Orpheus and Eurydice

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday, July 21.

In Camus's The Plague, two characters attend a performance of Gluck's opera Orpheus and Eurydice during the height of the epidemic, and the singer playing Orpheus falls violently ill. Panicked, the audience stampedes for the exits—and the novel definitely seems a bit contemptuous of their dawning horror, suggesting that they were blinkered and weak in their escapism, that it was fitting that their fairy tales of snatching loved ones from death had been torn away.

I read The Plague years ago, but I remember being thoroughly annoyed with Camus for that scene. Didn't he realize that the myth of Orpheus is about the futility of trying to thwart death? Perhaps the people were drawn to the opera because it helped them accept mortality and find beauty in a finite life. How was that so wrong? Of course, after bitching self-righteously on these points, I learned that Camus had it right: Traditional myths be damned, Gluck's opera ends with Eurydice being to returned to life one last time, even after Orpheus turns back to look at her, so my indignation was entirely misdirected.

I hadn't thought about that rather embarrassing episode in my literary education for ages, but the late choreographer Pina Bausch's staging brought it back to me. Dark and eerie and grim from beginning to end, the production actually cuts half of the final act: After Orpheus's agonizing lamentation for the dead-again Eurydice, the musicians return to the Furies' themes from Act II, and not only does Eurydice stay dead but Orpheus himself dies also—no deus ex machina happy endings in sight. This, I thought, was an Orpheus even Camus would have to respect.