The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Devil Made Him Do It?

When I was a boy, the very first classical play I saw starred my cousin, Robert Stattel. It was the CSC Repertory production of Marlowe's Tragicall Historie of Dr. Faustus. Alas, no footage I can discover, but here's a somewhat decent introduction to the opening of the play:

Ever since, both the Faust story (Marlowe's, Goethe's and many of the variants thereof, from The Devil and Daniel Webster to The Twilight Zone's "Printer's Devil", not to mention Bedazzled), and Marlowe's other plays have always appealed to me. Marlowe is fascinating on the subject of pride as deadly, and yet as having a perverse appeal. The modern anti-hero is at the center of each of Marlowe's plays. A fascinating archetype being delineated right before the Elizabethan audience's eyes. There are a myriad of Faustian forerunners, of course, and there even appears to have been a 15th Century Dr. Faust, or Fust. But one of the great literary synchronicities, if not an actual source, can be found in Book Five of St. Augustine's Confessions:
There had just come to Carthage a certain bishop of the Manicheans, Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil; and many were entangled by him through the charm of his eloquence. Now, even though I found this eloquence admirable, I was beginning to distinguish the charm of words from the truth of things, which I was eager to learn. Nor did I consider the dish as much as I did the kind of meat that their famous Faustus served up to me in it. His fame had run before him, as one very skilled in an honorable learning and pre-eminently skilled in the liberal arts. **** For almost the whole of the nine years that I listened with unsettled mind to the Manichean teaching I had been looking forward with unbounded eagerness to the arrival of this Faustus. For all the other members of the sect that I happened to meet, when they were unable to answer the questions I raised, always referred me to his coming. They promised that, in discussion with him, these and even greater difficulties, if I had them, would be quite easily and amply cleared away. When at last he did come, I found him to be a man of pleasant speech, who spoke of the very same things they themselves did, although more fluently and in a more agreeable style. But what profit was there to me in the elegance of my cupbearer, since he could not offer me the more precious draught for which I thirsted? **** For as soon as it became plain to me that Faustus was ignorant in those arts in which I had believed him eminent, I began to despair of his being able to clarify and explain all these perplexities that troubled me--though I realized that such ignorance need not have affected the authenticity of his piety, if he had not been a Manichean. For their books are full of long fables about the sky and the stars, the sun and the moon; and I had ceased to believe him able to show me in any satisfactory fashion what I so ardently desired: whether the explanations contained in the Manichean books were better or at least as good as the mathematical explanations I had read elsewhere. But when I proposed that these subjects should be considered and discussed, he quite modestly did not dare to undertake the task, for he was aware that he had no knowledge of these things and was not ashamed to confess it. For he was not one of those talkative people--from whom I had endured so much--who undertook to teach me what I wanted to know, and then said nothing. Faustus had a heart which, if not right toward thee, was at least not altogether false toward himself; for he was not ignorant of his own ignorance, and he did not choose to be entangled in a controversy from which he could not draw back or retire gracefully. For this I liked him all the more. For the modesty of an ingenious mind is a finer thing than the acquisition of that knowledge I desired; and this I found to be his attitude toward all abstruse and difficult questions..... But all my endeavors to make further progress in Manicheism came completely to an end through my acquaintance with that man. I did not wholly separate myself from them, but as one who had not yet found anything better I decided to content myself, for the time being, with what I had stumbled upon one way or another, until by chance something more desirable should present itself. Thus that Faustus who had entrapped so many to their death--though neither willing nor witting it--now began to loosen the snare in which I had been caught.
It's a curious echo, isn't it, even if nothing more? And, in Book IV of the Confessions, Augustine rejects by turns rhetoric, astrology, pagan religion, and Aristotelian philosophy. There's even a friendly doctor in chapter 3 of the book who tries to dissuade Augustine from following astrology. Did Marlowe have this progression in mind in creating Faustus' great opening soliloquy read by Richard Burton above? Is this strangely likable and sympathetic sinner a prototype of Marlowe's greatest anti-hero, or is it just a piece of literary curiosa? Speculation, of course. One can view many different takes on the play, if not the one that so moved me as a boy. Here's a decidedly modern spin, in Edinburgh:

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