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Note from Doctor Faustus Artistic Director Brian Kulick
THE P.T. BARNUM OF THE LATE MIDDLE AGES.
Faust, unlike his literary compatriots, hails from our realm. Where Hamlet, Don Juan and Don Quixote are fictive by birth, Faust would have to wait until his very real death to be first immortalized in Johann Spies The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Johann Faustus, also known to those with a more prosaic taste in titles, as The Faust Book.
The actual George (aka Johann) Faust wandered lower Bavaria in the early 1500s and, from what we can surmise of the earliest documents which chronicle his various and sundry adventures, was the P. T. Barnum of the Middle Ages, known primarily for elaborate performances where he would arrive at a given town and produce a kind of necromantic spectacle that promised to raise the long-dead warriors of Homer’s Iliad. The show would begin with the summoning of the great Achilles followed, in quick succession, by the likes of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Ajax and Hector. This whole Greek phantasmagorical promenade would fittingly climax (so to speak) with the miraculous appearance of none other than Helen of Troy. Before the local inhabitants could get a close look at Faust’s makeshift stage, it would be quickly disassembled and Faust and his strange entourage would be off to another town square or ducal court, continuing to amaze and confound all of what would eventually become the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Along the way, various other stories accrued around our necromantic showman and one popular rumor in particular began to take root and become the stuff of legend or what we’ve come to call the “Faust myth.” This now world-famous rendering maintains that our Johann (rather than the less romantically sounding George) Faust made a pact with the devil and that all of his subsequent exhibits of prestidigitation were a product of this infernal collaboration. A gruesome death, that told of Faust’s strange and unnatural dismemberment, became the capstone and moral of the story which kept gaining in anecdotes until the publisher, Johann Spies, decided to gather them all together in one tome. This two hundred-page collection of Faust’s misadventures became an instant bestseller, capturing the imagination of all of Europe and rivaling that other metaphysically inclined wonder of the printing press: the Bible.
It would only take a year for The Faust Book to makes its way across the Channel and find its translator, a certain anonymous Mr. P. F. Gent, who would quickly translate the rather ornate German into workman-like English. From here, it fell into the hands of the young Christopher Marlowe, the upstart poet and playwright who had captivated all of London with his magnificent Tamburlaine the Great, Part One and, because of its enormous success, the subsequent Tamburlaine, Part Two. It was in these plays that the English theatre found its perfect pulse in the iambic pentameter of Marlowe’s blank verse–that “mighty line” that would influence Shakespeare and his immediate successors. Its most famous example would be a wonderful moment in Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS where Faustus first spies Helen and rhetorically asks, “Is that the face that launched a thousand ships?” The movement of unstressed to stressed syllables (also known as De-Dum, De-Dum, De-Dum) was a revelation to the audience’s ear, rhyming with the beat of one’s own heart, making the language feel all the more natural and inevitable.
Marlowe’s FAUSTUS hews closely to The Faust Book which is an intriguing compilation of low pranks, magical feats, metaphysical speculation, proto-Renaissance yearning for agency through knowledge and more low pranks. It is the low pranks that we forget most when we re-encounter Marlowe’s FAUSTUS, particularly the mocking sub-plot of Wagnar and Robin that sends up the main-plot between Faustus and his devil Mephistopheles. This forgetting of the rough and low humor of the play is partly due to Goethe, who gussied up the myth when he got his hands on it, added a tragic love affair with Gretchen and made Faust more a Hamlet than a Faustus. This re-imagining of the Faustus myth gets further reified in Gounod’s operatic adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which is perhaps our most lasting echo of the myth, relegated these days to the often rarified world of opera where Faust now seems most at home.
Marlowe was the first serious author to grasp the significance of the Faust myth: how it represented an evolutionary leap in the history of will, moving us from the man of the Middle Ages who was shackled by his feudal lord (or the church), to the Renaissance revelation that man was only limited by his own vaunting ambition. In short, Faustus represented the birth of modernity, and you can hear its inchoate rumblings in Faustus’ opening soliloquy:
“Lines, circles, signs, letters and characters-
Ay, these are those that Faustus desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!”
This is the song of the Renaissance that sets future generations dancing. But Marlowe and Faustus are insatiable, as one sees in the following lines:
“All these things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;
But (the magician’s) dominion exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a mighty god.
Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity.”
In this respect Faustus is a continuation of Marlowe’s gallery of “over-reachers” that includes Tamburlaine the Great, Barabas the Jew and Edward the King. All of whom test the geographic, social or ideological boundaries of the age and will not stop until they have trespassed through all borders. Marlowe’s characters set themselves impossible goals and then scene by scene, with relentless and ever-increasing vigor, obtain the impossible. This is a drama that is additive by nature: with each scene Tamburlaine conquers a new kingdom, or Faustus consumes another forbidden pleasure until you think that Tamburlaine or Faustus will burst from all this superhuman accumulation. But this only spurs them onto new heights. It is when they have reached the summit of their desires and they can find no more mountains to climb that they fall. The result of a Marlowe play feels closer in structure to ritual rather than drama, pointing towards Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty where we watch an impulse taken to its furthest extreme until it is purged from the body politic.
Such is the case with Marlowe’s Faustus, he sets the template for this mysterious figures future life that remains alive and well in theatre, classical music and the modern novels of Thomas Mann or John Bainville. In this respect, Faustus is like some intriguing and ever resilient virus that still has the power to infect each new generations with its transgressive imagination. Perhaps as long as their is desire, there will be no true antidote to this most persistent of modern myths.