In the Wings

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The Power of the Letter: Werther

Feb 24, 2016 11:06:00 AM
By BLO Staff

An image of Werther's letters
from a BLO promotional video

For hundreds of years, the primary mode of communication between people separated by distance was letters. Correspondence was an art and a pastime, a way to articulate emotions, deliver information, and even philosophize or theorize on the great questions of the day. The collected letters of great writers, thinkers, artists, and statesmen provide clues and insight to their thought processes and inner lives that are invaluable to researchers and readers alike.

Beyond real-world correspondence, letters have also become part of art in an integral way. Literature, theater, and opera are full of examples of crucial letters that go astray, are mis-delivered, arrive too late (or too early), and therefore provide critical dramatic moments. The prevalence of letters also gave rise to the form of the epistolary novel, in which the central story is told through documents (usually letters), rather than through a traditional first- or third-person narrative. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a prime example of the epistolary novel, and even helped give the genre its popularity.

How else can letters bring a story to life? Here are a few examples:

Kiera Knightley in the 2005 film.

Pride and Prejudice
Probably the most beloved of Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice in many ways revolves around the information disclosed through letters throughout the novel. Two of the letters especially tend to get hearts beating faster as the romance between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth clicks into place. First, Mr. Darcy’s long letter to Elizabeth after she refuses his offer of marriage explains his actions and causes Elizabeth to doubt her initial impression of him as cold-hearted and aloof. Later in the novel, Elizabeth reads from her aunt that Mr. Darcy arranged for her silly youngest sister to marry the roguish Mr. Wickham and her heart races—because she knows it is evidence of his feelings for her. Will they find their way to one another?!

Glenn Close, John Malkovich
and Michelle Pfeiffer for the 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Another famous epistolary novel, written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the deceitful and cruel Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont through a series of letters by various characters written to one another. The book, published in 1782 amidst the decadence of the French aristocracy, caused a scandal at its depictions of amoral characters and their romantic games. It has been adapted for stage, opera, film, television, ballet, and more!

There are many examples of crucial letters (and messengers) in Shakespeare’s plays, but perhaps none sets off so dramatic a chain of events than Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth near the beginning of the play. The scene opens with Lady Macbeth reading Macbeth’s tale of encountering the three witches and their strange prophecy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then King. Lady Macbeth, in a monologue for the ages (that also coined the phrase “the milk of human kindness”), immediately knows what to do: kill the king while he sleeps and seize the crown.

Eugene Onegin
In both the original Pushkin verse novel and the Tchaikovsky opera, Tatiana’s letter scene is a masterpiece of emotion. Tatiana is a young, impressionable girl who has fallen in love with the dashing and cynical Eugene Onegin. Despite the mores of the time and the difference in their social status, Tatiana takes a chance and bares her soul to Onegin through a letter, confessing her love. Onegin, though flattered, does not reciprocate—a decision that comes back to haunt him later.

How are composers and writers using letters today in theater? Look no further than the hottest ticket currently on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The story of founding father Alexander Hamilton told through the modern genres of hip-hop and R&B, with strong influences of the Broadway musical (all with a multi-racial, diverse cast), letters play another crucial role throughout in voicing the characters’ inner feelings, and in advancing the plot. Alexander woos his future wife, Eliza, through a series of love letters; later, his witty, flirtatious correspondence (and a crucially misplaced comma) makes another woman who loves him wonder about his true heart. Letters also provide major dramatic turns in the story; when Alexander has an affair, he is blackmailed via letter by the woman’s husband and his own wife retaliates by burning all of her saved letters. And finally, Alexander and his nemesis, Aaron Burr, exchange a heated series of letters that leads to their fateful duel. 

Topics: 2015/16 Season, Massenet, Werther

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