Late 15th Century
Christopher Marlowe: The Tragicall History of D. Faustus
German popular versions and puppet plays
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Faust
Johann von Goethe: Faust
Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
Charles Gounod: Faust
Thomas Mann: Doktor Faustus
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
In the very late Fifteenth century there sprang up in Germany tales of a magician, Dr. Johannes Faust, or Faustus, (c. 1488-1541), who was rumored to be in league with the devil. With his aid, Faust could supposedly perform remarkable feats. There seems little doubt that a soothsayer-magician of this name really existed. He is said to have died about 1540, but the details of his life have been lost. He was reputed to be a charlatan who traveled from place to place in Germany, passing himself off as a physician, alchemist, astrologer, and magician.
This Faust appears to have been a magician of the same lineage as Solomon, Simon Magus, Pope Sylvester II and Zyto. He is also associated with Theophilus, another who pledged himself to the Devil and whose story was widely known in medieval legends from late in the Eighth century onwards.
In the Sixteenth century, Faust owes his first literary fame to the anonymous author of Das Faustbuch (The Faust Book) published in Frankfurt am Main in 1587. This was a collection of tales concerning a number of ancient and medieval magicians, wizards, and sorcerers who had gone by the name of Faust. The book, attributed to the original Faust, was soon translated and published in other countries. Das Faustbuch relates how Faust sought to acquire supernatural knowledge and power by a bargain with Satan. In this pact, signed with his own blood, Faust agreed that Mephistopheles, a devil, was to become his servant for twenty-four years. In return, Faust would surrender himself to Satan. Mephistopheles entertained his master with luxurious living, long intellectual conversations, and with glimpses of the spirit world. After the agreed twenty-four years, during an earthquake, Faust was carried off to Hell.
The publication of Das Faustbuch coincided with a noticeable increase of interest in demonology and Satanism in Europe—an interest which began in the Fifteenth century and was to continue until late into the Seventeenth century—and which produced an astounding number of demonologies, as well as ecclesiastical and civil measures against Satanism. An additional by-product of the Faust legend was the publication of manuals of magic, supposedly by Faust himself. Included in these manuals were supposed instructions for avoiding making pacts with the devil and for breaking such a pact already made.
From the Sixteenth century onward, the Faust legend soon gained wide popularity and was used as a theme by many writers. An English translation inspired the dramatist Christopher Marlowe to write the play The Tragicall History of D. Faustus, probably first performed in 1588. In this version, Faust appears as a typical man of the Renaissance, as an explorer and adventurer, as a superman craving for extraordinary power, wealth, enjoyment, and worldly eminence. Humankind’s finer emotions are hardly touched upon. For Marlowe, Mephistopheles is the medieval devil, harsh and grim and fierce, bent on seduction, without any comprehension of human aspirations. Helen of Troy is a she-devil, and becomes the final means of Faust’s destruction. Faust’s career has hardly an element of true greatness. None of the many tricks, conjurings, and miracles, which Faust performs with Mephistopheles’s help, has any relation to the deeper meaning of life. They are mostly mere pastimes and vanity. From the compact on to the end hardly anything happens which brings Faust inwardly nearer either to heaven or hell. But with Marlowe’s version, there is a sturdiness of character and stirring intensity of action, with a happy mixture of buffoonery, through it all. And we feel something of the pathos and paradox of human passions in the fearful agony of Faust’s final doom.
After Marlowe, later versions of the legend entered popular entertainments. Particularly noteworthy were the German popular Faust dramas of the Seventeenth century where strolling actors performed the play, and the tale even became the subject of puppet plays and Punch-and-Judy shows. In these popular versions, the underlying sentiment was again the abhorrence of human recklessness and extravagance. In some of these plays the vanity of bold ambition was brought out with particular emphasis through the binary opposition between the daring and dissatisfied Faust and his farcical counterpart, the jolly and contented night watchman Casperle who patrols the streets of the town calling out the hours and singing the traditional verses of admonition to quiet and orderly conduct—all the while Faust in despair and contrition is waiting for the sound of the midnight bell which is to be the signal of his destruction.
In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, then, Faust appeared as a criminal who sins against the eternal laws of life, as a rebel against holiness who ruins his better self and finally receives the merited reward of his misdeeds. He could not appear thus to the Eighteenth century. The Eighteenth century was the age of Rationalism and of Romanticism. The Eighteenth century glorified human reason and human feeling. The rights of man and the dignity of man were its principal watchwords. Such an age was bound to see in Faust a representative of true humanity, a champion of freedom, nature, truth. Such an age was bound to see in Faust a symbol of human striving for completeness of life.
The Eighteenth century German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing restructured the legend in his unfinished Faust play of 1759. In this version, unfortunately consisting only of a few fragmentary sketches, Lessing presented a defense of Rationalism. The most important of these fragments, preserved to us in copies by some friends of Lessing’s, is the prelude, a council of devils, in which Satan receives reports from his subordinates as to what they have done to bring harm to the realm of God. The first devil who speaks has set the hut of some pious poor on fire; the second has buried a fleet of usurers in the waves. Both of these evil deeds only excite Satan’s disgust. “For,” he says, “to make the pious poor still poorer means only to chain him all the more firmly to God”; and the usurers, if, instead of being buried in the waves, they had been allowed to reach the goal of their voyage, would have wrought new evil on distant shores.
Much more satisfied is Satan with the report of a third devil, who has stolen the first kiss from a young, innocent girl and thereby breathed the flame of desire into her veins; for he has worked evil in the world of spirit, and that means much more and is a much greater triumph for hell than to work evil in the world of bodies. But it is the fourth devil to whom Satan gives the prize. He has not done anything as yet. He has only a plan, but a plan which, if carried out, would put the deeds of all the other devils into the shade—the plan “to snatch from God his favorite.” This favorite of God is Faust, “a solitary, brooding youth, renouncing all passion except the passion for truth, entirely living in truth, entirely absorbed in it.” To snatch him from God—that would be a victory over which the whole realm of night would rejoice. Satan is enchanted; the war against truth is his element. Yes, Faust must be seduced, he must be destroyed. And he shall be destroyed through his very aspiration. “Didst thou not say he has desire for knowledge? That is enough for perdition!” His striving for truth is to lead him into darkness. With such exclamations the devils break up, to set about their work of seduction; but, as they are breaking up, there is heard from above a divine voice: “Ye shall not conquer.” Thus, for Lessing, Faust's pursuit of knowledge was made to appear one of the noblest instincts of mankind and a precursor of the hero 's reconciliation with God.
Perhaps it was the Nineteenth century author Johann von Goethe whose Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832) raised the story to its prominence as a powerful drama. Goethe also introduced the motif of a heroine, Margarete. In simplest terms, the play can be summarized as follows:
In his study, Faust recalls his former research. His life devoted to the pursuit of the ultimate knowledge has led nowhere. Now he even tries black magic and eventually considers suicide. Hearing the sound of the Easter hymn coming from outside tears him out of his depressive mood and brings up happy recollections of his youth.
On a walk in the fields a stray dog joins him. Back in the study the poodle changes into Mephisto. Faust and Mephisto make a pact: 1) Mephisto will serve Faust and provide any pleasures he requires; 2) Faust will forfeit his life and lose his soul at that very moment, when he forgets his longing and is content simply enjoying the moment’s pleasures.
Their first trip leads them to Auerbach's cellar in Leipzig (which still exists).
Faust meets Margarete in the streets and immediately falls in love with her. He demands that Mephisto procure Margarete for him.
Mephisto leads Faust into Margarete’s chamber; eventually he arranges a date between Faust and Margarete in her neighbor’s garden.
Margarete falls in love with Faust and forgets about any moral scruples she may have. Faust gives her a soporific to pour into her mother’s nightcap so that she and Faust can meet secretly in her mother’s house at night.
On the way to one of these nightly trysts, Mephisto and Faust meet Margarete's brother Valentine. Valentine has heard about the seduction of his sister and starts a fight during which Faust slays him. Guilty of murder, Faust (and Mephisto) have to flee the town, abandoning Margarete at a crucial moment.
Mephisto leads Faust to the Walpurgisnacht (Witches Night) at the Brocken Mountain where Faust has a vision of Margarete who is decapitated.
Faust has come to know that Margarete suffers in jail, accused of killing both her mother and her illegitimate child. She has slipped into madness while she waits for the executioner. Faust demands that Mephisto help free her. On the backs of black magic horses both ride to the town. Faust tries to free her. But when she spots Mephisto she is frightened away and prays to God for help. While Mephisto shouts, "She is lost" a heavenly voice announces "She is delivered"!
Margarete’s abandonment by Faust developed some of the central themes of this play in which betrayal is balanced by redemption. Restless endeavor, incessant striving from lower spheres of life to higher ones, from the sensuous to the spiritual, from enjoyment to work, from creed to deed, from self to humanity—this was the moving thought of Goethe’s completed Faust. The keynote was struck in the “Prologue in Heaven.” Faust, so we hear, the daring idealist, the servant of God, was to be tempted by Mephisto, the despiser of reason, the materialistic scoffer. But we also hear, and we hear it from God’s own lips, that the tempter would not succeed. God allowed the devil free play, because he knew that he would frustrate his own ends. Faust would be led astray—“man errs while he strives”; but he would not abandon his higher aspirations; through aberration and sin he would find the true way toward which his inner nature instinctively guided him. He would not eat dust. Even in the compact with Mephisto the same ineradicable optimism asserted itself. Faust’s wager with the devil was nothing but an act of temporary despair, and the very fact that he did not hope anything from it shows that he would win it. He knew that sensual enjoyment would never give him satisfaction; he knew that, as long as he gave himself up to self-gratification, there would never be a moment to which he would say: “Abide, thou art so fair!” From the outset the reader feels that by living up to the very terms of the compact, Faust would rise superior to it; that by rushing into the whirlpool of earthly experience and passion his being would be heightened and expanded.
And thus everything in the whole drama by Goethe, all its incidents and all its characters, became episodes in the rounding out of this grand, all-comprehensive personality. With Goethe, Faust strode on from experience to experience, from task to task, expiating guilt by doing, losing himself, and finding himself again. In the end, blinded in old age by Dame Care, he felt a new light kindled within. Dying, he gazed into a far future. And even in the heavenly regions he went on ever changing into new and higher and finer forms. It is this irrepressible spirit of striving that makes Goethe’s “Faust” the Bible of modern humanity. And this version most clearly influenced the ending of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
Another important version of the Faust legend in the Nineteenth century must note the French composer Hector Berlioz who turned Goethe's drama into a dramatic choral work, La Damnation de Faust, in 1845. In this version:
Faust enjoys the solitude of a warm, spring morning in the Hungarian plains. Soon, his contemplation is disturbed by dancing and singing peasants. Then a military regiment passes by on their way to battle. Faust can only feel indifference towards the pleasures and enthusiasm of the people.
Back in his study, feeling depressed, Faust is about to take poison to end his life. But hearing the sounds of the Easter hymn changes his mood.
All of a sudden Mephistopheles appears promising Faust a life full of pleasures. On their first trip together, Mephistopheles leads Faust to Auerbach's cellar in Leipzig.
Later, at night on the banks of the river Elbe, Mephistopheles enchants Faust with seductive dreams in which he has a vision of Margarita. When he wakes up, Faust demands to meet Margarita.
Mephistopheles leads Faust into Margarita’s chamber. Margarita, too, had been bewitched in her dreams.
Faust and Margarita discover one another, and immediately declare their mutual love.
When morning breaks, neighbors discover their secretive, illicit meeting. Faust and Mephistopheles flee.
Mephistopheles tells Faust that Margarita has been condemned to death for murdering her mother. Waiting in vain for Faust to meet her at night, she had given her mother a sleeping potion she had got from Faust; the supposed sleeping drug had been poison.
In exchange for saving Margarita, Mephistopheles demands an oath of Faust that he serve him in the future. Both mount black horses and gallop off—not towards Margarita's prison cell, as Faust assumes, but straight to the Abyss. Falling into the hell’s mouth, Faust is greeted by a demoniac choir while Margarita is delivered.
Charles Gounod authored another important operatic version of the tale. His Faust, first written in 1859, and then revised in 1869, is set in 16th century Germany, and is in five acts.
Act I takes place in Faust's study. The aged philosopher-magician, completely disillusioned, is ready for death. He is about to drink poison and is temporarily distracted by offstage choruses of girls and men extolling life and love and God. Faust utters curses and calls for Satan's help. Faust is at first indifferent to the riches offered him; he wants only the pleasures of youth. He curses science and faith and asks for infernal guidance. Méphistophélès appears and, with a tempting image of Marguerite at her spinning wheel, persuades Faust to sign a binding contract with him. The contract stipulates that Faust will be master on earth, but will revert to Hell's slavery after a certain time. Faust drinks a potion and becomes young again. The two depart for their fantastic adventures.
Act II occurs at the city gates. Valentin, about to leave for war, entrusts the care of his sister Marguerite to his friend Siébel. Méphistophélès appears and maligns Marguerite. Valentin tries to strike him with his sword, but Méphistophélès inscribes a circle around himself with his own sword, which breaks Valentin's at the first attack. Valentin and friends use the cross-shaped hilts of their swords to fend off what they now know is an infernal power. Méphistophélès is joined by Faust and the villagers in a waltz. Faust offers her his arm, but she modestly disclaims any need for an escort. Faust is crestfallen, but Méphistophélès promises him eventual success.
Act III takes place in Marguerite's garden. Faust sends Méphistophélès in search of a gift for Marguerite, and Méphistophélès brings a trunk of jewels. Marguerite enters, pondering her encounter with Faust at the city gates. Marthe, Marguerite's neighbour, says the jewels must be from an admirer. Faust and Méphistophélès return, and Faust woos his chosen lady while the Devil tries to distract the older woman. Méphistophélès escapes Marthe and calls on the night to work its magic. The lovers grow more ardent, and Marguerite plucks daisy petals with the inevitable result: "He loves me!" She suddenly recovers her modest demeanor, and sends Faust away. But he, egged on by the Devil, returns to her as she appears languishing in her window. The Devil's mocking laughter accompanies the final music.