A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”

  1. October 26th, 2019

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