We know only a handful of facts about Faust. He was born in the province of Weimar around 1480. Although he was a farmer's son, he became a doctor of divinity and later an astrologer, almanac-maker, conjurer and con-man. Always on the move, boastful, provocative, he reached the peak of his fame in the 1530s and died of unnatural causes in 1539.
Nearly fifty years later the Lutheran publisher Johannes Spies filled out the bare bones of Faust's life into a small book that became a runaway bestseller. This book is now referred to as the Urfaust, the original, primal source of the Faust story. Within a year the book was translated into English as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus. Within another year Christopher Marlowe transformed the Faust material into one of the most famous plays in the English language.
The Faust story fell on extremely fertile ground. Both England and Germany were in a fever of religious reformation, religious persecution and witch burning. Faust's death was a great object lesson. In Marlowe's play, Faust is torn to bits at the end - probably the actor was dragged off and fake human limbs where tossed onto the stage as he howled. The book was able to be far more graphic. Faust, after a pretty farewell speech ("my hourglass is at an end") locks himself in his house. Cries, screams, crashes and thunder are heard all night long. In the morning his neighbors break down the door and find Faust's blood everywhere. His brains are splattered on the walls. In one corner are his teeth; in another his eyes. After a long search his body is found outside, thrown on a dunghill with every joint broken.
Oddly enough, his friends give him a Christian burial. This is important because it shows the contradictory nature of the man: he is not evil, nor even bad, in spite of what he's done. It's certain that he will roast in hell, but our sympathies are with him.
Like the Elizabethan theatre, Spies' book appealed to the highest and lowest in the public. It is a mix of vulgar and bawdy comedy, religious and moral preaching, exquisite speeches, bloody horrors, and acute psychological drama. It is a rich emotional tapestry.
Part of the popularity of story is due to its comic element. Faust plays no end of tricks: invisible, he strikes the pope's face; in the guise of Mohammed he enters the Turkish emperor's harem and lies with the most beautiful wives; he claps horns on the heads of scoffers and confounds his enemies; he leaves an old butler in the top of a enormous pine to cry for help to the amazed bystanders. He calls up spirits from the dead, among them Helen of Troy. In Spies' book they live together and have a child, Justin, though both Helen and Justin disappear the night of Faust's death. They cannot marry, Mephistopheles explains, because marriage comes from God, and so Faust must resign himself to an endless series of relations with beautiful women. In the last year of his life Faust travels the globe with his seven favorite lovers. In Marlowe's play, Faust cannot consummate his desire for Helen; instead he gives the lovely speech that begins:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul - see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in those lips,
And all is dross that is not Helen.
Marlowe's play, adapted for the puppet theatre, traveled across Europe back to Germany, where it fanned the interest in Faust back to a flame. Goethe admired Marlowe's drama. He said to a friend, "How greatly is it all planned! I have thought of translating it - one sees that Shakespeare did not stand alone." In fact, Marlowe does not suffer much from comparison with Shakespeare. Although he stands much closer to the traditional guild and morality plays than Shakespeare, his Faust is the first English drama whose characters are psychologically real. He involves us emotionally with the man Faust.
Goethe never did translate Marlowe. He absorbed the story into the fibers of his being and re-expressed it in a new form. In fact, over the course of sixty years he wrote two quite different Faust plays. Goethe called them parts one and two, but each is a complete, independent drama and the two have little in common excepting the name. Faust I is a development of the story inherited from Spies and Marlowe. Goethe's most enduring contribution to the Faust material is the love story with Margarita. This has inspired a never ending series of musical pieces, operas, poems, films and novels. Even a novel as recent as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita springs from that root.
Margarita implicitly offers Faust redemption through her love. Since Mephistopheles forbids Faust to marry, he must seduce the girl and abase her love. In so doing, he condemns her to death, for she must free herself of the unwanted child. Faust breaks open the prison to save her from the gallows, but she saves her soul by refusing to escape. She accepts her punishment and is received by angels. Although Faust is damned by the chorus at the end of part one, he does not die. It is an ambiguous ending that leaves him alive for part two.
The Faust of part two is another man, a superman. He descends to the underworld to carry off Helen of Troy. When he fails, he returns to earth and devotes himself to land reclamation on a grand scale. He wants to create arable land by draining a huge marsh. His unending work on this public project win his salvation, and angels carry him off at the end. Goethe was much criticized for letting Faust off the hook, but he could not have condemned a man so much like himself.
What sets Faust II apart from Spies' book, Marlowe's play, and even Faust I is the background. Goethe threw his Faust into the classical world. In fact, Faust is nearly buried beneath the gods, demigods and nature spirits that populate Goethe's play. But Faust is no longer Faust. The Christian world dissolves when it drops into the pagan realm. Faust's descent into the underworld negates the threat of hell. The presence of the pagan gods turns Mephistopheles into just another spirit, and a fairly weak one at that. And yet, Goethe was right. The Faust story makes sense only against the Lutheran, Puritan background in which it was created. Faust was a modern man: he set no value to his soul; he sold it because it had no value to him. Faust did not believe in the afterlife. If there is no afterlife, there is no risk. In Louis Pauwell's 1974 film President Faust, the devil complains to the atheist hero, "Now it's up to me to convince men they have a soul before I can seize it. I have to do all the work myself - God has abandoned me." We have transformed the belief in the soul to a belief in oneself. Nowadays selling one's soul means selling out - compromising one's principles for the sake of material gain. It has no reference to the afterlife. We still believe that the soul has a commercial value, but we no longer have to draw magic circles on the ground to trade it.
[ 1 January 1998 ]