There's always the devil to pay

The Faust myth has a dark fascination that has endured for centuries. As a new London production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus opens, Paul Taylor explores the modern resonances of a diabolical deal that seems to offer everything for nothing
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The Independent Culture

There was quite a queue of young people begging for returns for the Young Vic's Doctor Faustus (which has its press night on Monday) when I visited the theatre last week. Could their desperation to see the show be in any way connected, I wonder, with the fact that the title role is taken by one Jude Law? The face that launched a million hormones will, rather fittingly and fetchingly, get to utter the famous line about Helen of Troy and the "face that launched a thousand ships".

Law, though, has gone just a little bit Greta Garbo on me and has effectively said no to a mooted meeting with myself and his talented Mephistopheles, Richard McCabe, at which we were to have discussed Faustian pacts in art in general, and in this highly charged, broken-backed and compellingly weird Elizabethan play by Christopher Marlowe in particular.

Meeting McCabe on his own is a privilege rather than consolation prize, for he's a big Marlowe buff, having a few years ago for the RSC impersonated the great free-thinking dramatist, spy, atheist and all-round irregular guy in a play called The School of Night, named after a sort of intellectually seditious soirée that gathered round Sir Walter Raleigh (think the Harold Pinter / Antonia Fraser anti-Thatcher Group, with added secrecy and a strong hint of sulphur).

I suggest that the University of Wittenberg may soon feel obliged to award McCabe an honorary degree, for he has played Hamlet (its most famous undergraduate) on three occasions and now is heading back to Wittenberg – Faustus's academic stamping ground – in order to play Mephistopheles. He is the damned spirit summoned from hell by this intellectual overreacher, and who officiates over the contract whereby the hero mortgages his soul in return for 24 years of blasphemously invulnerable life.

It's fascinating, we agree, that – rather as Wittgenstein and Hitler overlapped at the same school – Hamlet and Faustus could conceivably have brushed shoulders in the university corridors. Over to you, Tom Stoppard. McCabe says that, in rehearsal, they have come to realise that the hero's deep journey is one of learning too late what it means to have a soul. Some might argue that this already makes the myth seem rather dated. In the age of cloning and genetic engineering, the concept of a "soul" is about as meaningful to some people as retaining a belief in socialism. Oscar Wilde's great title The Soul of Man Under Socialism would, on their reckoning, have the same sort of past-it ring as, say, "Dentistry in the Days Before Anaesthetic".

But not all of us have given up on the idea that there is something within us that could be bartered away at a terrible price. (When you hear a scientist like Stephen Hawking talk of a time coming when we will know "the mind of God", you don't need to be a very lapsed Catholic like me to imagine a whiff of brimstone in the air.) There is also an inherent fascination in the scenario of seeming to have got "everything" for nothing, then having to concede that it has cost not less than truly everything. That's why the myth continues to exercise some of our finest creators and critics. For example, it's not just Gounod, Boito and Busoni who created music pieces from the story: Randy Newman has penned a hilarious (if dramatically flawed) musical where the learned Faustus is reconceived as a latterday slacker student at South Bend, Carolina. This individual doesn't even bother to check the contract with Satan, because he's the type of slob student who refuses to read anything "out of hours".

Retellings and artful variations of the myth – which is based on the 15th-century real-life story of Georgius of Helmstadt – have their own intriguing interconnections. In his Eighth Symphony, Mahler set to music scenes from the second part of Goethe's humanistic Faust where, as an archetype of questing humanity – onwards and upwards, despite the backslidings – the hero is spared the pains of hell and attains redemption in what has been described as "the Choral Symphony of the 20th century".

But Mahler himself became the Faust figure in Ronald Harwood's recent play, Mahler's Conversion, where there was the melodramatically staged suggestion that he made a diabolic pact by converting to Christianity, so as to rise in the anti-Semitic world of Austrian conducting. A thudding dud of a piece, with bad dialogue that could have come straight from a Hollywood biopic, it failed to bring the man who crossed religions and the man who wrote the Eighth Symphony into a sufficiently thoughtful or compelling relation.

By contrast, Mahler's kind of composer comes out well implicitly in the 20th century's most troubled and controversial take on the Faustian pact: Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, a huge novel in which the composer-hero's doomed and damned fate runs in parlous parallel to the fate of his native country, as it makes its own hideous pact with Nazism. Born on the same soil that had given birth to the original Faust figure, Nazism constitutes an almighty focus for modern writing on the myth – whether it be Istvan Szabo's movie Mephisto (about a brilliant actor who sold his soul to the regime in return for fame on the boards) to David Edgar's recent play about the very tricky trade-off between Nazism and Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. But Mann's novel – in which he seems to seek atonement by damning Schoenbergian atonality in music as the work of the devil – remains the piece that is really alive, because in some obscure ways it's not precisely on the level.

The soullessness of deconstruction and post-Post-Modernism has become another prime site for latterday Faustographers. In tone and form, there is little in common between Alan Judd's superb novella The Devil's Own Work (which is the work that Henry James would have written if he had survived into our era) and a so-hip-it-hurts theatre piece like the very interesting Faust is Dead by Mark "Shopping and F***ing" Ravenhill. What they do share, though, is the sense that the Faust of our times would be either a diabolically fashionable pisseur de copie or a frightening charlatan figure like the Gallic "thinker" Jean Baudrillard, the little charmer who told us that the Gulf War hadn't really happened. It was virtual. Non-virtually starving Iraqis might now feel moved to put him right on that one. What hadn't happened was not the Gulf War, but a decent impulse within Baudrillard. You feel like cheering at the end of Judd's novella when the author-figure, whose works have been written through him by the devil, expires at the allotted hour and the valuelessness of his oeuvre becomes immediately apparent to the public.

Richard McCabe tells me that there will be a timeless feel to David Lan's Young Vic production of Marlowe's play. Faustus survives in two texts, the second 1616 one showing signs of having the censors and the thought-police breathing down its neck. McCabe, who, having played Marlowe, has done plenty of research into how the writer's life may have shaped this drama, notes that the dramatist's work as a spy (infiltrating Catholic recusant groups and then betraying them) would have taught him that in the world of espionage and counter-espionage, bluff and double-bluff, one side is generally pretty much as dirty as another. Maybe, McCabe suggests, this accounts for another feature that the production intends to highlight: how the fallen spirits aren't romantic rebels, but cramped creepy, copycats of high command up in heaven.

Marlowe's play preoccupied the greatest critical intelligence of the 20th century: that of William Empson, who wrote a book-length, posthumously published study, Faustus and the Censor. Empson was a great figure on many fronts. When asked how he managed to make his prose so inimitably sociable, he replied that it was easy: he drank lots of beer while writing it. Christianity was the red rag to Empson's nippy bull: twisted doctrines drove him to spurts of hilarious scorn. Confronted with the Catholic belief that the bliss of the saved in heaven is increased by their being able to contemplate the torments of the damned in hell, Empson drew himself up to his full height and pictured a heaven inhabitant "settling down to hold kind God's hand for all eternity and watch old mother being ripped up so much more satisfyingly than he could ever have imagined".

But his impulses, which are such a credit to him as a human being, led him into a rather eccentric position on Marlowe's play. He simply couldn't bear the notion that the drama comes over all conventionally religious and retributive at the end. He therefore originated the idea that Mephistopheles isn't really one of the damned at all, but a "middle spirit" (entities who live longer than human beings and die totally, like animals). He is anxious to secure Faustus's soul – not for Lucifer, though, but for himself, because he wants immortality. Empson even wrote a speech that could be inserted into the play and make good his view that Faustus does not renege on his insight that "hell is a fable", and dies in the belief that he will simply dissolve back into the universe, like drops of water in the ocean.

This is more wish-fulfilment than traditional literary criticism, but it has its own mad magnificence. It was left to Empson's great natural heir, Christopher Ricks, to develop – in a fascinating lecture entitled "Doctor Faustus and Hell on Earth" – a very valuable Empsonian insight: that sometimes the significant context in which a work was first received becomes obscured to the point of invisibility. So the context to which Ricks restores Marlowe's drama is that of a world where the plague killed off many adults in their prime. In those circumstances, 24 years of assured, invulnerable life might not seem such a paltry bargain. Moreover, theatres were meccas of disease and had to be closed down during epidemics. To see the original performances of Faustus in a public playhouse may well have felt rather like seeing a play about 24 years of indestructibility performed in a New York or San Francisco bathhouse in the mid-1980s, when the true panic of Aids had kicked in.

In one sense, it's an irony that Doctor Faustus has attracted so many of the finest critical minds, because Faustus himself – despite his fabled braininess at the start of the play – turns into an intellectual disgrace and a discredit to his institution of learning. (It's the professional academic side of him that DJ Enright picks up on so well in his wonderfully witty and penetrating 1979 book-length poem sequence, A Faust Book). Instead, in the contentious texts of Marlowe's play, he lapses into a glorified cross between Patrick Moore, Russell Grant and Paul Daniels.

You could argue that the anti-type of Faust is Jesus Christ. A man who wants to extricate himself from the race and levitate over creation with the contempt of a pagan god meets his match in a god who wants to make the reverse journey and suffer in redemptive solidarity. (That's people for you. You do them a good turn, and you wind up nailed to a cross.) There are contemporary scientists whom one can line up with the latter. One thinks of the enormously brave doctor researching into a cure for Aids who injected himself with his own experimental vaccine. That is taking on the sufferings of the world, all right.

Meanwhile, the Faust myth continues to give us pause. The story might make one look askance at the whole business of academic tenure for life (ho, ho) and it should certainly teach us that when we enter into contracts, we should remember to read the large print, as well as the small.

'Doctor Faustus' opens on Monday and runs to 27 April at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (020-7928 6363)