Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting in Hadestown

As an artist and a scholar, I am excited when I see the writing lexicon paralleled in creative works. Recently, I noted the use of orientation techniques in the musical Hadestown, a retelling of the myths of Persephone, Hades, Orpheus, and Eurydice scheduled to hit Broadway this spring. The narrator of Hadestown introduces the audience to the musical’s world just as good writers orient their readers: by providing foundational information and defining key terms.

The narrator, Hermes, orients the audience by providing information necessary to understanding the play. Hermes establishes three essential facts in his first sung lines: 1) the road to hell is a railroad line, 2) times are hard, and 3) the audience is entering “a world of gods and men.” These facts are crucial to understanding everything else from that point on, so it makes sense that this information appears first, before the details of the plot are introduced. Similarly, a writer must establish foundational information regarding the world of the scholarship before introducing the specifics of the paper.

Hermes then introduces the audience to key characters, identifying them and briefly explaining their roles in the story. For example, Hermes introduces himself as “a man with feathers on his feet who would help you to your final destination.” The audience now knows who Hermes is and what purpose he serves. This introduction of characters can be likened to key term definition. A writer must define the important terms used in a paper so their meanings are clear to any reader. Hermes defines himself at the outset in order to establish what “Hermes” means in this play. The audience may have different understandings of the mythological Hermes or have no prior knowledge at all, just as a reader may not be familiar with a key term or understand it in the context of the paper. Defining himself allows Hermes to establish his role in this context clearly.

Hermes’ introduction of important characters is also analogous to the way a writer orients the reader to important scholars who appear in the paper. In the introduction, the writer usually provides a brief explanation of scholars’ arguments or roles in the paper, just as Hermes explains the basics of his role in the show. Whether viewed as an introduction of key terms or relevant scholars, these brief introductions serve the larger purpose of orienting the audience. The opening song in Hadestown thus functions as an introductory paragraph, building a necessary foundation for the rest of the piece.

— Paige Allen ’21