Alumnae Bulletin May 2008

Humanly Possible, Impossibly Human



Several members of Faust: Approaches to a Legend in Literature, Drama and Film, a 300-level seminar in German and comparative literature given last fall by Professor Azade Seyhan, regrouped in February to attend an adaptation of The Master and Margarita at the Mum Puppettheatre in Old City, Philadelphia. The performance took place not only on miniature stages, but ranged up and down a long room as two actors in black top hats and tailcoats worked with puppets from traditional rod-manipulated figures to paper cutouts and rubber balls.

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel about a visit by the Devil to 1930s Moscow, with an embedded "historical novel" set in Jerusalem about Pontius Pilate and the trial of "Yeshua," The Master and Margarita is itself an adaptation of Goethe's Faust as an allegory of life and culture threatened by censorship and persecution under Stalin. Part of the movie's literary brilliance lies in the different levels on which it can be read, as slapstick, philosophical allegory and satire critical of not just the Soviet system but also the superficiality and vanity of modern life in general. The story takes place on all levels during Passover Week from Wednesday until the night of Good Saturday.

That the Mum performance showcased puppets doing the humanly impossible instead of actors "representing" brought the course full circle to its initial look at the mythical origins of the Faust legend. Rumors of unorthodox beliefs and magic powers began to circulate during the lifetime of Doctor Johannes Faust (circa 1480­–1540), a German alchemist and medical practitioner said to have vanished in a gory "pink mist," either as a result of a laboratory explosion or rent by demons. In European cultures he became the archetype of the magician who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for material and immaterial pleasures.

The story was first told in the chapbook Historia von D. Iohan Fausten (1587), and plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on the legend were popular throughout Germany. The famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749­–1832) became interested in the legend after seeing a puppet show as a teenager and worked on his own version for 60 years until his death.

The course focused on Part I of Goethe's Faust with its lasting implications for modernity. A hybrid between a play and an extended poem, it draws on Christian, medieval, Roman, Eastern and Hellenic poetry, philosophy and literature.

"One of the masterpieces of world literature, Faust represents the trials and paradoxes of humans caught in emerging self-awareness between ambition and conscience, power and restraint, and science and belief," says Seyhan, Fairbank Professor in the Humanities and professor of German and comparative literature.

Published in 1808, Faust I reverses the moral of the original legend. Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge and power, Faust attracts the attention of Mephistopheles and makes a deal to serve him in exchange for raw experiences until he is so pleased with one that he wants to stay in that moment forever—and then he will die. With Mephistopheles' aid, he seduces a young girl, Margaret (Gretchen), who becomes pregnant, kills her child, and is sentenced to be executed.

The class watched several German films of Goethe's version, including the 1960 Hamburg stage production by Gustaf Gründgens, who also plays Mephistopheles, and his troupe from the Deutsches Schauspielhaus. More stagecraft than cinema, the stark set showcases the rich delivery by the actors of the classic text.

Becky Brendel '10 took the course because she had read Faust in translation in high school and "found it fascinating, not only for the interplay between the characters, where nearly everyone's a foil for everyone else, but also because of the overarching themes.

"I'm very interested in legends and folklore, tragic desire, and generally anything with devils in it; the paradoxes created by charismatic yet immoral characters intrigue me. I also happened to have read a very lyrical translation, and that made me want to read the original German, which certainly did not disappoint. As much as I loved Goethe, seeing different adaptations of the story and how changes in details changed the entire meaning and message of the story was even more fascinating to me."

The Faust legend continues to be adapted in written fiction, stage plays and musicals, operas, rock songs and classic music, comic books, video games and movies. "The many adaptations and interpretations of the legend document the philosophical and cultural tenor of different epochs," notes Seyhan.

Readings, lectures and discussions for the seminar were in German. In addition to Faust I and The Master and Margarita, the class read Heinrich Heine's tongue-in-cheek Der Doktor Faust: Ein Tanzpoem (1848), written for the director of London's Her Majesty's Theatre, but never performed. Films included parts of the 2005 Russian television miniseries of The Master and Margarita and Alex Ollé's Fausto 5.0 (Spain, 2001).