Monday, January 18, 2010

Exploiting Faustus

The American Shakespeare Center just opened Dr. Faustus as part of their Actor's Renaissance Season. When you're working on a play that features a wizard who has bought the service of a devil with his soul, comparisons to Faustus are inevitable. Especially when we know from Henslowe's Diary that Mr. Henslowe "Lent unto the company the 22 of November 1602 to pay unto William Bird and Samuel Rowle for their additions in Dr. Faustus the sum of" 4 pounds sterling. I can't imagine a shrewd businessman like Henslowe paying money for revisions to a play he wasn't planning on producing, You may recall that 22 November 1602 is about the time that it seems most likely that The Merry Devil was written.

Dr. Knutson is tantalized by the possibility of having Faustus up at one playhouse, and Merry Devil up at a competing playhouse across town, and quite frankly, so am I. It's hard to draw a modern analogy, especially because Merry Devil doesn't exactly parody or burlesque Faustus: they both feature necromancers who have sold their souls to various devils, but there the similarity ends. Faustus is a tragedy about the perils of sacrificing oneself for vanity, Merry Devil is a romantic comedy. Dr. Knutson calls it an exploitation, and when you look at the text of Merry Devil, it's pretty clear why.

Fabell's role in Merry Devil is actually quite limited. He works primarily through his agents to achieve his ends, which are really not his ends at all so much as the ends of his former student. The only time Fabell traffics with his spirit, Coreb, is in the induction, and while that establishes Fabells power, his sense of humor, and his craftiness, it does not tie directly to the main plot. It's a little bit like if you were to produce a romantic comedy when the Star Wars trilogy was re-released in 1997: the series was already well established and popular, featuring new materials, and you wanted to ride that wave, so you have a Darth Vader looking mystic knight with a garbage can like android show up and use "the power" to bring the featured couple together. Your movie's got nothing to do with Star Wars, would probably work fine without Simulacrum Vader, but the presence of the character will boost your ticket sales.

This train of thought ultimately will bear more fruit when the production is in rehearsal. It begs the question of how much Fabell's inner life parallels Faustus'. Surely they both care about their friends and students; Faustus wills his entire estate to his apprentice, after all. Fabell's time is up when the play begins, but he manages to trick and extort Coreb into giving him seven more years. Still, he's got to be feeling that time flying by every bit as much as Faustus is. Then again, maybe he's better than Faustus. Fabell has tricked the Devil once, after all, and there's no reason we should think he won't be able to do it again.

Almost makes me wonder if the King's Men (or Chamberlain's Men, depending on the exact date) didn't buy a script and then decide to jazz it up a bit. Not that it matters; we'll never be able to prove any of that. Still, the original production of Faustus happened in the early 1590s and was hugely popular, so The Merry Devil's author would, at least have been aware of the story, and even if the Globe production didn't parallel the Rose production, the shadows of Christopher Marlowe were certainly cast as much over Merry Devil, just as they're cast over Damn Yankees and Little Shop of Horrors.

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