Culture Magazine

Everybody Can-Can!

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
In my youth I was renown for my love of musical theater.  Okay, that's a somewhat lofty way of saying when I was a teenager, I went on stage singing. This was a perfectly normal thing in my family.  For some reason, when I think back to music and my childhood, I end up thinking about women doing the can-can...
Everybody Can-Can!
 This was a favorite show of my Dad's, which sadly I don't think we ever got to perform, although I vividly remember the album cover above.  Sixties-tastic!  Years later and I am rather fond of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge which is based on the Orpheus tale, complete with tragic ending and most importantly, Can Can!

Everybody Can-Can!

Everybody Can Can!


Sorry about that, I'll sit down again now.  Anyway, that got me thinking about Orpheus, Underworld and All...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus (1896) John Macallan Swan

I have to wonder if paintings of legendary creative people are a reflection of the fears and ego of the artist, but I'll come to that.  Here we have gorgeous Orpheus, so skilled with his golden lyre (not a euphemism) that he could tame wild animals. Son of a Thracian king (or Apollo, depending on the version of the story), the beautiful young man was taught to play the instrument by Apollo and he was rather good at it...
Lesser known part of the Orpheus story is that the Young Musician of the Year 800BC accompanied Jason and his Argonauts on his epic quest to Argos to get a sheepskin rug (I'm paraphrasing) and they came across the Sirens.  The same Sirens that Ulysses came across...

Everybody Can-Can!

Ulysses and the Sirens (1891) J W Waterhouse

Anyway, Young Orpheus sang louder than the Sirens and drowned out their fatal song. I have the same ability, what I lack in talent I make up for in volume.  I have impressive lungs.  Moving on.

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus and Euridice (1864) Frederic Leighton

The story that Orpheus is best known for is his love of Euridice (or Eurydice) and its rather unhappy outcome.  So, Orpheus was to marry the beautiful Euridice, but at the wedding Euridice was set upon by a satyr (oh no!) but she escaped (phew!) only to fall into a nest of vipers (what are the odds?!) and received a fatal bite (the horror!) and died in her new husband's arms...

Everybody Can-Can!

Euridice Dying in Orpheus' Arms Edward Burne-Jones

Goodness, I bet there were some awkward people at that wedding - do you keep eating the cake?  Do you surreptitiously get your present back? Or see if you can score a better present? What about the disco?! Anyway, when Orpheus found his dying beloved he played such a sad song that everyone's cried, even the gods and the nymphs. For goodness sake...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus and Euridice (1868-72) G F Watts

In order to shut him up, the gods suggested that Orpheus could get poor Euridice back from the Underworld, so the lovelorn Orpheus descended into the Underworld of Hades in order to retrieve his wife.  What could possibly go wrong?

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus Charles Ricketts

Now, as always, there were conditions for walking out of the Underworld with your missus.  Moved by his wonderful song, Hades agreed that he would let Euridice leave with her husband (the first and only person to be allowed to go home on a permanent basis, well, in theory).  The only condition was that Orpheus wasn't allowed to look back at her until they got back to the upper world...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus and Euridice Edward Poynter

Up, up, up they climbed, Orpheus leading her but not looking back. These things never go as planned though, and at the last moment he looked back.  Oops...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus and Euridice Catharine Sparkes


Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus and Euridice Enrico Scuri

Rats! So, no more Euridice as you don't get a second chance to extract your beloved from death.  Interestingly, there are versions of the story that there was never any chance of getting Euridice out - it was all a trick on Hades part because Orpheus refused to die in order to be with his beloved.  As his love was therefore seen as inconstant, Hades tricked him into thinking he could win Euridice back with song only to snatch her back again.  I'll come back to that in a minute...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus Sorrows Pascal Dagnan-Boveret


Everybody Can-Can!

The Lamentation of Orpheus Alexandre Seon

Poor Orpheus was in despair, mainly without his top on, refusing all gods except Apollo who he identified with the sun.  One morning he rose to pay tribute to Apollo but was ripped to shreds by a load of women, not because he was delicious man-flesh but because he wasn't respecting the god Dionysus.  You'd be ripped to shreds for a lot less round here...

Everybody Can-Can!

Bacchantes Overtaking Orpheus (1899) Douglas Strachan

In some stories, Orpheus' inconstancy with women, in the former of his refusal to die for his wife is linked to the fact that it is women who kill him.  It is suggested that rather than it being a religious difference, the women ripped him to shreds because he refused to sleep with them.  Well, that's just terrifying...

Everybody Can-Can!

Orpheus (1893) Jean Delville

One bit survived.  His head, carried on his lyre, floated down the Hebrus, out into the Mediterranean and to the shores of Lesbos.  It was still singing.  That's also very creepy...

Everybody Can-Can!

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus John William Waterhouse

Now, I was wondering about depictions of Orpheus and the nature of artistic ego. Orpheus is a story about being so good at your art that you can save people from death, protect the one you love (well, in theory) and be so damn fabulously attractive that women will rip you limb from limb with lust.  Okay, the last one may only appeal to a certain part of my audience (naughty boys!) but which of us hasn't dreamed of being so talented at our art that we can drive people wild?  He is the pagan patron saint of giant artistic egos, someone who is so brilliant at his art that not even being beheaded can stop him inspiring people. 
Orpheus is about being so good, you are immortal.
Now, Everybody Can-Can!


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