MONDAY, December 11, 2017 AT 7:30 PM
Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.)
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Featuring Michael Stuhlbarg, Patrick Page, David Pittu, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Robert Stanton, Helen Cespedes, Zach Appelman and Stephen Spinella
With the Good Angel and Bad Angel at each shoulder, which way do you turn? Doctor Faustus, an expert in every subject from Medicine to Divinity, tries to satisfy his hunger for knowledge by indulging in necromancy. In a devilish pact, he’s granted 24 years with magic at his fingertips. But with the clock ticking down, how has Faustus used his time? And will he repent, before it’s too late? Marlowe dramatizes the German legend as only he could, igniting Elizabethan audiences—who swore actual devils appeared on stage—and cementing the young playwright’s reputation before his own untimely death.
The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. Casting subject to change.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is considered the greatest figure in Elizabethan drama before Shakespeare; had he lived, he almost certainly would have been Shakespeare’s rival and equal. The circumstances around his early death remain controversial; long thought to have been murdered in a tavern brawl, recent evidence suggests that he may have been the victim of a political assassination. Marlowe was well know for his radical views on religion and sodomy, had served as a spy for the crown, and was closely associated with the circle of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary and head of intelligence. Marlowe is recognized as bringing the conventional chronicle play within the perspective of tragedy, in the process raising the blank verse form to new heights, earning Ben Jonson’s praise for “Marlowe’s mighty line.” His first major play, Tamburlaine the Great, appeared in 1587, followed by Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta. All three protagonists are gripped by a master passion — an overwhelming desire for infinite beauty, knowledge, riches or power.
ABOUT THE PLAY
The first great Elizabethan tragedy, Doctor Faustus embodies a double ethic: the tradition of the medieval morality play and a new Renaissance longing that contradicts medieval certainties. These two conflicting systems are equally persuasive: the poetry of Faust’s longing is as absolute and powerful as the picture of medieval right and wrong, leaving no clear moral choice: to be “saved” or give up everything that makes the life of man.
During the 1580s the medieval image of the day of judgement begins to fade. Previously, a direct relation existed between the image of God and its representation in the theater, one that everyone understood — God was a dramatic character, played by an actor. But an increasing distance grows between the spectator and the absolute images of religious faith; imagery becomes more overwhelming and mysterious. God disappears as a character and becomes a manifestation, a distanced essence that can be questioned; his presence becomes increasingly abstract and frightening.
With this shift, we begin to see an enlargement of the self — the self becomes the ultimate value — to be as great as God! Characters take on psychological specificity, situated within a particular time and place. This shift requires a new, self-constructed moral system, one at odds with the traditional system based on a medieval understanding of man’s place in the Christian cosmos. However, behind this new assertion lies an extraordinary doubt that produces a growing frustration with the limits of human knowledge.
Why can’t Faust repent? The fundamental problem in the Renaissance concerned the idea that knowledge itself is damnable. For Augustine, the worst sin is spiritual despair, when man reaches the end of learning and sees it has nothing to do with God. This is the psychology of the humanist, suffering from guilt over his studies away from God; Faust pursues this humanist learning, but loses certainty when Mephistopheles can’t answer the ultimate question: Who made the world? Mephistopheles can offer Faust sexual pleasure, but can’t provide him with a wife because marriage is a sacrament; he conjures Helen of Troy, but she remains an insubstantial image — a piece of theater.
At the end of the play, Faustus cries out:
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop of blood will save me. O my Christ! —
Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet I will call on him! O spare me, Lucifer!
Faust has lost the sense of distinction between God and the Devil, between good and evil; all things become equivalent. When distinction disappears, one ends by knowing nothing — it’s the end of knowledge itself. Every attempt Faust makes to get out of the contract is based on the same confusion of opposites: he calls on Lucifer to spare him, on time to stand still, and, in the ultimate irony, offers to burn his books.
The play ends with a conventional medieval morality Chorus, but the moral lesson is not that Faust “climbs too high” but rather that man’s aspiration leads him to a place where the very intent of his aspiration cancels itself out. This is the profound paradox of the play: Faust’s pursuit of knowledge ends in his loss of the sense of ultimate contexts — the difference between Heaven and Hell, God and Lucifer, Time and Eternity, theatrical image and reality. This disorientation becomes increasingly internalized, subjective — the very subject of Jacobean tragedy.
Faustus, a renowned German scholar, has abandoned his studies as useless in his quest for ultimate knowledge and commits himself to the forbidden art of necromancy. By incantations he summons Mephistopheles and they strike a bargain: in exchange for Faustus’ soul the devil promises to fulfill his every wish for twenty-four years. As Faustus prepares to sign the deed with his blood, he wavers, but Mephistopheles distracts him with an enchanting spectacle of dancing devils and Faustus signs the contract.
Faustus soon learns that Mephistopheles cannot give him everything he wants — he cannot answer ultimate questions about the nature of the cosmos, nor, since marriage is a sacrament, can he provide him with a wife. Still, Faustus revels in his newfound power.
Accompanied by Mephistopheles, he visits Rome, where he plays tricks on the Pope and later raises the spirit of Alexander the Great for the Emperor of Germany. Following twenty-four years of worldly exploits, Faustus’ end is near; unable to repent, he begs for divine grace, entreating Christ to save him. He calls for time to stand still, but as the clock strikes twelve devils arrive to take him to hell and