Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

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BBC Radio 3, 15 June 2008

Jane Morgan’s revival, first broadcast in 2006, conceived the play as a masculine fantasy of power: Faustus (Paterson Joseph) aimed to control the world, taking real pleasure in the godlike roles given to him by Mephistophilis (Ray Fearon). Any tests that Faustus was asked to pass, to sell his soul to the devil, were willingly undertaken; no sense of guilt or remorse here. The result, inevitably, was corruption; as shown, for instance in several sequences when Faustus and his servants possessed an inability to communicate with one another. They delivered fine speeches, but no actual verbal exchanges too place. Faustus simply talked at people rather than to them. Having sold his soul, he no longer had that power distinguishing human beings from beasts – the power to communicate rationally. It seemed that this revival took a moralistic view of Marlowe’s material, presenting the play as the rise and fall of an over-reacher.

As the production unfolded, however, we soon realized that this was only a superficial view. Joseph took such pleasure in delivering his speeches, taking care to enunciate the stresses in every line; Fearon likewise matched him for verbal dexterity. The scenes between Faustus and Mephistophilis took on the appearance of verbal tennis-rallies, which each actor trying to outdo the other in terms of verse-speaking. The experience was a fascinating one; never have I heard Marlowe’s lines delivered with such relish. In Morgan’s interpretation, Faustus no longer seemed a morality-play but an early version of a Romantic fantasy; just like Byron, Wordsworth or Keats, the play’s two main characters rejoiced in the pleasures of the imagination for its own sake. The American critic Harry Levin once wrote a famous work called Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher. This revival seemed particularly concerned to explore this aspect of the dramatist’s character, more precisely defined as the capacity to transcend or redefine the boundaries of the imagination.

For the first time I realized that Marlowe’s play could be viewed not as a tragedy of a good man corrupted, but rather as a Gothic melodrama in which the central character has the opportunity to explore hitherto undiscovered areas of his psyche. On several occasions I realized that Faustus was a supporter of the pleasure/pain principle; he actively welcomed suffering – not because he regretted what he had done, but because it was somehow pleasurable for him. Similarly he looked forward to his death as the supreme fulfilment of his desires, providing him with an opportunity to divest himself of earthly cares and savour the world of the spirit

If this was the intention, then it was successfully achieved. Once Faustus had sold his soul to the devil, his speeches made him appear strangely attractive, as someone willing to experience everything that the devil might throw at him.  Like Marlowe himself, he welcomed a violent death as the culmination of his desires. Although the production ended with the Chorus re-emphasizing the play’s moral elements, the speeches resembled the moral endings that were frequently tacked on to the end of Hollywood films during the era of the Production Code in the middle of the last century. No one actually believed in them, but they were incorporated just to satisfy the censor’s requirements. In Marlowe’s day, the ultimate censor would have been Queen Elizabeth and her court.

Like many recent productions on Radio 3, this revival proved once and for all that sound radio has the capacity to create ground-breaking interpretations of canonical texts. I congratulate Jane Morgan and the company on their achievement.