Faust

   by Johann Wolfgang Goethe.
   Faust, Part 1 premiered in 1819 at a private theater in Berlin, and its first complete professional performance took place in 1829 in Braunschweig. Faust, Part 2 premiered in Hamburg in 1854, and the first staging of both parts together on the same program was in 1875 in Weimar. Taken together, both parts comprise an elaborate and stageworthy dramatic poem. Faust, Part 1 , however, succeeds on its own as a superb play for actors; it may indeed be the greatest play ever written in German. Goethe invested in it a lifetime of interest and accomplishment; it is superbly well written, with verse variants among several forms. Its characters, however, mark it as a theater piece with few equals; the roles of Faust, Margarete, and especially Mephistopheles are riveting. They have become vehicles for several German actors on the path to stardom.
   A prelude featuring a director, a poet, and an actor sets the tone — but the action begins with the prologue, set in Heaven with God (referred to as "the Lord"), his archangels, and Mephistopheles (known henceforth as "Mephisto"). Mephisto secures permission from the Lord to tempt Faust, but so long as Faust "strives" for betterment, the Lord declares, Mephisto has no claim upon him.
   In the prologue, it becomes clear that Mephisto, not Faust, is the play's central character. Rarely has any playwright invested so much irresistible charm and aphoristic magnetism in one character. He is Goethe's masterpiece. Faust, meantime, Goethe depicts as a weary but insatiable intellect, having earned several doctoral degrees. He unfortunately finds himself no more enlightened than he was when he began his studies as an undergraduate. Mephisto leads him through several adventures, but only when Faust encounters the incomparably innocent Margarete (known as "Gretchen," the German diminutive for "Margaret") does Mephisto find a means by which he may complete the temptation of Faust and convince him to cease his striving.
   There are numerous scenes with arresting characterizations; they include one with Faust's research assistant, one in his study where Mephisto initially appears as a poodle, and another with his students in a local pub. When Faust meets Gretchen, his lust for her cannot subside. He tries to stay away from her, but she represents everything to him that a life of learning has denied: sensuality, intimacy, and raw sexual pleasure. His desires get the better of him, and he succeeds in impregnating her. Faust encounters Gretchen's brother and kills him in a street brawl, but Mephisto transports Faust to the Harz Mountains, where a Witches' Sabbath is under way. Faust has ample opportunity among the witches to fulfill every earthly desire, but he cannot take his mind off the beautiful, and now bereaved, Gretchen. He returns to her and discovers her in prison, where she is confined and awaits execution for killing their infant child. Faust offers her the opportunity of escape, but she refuses it. As Faust and Mephisto make their getaway, a voice from Heaven announces, "She is saved!"
   Faust, Part 2 takes on dimensions larger than those of Part 1, featuring Faust and Mephisto in episodes that move back and forth across time and space, into a noumenal realm of abstract preoccupations. There is little of the traditional character motivation from Part 1, as Faust conjures up figures from history, gods from ancient mythology, and events of metaphysical magnitude. At one point, Faust and Mephisto invent paper currency; at another, Faust beds and impregnates Helen of Troy. By the play's conclusion, Faust has dammed rivers, reclaimed land from the sea, and populated it with settlers. At age 100, he feels his work on Earth is finished and falls dead into his grave. Mephisto claims his soul, but thanks to Gretchen's intercessory efforts, Faust's soul glides its way Heavenward, to the singing of a celestial chorus.
   The "Faust material" Goethe employed for his plays derived from legends and chapbooks popular in the 16th century. The most widely distributed among them was Historia von Doctor J. Faustus attributed to a Johann Spies, published in 1587. The most important treatment prior to Goethe's was probably that of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), whose Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is thought to have premiered in 1589; it was published in 1604. Several German treatments appeared in the 17th century, but Marlowe's treatment became the basis for numerous German puppet shows, some of which Goethe witnessed as a boy in Frankfurt am Main. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing began work on a Faust play shortly before his death in 1781, and the opera titled Faust by Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859) premiered in 1816. Goethe's treatment has been by far the most influential in other genres and languages, though not all subsequent treatments directly imitate it. Christian Dietrich Grabbe's Don Juan und Faust (1829) premiered in Detmold. Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) wrote an epic poem he titled Faust, published two years after he had emigrated to the United States in 1833; many of the verses contained in Lenau's epic were set to music by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, and other significant composers. Richard Wagner wrote a "Faust Overture" in 1844. Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (1846) is a kind of oratorio, while the opera by Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is a fully realized and accessible stage work, still widely performed to this day.
   An 1868 opera by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) titled Mefistofele began a trend that shifted dramatic emphasis from Faust to Mephisto-pheles, a trend that accelerated in the 20th century. At the conclusion of the Boito opera, Mefistofele surrounds an elderly Faust with gorgeous sirens who offer all manner of fleshly pleasures; Faust resists, but an antichorus of equally gorgeous angels repulse Mefistofele by dropping a cascade of roses on him. Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924) put a particularly 20th-century twist on the proceedings by having Mephisto remind Faust that his creditors are in hot pursuit, and so is the brother of some girl whom Faust has previously seduced. In the Busoni treatment, Faust seems mired in quotidian concerns, and Mephisto offers him a temporary way to avoid confronting his problems. In Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (1947) the title character (named Leverkühn) contracts syphilis and the Devil appears to him in a kind of hallucination; the Faust character later collapses into imbecility.
   In the latter part of the 20th century, the name Mephisto began to appear in an increasingly bizarre set of venues: as a feline character in the Andre Lloyd Webber musical Cats, a mad scientist in the U.S. animated television series South Park, in the Diablo series of video games, and in a wide range of shoe styles manufactured in France.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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