Fiction, Poetry

Multifarious Fausts

What with staying ‘safe at home’, freezing temperatures and 3pm sunsets, this autumn has been a great time for finally getting around to reading the Classics in translation. I liked War and Peace (without expecting to), and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (trans. MacNeice) was a solid piece of work, 8/10. Next up on the remedial-doorstop list was Goethe’s Faust. Frankly, any story involving a Deal with the Devil holds interest for me so I had high hopes. “A crusty old scholar summons Mephistopheles and so gains magical powers, the appearance of youth and unlimited access to earthly delights. But there’s a catch!” Honestly, what is there not to like?

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Faust. See more of his dark designs here

The ‘Real’ Faust

Johann Georg Faust may or may not have been an historical person who lived around about 1480-1540. Some records in the early sixteenth century mention a man of that name posing variously as an itinerant magician, doctor of philosophy, physician, alchemist, magician, astrologer, “nigromancer” and sodomite. He was known to travel with a horse and a dog that occasionally changed into a human servant. This Faust went about conning people, practicing black magic on them and generally blaspheming until he died in an explosion while conducting an alchemical experiment in an inn in Staufen im Breisgau (this is one version). Rumor has it that people saw how badly his body was mutilated by the blast and concluded that the devil had come in person to settle accounts.

If you want to read book based on the ‘historical’ character, you could try The Master’s Apprentice: A Retelling of the Faust Legend (trans. Lisa Reinhardt). Despite the subtitle, it’s more death-metal nightmare than legend and was a way too horrifying for me to go on with.

The very first printed version of Faust’s life was a small chapbook called Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587. This was essentially a morality tale, as you can see from the title translated into English: The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus.

Frontispiece of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587 by Johann Spies

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Using the English translation of the German chapbook as his main source, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus , whose first performance happened about a decade after his death in 1604. In this play, the ambitious Dr. Faustus uses his learning to use a book of spells, so summoning Mephistopheles to his study. A transaction is quickly effected whereby Mephistopheles becomes his servant for 24 years. But then:


That settled, he starts dreaming about becoming Emperor of the World. Mephistopheles parades before him a juicy selection of demon prostitutes, then he gets acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, who I imagine must have been dressed up in some evocative costumes for visual appeal. Then, as a favour to his students, Faust has Mephistopheles conjure up the most beautiful woman who has ever existed, Helen of Troy. He rides in a dragon-drawn chariot up to Mt. Olympus and studies the celestial mechanism. Then he goes to Rome to meet the Pope, causing havoc and hilarity (no doubt pleasing his London punters no end). At the end of the play, Dr. Faustus gets his just desserts and devils come to haul him away in a violent encounter that ends with his limbs scattered all over his library.

MEPH: But, tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul?
And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee,
And give thee more than thou hast wit to ask.
FAUSTUS: Ay, Mephistopheles, I’ll give it thee.

Goethe’s Faust

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust is generally considered to be the greatest work of German literature, maybe even the first great work. That’s mainly because before 1750, German-speaking people looked to France for intellectual and cultural leadership. This changed after philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754) chose to teach and write in German, lending it legitimacy as a philosophical and literary language.

Weimar courtyard of the Muses. Schiller reading to the court in Tiefurt. (1860) by Theobald von Oer. The woman in white is Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Goethe stands on the right, with his hand on his heart.

From 1772 to 1805, Goethe associated with a group of writers based in Weimar who developed a literary movement expounding certain aesthetic and philosophical principles. This would later be seen as a kind of synthesis of Enlightenment and Romanticism. This movement is now known as Weimar Classicism and, though Goethe is the greatest proponent, Friedrich Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Gottfriend Herder.

As a child, Goethe had been fascinated by puppet shows of the Faustus legend. He started work on his own version while still a young man and would continue improving on it until his death.

The puppet show might have looked something like this short film directed by Emil Radanok

Part One was published in 1808. Plot-wise, Goethe’s biggest innovation was the character of Gretchen, a young woman who, by all accounts (*weary sigh*), embodies both the Pure Virgin Mary and the Seductive Eve. Allowing herself to be seduced by Faust, Gretchen gets pregnant, then kills the child out of despair. It looks like she’ll be damned for the sin of infanticide but at the very last minute a few lines from the end, voices call from above, “Is saved!”

Joseph Fay (1812-1875), Illustrationfor Faust (1846), colour lithograph, in ‘Faust – the Tragedy Part 1’, Paris 1846, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Part Two, a phantasmagorical meditation about god knows what came out in 1832, after Goethe’s death. Here, Faust trots about in a dragon-chariot and has conversations with supernatural beings. Maybe the original poetry adds some kind of humor or pizzaz or sense but the translations I’ve read leave me baffled. I haven’t got to the end yet but have a vague idea that Faust goes through some kind of transformation and finally gets to Heaven. Goethe said that only a few people would ‘get it’, and I’m happy to leave it to them. Here are his own words:

“…in the second part, there is scarcely anything of the subjective; here is seen a higher, broader, clearer, more passionless world, and he who has not looked about him and had some experience, will not know what to make of it.” – Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann February 17, 1831 (translated by John Oxenford)

Faust riding around on Chiron the centaur. It’s fine.

Musical Fausts

Mein armer Kopf / Ist mir verrückt, / Mein armer Sinn/ Ist mir zerstückt. (My poor head/ I’m crazy/ My poor senses/have come unstuck.)

My favourite Fausts are musical. Nineteenth-century composers went crazy for the tale and luckily they weren’t put off by Goethe’s own declaration that no one but Mozart would be up to the task of putting it to music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set 80 of Goethe’s poems to music, and the very first of these was “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, “Gretchen at the Spinningwheel”, (1814). The frenetic piano resembles a spinning wheel and when Gretchen gets to be crazy with longing towards the end, the singer genuinely sounds distracted.

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust Second Act “Midnight” with the voices of Want, Guilt, Care, Need and Faust

Later in the century, more and more composers tried their hand at musical adaptations. Robert Schumann wrote “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” (1851), which some critics consider his magnum opus. Robert Wagner originally meant to write a symphony but dialled it back to an atmospheric overture, Faust” (1855). The brilliant Hungarian Franz Liszt wrote “A Faust symphony in Three Character Pictures” (1857), one picture each for Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. The second part of Mahler’s Symphony Number Eight is a musical setting of the final scenes of Faust Part Two, where Faust’s soul finally ascends to heaven.

The symphony’s thrilling and joyful finale conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Then we have the operas. Hector Berlioz La Damnation de Faust was first performed in 1846. The public was pretty indifferent to the thing on opening night, which hurt his feelings, but it’s still recorded as a concert piece and there are some beautiful arias including “D’amour l’ardente flamme” in which Gretchen (Marguerite) has been abandoned and longs for Faust’s return.

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), better known as a librettist for Verdi, wrote an opera called Mefistofele that had its premier at La Scala on 5 March 1868. Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) began an opera called Doktor Faust but died before its completion it was finished by his pupil Philipp Jarnach. But my favorite Faust opera is definitely that of Charles Gounod‘s Faust, based on a theater play written by Michel Carré, which was in turn based on Part One of Goethe’s work. I particularly like the Mephistopheles character, who has a great aria “Le Veau d’Or”, here sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov:

The calf of gold is still standing!
One adulates his power,
One adulates his power,
From one end of the world to the other end!
To celebrate the infamous idol,
Kings and the people mixed together,
To the somber sound of golden coins,
They danse a wild round
Around his pedestal
Around his pedestal
And Satan leads the dance

Unsurprisingly, it’s also been a popular topic for rock and metal bands with a lyric bent. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably the most famous example but there are a lot of others. The metal band Agalloch produced a whole album called “Faustian Echoes” based on quotes from Goethe’s poem. Here is a song accompanied by clips from the 1926 silent movie directed by F.W. Murnau:


There have been many, many cinematic representations of the Faust legend. The following posters should give you an idea of the range…

F.W. Murnau’s silent film Faust (1926)
La Beauté Du Diable (1950)
Alexander Sokurow (2011)
Rock opera of 1976 directed by Brian DePalma
Faust (1994). Probably the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.

Six Stories

There are so many stories based on the Faust legend that it would be pretty tedious to list them all, but there are six:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1894) by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who becomes convinced that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth living for. If only he could find a way not to age…

2. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) by Stephen Vincent Benét

A New Hampshire farmer who has sold his soul to the devil aka “Mr. Scratch” has Daniel Webster, the famous statesman, orator and lawyer, to defend him in court.

3. The Master and Margarita (written in the 1930s, first published in 1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov

The devil visits the Soviet Union, disrupting the life of the new elite. Satan offers Margarita, (whose author lover The Master is in a lunatic asylum) the chance to become a witch. Meanwhile, in another time and place Pontius Pilate presides at the trial of Jesus…

4. Doktor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann

A composer strikes a Faustian bargain for creative greatness: e intentionally contracts syphilis in order to enhance his creative powers (don’t blame me, I didn’t write it!).

5. Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) by Philip K. Dick

In this case an ordinary guy named Joe Fernwright is summoned to Sirius Five by a Glimmung, a highly evolved alien with godlike powers who wants him for his excellent pot-healing skills. At the end of the book, Fernwright is offered the chance to join the Glimmung’s hive mind.

6. Faust (ファウスト, Fausuto

Of course there is a manga based on Faust. Osamu Tezuka published his version in 1950. Unusually, he blends Part One and Two together.

The Last Faust?

So there you have it. There are few legends as fecund as Faust and the barrel’s not empty yet. Last year saw the release of an art film titled The Last Faust, set in the year 2059. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the end of new mutations.

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