‘Why We Build the Wall’: Hegemony, memory and current events in Hadestown

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Through its unique jazz-inspired score, creative sets and costume design, the 2019 Tony award-winning musical Hadestown tells the classic Greek mythology story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus ventures to the underworld to save his love from an eternity of suffering. In this rhetorical analysis of the musical’s script, cast recording, sheet music and Broadway production, I explore how Hadestown makes statements about hegemony and memory that connect with current events. Hadestown presents the underworld as an industrial wasteland that contrasts with Persephone’s green earth, placing industry and the environment at odds with one another and bringing the audience’s attention to issues including climate change, refugeeism, homelessness and poverty. Hades is presented as an industrial tycoon and a hegemon who exploits his workers, and the song ‘Why We Build the Wall’ serves to highlight the many hegemonic tactics used to maintain control over a populace. I also explore how the references to Hades’ wall provide audiences experiencing the musical after 2016 with a biting critique of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to build a wall to curb immigration at the United States’ southern border, and I suggest that the penultimate song provides audiences with a message that aligns with Hannah Arendt’s view of the purpose of memory: that we must remember the past or, in the words of Hadestown, ‘tell the sad tale’, because we hope that it might turn out differently this time. The messages in Hadestown encourage theatregoers to remember the lessons of history, including difficult memories related to hegemony, because only through remembering can we learn from the past and take the actions necessary to face our current challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-131
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in Musical Theatre
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Music
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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