthetic and message of the production as it makes its transition to Broadway this coming year. 

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Drama / New World

Session/Paper Number

58.5

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