15 January 2016

Faust Clones, Part 1



[Continuing my examination of appropriation in theater (see “What Constitutes Theft in the Arts?” 5 May on ROT, and “Appropriation in the Theater,” 8 May), I’m going to discuss a series of plays (which is by no means definitive) all derived from the legend of Faust.  I see this as a form of what Washington Post theater reviewer Nelson Pressley described as “one work . . . in creative conversation with another.”  Pressley gave as an illustration of this phenomenon Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which gave birth to Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, and Clybourne and Raisin then generated Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2013 Beneatha’s Place.  (George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, 1986, contains an “exhibit” called “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” Wolfe’s travesty of Hansberry’s masterwork.  There was also a Broadway musicalization in 1973 called Raisin, with book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg, lyrics by Robert Brittan, and music by Judd Woldin.)

[“Faust Clones” isn’t really a comparison among the seven plays I’ll cover.  What follows is actually more like seven collected play reports, sort of like the ones I post after I’ve seen a performance.  Some of the sections, in fact, cover the plays largely the way I do write about performances on ROT—indeed, some of the plays in “Faust Clones” are ones I have seen.  Others are older productions and two, in fact, are classics.  (You just can’t write about plays derived from the Faust legend without examining Marlowe’s 16th-century tragedy and Goethe’s early-19th-century drama.  Together, they’re the two most important sources for our familiarity with the ancient saga of the man who sold his soul for knowledge and power.)  The rest of my choices is arbitrary and subjective, based solely on plays I think are interesting for one reason or another.  I hope you’ll agree.

[Starting with the two classics, I’m going to look at some adaptations and see how they continue the work and ideas of the ones that came before.  Since I’ve seen productions of several of these, I’ll also include my comments on the performances.  Don’t get the impression, however, that this selection is somehow representative: it’s not; in fact, it’s pretty random and may lead to no conclusion.  But maybe it’ll be interesting just to look at some of the never-ending recurrences of the legend of the man who made a deal with the Devil and suffered the consequences (or, in some cases, didn’t.)

[Because of the length of this examination—seven plays simply take a lot of space to describe—I’m publishing this article in three parts.  Part 1 will describe the source for all the Faust plays and mention some other derivatives in different genres (opera, music) and media (film).  Then it looks at the two classic plays, Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (commonly known simply as Doctor Faustus) and Goethe’s Faust; Part 2 moves into the 20th century with Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, the perennially popular mid-century musical comedy Damn Yankees, and Richard Schechner’s avant-garde FAUSTgastronome; and Part 3 wraps up with coverage of Leonardo Shapiro’s radio adaptation Nothing Is Ever Lost, or All in Good Fun and John Jesurun’s postmodern FAUST/How I Rose.  That’s a pretty good spread—if I do say so myself.  It proves one thing.  (Well, two . . . if you count the obvious fact that Faust is endlessly fascinating and viable as a dramatic subject.)  The legendary figure of Faust, the arrogant man who defied God, church, and social convention to attain immense knowledge, can be stretched almost beyond recognition and still make some powerful statements about humanity, the drive for knowledge, and the consequences of pushing too far.  It can sing (Damn Yankees), make you laugh (Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights), frighten you (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus), inspire you (Goethe’s Faust), and even confound you (FAUST/How I Rose).  You could say: It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’!]

There may have been a historical Faust, with several candidates presented by different scholars and historians.  One most likely possibility is Dr. Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480-c. 1540/41), an itinerant physician, doctor of philosophy, alchemist, magician, and astrologer, probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, in southwestern Germany.  Johann Faust’s life dates and his place of origin are much in question, and there are several other possibilities for the historical basis of the Faust legend, but what’s certain is that writers, composers, and filmmakers who’ve based works on the legend have used Johann Faust’s story or one of the others as source material, often heavily reimagined. 

The first published version of the Faust tale was a 1587 German chapbook, Historia von D. Johann Fausten, known as the Faustbuch; many subsequent versions of the story followed.  (A chapbook is an early type of popular literature, usually cheaply printed on a single sheet which is folded several times.)  Starting with Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus in 1592 (drawn largely from the 1587 chapbook), the stage life of Faust began.  Followed two centuries later by the two-part rendering of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Part 1, 1808; Part 2, 1832), the basic story continues to be a fascination of playwrights and other artists.  In addition to plays, there are novels (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, 1928-40; Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde [Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer, Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend], 1947), operatic adaptations (Faust by Charles Gounod, with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based on Goethe’s play, 1859), symphonies (Faust Overture by Richard Wagner, 1839-40; Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt, 1857, also inspired by Goethe), and films (F. W. Murnau’s Faust, 1926; René Clair’s La Beauté du diable [Beauty and the Devil], 1950).  In 1967, Stanley Donen (1958’s Damn Yankees!, prophetically; 1963’s Charade, my favorite thriller) directed Bedazzled from a script by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore that’s loosely based on the Faust legend with Cook as George Spiggott, AKA The Devil, and Moore as Stanley Moon, a hapless short-order cook who needs Satan’s help—in exchange for Stanley’s soul—to win Margaret.  (In 2000, Harold Ramis directed a Bedazzled remake with Brendan Fraser in a version of Moore’s part and Frances O’Connor as the object of his unrequited love.  In the later film, the Devil is a beautiful woman played by Elizabeth Hurley.)

Variations and adaptations aside, the fundamental legend is the story of a highly successful, but bored Faust (usually known in English as Faustus), who, displeased with his scholarly life and bitter with despair, turns away from God.  (In German Faust means ‘fist,’ but as a Latin name, Faustus means ‘fortunate’ or ‘lucky.’)  After an attempted suicide, the scholar asks the Devil for greater knowledge and magic powers so he can indulge in all the earthly pleasures and unlimited knowledge. In response, Mephistopheles, the Devil’s envoy, appears. Faust strikes a bargain, signed in his own blood, with Mephistopheles: using his magic powers, Mephistopheles will serve Faust for a specific number of years—in the early tales, usually 24, one year for each hour in a day—at the end of which, Satan will claim the learned man’s soul and he’ll be eternally damned. During the duration of the contract, Faust exploits Mephistopheles, who himself is prone to tricks, lies, and deceptions, in various ways.  Mephistopheles entertains Faust with luxurious living, long philosophical dialogues, and glimpses of the spirit world.  Though mesmerized by his new-found power, Faust accomplishes almost nothing substantial; he wastes his faculties on frivolous tricks and indulgences. In many versions of the story, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. The girl’s innocence ultimately saves her, however, and she enters Heaven.  In the early versions of the legend, Faust is irretrievably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven.  Burdened by disgrace and the threat of damnation, Faust futilely maneuvers to revoke his satanic bargain but is thwarted by the Devil and when the contract comes due, the Devil carries him off to Hell.  In some later versions of the legend, Faust is saved from Hell by Gretchen.  Faust’s life became not only a source of entertainment, but a cautionary tale for those who would breach the boundaries set by God and convention. 

(By the way, I’ve always heard that someone born on Christmas can make a bargain with Satan—and not have to pay up in the end.  I don’t know if that’s an actual myth or not . . . but I was born on Christmas Day!  I confess, however, that I’ve never tested the premise.)

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Written around 1592 and probably first performed that year, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (first published in 1604) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) recounts the tale of a distinguished scholar in Wittenberg who decides a little sorcery will alleviate his boredom.  The play is often seen as the transition from the Middle Ages of devotion to religion, theology, faith, and sacred knowledge in the hands of an anointed few, and the Renaissance world of science, books, enlightenment, and general knowledge in the hands of the many.  So Doctor Faustus summons a couple of well-known magicians, Valdes and Cornelius, and they teach Faustus some incantations over dinner and send him off the practice on his own.

Alone in the woods, Faustus summons Mephistophilis, Satan’s servant, and asks him to “wait upon me.”  But Mephistophilis serves Lucifer and can’t serve anyone else without the devil’s leave.  So Faustus offers to trade his soul to Lucifer for Mephistophilis’ service for twenty-four years. At the end of the period of the bargain, Faustus’s soul will belong to the devil and Lucifer agrees to Faustus’s bargain as long as he executes a contract written and signed in his own blood; Faustus promptly produces the document.

Soon, however, Faustus starts reconsidering his  . . . ummm, Faustian bargain so, with his Good Angel and his Bad Angel presenting arguments for one side or the other, he contemplates recanting. The devils that surround Faustus, however, declare him already too far down the path toward damnation to back out now, and they divert him with talk of astrology and a performance by the Seven Deadly Sins.  To entice Faustus further, Mephistophilis takes him on a trip through the heavens and around the world, ending in Rome just in time to witness the pope (presumably Adrian, or Hadrian, VI, who reigned from 1522-23) decide the fate of a false pope named Bruno from Saxony (not a historical figure). Faustus saves Bruno and takes him back to Germany on a magic horse, then bedevils the pope by stealing his dishes and food during the pontiff’s victory celebration.

In the meantime, back in Germany, Faustus’s stable boys Robin and Dick, the comic relief, are learning magic themselves so they can get liquor without paying for it.  They steal a cup from their local tavern and are caught.  They summon Mephistophilis to save them from punishment but Mephistophilis is angry that the two clowns have called on him and he turns Dick into an ape and Robin into a dog.  Home in Germany again, Faustus is summoned to the imperial court at Innsbruck, Austria, by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519-56), who is grateful to the necromancer for saving Bruno.  Faustus entertains the emperor with magic tricks, including putting horns on Benvolio, who doubts Faustus’s abilities. Humiliated, Benvolio convinces his friends Martino and Frederick to help him ambush Faustus as revenge.  They lie in wait in a grove of trees and chop off Faustus’s head; but he’d prepared a fake head and gets right up, declaring that no matter what Benvolio and his cohorts do to him, he’ll always rise up.  Faustus commands his devil band to drag one conspirator through mud and dirt and another through a briar patch, and then throw the third down a rocky cliff.

Back in Wittenberg, Faustus sells an enchanted steed to a horse-dealer, warning the buyer not to ride it through water.  Figuring that Faustus was hiding some special ability of the horse, the man defies Faustus’s instructions—and the horse changes into a bale of hay, dropping its rider into the water.  The soaking-wet horse-dealer finds Faustus napping and tries to wake him by shaking him by the leg—and the leg comes off in the horseman’s hand.  He runs from Faustus’s study with the leg as Faustus laughs in derision at the fleeing man, but the horse-dealer isn’t Faustus’s only victim in town.  Robin, Dick, and a cart-driver are also angry at the magician, so they get together in a tavern to plot their reprisal. They demand to see Faustus while he’s with the Duke and Duchess of Anholt, for whom he produced a castle in the air and grapes out of season.  The duke, who’d summoned Faustus to thank him for his magical service, allows the scoundrels in, but once they start recounting Faustus’s wrongs, he charms them into silence—literally: they can’t speak—and the duke and duchess congratulate themselves for having a subject who can make unhappiness disappear.

Faustus’s servant Wagner announces that he thinks his master is preparing to die because the scholar is bequeathing all his possessions to his servant.  Indeed, the end of Faustus’s life and the 24-year term of his satanic contract are coming up, and an Old Man calls on Faustus and advises him to repent and return to God. Faustus tells the Old Man it’s too late for him to repent, but the Old Man tells the scholar that he can ask God for forgiveness even now.  Faustus considers the Old Man’s words until Mephistophilis upbraids him or his betrayal, warning him of the consequences.  Faustus reverses himself and sends his demonic servant to torture the Old Man.  He asks Mephistophilis to bring back Helen of Greece as his lover, which causes Faustus to deliver the play’s most famous speech, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships.” 

On his final day, Faustus confesses all his “surfeit of deadly sins”  to his attendant scholars, who, like the Old Man, urge their friend to beg Heaven for mercy.  When Faustus again replies that he’s too far gone for God’s forgiveness, the scholars promise to pray for him.  Faustus’s Good and Bad Angels appear and show him glimpses of the happiness and pleasures of heaven and the tortures of hell.  Hell terrifies Faustus and as the clock strikes eleven, he wishes that time would stop to allow him time to repent, or that he had no soul at all.  Mephistophilis appears in the scholar’s study and Faustus cries out.

The next morning, the scholars find Faustus’s body torn apart, and they decide to give him a proper burial despite his confession.  In the Epilogue, the Chorus delivers a warning that it’s perilous “ to practise more than heavenly power permits.”

Leonardo Shapiro’s Shaliko Company mounted a production of Marlowe‘s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus (as the company billed it) with original music by David Linton at the La MaMa Annex (renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre in 2009) from 12 to 31 April 1988.  The Shaliko set was devised by Jerry Rojo, the sound by Marilyn Zalkan, the choreography by Judy Dworin, and the costumes by David Velasquez, all of whom had worked with the company before.  The cast was Christopher McCann as Faustus and Regina Taylor as Mephistophilis with an ensemble comprised of Elena Nicholas, Dean Irby, Mia Kanazawa, Cecil MacKinnon, Michael Preston, Tad Truesdale. 

After exploring the uses of power in previous productions, Shapiro reverted in 1988 to the sources of the original Shaliko Company: the classics.  He turned to Doctor Faustus, which Shapiro called “the first great theatrical poem of the English language.”  Certainly he was drawn to the play, which he had wanted to do for years, by his affinity for the poetry he described as “this sort of wild beast that Shakespeare domesticated.”  Shapiro had wanted to be a poet when he was young and he maintained “that poetry is the basis of theater.”  The director, in addition, had a fascination with magic and this was one of the reasons he decided to do Doctor Faustus.  Shapiro used stage magic as a child to create a sense of control over a hostile world and he viewed theater as a form of magic because it’s transformative.  In the Navajo healing chants, which Shapiro admired, a sick person becomes a holy person and, as Shapiro wrote, in theater, the spectators turn the actors into “super-human beings.”  (I posted an article about the chants called “‘My Mind Restore For Me’: Navajo Healing Ceremonies,” on 15 May 2013.)

The director saw Doctor Faustus as an opportunity to consider the magician’s take on the physical world.  What fascinated Shapiro about magicians was their perception of “the difference between what something looks like and what it is, how you can make it do different things.”  From the director’s perspective, stage magicians see the world differently from the rest of us—they see it more clearly, perhaps, more analytically, maybe more cynically.  By observation and instinct, magicians understand how people perceive and experience the world, and they know how to alter that perception for their advantage.  Ordinarily, our brains use the senses to perceive the world; magicians have learned to manipulate the way we interpret what we perceive.  We order our perceptions—and therefore our understanding of the world—according to reason informed by common past experiences, but magicians, Shapiro ascertained, see the gaps in common perception, the interstices, the seams, the glitches.  They’ve discovered how to redirect the audience’s attention or use the imperfections of human perception to make us see what isn’t there (or miss what is), to believe what we know is impossible.  They’ve learned, for instance, how to make some objects more salient than others, attracting our focus and awareness where the magician wants it rather than where it might naturally go.  Like a stage director willing to use whatever works, magicians apply optical illusions, special effects, and even concealed devices (known as “gimmicks”) to seem to defy the laws of physics.  Like a magician, as Tennessee Williams had it (despite his rejection of the parallel between his task and the prestidigitator’s), Shapiro’s aim was to transform “truth, life, or reality” into “other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”

Like magic, theater can depend on how we construe or misconstrue reality, how we look in one place and miss what’s happening in another.  Unlike Marlowe’s Faustus, however, a stage director can’t alter actual reality but he can misdirect us and make us watch the right hand while not noticing what the left one is doing.  He mismatches causes and effects so that we connect the wrong dots.  He does, in a sense, make things appear and disappear.

Using an environmental design by Jerry Rojo for the La MaMa Annex, Shapiro planned an intermissionless, 80-minute production of Doctor Faustus “full of surprises: appearances, disappearances, and transformations.”  He promised, “Angels will fly and devils change shape.  We want the play to be as scary and dangerous today as it was for Marlowe’s audience 400 years ago.”  As was his habit, Shapiro viewed the 1592 play as a vehicle for expressing ideas important to him.  On one hand, there was a political aspect to his view of the play, an indictment of society for selling its “soul to the devil for power” and for signing a “materialistic contract which has divorced us from the interconnected spiritual life of the natural world.”  On the other hand, there was Shapiro’s belief in the healing power of theater which led the company to see “the play as a pure example of theater as incantation.  We do it as an exorcism of our own damned cynicism, our own devils, our own false contracts.”  Shapiro proclaimed, “Marlowe understood the theater as a magic battlefield between hope and despair on which our fate is acted out by living spirits.”

The set was essentially a raised platform in the shape of a cross, extending beneath a half curtain to the back of the playing area.  Undecorated and made of wood planks, the cruciform platform “turned La MaMa’s cavernous Annex performing space into a mini-cathedral,” in the words of Nation reviewer Thomas M. Disch, and most of the action occurred on the “nave,” with the Chorus’s speeches delivered from the “chancel” (where the altar would be in a church); the low curtain served as both a Brechtian device and the sort of chancel screen found in many medieval churches.  At the “crossing,” where the nave and the transept intersect, was the location of a magic circle where the sorcery was performed and a trapdoor for supernatural appearances.  Some scenes were performed in the audience tiers that  are about 10 feet above the floor, against the walls on two sides of the Annex. 

Shaliko’s production was intended to be both what Shapiro called “an ‘original instruments’ reconstruction of the pre-Shakespearean theater and an absolutely contemporary examination of the world we live in.”  To make this examination, Shapiro cut parts of the script, but didn’t alter the rest of 16th-century text (of which there are, granted, two versions and I don’t know which one Shaliko used—perhaps a compilation of both) and the production was generally presented in period garb and behavior, with occasional contemporary touches.  The company explored the contemporary aspects of the Faustian puzzle through touches in costuming (Faustus appears at times in a business suit, a tuxedo, and a spacesuit for his journey through the heavens), music (electronic compositions), and staging (film clips, audience interaction, and nudity).  (Because of the doubling, Shapiro also cast his five-actor ensemble without regard to gender; also non-traditionally, Mephistophilis was played by a woman.)  In addition to the magic  tricks, Shapiro incorporated many low-comedy gags in the Shaliko production, such as the performance of the Seven Deadly Sins, which was danced to Linton’s electronic compositions in skeleton costumes.  Though it played its full one-month run, the troupe’s Doctor Faustus was both a critical and an emotional failure.

In the New York Times, for instance, Mel Gussow called Shaliko’s Doctor Faustus an “unexciting production” and a “spiritless affair” that’s “lessened by the actors.”  Though Gussow acknowledged that a “few of the attempts at magical diversions are effective,” he also complained that “in other respects, . . . the staging is self-conscious.”  Jonathan Kalb was even blunter in the Village Voice writing, “all the actors are miscast, the set is well designed but poorly utilized, and the production offers no coherent ideas about the play’s action . . . .”  Kalb called the Shaliko production “a collection of predictable, toothless effects” and asserted that the “action is both noisy and listless.”  Worse, the Voice reviewer declared that Shapiro “lacks the skill to construct even a lucid contemporary modern morality play.” 

After the two most important critical voices, other reviews were mixed.  Lisa Merrill called the production “generally solid” in The Villager, a weekly neighborhood paper, throughout which “there are numerous interesting directorial touches,” noting, though, that “some of these work, others appear arbitrary or intrusive.”  In the end, Merrill stated, “It is heartening to see [Doctor Faustus] alive and well, and still speaking to contemporary audiences.”  On radio, WBAI reviewer Rick Harris caviled about “some extremely unfunny comedy scenes” but thought that overall “the essence of the play remains a stimulating one.”  Harris found Shapiro’s directing “particularly strong” and that “the sense of the play, the use of space, were a marvelous reminder of what La Mama has been . . ., which is to say vigorous and young and interesting,” commending the company “for their ambition, their courage and considerable achievement.” 

Describing Shaliko’s Doctor Faustus “altogether livelier and more intelligent” than a Macbeth (starring Christopher Plummer on Broadway) he’d just seen, The Nation’s Thomas M. Disch, even though he deemed it “scarcely an Obie winner in any department—except perhaps for Jerry Rojo’s set design,” was “glad to have had a chance to see a reasonably faithful production.”  Except for Christopher McCann, the rest of the cast, “underequipped and overearnest,” said Disch, “weren’t really hammy or shameless enough to deal with Marlowe’s orotundities and primeval farce in a spirit that would have brought their enterprise to life.”  Congratulating the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club for its ability “to still shock and offend,” Ken Frydman characterized the Shaliko mounting of Doctor Faustus as “guaranteed to provoke and challenge, possibly even disgust and bore,” even though “Shapiro and his . . . crews have decided to tell this well-known tale of soul-selling as vulgar metaphor and offensive symbolism.”  Declaring, “La Mama certainly scores points for originality and guts,” Frydman agreed that the “idea of audience participation is not a bad device in a frantically choreographed, emotional play like this.” 

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In 1806, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote the first part of Faust, his great dramatic poem, followed 25 years later by Part Two.  Goethe’s version, at least Part One, is arguably the best-known telling of the legend; most people’s idea of the story comes from Goethe, rather than Marlowe or any of the other, lesser-known retellings.  (The subplot about Gretchen, while one of the best-known elements of the legend today, was actually invented by Goethe.)  The most popular work on German-speaking stages, even though the whole play’s seldom mounted, Faust is deemed Goethe’s masterpiece and many consider it one of German literature’s most important pieces. 

Early versions and fragments of the verse play appeared in the late 18th century.  Goethe finished Part One in 1806 and it was published in 1808.  This is the section of the play that tells the famous legend of the scholar who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge.  The playwright revised the text in 1828-29.  Part Two followed in 1831, eight months before the poet’s death, and was published posthumously in 1832.  The second section of Goethe’s Faust, in which the protagonist faces a variety of situations reflecting the dilemma of humanity, leaves behind the focus on Faust and his soul and shifts to a concern with knowledge itself.  While Goethe engages the audience’s emotions in Part One, in Part Two, the author challenges the viewer’s and reader’s intellect.  Goethe himself described the difference;

The first part is almost entirely subjective.  It all issues from a more confused, more passionate individual, and this twilight may well explain its great appeal.  But in the second part there is scarcely anything subjective, here there appears a higher, broader, brighter, less passionate world, and those who have not knocked about a bit and gathered experience will not be able to make much of it.

Among the major distinctions between Marlowe’s 16th-century telling of Faust’s saga and Goethe’s early 19th-century interpretation is the passing of the traditional Christian themes of heresy and suffering which drove the earliest versions of the story.  The religiosity of the Renaissance had given way to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.  Goethe’s figure of Faust, an academic rather than a necromancer, is a largely secularized one, skeptical of orthodoxy and the restraints placed by churches and society on knowledge and learning.  Whereas Marlowe’s Faustus seeks knowledge for power (both great and petty), Goethe’s sees unlimited knowledge as an end in itself.  (Goethe was a true Renaissance man who was not only a poet, novelist, and playwright but also the author of books on science, history, and philosophy.  If it weren’t for the titanism and hubris that drive Faust into the arms of the devil, Goethe could be a model for his own fictional protagonist.)  Goethe’s Faust wasn’t a heretic or a man with an overweening hunger for forbidden knowledge; he was a rebel fighting the constraints of any conventional social system.  Goethe scholars note that the writer planned a series of dramas portraying the “titanic” figures of history and myth: Prometheus, Julius Caesar, Mohammed.  His Faust fit this mold, a man not lusting for power or for mystical lore, but a manifestation of the modern mind that seeks to understand all that can be known of life and the natural world.  If Faust, Part Two is Goethe’s commentary on the culture of his own time, the entire play is his critique of modern humanity as seen in the early 19th century. 

After the “Dedication,” in which Goethe in his study, preparing to work on Faust, describes his thoughts about the material he’s about present, and “Prelude on the Stage,” a discussion on the special nature of theatrical production about to be presented among a director, a poet, and a clown about what they think makes a good play, neither of which has anything to do with Faust’s action, the play begins with the “Prologue in Heaven.”  Mephistopheles, the Devil, is complaining to the Lord about man.  The Lord asks Mephistopheles if he knows Faust and the Devil says he does.  Mephistopheles takes advantage of this to bet the Lord that he can turn Faust away from God’s path to his own.  The Lord agrees to give Mephistopheles a free hand to tempt Faust because he’s confident the learned man is the Lord’s servant. 

Faust, an extraordinarily passionate intellectual, a professor and doctor, is dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge.  He uses magic to call up the Spirit of the Earth in his study.  Faust considers himself more than just a mortal; he claims to be the peer of the Spirit, but the Spirit rejects him and disappears.  Overwhelmed, Faust considers taking poison but the sound of the bells heralding Easter morning stops him.  Accompanied by Wagner, his assistant, Faust walks out onto the sunny street where a crowd of townspeople greet him with love and praise for the medical care he and his father had given them.  But Faust is still dispirited, torn between his longing for worldly gratification and his pursuit of limitless knowledge. Faust and Wagner return home followed by a black poodle.  Back in his study, as Faust works on a translation of the Gospel of St. John, the dog becomes agitated and soon reveals that it had been Mephistopheles in disguise.  

Mephistopheles, a brilliant but cynical intellect, shows Faust who he is and what powers he has, then puts Faust to sleep and leaves.  When Mephistopheles returns, he agrees to act as Faust’s servant, doing anything his new master wants until the learned man dies; then Faust must serve the Devil in Hell.  If, however, Faust is ever so satisfied with what Mephistopheles has given him that he wants the moment to last forever, Faust will die immediately and the Devil will take his soul.  Faust signs the pact in blood and Mephistopheles sets out to please his master.  He takes  Faust to a Witches’ Kitchen where he meets Margaret (Gretchen), with whom Faust immediately falls in love.  Faust woos Gretchen with jewels and, with the help of the Devil, seduces her.  Gretchen becomes pregnant with Faust’s child but her brother, Valentine, learns of the relationship and the pregnancy.  Valentine and Faust fight a duel and, again with the intervention of Mephlistopheles, Valentine is killed.  Faust flees and while he’s away, Gretchen gives birth.  She drowns the child and is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  Faust tries to save Gretchen from execution by freeing her from prison, but she refuses to leave.  Mephistopheles tells Faust that Gretchen is damned—but a voice from above declares: “She is saved!”

Each act of Part Two explores a separate theme and is relatively independent from the other four.  It is Goethe’s examination of contemporary philosophical concepts and his commentary on the culture of his time.  Faust, now unbelievably wealthy, is an old man near the end of his life—and his bargain with Mephistopheles.  Faust tries to satisfy his cravings for all knowledge as well as earthly pleasures through worldly achievements and experiencing everything he can on earth.  He rises to a high position at the Imperial Court, meets figures from antiquity from whom he draws knowledge, pursues Helena of Troy, achieves a great military triumph, and becomes known for his civic deeds, but none of these accolades satisfies him.  There’s a battle between Faust and the Heavenly Host and Faust dies a bitter and disillusioned man.  Mephistopheles is ready to seize Faust’s soul as his prize for the wager he made with the Lord, but, in contrast to Marlowe’s telling of the legend, the Heavenly Host miraculously snatches Faust’s soul away and whisks it off to Heaven despite his iniquitous deeds, as a reward for his ceaseless striving, though his habitual ruthlessness and intemperance prevented him from accomplishing it in his life, to distinguish between good and evil, and his tenacious belief that there’s something greater than himself.  An angry Mephistopheles is left feeling cheated of his rightful desert.

Many scholars consider Faust a “closet play,” one that was meant to be read (usually aloud by a reader for a small audience) rather than presented on stage.  First,  it would take over twenty hours to stage both parts of the tragedy, and second, a production would require nearly 40 locations, including six with multiple levels.  Faust, Part One contains 25 scenes plus the “Dedication,” “Prelude,” and “Prologue.”  Faust, Part Two comprises five acts: Act I has seven scenes; Act II, three with Scene III having five parts; Act III consists of a single scene; Act IV has three scenes; and Act V, seven.  Within this structure are hundreds of pages of digressions and extraneous verbiage.  By conventional theatrical standards, the play, specially Part Two, is dull at points and often unsatisfying.  (Marlowe’s drama is far more theatrical and compelling on stage.)  Part One is more often produced alone, though even that requires judicious cutting (Goethe himself made cuts for the staging in Weimar in August 1829); Part Two gets produced less often and, then, usually in fragments.  The première of Part One was at Braunschweig (Brunswick) on 19 January 1829 (selected scenes had been presented in 1819 in Berlin), followed by the Weimar staging.  Part Two was first presented in 1854 in Hamburg and the début of the two parts together was in 1875 at Weimar; in 1938, an unabridged version of the whole play was presented at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland (where it is still performed).  In the 21st century, Faust, Part One was presented in a 4½-hour production by the Teatro Comunale di Modena, Italy, directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius, one of the most renowned theater directors in Lithuania; Faust, Part Two was staged in 2005 by Michael Thalheimer at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin; and the two parts together were mounted by Peter Stein at Expo 2000 Hanover in a performance that ran 21 hours.


[So, that’s the beginning . . . of my three-part post and of the stage life of the Faust tale.  Please come back in a few days and read the next installment in my look at what’s arguably the most prolific source for dramatic literature.  (I can’t think of a story that’s given rise to so many plays.  Can you?)  The examination continues in Part 2 coming to ROT soon.]

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