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.

The What You Will Shakespeare Company opens season with namesake

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
Twelfth Night III.i.60-1

It has been far too long since I have properly reviewed a What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) production, so it seems fitting to return to the troupe with the play from whence they take their name. As is their usual course, the student-run group made use of an unassuming campus space, the basement of University Place Christian Church, whose architecture cleverly provides the necessaries for early modern staging. There are a number of reasons why I consistently enjoy this particular play, a comedy something tonally akin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It; I now come to think that one of the reasons for its perennial success, especially at the hands of student thespians, is that it requires little technology. The play is incredibly plastic, requiring nothing but the three entrances (and even potentially making by with just the two, the norm of medieval hall performances) to carry the action.

What I appreciated most about WYW’s performances this weekend was their choice to embrace the stripped-down quality this particular playtext makes available. The costumes were well-wrought yet simple and straightforward, generally suggesting the Renaissance with doublet, hose, and bucklers, but little else. In fact, aside from having at least two boys who could play strong and convincing women, the only special technology the play requires is a costuming one: yellow stockings with garters to cross them. (While I do not know for sure, the simplicity of material performance the playtext suggests I imagine made it particularly plastic in terms of touring, essentially capable of being staged in any environment.) There was little else but chairs and a table, along with Feste’s (Megan Scharlau) ukulele—musical performance the only other special technology the play seems to call for—to adorn the playing space. In such thoughtful and consistent simplicity we are given the literal and cognitive space to let the language do more work.

With this additional linguistic emphasis given the bare-ish stage (whether Shakespeare’s plays were written for or performed on a bare stage is hotly contested), the puppet master of this play turned out to be Feste. There are a number of inventive parts to this play, where the characters have distinct individual voices—another quality that makes it especially useful for undergraduate performance. Typically, the parts of Malvolio (Erik Wessel), Sir Toby Belch (Monty Joyce), Feste and Viola (Tori Stukins) compete for dominance in individual stagings. I’ve yet to see a successful ensemble rendering that effectively gives the parts equal weight to the benefit of a production; I think that a director’s choice of giving preference to a particular part helps to provide the play with ideological coherence, and so don’t mind the privileging. Scharlau adopted the “omniscient fool” posture in a vein similar to Ben Kingsley’s interpretation for the part, overseeing much of the activity and doubling a number of parts noted and not in the text, including the captain of the wrecked ship who first introduces Viola/Cesario to Orsino’s (Tom Fornando) court. Understanding her words, and underscoring their intentional doubleness, the majority of the play’s action and meaning became tied up in her rendering.

When I return to a play that I’ve seen too many times to count, my ears are looking for a line I haven’t heard fully before, one that is glossed over too frequently but in the mouths of these particular actors is imbibed with a meaning I have yet to discover. In this production I got two such moments. First, the simplicity and elegance of Feste’s rendering of the songs, making use of the lower range of her alto voice which allowed the consonants to ring more concretely than a soprano might. Her rendition of Feste’s first song was far sweeter and less plaintive than is usual:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

In these lyrics I could hear both Orsino and Olivia’s (Kim Gasiciel) longing for “the one,” that Platonic ideal of a romantic other made for them but that they do not see in one another. At the start of the play we have found that the two have adopted different strategies for this longéd longing for a beloved: Orsino basks in love songs and doggedly pursues Olivia, while she gives herself a stricture of abstinence. Both refuse to let the happenstance of love have the upper hand: Orsino constantly pursues it in all the wrong places, while Olivia refuses to let rejection even be an option. Feste’s song quietly encourages the notion of an ideally suited and companionate love but advises giving oneself over to the serendipity and unknowingness of love’s timing in order to be rewarded with such a love.

The second such moment of new hearing was a quotation spoken by Viola (in her disguise as Cesario), telling Orsino a story illustrating the constancy of women in love: “She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief.” It wasn’t until sitting down to write this review that I noticed the passage was included on the cover of the program, presumably emphasizing life’s vacillations between “pleasure and obligation,” according to the director’s note. Unlike Feste’s advice to Orsino, Viola makes a claim that women suffer a kind of small death at the hands of love unrequited, that in their patience, as eternal as a burial monument, women are willing to wait and give over to fate even to destruction. When paired together, the song and quotation inveigh against the wracks of patience in love precisely because it promises equally rewards or devastation when giving over to hope. Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards love is a dark one then, reveling as much in the serendipity of a shipwreck bearing twins, ideal matches for the lords of the land, as in the strings left untied, the broken hearts of Antonio and Malvolio is trying to wrest away Cupid from his arrow. And considering the advice from Feste’s mouth, perhaps the puppet master intended irresolution all the more to make the point.

  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will plays at the University Place Christian Church 17-18 October at 8:00pm.
  • This fall the troupe will also be mounting productions of Julius Caesar and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Stay tuned for more details!