Sunday, 15 February 2015

Forshadowings: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus

Considering its date of origin (which in itself is hotly debated as the play was certainly performed during Christopher Marlowe’s lifetime but it was not published until sometime after his death) The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus may not initially seem like an appropriate text for the Gothic reading group given its general focus on texts from the 1790s to today. But continuing our tradition of picking texts that may not be technically considered Gothic (I will fight you over Blade Runner), Faustus seemed a perfect choice. As an undergraduate, my 17th century literature tutor explained The Spanish Tragedy to us as the ur-Hamlet and certainly many of the dramas of Elizabethan and Jacobean period may be considered ur-Gothic. And as for Faustus itself? I don’t think you can get more Gothic than the tale of a gifted man who tires of his mortal confines and sells his soul to the devil only to ultimately fail to achieve his desired greatness and be dragged to hell by devils. (Well, maybe it could be more Gothic. There’s no ruins, castles or heroines, but you get my drift.)
Demons: Great for deals, bad for your floor

The Faust legend itself is older than Marlowe’s play, originating from Germany and drawing on biblical ideas, but also continued long after in works such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust and Charles Gounod’s opera. The ‘Faustian bargain’, Faust’s hunger for greatness and his fall can also be traced throughout the Gothic canon, from the anti-heroes of Ann Radcliffe to The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

I've sat for the best part of an hour attempting to pin point just what it is about The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus that is so enduring, but I've half-written and deleted at least five paragraphs now so I'm beginning to think it’s impossible. It’s a complex play, but also entirely enthralling. My first encounter with it was in 2011, at Shakespeare’s Globe in production starring Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles. It was a birthday treat for my sister, who had fallen in love with the play after studying it for her A Levels. To let you in on secret, whilst I knew it was a ‘good play’ I was actually more looking forward to finally seeing The Globe’s method for myself. Okay, that and seeing Rory from Dr Who in the flesh. I spent the entire production on the edge of my seat. Admittedly that was partially due to the fact we were in the middle gallery and we got a better view that way, but it was also because neither of us wanted to miss a signal syllable. Forgive me the cliché but final scene, as Faustus begs God to save him from the demons come to deliver him to Lucifer, gave me goose bumps. 

My other ride is a hideous skeleton monster from Hell

Which is why I’ll be forcing you all to watch it this Wednesday!

We’ll be screening the play at our normal meeting time of 4pm, in the Richard Roberts Building Room A84 and heading over to a public house for our discussion.

Lauren Nixon is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.  Her academic success may or may not have something to do with a deal she made with a demon monkey a while back.

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