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.” Read More