Marlowe, the Rewards of Doctor Faustus and the 21st Century Devil You Know

Many years ago a theatre director said to me that there was a reason that from the canon of Greek tragedy only a small number were regularly seen on the modern stage. “Because they are good.” she said. If we are honest, when one looks at Sophocles, Corneille or even Shakespeare, some plays are “better” than others: can we really say that Euripides’ Helen is as good as Medea or that Shakespeare’s Pericles is as good as Lear or Macbeth? Of course not. Yet there is much even in the most flawed classic. The challenge they present to both the audience and the director explains their enduring appeal. Modern productions of Shakespeare can blend modernity and cultures to spectacular or disastrous results; a trend towards naturalism in Greek tragedy has recently seen Ian Rickson’s production of Electra at the Old Vic and Ivo Van Anne Carson’s Antigone at the Barbican. Each played with convention to create tragedy for a modern audience; all are a far cry from Olivier’s hammy Henry V or Peter Hall’s famous Oresteia.

If there are creative possibilities with the ancient or Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, currently being revived by Jamie Lloyd and with Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) as the eponymous anti hero, presents even greater dangers but greater rewards as well. Based on German legend, Marlowe created part medieval morality play, part tragedy. Definitely innovative drama and most certainly flawed, it conformed superficially to notions of Christian morality of the 16th century but equally shows the threat that science poses to religion. We no longer live in an age of moral certainty so the idea of evil being physically represented is, at best, problematic for the modern director.

However, over the years there have been many works based around the legend,  whether it be Goethe’s two part epic, Gounod’s romantic opera or Vaclav Havel’s novel Temptation. Richard Burton and Ian Mckellen are among many actors who have played the role in modern productions.  We have not shied away from this grotesque legend. Why does Faustus still grip our imagination?

Faustus is given unlimited powers but wastes them

Anything taken to an extreme is interesting. Faustus' bargain with Lucifer is one he makes out of frustration with the limits of human knowledge. His reaction to the frustration is an extreme one: he resorts to necromancy, ultimately he trades his soul for unimaginable power but eternal damnation. Even in a secular age the idea of absolute evil still fascinates.

Doctor Faustus is not that simple though. In Act Two, after the pact has been sealed in blood, he questions the devil’s messenger Mephistophilis about the nature of the universe. The replies - Ptolemaic rather than Corpercian - are evasive and fantastic. Mephistophilis quotes a Latin motto:  per inoequalem motum respectu totes ("through unequal motion with respect to the whole"). “Well, I am answered,” Faustus replies, using a first person passive. When he asks who made the universe, his question remains unanswered. Marlowe is telling the audience, and Faustus, that this devil is deceitful. Yet, even though the deceit is spoken, Faustus - a scientist and scholar - refuses to allow himself to see it.

On his command Mephistophilis takes Faustus to the Vatican (where he plays practical jokes on the pope) and conjures up Helen of Troy (Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, /And burnt the topless towers of Ilium /Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.") What price for one’s eternal soul! It seems a dodge. Faustus is given unlimited powers but wastes them, he wants magic but cannot achieve it: his demands are frivolous. Essentially he wants to hang out with famous people. #Soundfamiliar? Were Faustus on Twitter he would be following Kim Kardashian.

Time and again he is given the opportunity to repent but does not. Even when Lucifer reveals to him the seven deadly sins, he does not repent. He is not only constantly given ways out, he is also shown his own dullness. It is not that Faustus is blind to his own salvation, it is that he is blind to the limitations of his pact with Lucifer. The deal is actually no deal at all. His realisation is only ever partial. Faustus is, however much he wishes otherwise, human. In Act Five, as he dies, his words are telling:

“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.”

Faustus sold his soul for Helen of Troy; we sell ours every day on Instagram

We constantly reinvent theatre to reflect our own mythology. Aristophanes’ satire Lysistrata is often imagined as both an anti-war play and a feminist work: yet part of its ancient absurdity lay in the fact that it was women, not men, who were changing the course of events. Equally The Taming of the Shrew is clearly mysogyntic but is often performed today as a proto-feminist satire. The tragedy within Doctor Faustus is not that he succumbs to temptation but that, although yearning for unearthly powers, Faustus’ desires are ultimately very earthly. Our tragedy is that we allow technology, such as the internet which has the capacity to widen, to narrow us. Faustus sold his soul for Helen of Troy; we sell ours every day on Instagram.

The capacity to interpret the devil not as a physical entity but one who exists within Faustus’ mind is immense. Thus the play becomes a perfect metaphor for our social media driven, narcissistic society. Perhaps we all have made a Faustian pact with the devil but are so immersed in ourselves, blind to its limitations and inherent deceit, that rejection is now useless. Despite the fractured self, Faustus is powerless to act against his own short-term - and banal - interests. He is trapped. Are we? As individuals and as a society we all have our 21st century devils.

Jamie Lloyd is an innovative director. His production promises fireworks. How far he is prepared to take the play for his audience will say a lot about the bravery of modern theatre and how we view ourselves. There is, of course, an irony that a play about the dangers of temptation remains so alluring and mesmerising. But there is also a greater one: a play about the barriers within human imagination has an infinite capacity for reinvention. Faustus has a potential to puncture our personal and societal vanity. In this it is not just good but great, whatever the age. How many plays one can say this about? It just remains to be seen whether Lloyd wants to be Faustus or Mephistophilis.

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (adapted by Colin Teevan), directed by Jamie Lloyd, opens on 9th April at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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