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.

WYW’s “Othello”: A Rainbow Connection

“…in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment maim’d and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practises of cunning hell,
Why this should be.”
— Brabantio I.iii

Iago is the villain in Shakespeare’s works that most gets under my skin. The only thing that is clear about him is that he does “so hate the Moor.” He gives us upwards of four possible motives for infecting his general with jealousy—that he had been passed over for promotion, that she may have slept with his wife, anxiety about miscegenation, and that she is in general a poor leader—that it is unclear if any of these are at the core of his ire. He offers then a good definition of evil: that for which no motive for hate can be found, a hate that operates without perceived cause. Making the Moor a lesbian woman in the play, as the What You Will Shakespeare Company did this weekend, anchors Iago’s hate even if he cannot articulate it to us: that a Black female is above his station threatens both his military and sexual identities.

This casting choice, aside from anchoring Othello in a cultural moment, makes a number of other aspects about this play ring differently as well. Consider also that Desdemona’s (Megan Scharlau) father, Brabantio (Samantha Fuchs), and the Duke (Madeline Whitesell) are also coded female. The accusations of “witchcraft” that the Moor is accused sits very differently in the play, more overtly associated with medieval female mysticism like that of King Edward II’s wife than the photo-Orientalism of the Ottoman Turks. The play’s emphasis on what is “natural” gets more directly linked with religion rather than race in light of the Supreme Court ruling Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right. In the wake of the SCOTUS rulings hotly behind the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, the line “if she be blessed, she would never have loved the Moor” clanged in my ear. Never have loved the Moor because she was black? Because she was a woman? Both are viable answers to what it means to not be blessed in the eyes of God, putting these two major recent events in conversation with one another in a way that the media has yet to do.

Othello (Laura Robertson) and Desdemona (Megan Scharlau).

Beyond the surface casting choices, I found this production to be one of the most balanced in terms of actorly skill and attention to text of WYW’s spring season. Iago (Luis Alcantara) came out at the top of his pith, and I was concerned he would have nowhere else to go emotionally. In fact, he grew on me, moving from a guns-blazing stir-the-pot fellow to a considered sociopath by developing an unsettling and pointed quietness by the end of the production. He never lost his like of pointing and directing in his gestures, signaling the militarism and hierarchization that importantly frames the action of the play. His foil, Cassio (Orion Lovell), the overt and conscientious playboy to all women regardless of their orientation, could easily be confused as an inconsiderate lush. I think this production nails his characterization: in a world in which we are taught to be suspect first, as audiences we quickly misdiagnose Cassio’s virtues of sincerity and earnestness as symptoms of a larger, unscrupulous agenda. Lovell’s ability to give Cassio both charm and utter, world-altering dismay to first his removal from command and then to Iago’s attack on him (not to mention the spiking of his drink) by play’s end gives us some ease that Cassio is the one left to rule in Cyprus.

There were a number of other small and smart moments in the production that suggest a careful and detail-oriented approach by co-directors Jaclyn Marta and Matthew James Marquez:

  • Memory: The troupe is beginning to play with the space of the University Place Christian Church more overtly, such as in their recent Macbeth. Here they did a tight theatre-in-the-round set-up that afforded experimentation with their increasingly sophisticated lighting options. Both the courtship scene as described by Othello (Laura Robertson) and Cassio’s temptation of Desdemona as described by Iago are bathed in a blue light to signal the extent of what is being imagined inside Othello’s head. It is a powerful device to lend the character greater interiority that is still informed by the text.
  • Militarism: While watching I was looking for more overt signals to the military context of the play. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized the degree to which gesture was freighting the influence of militarism on the individual characters. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was the interpretation of the lover’s quarrel over Cassio in III.iii: distracted by the business of running a war campaign through her cellphone, Othello is pestered by Desdemona to hear out Cassio. Rather than sycophancy, Robertson found space to use the responses to Desdemona’s admittedly inappropriate influences over military structure as sarcasm. Eye-rolling, frustration, and mock-force play up the irony of “I will deny thee nothing” and “I am obedient,” economically giving us a realistic moment of spousal friction necessary to make these characters human, make us side with and root for them, before they begin to undo one another. It is an important playful set-up to the extent of Othello’s strength when the mock-force becomes real force, full face slaps, and aggressive shoving about when Othello first confronts Desdemona about infidelity in IV.i: “I would make her turn: / Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on, / And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep; / And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient, / Very obedient.” It is a creative approach to these imbedded stage directions to physically turn Desdemona, alongside the echoes of earlier “obedience,” that lends their relationship and the play coherence.
  • Willows: Desdemona’s willow song is a signal moment in this play, not unlike the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or the madness scene in Macbeth. Played as if in shock or lost in memory, the song can easily evacuate the tenuous agency that Desdemona has developed in the course of the play. Without that agency, Othello is made simply a brute killing an unknowing innocent and these characters lose the complex richness that made them relatable in the first place. Scharlau gives us a doe-eyed Desdemona for most of the production: aware, playful, but smacking of nothing serious. Here she creates a very calm moment with a thoughtful interpretation of the willow song, sung confidently and only occasionally incorporating a minor key without exoticizing Barbary’s song too much. Suffering from allergies, it was calm and lovely enough that I found myself working hard to keep from sniffling and disturbing the moment. Her abrupt turn in the song to say “what’s that‽” made the whole audience gasp and several of us jump up in our seats. I had never envisioned this moment in this way, but we were in fact taken in by a North African song and story, entranced as Desdemona must have first been by Othello, and perhaps experiencing what entrances them about one another.

Often you don’t necessarily get as thoughtful a production when the exigency, the timeliness of its subject matter, is so immediate. The context for me as I meditate this morning is the recent SCOTUS ruling and Charleston. That we need to talk about racialized privilege and the policing of bodies in this country has never been more present and more difficult, and yet again Shakespeare gave me a way to link these together and space to meditate on those links. If we can make any claims to how theatre is political, it is in the way it gives us imaginative room to contemplate frictions in our realities. In skimming through the program, I was struck that not only were the actors playing Desdemona and Cassio in a relationship, but that the actors playing Iago and Othello are getting married in a month’s time. No doubt the struggles they have and will face as an interracial couple may’ve informed their performances (speaking of motive), but certainly it brings home again that these dramas have direct bearings on our reality. I can say that I needed this play, in this way, right now. As a summer production the audience was scanter than it might have been; I hope the What You Will Shakespeare Company considers re-mounting it for the fall, as I think others need this play, in this way, too.