What a hor­rid lit­tle mon­ster!” wrote W. H. Auden of Werther, the epony­mous hero of Goethe’s novella, The Sor­rows of Young Werther. “Liv­ing in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, not the eigh­teenth, and know­ing, as most of his con­tem­po­raries did not, Goethe’s later work, Werther can still fas­ci­nate us, but in a very dif­fer­ent way,” Auden explained in his “Fore­word” to the book. “To us it reads not as a tragic love story, but as a mas­terly and dev­as­tat­ing por­trait of a com­plete ego­ist, a spoiled brat, inca­pable of love because he cares for nobody and noth­ing but him­self and hav­ing his way at what­ever the cost to others.”

Though Auden — an opera lover and libret­tist him­self — was not writ­ing about the hero of Massenet’s opera, but about the novella on which the opera is based, there is no rea­son to think he would change his harsh words in any sig­nif­i­cant way if he com­mented on the oper­atic ver­sion.  Nor would Auden be the first critic who seems to be decid­edly out of char­ity with Goethe’s and Massenet’s Roman­tic hero.

George Bernard Shaw was far from being London’s biggest fan of French opera, but after see­ing Werther at Covent Gar­den in 1894 he wrote a per­haps sur­pris­ingly favor­able review of the work. Even so, Shaw could not resist adding the thought that Massenet “suc­ceeded in keep­ing up the inter­est of a libretto con­sist­ing of four acts of a lovelorn tenor who has only two active moments, one when he tries to rav­ish a kiss from the fair [Char­lotte], and the other when he shoots him­self behind the scenes.”

Both men miss the point of Werther. One rea­son his story caused such a furor through­out Europe when Goethe’s book was pub­lished in 1774, and that Massenet’s opera retains a solid place in the reper­toire over a cen­tury after its pre­mier, is because we all rec­og­nize a part of our­selves in Werther. It is likely to be a part of our­selves that intrigues us, but which we are not really com­fort­able deal­ing with — either because we indulge our inner Werther too much, or we try to freeze him out entirely. Either action robs our lives of com­plete­ness, rich­ness and meaning.

If Werther was as repel­lant as Auden describes him to be Char­lotte would not have fallen in love with him instantly (as she con­fesses to him in the last act), nor would her father (the Bailiff) and all the chil­dren find him so charm­ing. In fact, the worse thing any­one in the opera says about Werther is that he is some­what melan­choly and that he is “not much a one for his food.”

As soon as Werther steps on stage Massenet makes sure the audi­ence falls under his spell as com­pletely as Char­lotte will a few moments later.  He stands for a moment, look­ing at Charlotte’s home, and sings, “I know not if I’m awake or still dream­ing; every­thing around me seems like Paradise…Everything attracts and charms me.” The won­der he feels, his total one­ness with Nature, his grat­i­tude for the beauty all around him, his absorp­tion in that very moment — it is all set to rav­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful music. There is an inno­cence to it that can­not help but strike the lis­tener as some­how pro­found. At that moment Werther is in touch with some­thing very pre­cious, and the result is instantly appealing.

In Werther’s pres­ence we see things we would be likely to skip over as we race through our daily rou­tine.  When we head for the sub­way, our minds already deal­ing with what is wait­ing for us at work, we’re likely to not notice the way the sun­light fil­ters through tree leaves, cre­at­ing a whole palette of dif­fer­ent hues of the color green. We are prob­a­bly blind to the soft smile on the face of the elderly woman as she looks at a young cou­ple, gaz­ing raptly into each other’s eyes. Mort­gages, taxes and pro­vid­ing shoes for the chil­dren often have a way of putting blind­ers on us.  If we are not care­ful, deal­ing with the neces­si­ties of life can eas­ily turn into a numb­ing, soul­less rou­tine before we are aware of what has hap­pened. Werther reminds us that life is infi­nite, and our per­sonal uni­verse can be much richer and more reward­ing if we allow it to be.

This is sim­i­lar to the mean­ing of The Fool in the Tarot deck. “The Fool rep­re­sents true inno­cence, a kind of per­fect state of joy and free­dom, a feel­ing of being one with the spirit of life at all times. His inno­cence makes him a per­son with no past, and there­fore an infi­nite future. Every moment is a new start­ing point,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wis­dom. “The Fool teaches us that life is sim­ply a con­tin­u­ous dance of expe­ri­ence. But most of us can­not main­tain even brief moments of such spon­tane­ity and free­dom. Due to fears, con­di­tion­ing, and sim­ply the very real prob­lems of daily life, we nec­es­sar­ily allow our egos to iso­late us from expe­ri­ence. Yet within us we can sense, dimly, the pos­si­bil­ity of free­dom, and there­fore we call this vague feel­ing of loss a ‘fall’ from innocence.”

In our soci­ety this inno­cence and depth of feel­ing is often rel­e­gated to artists – or to chil­dren; peo­ple whom we assume are “freer” in some way because they are spared hav­ing to deal with “real­ity.” It is accept­able for a four year old at the beach to jump up and down, filled with the energy and excite­ment of the sun, the water, the sheer joy and beauty of exist­ing in that moment. But a forty year old doing that?

This is not to sug­gest that adults should aban­don their hard-won matu­rity and behave child­ishly. Danc­ing blithely through a uni­verse of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties might seem the most absurdly imprac­ti­cal way to live, to say noth­ing of being reck­less. After all, poten­tial is dandy, but the real reward is in turn­ing that poten­tial into con­crete real­ity.  Liv­ing only in the world of poten­tial is as unful­fill­ing as liv­ing a life con­sist­ing of only unfeel­ing, dead­en­ing rou­tine.  Allow­ing our inner Werther to rule us leads to tragedy — as surely as it leads Werther in the opera to his death, which is why Werther is a cau­tion­ary tale. But ignor­ing our inner Werther leads to a life of steril­ity and joy­less­ness, a life with­out hope or change. At the begin­ning of Act Three Char­lotte laments, “Since he left, every­thing, despite myself, is weari­some,” and her sis­ter Sophie sings, “All the faces here have become dejected since Werther fled away.”

When we live fully we take a posi­tion that holds us con­stantly in a state of sus­tain­ing para­doxes in the play of the oppo­sites,” writes John Weir Perry.

The tarot Fool can start us on this arche­typal jour­ney toward wis­dom and whole­ness. “Her­man Melville, in Moby Dick, warned his read­ers not to take even a step out­side the ordi­nary path laid out for you by soci­ety. You might not get back again,” notes Pol­lack. “And yet, for those will­ing to take the chance, the leap can bring joy, adven­ture, and finally, for those with the courage to keep going when the won­der­land becomes more fear­some than joy­ous, the leap can bring knowl­edge, peace, and liberation.”


This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 2003-04 season.