Faust, furious and surprisingly funny

For many, Goethe's 'Faust' is about as 'high' as high art gets. But Howard Brenton, with a new translation for the RSC, celebrates its wicked sense of humour
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Goethe's Faust has a formidable reputation for lofty, granite- like seriousness: it's seen as the Everest of European literature, which even German readers and theatre companies rarely climb. Part 1, which has the famous story of Faust's bargain with Mephistopheles and the seduction of Gretchen, is reasonably well known in the German theatre, but Part 2, apart from a famous line about "the eternally feminine", is hardly ever read and held to be unstageable, a sublime but oxygen-less peak.

This is wholly false. I've been mountaineering on Goethe's huge edifice, writing an English version of both parts for the RSC, roped to the daring director Michael Bogdanov and an adventurous group of actors, and we can report that Goethe's masterpiece is nothing like its received reputation.

There really was a Doctor Faust. He was born in Knittlingen and died in 1542. Nobody is sure where, though there is a story that he was found dead in a small village in Wurttemberg, with his head twisted back to front - the traditional fate of those who sell their souls to the Devil. He was probably educated at Heidelberg University; like his near-contemporary Paracelsus, he may have been a travelling doctor, talking gobbledegook and magic but developing treatments from experience rather than from the old Latin medical textbooks of Galen.

Paracelsus was famous for stopping the use of bird droppings as a poultice for open wounds; unsurprisingly, his success rate rocketed. However, the father of modern medicine was not practising antiseptic procedures three centuries before their general acceptance: he put the bird droppings not on the wound but on the knife or implement that had caused it for magical reasons. The Enlightenment had murky roots, as Goethe shows us in Faust.

But whether the good doctor was a man who was, for his time, progressive, we shall never know, since his name was both saved for posterity and irredeemably besmirched by no less a figure than Martin Luther, who denounced him in his volume of Table-talk for being "the Devil's brother-in-law".

It was from this spark that the legend of Faust and his pact with the Devil flared. Luther's successor, Melanchthon, took up the theme in a series of violent sermons, describing Faust as a "shithouse full of demons". It was the time of the witch-burning craze in Germany; the Devil was thought to be everywhere, and Faust's damnation was great sermonising material with which to frighten congregations and bind them to religion.

But it was also a wonderfully entertaining story. It quickly slipped its religious and moral moorings to sail in the murky waters of pamphlets and prints sold at fairs, the equivalent of today's Evil Dead videos, although with obligatory religious homilies.

The paradox that Faust is both a folk hero, one who dares to embrace the unmentionable, and an object of religious instruction - that it is both "high" and "low" - is one of the reasons for the legend's power. It began "high", in the sermons of Luther's successor and fell "low" into the wild popularity of rough pamphlets, songs and puppet plays. It then began a long climb into "high" literature.

The German Faust Book of 1587 collected and roughly shaped the stories. It was a great success, and quickly translated; the young Christopher Marlowe fastened upon the English edition and wrote his play, which gave the first kick of the legend back up to the "high" ground of Goethe, operas by Gounod, Boito and Busoni, and the second part of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, to reach its apogee of "high seriousness" in Thomas Mann's great and terrifying novel Doktor Faustus, with Mann's Faust, a composer, dying of syphilis in the ruins of 1945 Berlin.

And it lives on in popular culture. Hollywood movies use it regularly (there's Jack Nicholson's Devil in The Witches of Eastwick, and the mysterious Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects is very Mephistophelian); there are the Mephistopheles series of what were once called "horror comics". Terry Jones has written a beautiful children's version, in which a brilliant chess-playing Faust gladly agrees to play the Devil at chess for eternity, only to find in hell that he is condemned to play for ever a Devil who is hopelessly stupid.

Bogdanov points out our everyday Faustian motifs: what is cosmetic surgery but an elixir of youth? What is the relationship of newspaper editors to powerful media barons if not Faustian? Supping with long spoons is common business practice.

The material that Goethe knew was the mass of popular stories, the old Faust Book, puppet plays of the legend which were seen all over Germany and Marlowe's play. William Empson argued in Faustus and the Censor, a mine of Faustian information, that Marlowe's play was much more of a glory than the botched, often crude text we have; there was too much about the philosophy of magic in the original text for the Elizabethan censor. Nevertheless, all the versions of the legend that Goethe knew condemn Faust to hell. His sin, that of forsaking theology for another account of the world, could never be forgiven.

Goethe sought to turn the legend on its head. With his friend Lessing, he worked out a radically new scheme: Faust would become a tragic figure, a German hero of the rationalist Enlightenment. He would be a true scientist, who turns to magic in a quest for ultimate knowledge; and, in the end, because he struggled for truth, he would be saved. The Enlightenment would be justified, and a new German literature would be born. Lessing tried to write it, but failed. Goethe struggled with it for 50 years; even on his death-bed in 1832, he sent for the sealed manuscript to write, yet again, another version of Faust going up to Heaven. It's a ridiculous ending, though Goethe's wicked sense of fun and irony never deserted him: the Devil loses Faust's soul because he is distracted by the allurement of the behinds of boyish angels.

One of the glories of Part 1 is that, while writing of Faust's desires with an intensity that prefigures Samuel Beckett, the younger Goethe also embraces the "low", knockabout origins of the material with relish. Part 2 was written in the last six years of his life. It's a play / poem, half- in, half-out of the theatre, surprisingly full of Ubu-esque satire and bizarre invention: one of Faust's old students makes a test-tube baby who floats off to Classical Greece in his glass; Faust marries Helen of Troy, they have a son who goes from baby in nappies to teenage death in three minutes flat; and Goethe drops in a Euripidean play of his own, with Mephistopheles in drag, written in alexandrines.

It's dazzling and desperate writing; the desperation is finally expressed in Act 5 of Part 2, when Faust employs demons to reclaim land on a gargantuan, Stalinist scale, on which he dreams of founding a perfect society. His scientific attempt to intervene in the cosmos and rearrange nature ends in disaster.

Faust becomes the tragedy of the Enlightenment itself and the old legend finally delivers its meaning. Its relevance to us is all too clear.

'Faust', Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon to 27 Jan 1996. Booking: 01789 295623