And so to the theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe no less, to see Dr. Faustus by Marlowe. An amazing production, well thought out, well executed and with fantastic lead performances (Arthur Darvill & Paul Hilton).
The real shame, though, was the audience. I don’t know how many of the (admittedly young) pups there, both foreign and native, had actually read the play or – heaven forbid – actually studied it, but it appeared that at least 90% of them were unaware that this play is a tragedy. Now I understand that there are lots of clowning scenes in Dr. Faustus, and very funny they are too. As ever with Elizabethan drama, it seems that the character of jest (Robin here, but also the Fool in King Lear) translates well into the modern-day. Certainly Robin (Pearce Quigley) was brilliant, producing belly laughs from a seasoned cynic such as myself. Yet the audience seemed to take with them the clowning into the much more serious, darker scenes of the play. They saw hilarity where none was intended. In one scene, Mephistopheles takes Faustus by the hand to lead him further into his evil ways, yet this was greeted with an “awwww” from a young American student. It struck me that she clearly saw them in a totally modern context, and not as a spirit of darkness leading a greedy man away from repentance and therefore salvation. When Faustus asks Mephistopheles where he is damned, he replies “In Hell” – this elicited a laugh from the youngsters in the crowd. I was utterly amazed. For the whole play, they laughed and chuckled not only at the clowning, but also at the sight of a man conjuring a terrible spirit, sign away his own soul in blood and suffer terrifying anguish at the hour of his death before being dragged to hell. It didn’t strike me as terribly funny.
But slowly, the answer dawned upon me. To these young people, Faustus is a comedy. To an Elizabethan audience, the conjuring of evil spirits and bartering of one’s soul would be a terrifying thing indeed. To those of us who relish the power of Marlowe’s words, it is too a vivid and haunting tableau. But to these children, brought up in this modern, secular world – what is a soul? What is the conjuring of a devil spirit to those who are surrounded by craven images of Satan everywhere – even being used to sell a brand of stain remover? ‘Tis nothing. A mere trifle to bartered in exchange for more “things”, more acquisitions.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no hawker of religions. I carry no truck with the hellfire and brimstone brigade. As a powerful piece of drama,and when acted this well, Dr. Faustus rightly stands tall. Yet I can’t help but feel that we are losing something when the idea of a soul – an idea that has burdened humanity forever, which has influenced our morals and our laws – is no longer thought of with any great concern. That to sign it away should prove no great matter to our young minds & that the thought of a man, tormented by demons and spirits, anguished and conflicted with repentance, can provide comedy value is surely a concern.