My partner Caolan is an actor. He is currently appearing in a local production of Eurydice, by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. The play is a modern interpretation of the ancient myth of Orpheus who enters the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his beloved wife.
Eurydice, not Orpheus, is the main protagonist of Ruhl’s play. As well as being deeply in love with Orpheus, Eurydice misses her father, a character Ruhl introduced to the tale. Of all those who dwell in the underworld, the ‘Father’ (he has no name), is the only one who remembers his life and the people he loved. On the eve of Eurydice’s wedding he writes her a letter that sets the play’s events in train. Caolan plays the Father and in the last few weeks, while he has been in rehearsal, we have discussed Eros, the intimate, sexual love that Eurydice feels for Orpheus, and Philia, the affectionate, loyal and joyful relationship she shared with her father. We have also discussed the significance of memory, loss and grief that performing in, and watching, a play like Eurydice produces.
Although it has been claimed that Ruhl wrote the play to honour her father, no one but the author can know if a piece of writing is intended to be therapeutic. The play, and watching Caolan and the other cast members perform in it has, however, made me think about how therapeutic writing can heal the pain of losing a loved one.
‘How,’ the Father asks towards the end of the play, ‘does a person remember to forget?’ The answer lies in one of the many powerful symbols in the play: the River Lethe.
In order to reach the Greek underworld a soul had to pass through the waters of oblivion. In the process memories were surrendered and those left behind were forgotten. Unlike the dead, those of us who remain are cursed with remembering. Forgetting a lost loved one seems abhorrent. Memorials, photographs, benches by the sea, a tree planted in a special place, a loved one’s piece of jewellery or article of clothing worn close to the heart, a treasured personal effect, or shrine are ways to ensure memories of the beloved will not fail us. Such memorials also make the lost one real to our descendants although in reality, all they do is pass on a memory.
In Ruhl’s play, as in the classical myth is, Orpheus is told, ‘As you walk, keep your eyes facing front.’ Not only does he fail to do so, but in Ruhl’s version of the tale, Eurydice, afraid the man she is following is not her husband, runs up to him. When Orpheus turns to face his wife she is forced to return to the underworld. I think this means the bereft must do two things, remember the beloved while looking to the future. The work of grief involves negotiating between the two, and although our memorials may help in this process, another way is through story.
Our parents begin our story before we are born; we are the story of their hopes and their future. We invariably, however, insist on shaping our own story because that is how we come to terms with existence. Just as the content of every life is different so is the way we structure and tell our story. Our story-voice is like a fingerprint. I am not referring to the sound of our voice as we talk, but the words we choose, the emphasis we place on certain events, the repetitions, the patterns, and the symbols we use when we story our lives.
Poetry is story distilled in the crucible of language, rendered down to a sauce, and poured over the meat and vegetables of life. Theatre is story as dialogue, of souls glimpsed through the dark and tempered through the magic of a spot of light. At these times story is a flame, its dogged blue heart burns to be told and in the telling you and others may be scorched, such is the insistent nature of story.
We are terrified of what will happen when stories jumble, syntax dissolves and phrases melt away like marshmallows over a fire. Maybe that is why we fear death. We do not know, as we cross the Lethe, or crumble in the bowels of a vast oven, which of our stories a loved one will tell as they drink lustreless coffee and chew over the dusty biscuits. But story us they will. A distant relative begins with, ‘I remember when …,’ a cousin adds their morsel to our tale, the way a cook adds herbs to a pot. A neighbour adds salt or a little pepper, a friend stirs in the name of a song you danced to at a party back in … when was it? It won’t be a matter of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’, because their telling thickens our story. Those gathered, whom we loved, will smile, nod and take a spoonful of our story and add it to theirs. Our stories will continue because remembering is the way the bereaved look forward. Eventually, however, those who partook of our story will forget our quirky ways, our gait, how we smelled. Only the story remains, the way Sarah Ruhl’s story on the stage is now a part of Caolan’s story, and the other members of the cast. It has also become a part of my story, and I have, in a small way, passed it on to you. If, as Ruhl has indicated, she finds solace in ‘telling someone something strange and funny that happened to me to make myself feel better’ then the healing is our way of looking forward.