I first heard this line applied to Doctor Faustus: “It has a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” The truth is that this could describe most of drama, but it does seem very fitting for Christopher Marlowe’s play. It has a fundamental problem that is nonetheless repeated constantly: there aren’t a lot of third acts to follow a first act when the protagonist sells his soul to the devil.
Ever since Goethe, writers have tried to find a clever way to get the hero out of his deal. In Goethe’s case, it turned out to be a syntactic trick and no one that I’m aware of has much improved on this. Marlowe at least has the good taste to treat Faustus as a tragic character with no way out. But even in this case, Doctor Faustus seems more like an essay than a play: tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them. Boring.
For the past year, I’ve been working on my own Faustian play, but at least I have the good sense to make Mephistopheles the star, rather than Faustus. He’s the interesting character, because he’s the guy who gets to watch Faustus make the same mistake that he has observed (and probably also committed). This is explicitly in the original play:
In other words, Faustus is an idiot. And thus the play is about an idiot who makes a choice, delays the choice for the second act, and then suffers for the choice in the third act. This, more than anything, is why the play is so rarely done. People love the idea and the dialog, yet it is always and forever unfulfilling.
And yet, I do love it. It is clearly the play of a very smart and erudite man. And it is hard for any intellectually inclined person to no see it as a metaphor for his own search for knowledge. The only filmed version of it is the tedious Richard Burton production. It does have one shining aspect: Andreas Teuber’s performance as Mephistopheles. It somehow makes sense that Teuber went on to be a professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. Unfortunately, all I can find of the film online is the most famous scene, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships”:
If you are interested, here is the whole play (as much as these things ever are) that was filmed. It is directed by Jeremy Cole.