Marlowe’s Faustus at the Royal Exchange

I do repent; and yet I do despair;
Hell strives with grace within my breast:
What shall I do to shun the snares of death?

The really mind-expanding part of my education was the period when I took A-level English Literature, following a course that was tightly focussed on works of the 16th and 17th century English renaissance – Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Milton  – and Marlowe.  At home in the evenings I listened to Dylan and Lennon and McCartney work magic with words, in the classroom I was swept away by the poetry of A Winter’s Tale, Paradise Lost and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  Last night, 45 years after first encountering the text, I was able to see Marlowe’s play performed at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is Christopher Marlowe’s play based on the Faust story of a learned man who sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, eleven years after Marlowe’s death and at least twelve years after the first performance of the play.

This production, directed by Toby Frow, does not disappoint.  It fires on all cylinders, with dramatic staging that makes full use of the potential of the Royal Exchange layout.  The sound,lighting, costumes and puppetry all add a powerful sense of devilish magic to the proceedings. The performances, too are very good, particularly the central duo of Faustus (played by Patrick O’Kane with much more physicality, less learned bookishness than I had imagined from the text)  and Mephistopheles (a nuanced performance by Ian Redford as the dog-collared, mild-mannered emissary of the devil, ready to do his master’s bidding, but whose own experience leads him to express regret and sympathy for his victim:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

I felt, though, that O’Kane’s performance in the opening scene did not aid an understanding of why the learned Faustus makes his pact with devil in the first place.  The most disappointing performance is that of Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, who reminded me more of a character from Lloyd-Webber’s Cats. Her pack of devils, made up of students from Manchester School Of Theatre, are more believably evil.

The Guardian review included this assessment:

Toby Frow offers a gaudy spectacle, a merry dance towards oblivion that features angels and devils, the damned marching like chain-ganged prisoners, cosmic jokes and practical japes, puppets, a bit of circus and the odd conjuring trick. The Seven Deadly Sins are fat-bellied heads on tiny legs, there is much fun with decapitated heads and severed legs, and the entire show has the feeling of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

It is bleakly funny, even though it sometimes feels as if the pageantry is in danger of getting in the way of the poetry. It’s often at its best in calmer moments: Faustus doesn’t want to go, but when he does he goes quietly. There are no roaring fires or agonised screams, just a man slipping into his grave and covered by cold earth, then silence. Meanwhile, composer Richard Hammarton’s terrific soundscape is often more effective than all the flashy visuals.

Arriving at the theatre, I had been puzzled to learn that the show lasted three hours; my memory of reading the play at school was of a fairly short play in a slim volume.  In fact, two versions of the play exist: the shorter 1604 quarto, which I must have studied, and the 1616 quarto,which adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third longer than the 1604 version. The 1604 version is believed by most scholars to be closer to Marlowe’s vision, and the 1616 version to be a posthumous adaptation by other hands. However, others disagree, seeing the 1604 version as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe’s original fuller version.

The main difference between the two versions is that the comic middle section is extended in the 1616 text used by this production, which also enhances the anti-Catholic elements of the play by including additional scenes in which the pope is taunted.

The Making Of Doctor Faustus

How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will?
I’ll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? –
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. –
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! –
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips

Doctor  Faustus is  based  on  accounts  of  a  real-life  magician.  The  legendary  exploits  of  Johann Faust had been elaborated and fictionalised in a bestselling German text of 1587, translated into English as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Marlowe used this English Faust-book as his main source for the play. Critics have agonised over the apparent inconsistencies of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a poignant tragedy which nevertheless has a lengthy middle section involving the protagonist in childish pranks. However, the English Faust-book set the tone for the mixed approach of the play, and Faust was associated in the popular imagination with comic accounts of trickery as well as with the terrors of damnation.

There was one performance of the play in Marlowe’s time when the actors realised that ‘there was one devil too many amongst  them’.  Abandoning  the  performance  in  terror,  the  cast  were  reportedly  driven, ‘contrary to their custom’, to spend the night ‘in reading and in prayer’.

Ah, Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!—

There had been no great blank verse before Marlowe’
– T.S. Eliot

Christopher Marlowe rose from humble beginnings, the son of a shoemaker. But a benefactor paid for his education, and he ended up at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he operated as a spy, reporting back to the Queen on his fellow-students. He was never far away from trouble. In 1589 he and a friend duelled with William Bradley, the son of a pub landlord, resulting in the latter’s death. After 12 days in prison, Marlowe was released on the grounds of self-defence. Continuing to write both poetry and plays, he had repeated brushes with the law. In 1592 alone he was arrested twice (once for coining money in the Netherlands and once following a street fight), as well as being bound over to keep the peace. Alongside a volatile temper, Marlowe was rumoured to hold controversial and heretical views, including atheism. Around the time of his death, a note detailing his supposed ‘damnable opinions’ was delivered to the authorities, stating, among wilder claims, that he believed ‘that the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe’.

Marlowe died in a fight on 30 May 1593, at the age of 29. After dining with three friends at a house in Deptford, he reportedly got into an argument with Ingram Frazier over the bill. In the ensuing brawl, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, dying instantly. In death as in life, however, considerable mystery surrounded Marlowe and it is possible that his death was in some way linked with his role as a spy.

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.

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