How on earth could the Can-can dance have anything to do with the myth of Orpheus?
I’m sure you’ve heard and seen the Can-can before, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 150 years, here’s a demonstration:
The Can-can was a type of bawdy Parisian dance popular in the nineteenth century, and it could be performed to a variety of musical settings. Now this is where the classical connection comes in. The most famous tune for the Can-can, the one shown above, was written in 1858 by Jacques Offenbach for his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. The dance was originally titled the Infernal Galop and was first performed (with the famous tune) by actors pretending to be the Olympian gods and Orpheus’ beloved Eurydice.
Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is a comical take on the tragic, Classic myth. The old story goes that Orpheus tried to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld after she died from a snake bite. The only condition for Eurydice’s safe return was that Orpheus had to make the full journey to the surface without turning around to look at her. Unfortunately, Orpheus looked back at the last second and lost Eurydice forever. In Offenbach’s version, however, Orpheus and Eurydice can’t stand to be with each other and Fate compels the hero to unwillingly rescue her from the underworld. The rescue attempt seems to be working and Orpheus despairs, but at the last minute he loses her and everyone gets a happy ending. Offenbach has basically re-imagined all of the characters’ motivations and turned the tragedy into a comic farce.
The Infernal Galop occurs at two points in the operetta – firstly, after Jupiter dances a minuet in the Underworld, and secondly, as a reprise just before the curtain falls, after Eurydice sang a song of praise to Bacchus, the god of wine. In both instances, the Libretto marks the lyrics of the song as “La, la, la, la etc.” Classy!
Offenbach may have turned the relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice upside down, but his characterisation of the Greek gods as bawdy lovers of pleasure has very ancient Classical roots. In the operetta, the gods get sick of their nectar and ambrosia and decide to go partying and Can-can dancing in the underworld. In ancient times, it was so common for poets and songwriters to speak about the pleasure-seeking, adulterous affairs of Jupiter and the other gods that these poets drew lively criticism from philosophers. Plato famously forbade the poets in his ideal city to speak about the gods’ scandalous affairs. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld continues the ancient poetic tradition of showcasing the rambunctious and bawdy behaviour of the gods.
This dance piece is now one of the greatest musical clichés of all time, and is usually performed as a standalone item, rather than in reference to its older setting, the myth of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. More’s the pity, as Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is a hilarious piece of classical reception and reinvention.
 “When anyone says that sort of thing about the gods, we shall be wroth with him, we will refuse him a chorus, neither will we allow teachers to use him for the education of the young if our guardians are to be god-fearing men and god-like in so far as that is possible for humanity.” Plato, Republic, 383a-c