Believed to be the first dramatization of the morality tale, Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus was written between 1589-1592. His version is more or less the iteration with which most of us are familiar. In essence, it’s a corrupted search for knowledge involving science, magic, good and bad Angels, and a bargain with the demon Faustus himself summons. The protagonist is at last dragged to Hell. A saga of hubris, the story often compared to Icarus’ fatal flight.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s version, Faust Part One and Faust Part Two, was developed in the late 1700s and published in the early 1800s. It begins with God’s confidently giving Mephistopheles permission to test Dr. Faustus. “He will triumph.” At the dead end of scientific research, having turned without satisfaction to magic, Faustus is on the verge of suicide.
Aided and abetted by a Devil who offers the proverbial bargain, cynical as to achieving the gratification that would damn him, Faust goes on a lengthy mythological, carnal journey which exhausts and thwarts his enabler. Despite a laundry list of sin, Angels collect him.
Goethe’s play is rarely performed as its uncut version runs 24 hours. Tonight’s actor/adapter began with it almost 30 years ago, an exchange student working as a stagehand in Dornach, Switzerland. His 90 minute reshaping into bell-punctuated chapters, emerged in 1999. There are no costumes or make-up, though short grey hair is subtly moosed into two small points. Mephistopheles often speaks with his face in red light. (For backstory read my interview with Glen Williamson.)
The Devil enters his potential victim’s chambers in the form of – wait for it – a poodle! Things go awry and the iconic deal is offered during a second visit. “What do you know of striving? What do you have that would satisfy me?!” Faustus demands of his tempter. At rope’s end and more than a bit cocky, however, he agrees to the pact.
In no time, he falls in love/lust with virginal Gretchen whom Mephistopheles provides by way of several murders, one committed by an unwitting Faust. The two flee leaving Gretchen (ostensibly unbeknownst to the man who loves her) pregnant, scorned, tormented… imprisoned. Next stop, a witch’s orgy.
Faust has a helluva time in the Emperor’s Court, in the realm of the gods and goddesses, in the Underworld. He travels with Mephistopheles (assuming various corporal shapes) and-wait for it- a floating homunculus-“Hello Daddy.” Then falls in love and sets up house with the beautiful Helen of Troy, but loses her. Each time the searcher seems satisfied, the Devil thinks finally, but when the end comes, God tricks him out of his prey.
While cutting the enormous script must’ve been a Herculean task, it has holes. Glen Williamson moves beautifully and speaks with spirit, but the Devil, Faust, God, and narrator all sound the same. Eyes blaze, arms gesture. The highly stylized take is not character driven. We don’t, alas, feel even momentarily involved with the serially guilt-wracked human.
Williamson has been intermittently performing the piece a very long time. Perhaps a new set of directorial eyes would help.
Photos by Robb Creese
Beat the Devil- Faust, the Whole Story
Based on the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Told by actor/storyteller Glen Williamson
United Solo Festival
Different productions through November 24, 2019
410 West 42nd Street