For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
— Romans 8:18
This past weekend the University of Illinois’ student troupe, the What You Will Shakespeare Company, tackled Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Directed by Ashish Valentine with the assistance of Danielle Strickland and Clayton Gentilcore, the play follows the life of John Faustus (Erik Wessel), a celebrated German scholar who has seemingly conquered every course of study save one. He takes up an interest in the occult and in so doing summons the demon Mephistopheles, who promises him a life of bliss in return for his immortal soul. Unlike much of Renaissance drama, the play falls relatively neatly into two halves: the first, the capture of Faustus’ soul, the second, a series of episodes illustrating what he gets in return. The production makes some subtle staging choices to recalibrate the play as one as invested in Mephistopheles’ damnation as in Faustus’.
There is something delicious about drawing pentagrams in a church basement, and the ensemble certainly reveled in the unsanctimonious quality of performing this particular play in one of their usual spaces, the University Place Christian Church. By doubling the roles of Lucifer, Alexander’s paramour, Helen of Troy, and Lady Raymond, Celia Mueller conveyed much of what is enticing about choosing to be fallen: the straining against God’s order and relishing in overt sadism at the expense of others. By doubling all of these characters and limiting the costume changes between them, they become barely distinguishable from one another to the audience. (Mueller’s distinctive red hair also helped in marking these separate characters seem more like minor variations on a theme.) Fallenness and decadence—literally, excessive indulgence to the point of moral decline—are located in and defined by the female body. This female Lucifer offers us a thought experiment: what might Eve have looked like if she had chosen to fall from grace rather than merely breaking one rule with a bite of an apple? Mueller’s Lucifer offers an interesting potential answer as well as tracks with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century models of women’s moral and physical weakness.
I will admit that as a reader I struggle with how to envision dumb-shows and interludes within the action of an early modern play. The space they take up on the page is a poor cipher for the time they take up in the space of a play, and the distilling work they do to summarize a central concern of the action. I was, therefore, particularly impressed by the interpretation of the Seven Sins episode. A display of ghostly entertainments turns into a vehicle to torture Faustus’ page boy, Wagner. Lucifer seemingly tortures him as he changes from one sin to the next. As Wagner, Kevin Gomez displayed a compelling range of voices and affects, making each sin clearly distinguishable from one another. Each interpretation was a thoughtful and clear interpretation of what characterizes that particular sin most; the effective simplicity of his Sloth never standing up from his writhing posture on the floor is a good example. The character of Wagner is a difficult one as it can beg bafoonery. Gomez keeps his Wagner in check, not erasing the playfulness for which the text asks, but making it clear that Wagner is one of the unwitting casualties of Faustus’ choices.
Like Wagner, in this production it is very clear that the low characters serve to demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of Faustus’ turn to damnation. After Benvolio is given horns for a day and made an object of ridicule for Faustus and his royal patron, he and his friend Frederick want revenge. They stab Faustus, who then rises from the dead. The two men beg mercy but Faustus refuses to entertain it. It is an echo of the Seven Sins pageant, where Faustus looks uncomfortably on as his Wagner screams out in pain for help, but does not move to free him. Faustus orders Mephistopheles drop the two would-be murders from a great height. He has no mercy for them. For all Faustus knows, Mephistopheles follows instructions; the audience is made privy to the fact that Mephistopheles in fact saves them.
In this production, Mephistopheles is the only figure who does not revel. Played by Megan Scharlau, she does not bathe in her power, her potential for evil, or rage against an unjust God. She does not smile nor yell, but remains placid and resigned—anything but the roaring devil of German folklore. It would seem the company took one of her opening speeches at its word rather than as a scare tactic:
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul. (I.iii.302-8)
As another devil played by a woman, Scharlau’s Mephistopheles offers an interesting counterexample to Mueller’s Lucifer: one understanding the gravity of her damnation, the other reveling in rattling her prison bars. By the final act of the play, it is unclear as yet how serious the situation is for Faustus. The play seems to ask: When does someone become a lost cause in God’s eyes?
As the final hours of Faustus’ contract count down, Wagner is stabbed and killed by a group of devils. This is a marked departure from the original text, where he more ambivalently flies off on the back of a devil, hallooing all the way. The stabbing sends home the point that the stakes are high and the moral choices Faustus makes affect not only him. Flying off stage in a basement would have been a tricky thing to pull off in the basement of a church, as would have been the swallowing of Faustus by a hell mouth to mark his end. Instead, another rather brilliant staging choice: Lucifer and her devils combat Mephistopheles in an broadsword fight for Faustus’ soul. While Faustus is killed in the fray (echoing something of both Mercutio’s and Hamlet’s deaths), Mephistopheles manages to keep the Morning Star from taking his body.
The stabbings of Wagner and Faustus were smart approaches to otherwise difficult and expensive staging requirements. They also beg a new question: What about Faustus is worth saving? He allows Wagner, Benvolio and many other minor characters to suffer for the sake of his pleasure. He seems to be only capable of envisioning power as the ability to trick and enact cruelty toward others. The series of short episodes that make up the second act each provide him an opportunity to demonstrate either why he is worth of mercy or to request God’s forgiveness. Yet, Faustus wastes each opportunity. Having suffered irredeemable and unending suffering, the intervention by Mephistopheles suggests that every person is worthy of saving, regardless of proofs or whether or not we ask it for ourselves. Ultimately, our redemption or fallenness is never in our own hands.
- The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of Doctor Faustus plays at the University Place Christian Church 1-2 April 2016. Tickets are $7. Doors are at 7:30pm and the show starts at 8:00pm.