Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Exploitation of Faustus

When I asked Roslyn Knutson if she thought that Merry Devil might be described as a parody of Doctor Faustus, she said that "an exploitation" might be more accurate. By 1603, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was already a modern classic in the repertory of The Rose, and Knutson has suggested that Merry Devil might have been written to draw customers to The Globe. If there's anything that sells better than a tragedy about a Necromancer, it's a comedy about a Necromancer, right?

Fortunately, the American Shakespeare Center very recently mounted Doctor Faustus as part of their Actor's Renaissance Season, which means we have some great material to exploit. Textually, Faustus (Rene Thornton Jr) orders Mephistophilis (Benjamin Curns) to appear in the shape of a friar, but the ASC's recent production added an inverted crucifix to Mephistophilis' friar robes. We have used this as a model for our production as you can see here:

Coreb (Brian Falbo) orders Fabell (Sara Grace Landis) to follow him to Hell.

Sorry, I don't have a picture of Curns as Mephistophilis, so if you didn't see the ASC's production, you'll just have to take my word for it.

While the ASC didn't place Mephistophilis in a mask, several of the other demons that Mephistophilis conjures for Faustus' pleasure were attired in masks, and last fall's ASC production of Titus Andronicus, Tamora and her sons all wear masks as the spirits of Revenge, Rape, and Murder. I myself had used masks for fairies in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I directed some years ago. It seems to work well as an indicator of supernaturalness, and so we have employed masks here.

Whether or not this guise is completely appropriate to the textual demands of Merry Devil could be disputed. When Coreb appears, Fabell rebukes him for appearing in a horrid shape "and not in familiar sort as thou was wont." It is difficult to say what, precisely, a horrid shape means, although Sarah Keyes Chang, in her excellent master's thesis work has argued that Mephistophilis' original incarnation (which Faustus declares to be too horrid to look upon) was in the form of a dragon puppet. That doesn't seem appropriate for Coreb, however, as Coreb must (textually) be able to sit in the Necromantic Chair. Given some other images she cites, it is plausible that a more familiar demon mask may have been employed, but this is something that we will unfortunately never know. If Cuthbert Burbage kept a diary similar to Philip Henslowe's it is lost to us.

What horrifies is very much a cultural artifact anyway, and it is highly probable that the sorts of things that might have horrified an early Stuart audience wouldn't phase us much today. Of course, horror is as much a personal feeling as it is a cultural artifact. Some people are terrified of clowns, but if Coreb were to enter in a clown mask it would likely solicit laughter from most of the audience.

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