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Gareth Jenkins


A modern hell

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Doctor Faustus
by Christopher Marlowe

The story is a legend from the middle ages: a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. In its original form the contract is a straightforward struggle between good and evil.

But the story’s appeal changed with the growth of modern society. Faust became a symbol of the aspiration to overstep the limits laid down by traditional authority, to understand the secrets of nature and to gain mastery over the world. Faustus is turned into a rebel, but a rebel whose contract with dangerous powers destroys him in the process.

Marlowe, writing his play in the 1580s and 1590s, was the first modern writer to develop this side of the Faust legend. In part he is still stuck with the medieval framework – there are good and bad angels, real devils, magic and sorcery. But more importantly he presents us with a character who rejects all the old authorities in philosophy, medicine, law and theology as inadequate to what human beings are capable of thinking and doing.

His pact with Mephistopheles is a chance to explore the limits of knowledge and of the physical world. This was the age of the rebirth of learning, of the conquest of the New World and of shattering advances in science. Faust reflects all three. He wants to relive the glories of the pagan world, gather together the riches of the world and delve into the causes of things. He is a kind of glorified Elizabethan adventurer.

But he is doomed – not just in the medieval sense of being damned for all eternity with the pains of hell. He also begins to realise that his appetite is larger than the means to satisfy it and that the powers he summons up are not his to control. He ‘is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’, as Marx was much later to describe the capitalist class.

It is this tension between aspiration and fulfilment that gives irony to the dialogue between Faustus and Mephistopheles which dominates the play. The devil never ceases to tell Faustus where his ambitions will take him – and Faustus never ceases to disbelieve in the devil until too late.

Staging the play always presents difficulties because it is an uneasy mix of medieval and modern and because the text is corrupt, some of it by a collaborator interested in injecting an element of farce. This production cuts most of the tedious bits and settles for a modern setting, with Faustus as a student living in a dilapidated one bedroom flat. This ignoring of the historical dimension creates some problems, particularly with the chorus, Faustus’s conjuring up of the devil and the slapstick scene when Faust taunts the pope and the cardinal (it would have appealed to the Protestant audiences of the day).

But the production works much better with the relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles, who is played magnificently as a cool and calculating cynic. And the stage effects are superb, particularly the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. That alone is worth going for.

It is the energy and sweep of the poetry which drives the play forward. The famous lines addressed to Helen of Troy: ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?/Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,’ are only one example of Marlowe’s mighty verse to enjoy.

Modern society from Marlowe’s time to our own has been haunted by the Faustian dilemma of whether the limitless growth of human power does not involve a devil’s pact with self destruction. This production gets something of that across. See it while you can.

Doctor Faustus is at Greenwich Theatre, London, till 11 December.

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