The Suffering of Mephistopheles

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.


Provosts and prohibitions in WYW’s “Measure for Measure”

the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur
— Claudio, Measure for Measure I.ii

Angela Nostwick’s staging of Measure for Measure takes place during the Prohibition era of 1920s America. This maps nicely will the opening conflict of the play, wherein brothels, having expanded beyond the Viennese Duke’s (Monty Joyce) willingness to entertain them, will “all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down.” Rather than downplaying the initial political problem of the play, as is the norm for stagings of Measure, the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) puts it front and center. By choosing to transgender Pompey (Samantha Fuchs), this adaptation gives us two models of femininity, to poles of female sexuality between which the play vacillates. The first are the two bawds, Mistress Overdone (Katherine Quinn) and Pompey (sometimes Thomas the Tapster), and then the two virgins, Isabella (Emaline Johnson) and Mariana (Maggie Wolfe)—and both rendered to equal extremes.

I feel that Prohibition is a productive framing period when you want to underscore the institutionalized mechanisms for policing social norms. To make this point, WYW has added an extra dance scene—well, strip tease really—by Mistress Overdone and Pompey, who get down to their skivvies (and nearly lose it all) before being arrested by Elbow (Celia Mueller). While it certainly does the work of making explicit the interest in policing of both female sexuality and homosexuality, this scene and the costuming felt to me walking that line between useful and exhibitionistic for exhibition sake. Had the costumes been of the period, something gesturing at the flapper dress that asked us to recalibrate our sense of scanty and decorous in the way that the play suggests, their sexuality and playfulness would have had more resonance. Certainly it wouldn’t have been dependent on 2015 standards of indecency, but grounded in the period it would have highlighted the fact that these norms slide and evolve over time, with time. That throughout the play Pompey and Mistress Overdone strain against various captors in order to return to one another gives the couple a sense of tenderness, but (at least for me) it was not enough to balance the skin factor.

Volts’ “Ladies on a terrasse.” Paris, 1920s.

What does help is the fact that women are constantly under assault by the male gaze and male advances throughout the play to differing degrees—the theme is constant. Lucio (Ashish Valentine) is made a more aggressive prowler than many productions I have seen are willing to commit to, perhaps confused by his description as “a fantastic.” Comparatively, Angelo (Ninos Baba) is actually the least aggressive male in the play. He is also doing the most acting, using the phrases and emphases embedded in the figures of speech to frame his delivery. In it we can hear the gradual evolution of his logic with a pace and realistic gestures to match. I commend anyone who takes on Angelo: like Antony, he is a character that if not dealt with subtlety, if not given gradual degrees to progress to an extremity of emotion or evil, he can feel either (a) very flat, reaching a fever pitch too soon in the action, or (b) go from considered counsellor to a rapacious politician with no sense given to that evolution. In either case, he can come off as illogical when in fact Angelo is a very considered and rationale figure. For example:

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (II.ii)

It’s what makes him so dangerous, what makes our skin crawl when he doesn’t have to act with any force to push Isabella up against a railing or desk; what is terrifying is not the intensity, but the casualness, the sense that it takes no effort to remove agency from her. This Isabella makes a good rebuff to both his physical advances and his logic. The instinct is to react with violence and extremity, to roll around on the prop desk, to smash and clash in a fevered pitch of wit we want from a Beatrice and Benedict. To resist this mirroring and the romantic dovetailing the stichomythia of their shared scenes, is to push back against audiences’ natural inclinations for a comedy, for the union of the couple, for this play to end in marriage. The play does end in at least one marriage, but certainly not one that gives us any of the satisfaction of say Twelfth Night.

Speaking of endings, it must be said that while the troupe had one more dress rehearsal between when I say the production and their opening this Friday, there were several rough patches. For one, the pace is very slow in part I think because of a Duke, in playing two roles, is uncertain of what motivation lies at the center of his part. (And that is certainly a fair question one could ask of the play in general.) While some planned and excessively hard ass-slapping made me cringe, the final fight scene choreography seemed grossly unplanned and haphazard. These technical elements are things easily smoothed by opening night. The challenge seems to be to focus on the issue at hand, the critique of governments and institutions policing sexualities of varrying kinds, rather than the mere exhibition of those sexualities.

In this light it is crucial that the play ends on the threshold of Vienna, at the city gates, on the fringes between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Certainly these staging choices reflect the new awareness of the micro-agressions of cat-calling, and looks directly to our Indiana neighbors and their new discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the two pairs of female sexual identity that brought this to mind for me as a playgoer, but in the subtle coupling of the Provost (Delilah Hansen) and Escalus (Kat Fuenty), men in power but in the closet. They hold hands twice in the course of the play, when everyone else has exited, a silent insertion gesturing to the variety of sexualities in Vienna right under the nose of the Duke and Angelo. Throughout the play they exchange worried, knowing glances as the violence and policing escalate. You realize their lines are the only ones that care about the outcomes of Isabella, Claudio (Jeri Murphy), and even Barnardine (Matthew Freeman) as real people (in the play world at least) rather than their occupations or subject positions. The Provost and Escalus for me represented those good people on the edges and caught in the middle of a debate they don’t want to fight, but have to, because their legislators won’t do it on their behalf. And certainly that is reason enough to spend some of this weekend with Shakespeare and WYW.