‘Methinks, by most, ‘twill be confess’d
That Death is never quite a welcome guest.’Goethe – Faust
If you’re looking for some spooky, hellish theatre this October, you might start by looking at some of the theatrical works based on the legend of Doctor Faustus. An aged German scholar who sells his soul to the devil for one more chance to experience everlasting bliss? It’s got a bit of everything, blood-signed contracts, summoning ghosts, fancy jewels*, Helen of Troy*, being dragged to hell* or being floated to heaven*, and a smart and lovable demon, of course. (*in some versions!)
Many people will tell you that the original Faust was actually written by Goethe, and while they aren’t exactly wrong, they also aren’t totally right. It is true that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic tragedy Faust is now considered the pinnacle version of the story, and is to German literature as Dante’s Inferno is to Italian literature, or Milton’s Paradise Lost is to English literature; in a word, epic.
But the story is much older than that, and as with all good legends, the more time marches forwards, the more history falls into myth and living becomes legend.
“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike”Marlow – Doctor Faustus
Who was the first Doctor Faustus?
Stories and legends of men making contracts with the devil have been around probably since there was any true concept of a devil-figure in any religion. Although most of the stories would be based in the Judo-Christian religious schools, scholars have identified even earlier schools of thought that have a satan-like figure, with cautionary tales of making pacts with this figure that epitomises the opposite of everything good in the world.
‘All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.’Marlowe – Doctor Faustus
In the late 15th century, one such legend took on a specific name, that of the scholar Johann Georg Faustus. Thought to have lived between 1480 and around 1540, Faustus is variously recorded as a doctor, or healer, scholar, astrologer, and something of a magician. In fact, it is precisely his prevalence in the different historical records across the area of Germany in which he traveled which led to the proliferation of his own legend, known in German as the ‘Fauststoff’ literally the ‘Faust material’ or ‘Faust fabric’.
Every retelling of the legend is slightly different, but there are two important things which persist in all of them:
- Faust sells his soul to the devil.
- Faust wants to experience bliss.
So, once the story started rolling and Faust started appearing as a literary figure all over Europe, other things got added, some things became permanent, and others appeared only once or twice. Common themes and events in the Faust legend also include:
- A love affair with Gretchen (also called Margaret / Marguerite), a pious, god-fearing girl, who ends up pregnant, destitute, in prison, and/or dead.
- The necromancing of Helen of Troy, so that Faust can see ‘the face that launch’d a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium’ (Marlow, Doctor Faustus – and, yes that’s where the quote is from!)
- Drinking wine, and beer, and eating lots of luxury foods from across the world.
- Gretchen’s friend (or older widowed neighbor) Martha or Marthe, having an affair with Mephistopheles.
- Faust’s student, Wagner, being unable to help his master.
- A final deciding moment, when Faust is either forced to give his soul up according to the contract, or where he asks for forgiveness and receives a heavenly blessing.
In whichever version, the character of the devil is embodied in Mephistopheles. Sometimes Mephistopheles is a demon working in the service of his hell-bound lord, but often he is considered to be Satan himself in one of his many guises.
Theatrical Fausts Before Goethe
In the three centuries between the original Johann Faustus’s life, and the first publishing of Goethe’s Faust, in 1808, there were several other significant dramatic works on the same story. Perhaps the most famous of these would be Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
A literary masterpiece written in the late 16th century, which considers the futility of beauty, the relentlessness of time, and the finality of sin, Marlowe’s play traveled across Europe within the first few decades of it’s premiere and carried it’s protagonist to hell over and over again, whilst delivering the message ‘Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas; If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.’ (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus)
In Goethe’s original, we meet Doctor Faustus at the end of his life. Having spent the majority of it studying medicine, philosophy, theology, astrology, and the arts, he now finds himself facing his own mortality and considering why. In all his books and scriptures, he cannot find an answer to why he, and all others, must die, and what was the purpose of his life. The seed of doubt is already sewn in his mind, and when he returns home after the Easter Sunday service, his study of the scriptures again gives him no solace.
Faust’s concerns have caught the attention of Mephistopheles, who followed him home disguised as a black dog. Mephistopheles offers Faust a deal; if he signs over his life to the devil, he can have his youth returned, and live his life over again, doing exactly as he pleases. Not only that, but he will have Mephistopheles’s powers to aid him along the way. He can have anything he wants, and only for the price of his soul.
Read the StageAgent guide to Faust: Part One here: Goethe’s Faust, Part One
Faust in Opera
What opera composer could seriously resist the pull of such a dynamic and dramatic story as this for retelling on the opera stage? To date, there are at least 20 operas either retelling the story, based on the concept in some way, or featuring some of the main characters.
The most important opera in this genre has to be Gounod’s Faust. Gounod’s rich romantic score, and the beautiful French libretto combine to make this a true gothic masterpiece, which centres on the relationship between Faust and Marguerite.
Boito’s Mefistofele takes a unique perspective on the legend. The prologue sees Mefistofele carefully standing on the edge of his cloak in heaven. He tells god that he thinks every human is corruptible, and asks for the opportunity to demonstrate, with someone they would consider completely incorruptible – Doctor Faust. (Spoiler alert: Mefistofele doesn’t win).
You should also look at Boulanger’s Faust et Helene which is less regularly performed, despite being a miniature masterpiece. This is a 30-minute retelling of just the moment Faust meets Helen of Troy, but featuring a whole ghost army to drag her back to the grave.
Well there’s five spooky and otherworldly shows to choose from for this Hallowe’en. What other versions of the Faust legend do you know?