A Musical Allegory for the Stage

About the Play

Persephone is an entirely new kind of theatrical experience, which uses elements of Broadway, modern rock, and classical opera to tell the story of the birth of civilization, and therefore the coming of age of humanity, through the coming of age of one young woman.

Joseph Campbell once said "The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization." Of all of the powerful, ancient stories, the myth of Persephone speaks particularly to the needs of our civilization, now, and our need for motivation and transformation. Using the familiar format of the Broadway musical – musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue – Persephone tells a story which is as forward-looking as it is ancient.

These themes, and the relationships between the characters in the piece – mother and daughter, husband and wife, sisters, lovers – are universal ones and will resonate with people from all walks of life and all corners of the world.

The creative potential of marrying the emotional exhilaration of music to the visceral intimacy of live theater is limitless. The current Broadway establishment, compelled by rising costs to be cautious and conservative, has fallen into a pattern of chasing after preexisting audiences gathered by other media – by, for instance, reformatting old cartoons as stage shows, or sequencing the back catalogues of established pop artists into a loose narrative. By tapping into the archetypical themes that have always driven human expression and using a musical language that is unapologetically melodic but also exciting and challenging (the way the best popular music has always been), musical theater can find a wide and diverse new audience of its own.

Conception and composition began in December of 2007; a working draft of the script and score were completed in March of 2009. Two grants from the REC Music Foundation, awarded in May and August of 2009 funded a professionally produced demonstration recording of eleven of the twenty-five musical numbers from the piece, which was completed in October of 2009. In July of 2009, David entered into a fiscal sponsorship agreement with Brooklyn Arts Council which resulted in a concert performance of the piece at the Aliance of Resident Theaters in Brooklyn on July 21, 2010, made possible by the Puffin Foundation.

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Author's Program Note (Concert Performance, 7/21/10):

“Some stories are magical, meant to be sung
Songs from the mouth of the river when the world was young”
– Paul Simon, “Spirit Voices”

I first heard the story of Persephone and her descent into the Underworld the way most of us probably did – in a mythology unit in the 2nd or 3rd grade. In my case, it was presented by a particularly rusty cog in the under-oil wheel of the Cobb County, Georgia public school system as an example of the stupidity of our forebears: “Back in ancient times, children, people made up silly stories to explain things they didn’t understand, so they wouldn’t be afraid of them.” She then went on to tell about how those poor, ignorant, ancient Greeks didn’t understand why the world got cold in the winter, so they made up a story about a girl being abducted by the King of the Underworld who was forced to eat some fruit, and therefore could only come back up for part of the year. This made her mother sad, so she created winter during the time her daughter was away. “Isn’t that silly? We know now that that’s not why there’s winter. Winter happens because of science. Now, who wants Nilla Wafers and apple juice?” Not being intellectually prepared at the time to press this educational paragon for either her own knowledge of General Relativity (which I suspect may not have been quite up to explaining the gravitational imperative behind the shifting of the earth’s tilt in relation to the sun over the course of its orbit) or for an explanation of how, if people like Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras (not to mention Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, et al, who carried Greek thought to the far corners of their world while they were using it to invent modern civilization) were so damned dumb we ever came up with science in the first place, I was forced to toddle off to recess with a vague feeling that I wasn’t getting the whole story.

The truth is, of course, that this seemingly simple little fable wasn’t an attempt to explain literal history, or literal science, any more than the Book of Genesis is (Though this, of course was a parallel Ms. Nilla Wafers certainly wasn’t going to draw for us pre-pubescent scions of the Bible Belt, if she had any interest in continuing to listlessly cram the three R’s into our little skulls at public expense). So what is it for? Some variation of this astonishingly old story can be found as far back as we have any records of human thought. Why has it survived to be told today?

It is for, of course, what all mythology, and for that matter, all poetry, all songs, all theater, all literature, all religion, all art is for: to teach us something about the world we live in, and about ourselves, that can only be properly understood at the level of metaphor. Some old joker once said “nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense.” In a way, he was exactly right. The universe is enormous, and “The Truth” is possibly even bigger. There are ways of understanding fundamental aspects of that truth that simply cannot be put effectively into sensible, logical arguments, just as there are mathematical truths that cannot be properly expressed in letters and words. fairy tales, just like music, poetry, and painting, have always existed because they speak truths to us that we cannot express, or understand, rationally.

This particular story was so important to all of those ancient Greek and Roman dumbbells of whom Ms. Wafers was so dismissive, that they made it the centerpiece, the very gospel, of their most important religious ceremonies – the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis – which were held outside of Athens for at least 2,000 years. The initiates at these ceremonies, who included every important classical philosopher, artist, and playwright, and every Roman Emperor until the rise of Christianity, were taught this story, and used it to guide them to a secret truth that they thought to be crucial to their successful entry into the afterlife. What, exactly, this secret was has remained secret (a fact that, itself, is remarkable considering the prolific literary output of those 2,000 years of initiates), but there are layers of importance, and of metaphor in the story that we can find without too much digging.

The first comes when we analyze Persephone’s motivations: why does she eat the damned pomegranate (literally, the pomegranate of the damned) in the first place? All the retellings of this story suggest that it’s that conscious decision, not her initial abduction, that ties her forever to the world of the dead. She chooses to be there, for at least part of the year – to be the wife of this awful god who has abducted her. His approach was god-awful, for sure, but he is the second most powerful person in the universe, and he sees her not as a little girl but as his queen. Heady stuff for a confused teenager, and an offer that, in my mind, she eventually accepts consciously and willingly.

The second comes in the part of the story that is most often left out of third grade retellings: that Demeter has adventures among the humans during her despair over her lost daughter, and ends up teaching them agriculture. Before the cycle of the seasons began we lived in an Eden of perpetual summer. Until there was a winter – a time when we would die if unprepared – there was no need for us to grow to the point of self-sufficiency any more than there was for Persephone to do so before she was abducted from her responsibility-free life in her mother’s house. This gift of agriculture allowed the birth of civilization, and is a direct result of cycle of the seasons that Persephone’s abduction causes to begin.

Persephone is herself the seed that descends into the ground and rises again, ready to blossom, and also the ground, that receives the seed and bears fruit. And thus do we feed ourselves, and have the wherewithal to take control of our environment; thus do we all move forward.

At this time of economic upheaval and cultural divisiveness, there is no more important story than this. Both of the main storylines: Persephone’s growth into womanhood and humanity’s growth into civilization offer hope and guidance for life during troubled times. Persephone learns that she has the strength to chart her own course and make her own decisions. She leans that she is every bit as strong as her loving but dominating mother, her cold and distant father, or her crude and awkward lover. The human race learns that the great cycles of the world – warm and cold, light and dark, birth and death, boom and bust – are not insurmountable obstacles, but rather natural parts of existence, and necessary for moving forward to greater things. That which is stagnant cannot grow.

– David Hoffman, July 2010