Edward Albee is Envy; Christopher Durang, Sloth; Amlin Gray, Covetousness; John Guare, Gluttony; Romulus Linney, Anger; Joyce Carol Oates, Lechery; Jean-Claude van Itallie, Pride. The Seven Deadly Sins have seldom been so well represented. It is not clear what criteria director Nagle Jackson used in making his commissions, but he has assigned each writer a transgression to meditate upon. He is staging their ruminations as part of Faustus in Hell at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre this month.
Hell is a territory not unknown to those who work in the theatre. For a good part of history, it was considered certain that they would end up in the one place because they were employed in the other. Embroiled in the process of putting something on the stage, many have imagined that they were already there. During World War II, someone suggested that the only just punishment for Hitler was to cast him in a Broadway musical on its way to out-of-town tryouts.
What Jackson is attempting to do involves, in part, the hell of making theatre. But more important, like so many before him he wants to tap the infernal heat emanating from deep within the art itself. To do so, he has gone straight to the source: two of the theatre’s favorite sinners, Faustus and Don Juan. The premise is that Faustus’ punishment is to perform his damnation over and over again ad infinitum. That performance has grown to include much of the stuff of world drama, compliments of the Wakefield mystery cycle; the author of the first Don Juan play, Tirso de Molina; Molière; Mozart and da Ponte; Goethe; right down to the illustrious contemporary company listed in the first paragraph.
But the scaffolding on which it all hangs was built by Christopher Marlowe, a case study of why the puritanical despise the theatre and those who make it. Marlowe’s life was one with his work—and both were lurid with flashes of treason, blasphemy and perversion, combining to form in the Elizabethan imagination the archetype of the fascinating, demonic poet. He was 29, scarcely two months older than his only true rival William Shakespeare, when he was stabbed to death in a dockside tavern in 1593. The incident, which robbed us of the genius but left us with a persistent, still growing myth, was the senseless result of a flare of temper among some rough customers over who would pay the bill. Rumors flourished, however, and spawned a tale of political assassination masterminded by Sir Walter Raleigh, accounts of direct divine intervention that would make the National Enquirer blush, and a 20th-century theory that the poet did not die at all but was whisked off to the Continent where he wrote Shakespeare.
Such notoriety, coupled with the universal human love of seeing the devil on stage, helped Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, to hold the stage until the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. Puritanical propaganda probably didn’t do any harm either. One story tells how “Certaine Players at Exeter acting upon the stage the tragical storie of Dr. Faustus the Conjurer,” were overcome with the awful certainty that “there was one devell too many amongst them.” The performance halted, the audience fled and the actors, “contrarye to their custome,” spent the night praying and reading scripture.
In the period that followed the Restoration, the play fell out of favor and came to be looked upon as crude and primitive. The old sinner, part Medieval morality figure and part Renaissance Machiavel, was replaced in audiences’ more rationalistic tastes with a new one: Don Juan Tenorio, Dom Juan, Don Giovanni. The two did not share the cultural stage until the 19th century with Don Juan by Byron (another poète maudit in the Marlowe mold) and Goethe’s titanic Faust (a figure who subsumes both sinners and much of the rest of creation besides). One note for trivial pursuers: the obscure German dramatist Christian Dietrich Grabbe, another debauchee of a Marlovian temper, did bring both together in his Don Juan and Faust of 1829.
The first recorded production of Marlowe’s work in over 220 years came in 1896, just before the dawn of a century that would feel a special sympathy for the work. Perhaps our age has created such unimaginable new hells that older ones are almost comfortable. Perhaps we have a particular understanding of the abuses of power, especially scientific power, and can comprehend how a dangerous, overreaching monster can simultaneously be a most human buffoon.
For whatever reason, Doctor Faustus has become one of the most often performed non-Shakespearean works of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Orson Welles did a notable revival in New York during the 1930s, but surely the most famous one came from the Oxford University Dramatic Society. Richard Burton starred, with Elizabeth Taylor providing “the face that launch’d a thousand ships.”
The CSC: City Stage Company in New York is the only theatre I know of to attempt, in fairly short order, not only Marlowe and Goethe (the only American production of Faust I and II), but also Molière’s Don Juan. By combining all of this material for his McCarter production—including the extravaganza of vice by the seven contemporary writers and much more—Jackson is not attempting to form a new “conventional whole,” but to present a “commingling of worlds” full of surprising juxtapositions and unexplained connections.
In addition to what Ben Jonson called “Marlowe’s mighty line,” Jackson will be using Goethe’s “Prolog in Heaven” and Molière’s scene in which Don Juan woos two women simultaneously. The Don, in fact, steals Faust’s factotum Wagner, who becomes Sganarelle long enough to give the famous nonsense proof of the existence of God and then changes to Leporello in da Ponte’s final banquet scene from Don Giovanni. It is Giovanni/Juan, appropriately enough, who requests Faust to conjure up Helen of Troy. But, as in Goethe, it is Gretchen whom Faust loves and destroys—the sad, virginal victim of the man who starts out desiring the whole world. The work ends with Marlowe’s mighty damnation scene and, in effect, begins again in the same way.
It has been said, perhaps simplistically, that the engine of comedy is vice and tragedy runs on sin. The legends of Faust and Don Juan are fuelled by all four. It is for this reason that the works based on them have always been so avidly damned and endlessly fascinating. It is certainly this fascination that puritans of all the ages fear about the theatre. No wonder that, in their eternal battle to rid the world of vice and sin, they also try to cleanse it of comedy and tragedy. How uncooperative of existence that even the battle makes good box office.
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