There is a new production of Doctor Faustus that just opened in New York at the 200-seat Classic Stage Company, starring “Mr Big” from Sex and the City, Chris Noth, as Faustus, and and veteran screen actor Zach Grenier as Mephistopheles. I have a great fondness for the play, but it still remains a mystery to me why anyone would want to produce it. A standard line about it is that the play has a beginning, a muddle, and an end. And you know that from the start: Faustus sells his soul for 26 years of Mephistopheles entertaining him. And at the end, he learns the valuable lesson that 26 years of playing pranks on the pope is really not compensation for an eternity of damnation.
That gets to the even bigger problem with the play. Faustus is not a likable character. He’s clearly an idiot. When Mephistopheles shows up as he is, Faustus requests that he change into a Franciscan friar. While it is clever of Christopher Marlowe to get a demon to walk the stage throughout the play as a religious figure, Faustus comes off as a small minded man of petty privilege. What’s more, he does not make his deal with the Devil out of any duress but rather boredom. He’s the most arrogant of characters — thoroughly disagreeable.
Faustus’ servant Wagner is far more engaging. In the context of the play, he too is wavering off the path of righteousness. But he does it only because he sees his master acting badly. But he is smart in a way that Faustus is never shown to be. Wagner manages to trick Robin into be his servant. And that is about the end of Wager’s acting on the dark side. His character all but fades away toward the end of the play.
Far more interesting is Mephistopheles because he seems truly to be a tragic character. Of course, we don’t see how he got to his damned place, but we see the results. In my various attempts to rework the play, I always find that even after his damnation, Faustus still doesn’t get it. He’s just a silly person. Mephistopheles, on the other had, exudes sadness and wisdom. And it is hard not to sympathize with him for the 26 years he must spend with Faustus who — despite all his academic credentials — has no noble aspirations or interests.
I’m sure the production will be like those of all Elizabethan plays: highly edited and finessed so as to make them better than they are on the page. There is, regardless, a lot of fine poetry on the page — much more than, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” One nice thing about Marlowe’s writing is that, when well performed, you can hear the poetry. It can be very pleasing. I think there has been too much work done to make Shakespeare sound too naturalistic. Although his work was already well into the process of naturalism that continued up to the Restoration. So I hope the production embraces the poetry rather than obscuring it.
But I still don’t see much point in doing Doctor Faustus. Although it is a better choice than yet another one of Shakespeare’s plays.