Don’t look back.


Why did Orpheus look back?

In the fullsomely-staged student production of Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium in January, Pluto, ruler of the underworld, has his minions pound the stage to make Orpheus look back to see what all the noise is about.  Granted, Orpheus was in the midst of arguing with himself about Pluto’s injunction that he not look back at Eurydice until they were out of Hades.

But while I sing, ah me! who can assure me
that she is following me? Alas,
who hides the sweet light of her beloved eyes from me?
Perhaps the gods of Avernus,
impelled by envy, so that I
should not be fully happy down here,
prevent me from looking at you,
blessed and radiant eyes,
which can bless others with a mere look?
But what do you fear, my heart?
What Pluto forbids, Love commands.
I must obey
a more powerful divinity
who conquers both men and gods.

In this production, however, Pluto really doesn’t play fair.  He comes across as purposefully testing Orpheus’ resolve, despite the directions in the libretto that the noise comes from backstage.  Qui si fa strepito dietro la tela.  Artistic license and it worked.  To diminish Orpheus’ culpability for Eurydice’s doom.

It’s not as though the director of the Princeton production really violated any canons for this story.  In the many retellings of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld, there are equally many variations on how Orpheus arrived at the dramatic moment when he looked back or otherwise caused Eurydice to be sent to her second death.

To the extent that there is a canonical version of the tale in Western literature, it’s found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where  Orpheus looks back because he wants to see Eurydice and he’s also anxious about her strength.  In Ovid, Eurydice dies a second time without complaint against Orpheus.  “What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved?”  Orpheus then gives up on women and goes in for young boys.

In the Roman poet Martial’s ironic  and misogynistic version, Pluto punishes Orpheus for the intrusion by giving him his wife back, and then thanks Orpheus for the songs by taking her back himself.  In Plutarch, Orpheus stops to look at spirits in the rainbow mist and forgets about Eurydice.  According to Ann Wroe, before Virgil the story “contained no conditions or looking back”

In the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius captures this dramatic moment in his succinct line: Vidit, perdidit, occidit. She was seen, lost, killed.  I have previously commented on Boethius’ puritanical interpretation of the tale as an object lesson in the dangers of human love.  To emphasize this message, Boethius changes the dramatic moment to have both Orpheus and Eurydice stay in Hades.  In his view, if someone seeks the holy and the higher, he will be lost the moment he looks back into the nether regions.

In 2011 I went with Laura’s friend Sara Greenblatt to see the Metropolitan Opera production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, composed 150 years after Monteverdi.  Regardless of a less than enthusiastic review in the New York Times, I became lost in the live production of a work I’d been listening to over and over since Laura died the year before.  Reading the libretto and listening to the opera had not really conveyed how much Gluck’s version presents Euridice as a vain, self-centered woman (yes, it has misogynistic overtones).  As they’re making their way out of Hades, Euridice keeps pestering Orfeo to look at her, accusing him of not caring for her.

You do not embrace me? Nor speak?
At least look at me.
pulling him so as to make him look at her
Say, am I still beautiful
as I was once before?
Look, has the colour in my cheeks
perhaps faded?
Listen, has the splendour of my eyes
that you loved,
and you called sweet,
perhaps dimmed?

Orfeo, however, has been bound by Pluto not to reveal why he may not look back at Euridice.  Finally, after unsuccessfully pleading with her to trust him, and even ordering her to do what her husband commands, Orfeo gives in to Euridice’s wailing that his refusal to look means that she will die without ever embracing Orfeo again.  He turns around.  She vanishes.  Vidit, perdidit, occidit.

In the 20th century, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with its dramatic moment of the glance back, has been revisited and revised a number of times.  In the 1920s, Jean Cocteau changed many elements of the tale for his play Orphée, including the condition placed on Orpheus, which became a life-long prohibition against looking at Eurydice after they return to the upper world.  In the play, Orpheus claims that he looked at Eurydice on purpose.  He could, however, just be putting on a brave front to hide his embarrassment at having lost his balance inadvertently.  When Cocteau redid Orphée as a film in 1950, Orpheus also sees Eurydice by mistake, but a different one.  Orpheus has been sitting in the Rolls Royce left by Death’s chauffeur, obsessively listening to the car radio for some poetry he thinks he will find there. (Beginning with Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, 20th century writers tend to emphasize the artistic, creative side of Orpheus.)  Not happy with this neglect, Eurydice goes to the garage and sits in the back seat.  Orpheus looks up to see her in the rear-view mirror.  Vidit, perdidit, occidit.

About the same time as Cocteau’s film, Jean Anouilh presented another Orpheus and Eurydice in his play Legend  of Lovers, sometimes referred to as simply Eurydice.  Rightfully so, because in Anouilh’s play Eurydice displays much more of what feminists refer to as “agency,” and Orpheus comes across as a weak soul torn by conflicting emotions: obsession, male insistence on exclusive possession, and prudery.  Eurydice dies when a truck crashes into the bus carrying her out of town.  She is leaving to avoid being present when Orpheus and her former lover Dulac confront each other.  A mysterious figure appears and offers Orpheus the chance to meet the deceased Eurydice on the platform of the train station where he met her the day before.  Same condition.  Orpheus must spend the night with Eurydice on the platform without looking at her.  If he has not looked before dawn, then Eurydice will be with him among the living.  When he joins Eurydice on the platform, Orpheus cannot let go of questioning Eurydice’s love, insisting that he can only tell if she’s telling him the truth if he can look into her eyes.  The appearance of Dulac and subsequent exchanges lead Orpheus to look at Eurydice.  She does not disappear instantly, but characters who are dead arrive on the platform as Orpheus and Eurydice continue their dialogue.  A young man arrives with a letter that Eurydice had been writing on the bus when it crashed.  In it Eurydice wrote, moments before she died, of her love for Orpheus and why she was leaving.  She  disappears as Orpheus apologizes for doubting her.  The mysterious man, who gave Orpheus this chance to bring Eurydice back from her first death, returns to the platform and offers Orpheus another deal, a chance to be with Eurydice in death.  Orpheus agrees and the play ends with the couple walking arm-in-arm into the light of the afterlife.

Women, such as Orfeu’s fiancee Mira and neighbor Serafina, are also strong characters in the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus.  Eurydice arrives on her own in Rio de Janeiro to get away from a strange man who wants to kill her, and gets on the trolley driven by Orfeu, who offers her a place to stay at his neighbor Serafina’s.  When Serafina’s boyfriend comes back to town, Orfeu is the gentleman and offers to sleep outside.  Eurydice takes the initiative to invite him into her bed.  Much of the movie is spent with Death and Mira chasing Eurydice and Orfeu through Rio and then through the carnival dances.  When Mira rips off Eurydice’s veil during carnival, Death chases her into Orfeu’s trolley station.  For me the most dramatic, or at least shocking, moment of the film occurs when Eurydice hangs off a power line to escape from Death and Orfeu comes in, flips the power switch, and kills Eurydice.

As a career bureaucrat, I also appreciated the irony of Orfeu’s entry into the underworld through the Office of Missing Persons, even though he’s been told that she’s dead.  At the bottom of a dark, spiral staircase, Orfeu comes upon a Macumba ritual, in which the spirit of Eurydice enters the body of an old woman.  When Orfeu tries to look, Eurydice pleads with him not to look else she will be lost to him forever.  Still, as he turns and looks away, he sees the old woman. Vidit, occidit, perdidiit.

Orfeu goes to the city morgue to get Eurydice’s body, which he carries across town.  As he climbs the hill towards his house, which is on fire, his angry fiancee throws a stone at his head knocking him off the cliff.  He joins Eurydice in death.  The movie softens this stark ending with a happy scene of children dancing as one of them plays Orfeu’s guitar to the rising sun.

Two contemporary versions of the story, written by women, take a more cynical view.

In Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Eurydice has no desire to go back to the upper world.  She says, “I was Resting in Peace.” Orpheus pays no attention to her plea, “Please let me stay.”  So all the way up Eurydice tries to think of a way to get Orpheus to turn around until “inspiration finally struck.”

I stopped, thrilled.
He was a yard in front.
My voice shook when I spoke—
Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece.
I’d love to hear it again.

Eurydice brings about the dramatic moment by playing on her husband’s vanity.  She knows that it’s all about Orpheus and uses that to get back to her peace and quiet.  Duffy is also commenting ironically on the typically male overblown rhetoric about Orpheus as the image of the creative genius.

In Sarah Ruhl’s play, Eurydice also is the one who catches up with Orpheus so that he has to look at her. Later she writes to him:

I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I was afraid. I’m not worthy of you. But I still love you. I think. Don’t try to find me again. You would be lonely for music. I want you to be happy. I want you to marry again. I am going to write out instructions for your next wife.

Immediately after writing this letter, Eurydice dips herself in the river of forgetfulness.  Just then Orpheus arrives in the elevator.  (In this modern version, they travel up and down in an elevator, and a shower serves as the river Styx.)  Orpheus steps into the shower and washes away his memory. He can’t read Eurydice’s letter.  They are together in death, but neither knows it.   So much for the male fantasy of romance overcoming death.

This post has focused on dramatic presentations of the events leading up to Orpheus looking at Eurydice and causing her second death.  In the next post I will explore some of the interpretations of this glance and their parallels with why I became so interested in the story of Eurydice and Orpheus.


Anouilh, Jean. Five Plays. NY: Hill and Wang, 1986.

Boethius.  The Consolation of Philosophy.  Translated by V.E. Watts.  NY:  Penguin Books, 1969

Cocteau, Jean. Five Plays. NY: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Duffy, Carol Ann. The World’s Wife: Poems. NY: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1999.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. NY: Penguin Books, 2012.

Hoenen, Marten J. F. M. and Nauta,Lodi, editors. Boethius in the Middle Ages: Latin and Vernacular Traditions of the Consolatio Philosophiae (Studien Und Texte Zur Geistesgeschichte Des Mittelalters).  Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Mary M. Innes. NY: Penguin Books, 1955.

Ruhl, Sarah. Eurydice. NY: Samuel French, 2008.

Wroe, Ann. Orpheus: The Song of Life. NY: The Overlook Press, 2012.


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