Her Father, and Eurydice

by Abigail Akavia

Orpheus and Eurydice, by Auguste Rodin
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When you opened the door to the apartment where I grew up, you could see all the way to the end of the living room and the large window that spanned its width, an entryway-less structure typical of apartment buildings in Tel Aviv. Our living room was particularly long, though, so that my father’s desk, which sat close to the window but facing the middle of the room, felt far enough away to be considered its own space, set apart from the bustle of a three-kids household that was also my mother’s in-home clinic. Add to the physical distance my father’s ability to immerse himself in whatever he was reading, ignoring anything that was not a direct address to him (one of those universal dad superpowers, my mothering self now knows), and he was almost completely cordoned off from the rest of us when he was sitting at his desk, as if behind a door ajar.

Even when his reading lamp was the only light on in the big room, it was possible to consider his almost immobile figure as not quite there. When my first boyfriend stepped into the apartment for the first time, however, he most definitely recognized my father’s dimly-lit, looming professor-like presence at the edge of the room. He was what you would call “a good kid”—I, in hindsight, have taken to defining him, even at 19, as a mensch—and he took the prospective meeting with my dad seriously. My father, for his part, preferred to act as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. He put down his glasses, looked up to say a short hello, and then resumed his reading, a combination of simply holding on to his business-as-usual seat at his desk, deliberately extending the gift of privacy to his late-bloomer daughter, and a possibly unconscious urge to avoid the awkwardness of the encounter.

Maybe he also knew, in a parental sixth-sense which I used to think only my mother had but of which I can now also imagine a paternal version, that this very nice guy wasn’t the love of my life—that he was not going to sweep me away, there was really nothing to worry about. So there was no menacing handshake, no steely look into the young man’s eyes to force him to own up to his mythically filthy intentions and metaphorical abduction of my father’s youngest, no once-over to assess his prospective ability to provide for me. In short, no forced and embarrassing macho face-off. 

(Besides, if there was anyone to win over, it was my mother. That was surely the case with the man I eventually married, but that is a topic for another essay, perhaps).

I have been thinking of my father’s un-dad-like encounter with his daughter’s “suitor” ever since I was involved in a theatrical production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Ruhl’s play is a retelling of the well-known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but from Eurydice’s perspective. We get to see the young couple before they are married, the events that lead to Eurydice’s death, and—for most of the play—what happens to her in the underworld. In Ruhl’s version, Eurydice reconnects with her long dead father. The unnamed man, who has been in the underworld for a while, has found a way to undo the effects of the river Lethe. Forgetfulness, in Ruhl’s surreal afterlife, is not only a complete identity erasure, but a linguistic undoing: language needs to be relearned. When Eurydice arrives in the underworld, she finds she is voiceless. She is greeted by a “Chorus of Stones,” a particularly unsympathetic trio of emotionally ossified inhabitants of the land of the dead. Addressing the audience in a rare break of the fourth wall in this play, the Stones explain that Eurydice “doesn’t speak your language anymore” and urge the audience to “listen to her the way you would listen to your own daughter if she died too young and tried to speak to you across long distances.” From the moment Eurydice enters the underworld it becomes clear (if it wasn’t from the first scenes, or from the mere choice of myth) that the play is concerned with grief, with our ability to maintain a relationship with our loved ones after they have passed—our lending an ear to their voices as they keep walking with us through life. At the same time, it is a coming-of-age story of a young woman as she finds her own “voice.” 

Eurydice gradually reconnects with her father—at first, she can’t even parse the words “Your Father”—first by literally learning to speak with him again, learning to interpret the sounds coming out of his mouth as having referential content within a particular linguistic system. When she first hears her own name, she thinks it sounds like “a strange fruit.” Later, it is implied that he reminds her of the names of her mother and siblings, but this remains a privileged knowledge between them, not shared with the audience. Ruhl presents us with the arbitrariness of linguistic signs not in order to make a philosophical point on about how our minds engage with the world, but to make a psychological point: within intimate relationships, everything we say is like a secret language. The way we call each other is just between us. When one side of such a secret communication pact passes away, this language threatens to become obsolete from disuse. And the entire sense of the world that was derived from this relationship begins to crumble.

The Father does not only reconstruct a linguistic world for Eurydice. He also literally builds a room out of string for her, indulging her naive notion that she is on vacation, and thereby transgressing another underworld rule (names, crying, and rooms “are not allowed!”, as The Stones helpfully remind us). This gesture is both generous and selfish—not in a bad sense, but simply meaning that it fills him to do so, it feeds his ego and does not deplete it. It is both a creation of a space for her to be, and for her to be close to him, in that never-ending parental dialectic of protection and freedom-giving. An especially tender moment of parenting came about in one of the shows in our run, entirely by accident. Eurydice’s suitcase broke apart at the hinge. During intermission, it was drilled back shut, but as the lights went up on the second half of the show, the Father was using his pocket knife as a screwdriver, as if fixing his daughter’s broken suitcase. The “magic of theater” moment encapsulated precisely what the Father is in this play: the person who fixes things for you, who makes things right.

Ruhl dedicated the play to her father, who passed away when she was in college, and a sense of unresolved loss pulses through it. Eurydice enacts the familiar fantasy of “if only we had a little more time”: in the underworld, the daughter gets a chance to hear stories of her father’s childhood. She, for her part, awkwardly overshares about her relationship with her lover, Orpheus. After regaining shared speech, they move on to re-learning how to read and write. Until Orpheus figures out how to get past the gates of hell to fetch his wife back, the father and daughter are suspended in an idyllic, limitless time of leisure, reading Shakespeare together and reminiscing about family Christmases. The play gets somewhat uncomfortable precisely when Orpheus arrives, for he is portrayed as an intruder to the father-daughter bliss. The string-room-building, suitcase-fixing father inevitably must give his daughter away, not before voicing his doubts whether Orpheus is man enough: “His shoulders aren’t very broad. Can he take care of you?”. Early in the play, we heard Eurydice announce that “a wedding is for a father and a daughter. They stop being married to each other on that day.” Ultimately, the play suggests that Eurydice actively chooses to stay in the underworld: it seems reasonable to deduce that she deliberately sets Orpheus up to turn his head towards her, so that she can be sent back. The fatherly figure is too good to leave. Her choice of father over lover, though, entails an eternal infantilization. Eurydice doesn’t quite come of age in this story.

Setting a father and a daughter in the underworld, walking arm in arm down an imaginary isle as wedding music plays, Ruhl dramatizes an ingredient that remains latent in the early versions of Eurydice’s story, but which is a recurring, explicit theme in ancient Greek myth: the parallel, for young women, between marriage and death. Think of Antigone, intended wife of Haemon, being buried alive a virgin, becoming “Hades’ bride”. Or Iphigenia, lured to Aulis under the pretense of marriage to Achilles and then sacrificed at the altar. Or the paradigmatic dying-bride par excellence, Persephone. When Hades abducts her, she is still a virgin innocently picking flowers with her girlfriends. Once she eats of the pomegranate seeds in the underworld, her marriage to Hades is consummated, and she can never go back to how things were before. Even though the myth of Persephone is an etiological account of the seasons, and famously ends with a compromise with her mother, fertility-goddess Demeter—so that Persephone will spend half of the year up on earth (giving us spring and summer), and the other, cold half of the year in the underworld—in ancient sources Persephone is never depicted as absent from the underworld. In Ruhl’s version, however, she is conspicuously missing. Eurydice supplants her as Hades’ choice bride. Cosmically-mythologically speaking, one could say that the whole story was Hades’ ruse to get Eurydice to stay: “we make it real nice here, so people want to stick around.” But it is clear that what draws Eurydice is the same wish that Persephone, as a goddess, is (partially) granted: never to leave your parents, and that they never leave you. Painful as it is to admit it, it doesn’t get much more juvenile than that.