Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at four hundred.
Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus premiered in 1594. Nearly forty years later, people were still talking about those earliest performances. The Puritan pamphleteer and ideologue William Prynne, in his massive 1633 antitheatrical tome Histriomastix, recounted diabolical legends surrounding this most infernal of plays. The spectators and actors “prophanely playing” in that first production, he reported, had a “visible apparition of the Devill on the Stage.” The good Puritan—soon to be imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he would have his ears cropped for having implied that the queen was a whore—assures us that though he was not himself familiar with such theatrical dens of iniquity, he can confirm the event’s veracity as “the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it.”
Similarly, a monograph by someone identified only as “G.J.R” recounts that during a performance of the scene where Dr. Faustus begins his conjurations, there suddenly “was one devil too many amongst them.” It seems that the hocus pocus nonsense magic of Marlowe’s immense Latin learning had accidentally triggered an actual occult transaction, pulling one of Lucifer’s servants from hell into our own realm. On that stage in Exeter—there among conjuring circles, chanted invocations, and the adjuring of God’s love—the extras playing stock devils with caked-on red makeup and fake horns strapped to their heads found themselves with the chance to meet the real thing. G.J.R. informs us that “after a little pause… every man hastened to be first out of doors.” The actors (“contrary to their custom,” he duly informs us) spent the night in “reading and in prayer,” making sure to get “out of the town the next morning.”
But even that is no match for the premiere of the play, at the Rose Theatre in Southwark (which today lay underneath a parking garage) among taverns, brothels, and bear-baiting pits, when some in the audience claimed that they spied Mephistopheles’s master himself among the crowd, having availed himself of the opportunity to travel up to Earth and to see how accurately his old friend Kit Marlowe had presented him. No word on the review.
These claims are in keeping with a longstanding sense of the medieval in Dr. Faustus, with its cursed (goat-skin?) grimoires and its personified Sins, with devils and angels on shoulders tempting its main character, and demons dancing on stage. Dr. Faustus, after all, parrots the genre of the medieval morality play. Even so, Marlowe’s text is in some ways one of our first modern plays—and its title character is our first modern man. Strung as he is between faith and doubt, insignificance and omnipotence, sin and salvation, and particularly between freedom and fate. Dr. Faustus is a creature, and in part a creator, of our world. (What could be a more Faustian bargain than ours, in which we gain immense technological power under the perennial threat of complete ecological collapse?) In his skepticism and arrogance, his total dependence and painful doubt, Faustus is our contemporary: an imperfect man with the power to sell the world. Whiffs of sulfur are not just on those stages in Exeter and Southwark where Marlowe dreamed of the modern world. They were also in the mustard gas factories of World War I; the desert plains at Alamogordo, New Mexico, where Oppenheimer detonated his grand experiment; and on the disappearing Arctic ice caps. I hear echoes of Dr. Faustus’s screams of damnation time and again over the last century: for “this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
Dr. Faustus has conjured a lot of extra devils over the years. Evidence of those hoofprints of Satan, and of the infernal contract he offered to that poor necromancer, skitter across the pages of history and literature. There are, of course, the literary treatments—Goethe, Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, even the baseball musical Damn Yankees. But real Faustian bargains are just as plentiful. Think of the German Faustbuchs of the mid-sixteenth century, which Marlowe mined for his source material. Or of Urbain Grandier, the Satanic French priest of the seventeenth-century, who made a devilish pact and held monastic orgies. Then there’s the Scotsman Thomas Weir, who professed to be a loyal and solemn Covenanter, but strolled the winding cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh with Satan. Jonathan Moulton, the “Yankee Faust” of Revolutionary New Hampshire, was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for two bootfuls of gold coins every month; to trick the devil, Moulton removed the soles of his boots and put them over a hole in the floor, so his basement filled with gold. (The devil burned down his house in revenge.) And, of course, there’s the dusty crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil sometime around 1931.
Musicians in particular seem to have a bit of the Faustian about them, something mysterious in their alchemy of melody and rhythm. The Italian violinists Giuseppe Tartini and Niccolò Paganini, and the French composer Phillipe Mussard, all from the eighteenth century, supposedly saw their names on contracts with the devil. Some have suggested that the minor-keyed “Gloomy Sunday”—the notorious “Hungarian suicide song” written by Rezső Seress around the same time Johnson went down to the crossroads—has some of the heat of hell in it, too. If Dr. Faustus is the first modern man, it’s because he is the first of a modern type: the artist. The bohemian archetype has long been understood as a devilish one. Where once the individual was but a conduit for God, with Faustus he began to serve a different master, either his own consciousness or, well, Satan. Or maybe those are really the same thing. Dr. Faustus during the witching hour, with his leatherbound tomes and his scrying mirrors, scribbling furiously on vellum and divinating with the sacred geometry, wasn’t a mad scientist: he was the artist. He was Marlowe himself.
If Dr. Faustus is one of the first modern men, then his creator, in his ambiguities, contradictions, and secrets, is right there with him. Marlowe was of the supposed “School of Night”: he met with Walter Raleigh and the astrologer John Dee in graveyards to summon their own extra devils. He may have shared a bed with his colleague Thomas Kyd, and he declared, according to the renegade priest Richard Baines, “that all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.” A supposed nonbeliever, Marlowe also said that Moses “was but a juggler” and that “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest” (this, again, per Baines). A possible agent of Sir Francis Walshingham’s fearsome Privy Council, Marlowe performed god knows what manner of subterfuge and espionage on the continent, and he may have been assassinated for it. Certainly he was accused of nailing a threat to the door of one of London’s Dutch-Protestant “Stranger Churches,” written in perfect iambic pentameter and signed “Tamburlaine” (another act for which he may have been killed). Marlowe, who perhaps once saw the face of the Devil, and was “tormented with ten thousand hells / In being deprived of everlasting bliss.” He was, finally, stabbed to death through the eye in a Deptford tavern over a bill—at least that was the official story.
Just as there are mysteries with Marlowe, there are mysteries with the text of his masterpiece. There’s a quarto “Text A” printed in 1604, a decade after his murder, and a longer, funnier “Text B,” published four hundred years ago as of 2016. Its 676 new lines include a bevy of dark, comic interludes. One difference between the two texts is crucial. It hinges on the question of whether Faustus can or will repent—a massive theological difference. Text A has it, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent;” Text B says “Faustus will repent.” The former implies that Faustus’s agency may be constrained by some larger force, while the word will grants the doctor the ability to choose his own course. “Can” has a connotation of helplessness; “will” preserves the possibility that the individual is still free, that he may choose damnation instead of having it thrust upon him. Does Dr. Faustus admit that he’s powerless? The debates then concerned predestination; just as the medieval schoolmen had their Fortuna, today we have neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, base and superstructure, determinism, fatalism, and the teleology of history. The problem remains same as it ever was, whether Faustus “can” or “will” repent—because the fact is that he’s damned either way. In the contemporary world, since it was born four centuries ago, we’ve always found ourselves in Dr. Faustus’s study, and it’s always a half hour before midnight. The tragedy isn’t about whether or not salvation is possible, but whether we can even try.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. His writing has appeared online at The Atlantic, Salon, The Millions, Lit Hub, The Revealer, Killing the Buddha, Berfrois, The Public Domain Review, and Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @WithEdSimon.