Tuesday, 2 October 2018

2 October, 1594 - Doctor Faustus

Here's what the Admiral's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ye 30 of septmbȝ 1594 ... R at docter ffostose ... iijll xijs 

In modern English: [2nd October], 1594 ... Received at Doctor Faustus ... £3 and 12 shillings

Today is another blast from the past! The Admiral's Men staged Doctor Faustus, which may not have been seen in London since the late 1580s. Written by Christopher Marlowe, this adaptation of an old German legend tells of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. Most of those in today's audience would have known this story well, for by 1594, Faustus was one of the most famous plays of its era, and it attracted a huge throng to the Rose playhouse.

The return of a play

Henslowe's diary entry is the earliest surviving reference to Dr Faustus in the historical record, but he doesn't label it "ne" (new), so we must be seeing again the same phenomenon that we encountered with Tamburlaine a few weeks ago: the triumphant return of an old play to the Rose.

Dr Faustus was written by Christopher Marlowe, along with some collaborators, around the year 1588. It was originally staged by an older version of the Admiral's Men, with Edward Alleyn playing played the iconic title role. Alleyn then joined Lord Strange's Men and appears to have lost access to Dr Faustus during his time with that company. Now, back at the Rose with a rebooted version of the Admiral's Men, Alleyn has regained ownership of Dr Faustus and is able to bring the anguished philosopher back to the Rose.

The story

Wittenberg in 1536
The tale of Doctor Faustus was not invented by Marlowe: it is an adaptation of an old German folk tale. In Marlowe's version, Faustus is a scholar of Wittenberg University. He has lost interest in the books he is supposed to read, and his curious mind leads him to tomes about necromancy. He uses them to conjure a devil, Mephistopheles, who offers to be his servant and let him achieve his greatest desires for a period of 24 years. The price? His soul. Faustus agrees, signing a contract in his own blood.

As a demonic henchman, Mephistopheles at first seems rather disappointing. He blows off Faustus's request for a wife, gives only old-fashioned answers to questions about astronomy, and when Faustus asks him where hell is located, gives him the worrying answer "where we are is hell, / And where hell is must we ever be". Faustus becomes concerned that he has made a mistaken, and considers repenting, but Lucifer himself appears and seduces him with a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Mephistopheles takes his 'master' to see the world;
from F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926)
Mephistopheles now takes Faustus on a globe-trotting adventure. They travel to Rome, where Faustus turns invisible and plays tricks on the Pope. In Germany, he impresses the Emperor by summoning the spirit of Alexander the Great. In Anhalt, he summons grapes from across the world for the Duchess. Along the way, he also torments a comic horse-courser. Back in Wittenberg,  he impresses his fellow scholars by summoning Helen of Troy from the dead, and coming up with the legendary lines, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."

But after 24 years, Faustus's contract is nearly up, and he can only wait in terror as the clock ticks toward its midnight deadline. He cries to God to save him, but to no avail - "See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!", he sobs, "One drop would save my soul, half a drop!"

But it is all fruitless, and at midnight, devils emerge from the trapdoor to carry him down to hell. The play's last lines are spoken by the Chorus, who describes Faustus as a warning to us all:
Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

The impact

Dr Faustus had an enormous impact on the theatregoers of its day, and its influence can be seen on several of the plays described in this blog. We have already encountered Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which is an obvious attempt at imitating Faustus (it too features necromantic scholars and magical sheningans), while smaller ideas and phrases from it turn up in A Looking Glass for London and England and A Knack to Know a Knave.

Faustus summoning Mephistopheles: from the
1616 text of the play 
There are obvious reasons for the play's popularity. It is full of glortious theatrical spectacle, which can be glimpsed via its stage directions: "Enter [Mephistopheles] with devils, giving crowns and rich apparel to Faustus, and dance and then depart" or "[Faustus and Mephistopheles] beat the friars, and fling fireworks among them, and so exeunt." It was still being performed as late as 1620, when John Melton wrote in The Astrologaster that in "the tragedy of Doctor Faustus ... a man may behold shag-haired devils run roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths, while drummers make thunder in the tiring-house, and the twelvepenny hirelings make artificial lightnings in their heavens".

But despite its simple story and spectacular effects, the play is a complex and challenging work that forces its audience to examine their own attitudes toward their own sins. As the Chorus tells us, Faustus's sin is pride, which he himself recognises at the end: he has blasphemously rejected the Bible, has gained immense power and has wasted it on frivolous things. His punishment seems richly deserved, yet it's hard not to have some sympathy with his ambitious desire to know more, and to inquire beyond the limitations placed on him. In 1676, Francis Kirkman, who had read or seen Faustus in his youth, recalled that he enjoyed it when the hero "travelled in the air, saw all the world, and did what he listed [liked]", but he was "much troubled" when the Devil came to claim him; "the consideration of that horrible end did so much terrify me that I often dreamed of it".
A devil pesters St Bernard (from a French
book of hours, 1510

Much ink has been spilt on the play's murky theological orientation (it can be read as Catholic or Calvinist, depending on how you look at it) and the very uncertainty may have caused disquiet in its audience no matter their persuasion. In 2.3, the Evil Angel warns Faustus that "God cannot pity thee". Faustus insists that "God will pity me if I repent", assuming that no matter what sins he performs, a loving God will always forgive him if he expresses genuine regret before he dies. But the Evil Angel responds "Ay, but Faustus never shall repent", as if God's opinion is not really the issue: Faustus's true problem is the despair in his own soul that will not allow him to believe he truly deserves forgiveness. Such challenges to complacency could unsettle the most stolid believer.

An alarming stage devil
depicted on the title page
of Middleton and
Rowley's The World
Tossed at Tennis (1620)
The play even developed a reputation for spooky occurrences during performances. In his Black Book of 1604, Thomas Middleton refers to an incident when "the old Theatre" (a playhouse in Shoreditch) "cracked and frighted the audience" during a show. Many years later in 1633, William Prynne, a fanatical Puritan campaigner against theatre (admittedly not the most reliable source) claimed in his interminable Histriomastix that once, "in Queen Elizabeth's day", when Dr Faustus was performed at the Belsavage playhouse in London, there was "a visible manifestation of the Devil on the stage", which caused the great amazement of both the actors and spectators". Prynne insists that this is a true story, which he had heard it "from many now alive, who well remember it, there being some distracted with [i.e. driven mad by] that fearful sight".

Intriguingly enough, this story links back to Henslowe's Diary. In 1673, John Aubrey retold a garbled version of Prynne's anecdote, although in his version the play was by Shakespeare and Edward Alleyn himself was in the production, playing a demon, "and was in the midst of the play surprised by an apparition of the devil". According to Aubrey, Alleyn was so disturbed that he vowed to give more to charity. This ultimately resulted in his founding Dulwich College, the school south of London in whose archives Henslowe's Diary remains to this day. So, if the Devil hadn't freaked out Alleyn during a performance of Dr Faustus, this blog might never have existed...

The play in performance

Dr Faustus has never left the stage since Marlowe wrote it, and it is undoubtedly the most popular play that we've encountered in Henslowe's Diary, excepting only those by Shakespeare. It can be performed in many different ways and can appear surprisingly modern: take a look at this (gruesome) trailer for Maria Aberg's amazing 2016 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In it, the two lead actors randomly chose who would play Faustus or Mephistopheles on any given night by burning matches, but my strongest memory of this incredibly disturbing production was the parallels it drew between drug addiction and Faustus's thirst for magic.

What we learn from this

The return of Faustus makes undeniable the overwhelming dominance of Christopher Marlowe in the repertory of the Admiral's Men. He may have been dead for over a year, but his Jew of Malta, his Massacre at Paris, and his two Tamburlaine plays have been stunningly popular throughout the various seasons at the Rose.

Henslowe may be gloating at the triumphant return of Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus. But at the other end of London, Shakespeare is ruling the roost at the Theatre in Shoreditch, and is about to produce such instant classics as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Henslowe should be a little worried that his most successful plays were written by a man who is now deceased. The lack of new blood could be a concern for the future.


Doctor Faustus information

  • Thomas Middleton, The Black Book (1604)
  • William Prynne, Histriomastix (1633)
  • John Aubrey, The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey (1676)
  • Roma Gill, ed., The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Volume II: Dr Faustus (Clarendon Press, 1990).
  • David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, eds., Doctor Faustus: A- and B-Texts (1604, 1616) (Manchester University Press, 1993).
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 14-17, 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 810.


Henslowe links


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