The character of Faust is the archetypal man in search of absolute knowledge and eternal youth. The various stories that circulated in the Middle Ages concerning a certain Doctor Faust, a more or less charlatan necromancer who supposedly lived in Germany between 1480 and 1540, became a genuine legend, taken up in 1587 in a popular work by Johan Spiess entitled Faustbuch (The Book of Faust). The work was translated into English in 1592 and was subsequently used as a source for Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (commonly referred to as Doctor Faustus, 1604).
The first dramatic representation of the story of Faust, Marlowe’s play was, it seems, the basis for all future versions of the story even if, while having all the characteristics of a moral tale with the opposing forces of Good and Evil, it expresses the humanist ideal of the Renaissance from a Protestant and anti-papal point of view. In this perspective, Faust is in fact a sinner, but he is also a rebel who stands against the stranglehold over knowledge exercised by the Catholic Church, even if the price is a contract with the Devil.
The play spread across the continent from the 17th century by “English actors” with their Elizabethan repertoire, first in Holland, then in Germany, where the first theatrical interpretation of Faust probably took place in 1626. A very moralistic version, accepted by the religious authorities – both Protestant and Catholic alike – which was first described in Gdańsk (Poland) in 1668, put on stage the sinner Faust, who is more attracted by earthly pleasures and debauchery than by knowledge, who is then tempted by a pagan divinity (Pluto) and his minions and finishes up in hell. We can also find very similar popular versions of this story in puppet theatre, the main difference being that in these productions the comic dimension is clearly defined.
The First Plays for Puppets
It is known that in the United Kingdom (Great Britain) the Faust play was still being performed in the 18th century under the supervision of famous producers such as Martin Powell, Fawkes and Rowe, but we do not know any details about these performances. On the other hand, we know a lot more about the German and Czech traditions thanks to the publication of the texts by the folklorists of the 19th century. Throughout these interpretations the character of Faust changes. Progressively breaking away from the image of the savant and the humanist, he becomes an incorrigible sinner essentially attracted to the pleasures offered by the Devil. Thus, certain themes present in the telling of the story surreptitiously change. In Marlowe’s text, Faust receives a moral warning from the wise Old Man character, a role filled in puppet performances by an archangel, or even once by a crucified Christ in a Czech interpretation. But in this scene, intended to move the public and preserve the image of repentance, there is also the addition of many comic elements.
Embodied by the clowns Robin and Rafe in Marlowe’s work, these comedic roles were assumed by key characters in the puppet theatre, such as Pickelherring and Hanswurst, and since the 18th century by Kasperl in Germany and Kašpárek in Bohemia. These characters thus become the comic mirror or double of the central character. Hanswurst and Kasperl actually repeat all of Faust’s gestures, imitating him like a monkey or following him like a shadow. They would also call to the devils to travel in the air and then have to defend themselves in order not to get taken away but, being illiterate and thus not able to sign any contract, they easily manage to avoid the trap, unlike their master. Popular good sense thus proves itself superior to the ambition and vanity of the savant. This idea is often found in other folkloric tales. In a puppet version in Strasbourg, Hanswurst went as far as responding to the devil – who was simply the puppeteer himself – that he couldn’t sell his soul to the devil as he was but a piece of wood.
The puppet performances of Faust were also becoming increasingly spectacular, following the example of the actors’ theatre and opera. Thus, at a performance by the Comédiens de Haute-Saxe performed in Bremen in 1688, the figure of Pluto flew on a dragon, Pickelherring fought against magic birds whilst animals and men jumped around and a crow, blowing on the fire, announced the death of Faust. Some performances included a ballet in their interpretation, and live animals were used in versions for circus. As for the Italians, they performed the play in pantomime form, such as La Morte di Fausto e la Fortuna di Arlechino (The Death of Faust and the Fortune of Harlequin; see Arlecchino). German puppeteers favoured all kinds of special effects, transformations or magic tricks. Moreover, while the actors’ theatres were re-doing certain mythological stories like the torment of Tantalus or the myth of Sisyphus, the puppeteers, who had at their disposal many puppets illustrating a biblical repertoire, preferred the Gospels or episodes from the Old Testament such as that of Judith and Holofernes. In Bohemia, the Czech puppeteers also adapted, in their own manner, the Faustian theme, brought from the Germans.
The Rediscovery of Faust in the 19th and 20th Centuries
The theme of Faust became famous in the 19th century in the wake of Romanticism, which had an interest in folk traditions, considered as the seeds of national culture. The various performances of the play in Potsdam or in Berlin by itinerant showmen such as Joseph Schütz or Johann Georg Dreher found great success, including among the most educated circles. Goethe (1749-1832) was fundamental in rekindling the story of Faust. His work, a tragic play in two parts: Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil and Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (Faust. The First Part of the Tragedy, Faust. The Second Part of the Tragedy, written between 1790 and 1831), drew directly from the puppet versions existing at that time. However, even if this work was significant for many writers, it did not have much influence on the puppet theatre. Only two artists reprised Goethe’s play in the 18th century: the Czech puppeteer Jan Nepomuk Lašťovka (1824-1877) and the Frenchman Pierre Roussell, who ran a guignol theatre in Lyon in the 1870s and whose production of the play earned more success than the first as it presented a parody of Charles Gounod’s opera.
Thanks to Goethe, the Faust theme was rediscovered by writers, playwrights and composers. But puppet theatre as a whole, including its most cultivated performers, remained faithful to its popular and traditional versions. Thus we find versions of Faust in the repertoire of the Marionettentheater Münchner Künstler, directed by Paul Brann (1873-1955), in the small living room theatre of Slovenian artist Milan Klemenčič (1875-1957), as well as in the Czech theatre Umělecké loutková scéna Říše loutek (est. 1920) in Prague. This interest persisted after World War II in Europe as in the United States, where Harro Siegel performed in 1958 with puppets made by himself a version of Faust that would inspire other puppeteers to return to the theme. All the same, in America, Marlowe’s version was preferred over the popular take for puppets. German puppeteer, designer and director Carl Schröder (1904-1997) presented several shows based on the subject but progressively abandoned the traditional moralizing interpretation.
In Europe, the popular Czech version was reprised by Divadlo DRAK (est. 1958) and by Matěj Kopecký (1923-2001), and was also produced in Poland. Many European artists have explored other interpretations of the Faustian legend. The first to innovate was Gaston Baty who, with his French style of puppetry, took up the philosophical dimension of the play in 1948, reducing the comic and magical elements. Other interpretations appeared in the 1960s with, in 1966, for example, the slightly misogynistic version of the Pole Andrzej Dziedziul which depicted Marguerite as an instrument of the devil, used to help him reign over “masculine humanity”. In Seven Deadly Sins, Australian-born puppeteer living in Amsterdam, Neville Tranter, chose a more allegorical version, performing on stage dressed as Mephistopheles, animating and touting the seven deadly sins before making Faust appear, and having him reveal the deception by removing his mask. In 1989, the puppet theatre of Wrocław (Poland) produced an adaptation of Goethe’s work under the direction of Wiesław Hejno, highlighting the theme of gambling or life taken as a game.
Through these countless international interpretations, today’s puppet theatre has finally joined the writers and playwrights who continue to update this universal myth.
- Bevington, Davin M. From Mankind to Marlowe. Cambridge (MA): Harvard Univ. Press, 1962.
- Bianquis, Geneviève. Faust à travers quatre siècles [Faust Through Four Centuries]. Paris: Aubier, 1955.
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