‘Hadestown’ writer Anaïs Mitchell: weaver of dreams

In the chill of a Vermont winter, amidst the triumphs of family life and the creative whirlwind of her career, Anaïs Mitchell invites us into her world (or should that be underworld?).  

“My older kid just ‘levelled up’ to a new belt in taekwondo this morning. My little one is getting over a stomach flu. There’s a cat sitting on my table.” Mitchell starts off painting the scene, it’s a theme throughout her work. The fine details on each portrait – be it a song or an entire musical – lead to an understanding of the significance behind the larger work. Like a camera zoom, it’s clear from the off that Mitchell is detail-orientated: “I think the heart and soul of writing is imagery, detail, stuff that enters through the body and the subconscious and unconscious mind,” she says deeper into the conversation. Mitchell’s work is a testament to her ability to look at words artistically, to use them to create a full tapestry and to humanise every subject she approaches.  


It started with Greek mythology. Mitchell admits that Classics wasn’t her main interest, but the idea of them is so pervasive that it penetrates the universal consciousness, “they’re [Greek myths] like the Bible in that way,”, it’s a truth that becomes ever clearer the more you talk to people about ‘Hadestown’. Describe it as a musical and people will often roll their eyes, but mention that it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and it reignites the imagination, tell someone the music itself flits between blues, jazz and folk and even more people will turn their ears towards it. Maybe that’s the secret behind Mitchell’s eight Tony Awards and one Grammy Award, all of which she received for writing ‘Hadestown’.  

The first time Mitchell met the myth she would later transform was as a child, “the illustrated D’Aulaire’s ‘Book of Greek Myths’”, she says, “I remember hearing the Cohen brothers say something about how they’d made ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ without ever once reading the Odyssey… that they were able to do it because the Greek myths, the images, the stories, live in the culture and in our consciousness whether we study them or not.”. With sepia tones, political commentary and a soundtrack made of folk music, it’s not hard to tell that the film inspired Mitchell. Where ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ delves into race and capitalism, ‘Hadestown’ takes on climate change and working-class uprisings. It was in 2016 that the song ‘Why We Build The Wall’ became overtly political, even the Society for Classical Studies’ Claire Catenaccio wrote a paper analysing the importance of the track in Trump’s America, comparing the song to a protest anthem and discussing how subsequent productions of the musical have chosen to frame the song in light of its new significance. 


Mitchell herself is uncertain about the idea of songwriting being prophetic: “Maybe you just pointed out one of those thematic things that’s obvious from the outside, but hard for the writer to see. But…I feel like songs and dreams come from a similar place.”. Mitchell’s belief adds to her level of evasive mystique, she admits to the dual nature of songwriting, “it’s funny how I feel like I understand songwriting so deeply and also not at all…”, as so often with great artists, Mitchell’s inspiration seemingly comes from a divine place that is illusive to even her. She says that “the chorus of ‘Wait For Me’ dropped out of the sky and into the driver’s seat. It came with some long-lost verses that seemed to be about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. It’s a love story, a coming of age story and it’s also inherently political.”. That inherent politics was never aimed at the prophetic wall-building tale but remained a stiff commentary on love in the gutter, the ‘love conquers all’ myth is reborn, remade and remoulded to make a musical that slithers its way into a class commentary.  


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