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Life in the Faust Lane

Once, Gounod's Faust held an unassailable position in the world's opera houses. But what does it mean in today's world, with Faustian bargains all around us? DAVID J. BAKER wonders if we still give the devil his due.

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Jon Hamm as Mad Men's Don Draper, one of a clutch of modern-day Faust figures in film and television
© AMC/Photofest 2011
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Leo Slezak a Met Faust of the 1910
Metropolitan Opera Archives
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James Gandolfini in The Sopranos  
© HBO/Photofest 2011

"Time, which tires of everyone," in the timeless words of W. H. Auden, has not spared Gounod and his Faust. 

At one time Gounod's Faust was omnipresent, onstage, on the airwaves, on 78 rpm records in the attic and LPs in the club basement, watered down in children's piano music, hailed in guidebooks to the world's greatest operas. The work's magnetic power was featured in novels by Edith Wharton and Thomas Mann, and in the Harry Potter of another era, The Adventures of Tintin. And — ultimate consecration of a brand's triumph — the soldier's chorus provided the melody for a Campbell's TV commercial, "Soup for Lunch."

The success of Gounod's Faust rested on two deceptively solid pillars. The first was the seemingly immortal composer. His music had universal appeal, both to singers and to audiences. The public knew that rival melodizers of Goethe existed, but they were the ones consigned to niches then — Berlioz in the concert hall, Boito in insular Italy. Gounod's score remains cunningly crafted for the voice, varied, theatrically effective, but it found itself in a changed marketplace. 

The upheaval in opera repertoire that would come in on the LP recording wave after World War II was totally unforeseeable, but when it irrupted, Gounod was left behind, marooned, something like General Motors a few decades later. Gounod was no longer synonymous with opera, thanks to the ravenous new appetite for once-neglected Verdi works and the burnishing of the bel canto label, which had once enjoyed about the same credibility as "Made in Occupied Japan." More sadly still for Gounod's stock, the public began to flirt with the other Goethe adaptors; his exclusive patent on the Faust legend had expired. 

The other pillar that has wobbled, with even more dire consequences, is the Faust legend itself.

For the past four centuries, Faust's pact with Satan has had a thriving career, in two major phases. The first Faust avatars were cautionary Christian parables to admonish the faithful. The original printed version of the tale, in sixteenth-century Germany, led off with a "warning to the reader" about the dire example of a villain who perpetrated "the greatest and gravest sin against God and the whole world." Faust had of course turned from God to Satan and gambled the part of himself that was immortal. A hint of ambivalence was introduced to the tale in Christopher Marlowe's drama Doctor Faustus,in 1594, which made the protagonist an intellectual (as he is in Goethe) and occasionally implied fleeting sympathy with the fall of so promising a spirit. But the fall was irresistible. 

Many versions followed, but the colossus by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in two parts (1808 and 1832), fascinated all of Europe with its poetic brilliance and philosophic scope. The tale was no longer the property of the church; its protagonist was no longer pure villain. Its ending would have been scandalous if it had been more widely read; in fact, few in Goethe's public persevered much past Part I, which corresponded, very roughly, to the opera plot. By the end of Part II, Goethe becomes playfully ambiguous, vulgar, indulgent of his sinful hero, who is finally saved. Thanks to Goethe, the Faust tale became something of a philosophical industry, a vast marketplace of ideas in which countless intellectual merchants promptly set up shop and continue to ply their wares, though to a drastically shrinking audience. Goethe thus launched the second phase of the Faust tradition, which was ambiguous and metaphysical rather than pious and normative. In some ways his Faust was even heroic.

A devout composer, who had once considered entering the priesthood, Charles Gounod sanitized Goethe in his 1859 adaptation (by no means the first operatic treatment), with the help of slick librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Often damned by skeptics as petit-bourgeois in its preoccupations, their opera is undeniably reactionary. While exploiting the original shock value of the diabolical pact, Barbier and Carré realigned the legend with Christian orthodoxy, scrubbed away ambiguities and emphasized the personal salvation drama of Gretchen/Marguerite while at least suggesting a fiery end for Faust himself. The power of the inspirational climax depended in part on the infamy of the traditional premise; without transgression, there can be no redemption.

But the nineteenth-century operatic adaptations, led by Gounod, provided only temporary shelter from the storm of free-thinking speculation. The Faust legend's intellectual career continues today, but almost entirely in academia and some other elite settings. Non-academics who try to follow even the main tributaries should take warning: they risk exhaustion and a sense of futility. Not only does the shape-shifting Faust figure turn up in endless guises and variations by a whole library of authors, starting with Marlowe, Goethe, Mann, Paul Valéry, and continuing right down to a 1993 fantasy novel by Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley called If at Faust You Don't Succeed. Feeding, multiplying, on that diverse corpus are swarms of exegetes and spin doctors, from prophets of secular creeds such as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Jung, to academic dicers and parsers who — partly because hardly anyone is listening — seem capable of making the legend yield any message they may choose. 

This industry, like a huge costume warehouse, a hall of mirrors, offers your choice of Fausts — a composer along the lines of Schoenberg squared (Mann's Doctor Faustus), the world's wisest philosopher (Valéry), the Magus in human history, Zoroaster, Adam, Don Juan, the Third Reich, Prometheus, colonized countries who sold themselves to Western oppressors, everyman…. What it cannot do — what none of the Faust merchants can manage anymore — is lure the genie out of the bottle again to horrify or frighten us.

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Let's make a deal: Mary-Louise Parker plays a down-on-her-luck mom who starts selling drugs on Showtime's Weeds
© Showtime/Photofest 2011

Eternal damnation … blasphemy … the devil … the soul. What do we make of such terms? Audiences may not be altogether atheistic, but they are no longer scandalized, chilled or even fascinated by those concepts in a theatrical context. "For him sin did not exist," literary critic Mary Hanford Finney Ford wrote of Goethe, in a book published in 1897, a time when several Anglo­–Saxon critics despaired of the poet as some kind of pagan; she might have been describing a member of the opera audience today. Yet even Goethe's hyper-intelligent drama hinges on sin and its assumed wages. Undeniably, if you see no peril in sin and do not shudder at blasphemy, Faust does not entirely work for you.

Popular attitudes toward sinfulness or criminality are difficult to gauge with any exactitude, but certain clues can be deduced from the explosion of films and television series in which crime, executed in grisly detail, is more often rewarded than punished. Sympathy with crime and its perpetrators is the only factor that adequately explains the success of The Godfatherwhich portrayed the Corleone clan as ambitious, rigorous, heroic CEOs. The character of Tony Soprano, mobster and killer in The Sopranos, inspires the kind of cult once reserved for a righteous crime-fighter like Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. 

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Michael Douglas in Wall Street
© 20th Century Fox/Photofest 2011

Another amoral character now triumphant on television, ad executive Don Draper of Mad Men, makes audiences condone or admire his philandering, duplicity, fraud and various excesses, somewhat as filmgoers cheered Michael Douglas as Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, who even made his moral code explicit with a new catechism ("Greed is good"). Heists, as in the Ocean's X franchise, now invariably succeed, with impunity. Our yardstick for judging a character today is more likely to be his success rate than his lawfulness or morality. The last refuge for real scoundrels, villains, is now the thriller genre, rigidly formulaic and carefully cordoned off.

A new TV subgenre seems determined to domesticate and demystify crime. It presents middle-class parents down on their luck, forced to support their families by selling drugs (the father in Breaking Badthe mother in Weeds) or working as a male prostitute (the father in Hung). Two out of these three have day jobs as high-school teachers, but is that detail meant to make them more sympathetic — or more desperate? 

With sin losing its meaning, Faust is basically a celebrity, privileged and self-indulgent. In this sense, he may remind us of many prominent media personalities. While we cannot relate to a notion like selling one's soul, at least literally, our culture is saturated with real-life examples of mega­stars — in film, pop music, visual arts, sports and politics — who scale the heights of fame and success, then often crash and burn. But there is no devil, no incarnation of evil, to grant the privileges and then present the bill. Instead, we now expect celebrities to succumb to their own inner demons, as if through some law of physics, symmetry or poetic justice — whether we are morbidly watching the unraveling of a pop star such as Elvis, Michael Jackson or Britney Spears; an artist such as Jackson Pollock; an athlete suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs (or of violence to animals or women); or, in politics, the almost inevitable sex scandal. Closer to home, who can forget those divas in the original operatic sense, damned with ambition like Icarus — Maria Callas or Elena Suliotis. The notion of an externalized devil is both incredible and superfluous.

The problems in staging Faust with any impact today, given its devalued currency, would seem almost insurmountable. Perhaps the only way to make theatrical sense of the figure of Faust in a new production is to play on that celebrity notion, pile on the charisma and exaggerate his indulgences. In keeping with our new theology, Méphistophélès should not look too diabolical; in fact, since damnation comes from within (as Jung, Mann, Valéry and others point out), why not present the devil and Faust costumed as identical twins, suggesting two sides of a single person? The device is already timeworn, at least since Peter Sellars's casting of twin brothers Herbert and Eugene Perry as Don Giovanni and Leporello, but it could still prove reinvigorating for Faust. Imagine Mephisto, a second Faust, emerging from a mirror as Faust I peers at his own reflection; when the mortal character is rejuvenated, his enabler is as well.

A celebrity Faust should also see a bit more of Helen of Troy and other superwomen — so by all means, the Walpurgisnacht (dropped altogether in some earlier Met productions) should loom large and opulent. He needs to look for excitement beyond the village. All of which brings us to the sad subject of Marguerite, another figure that has not stood too well the test of time.

Nineteenth-century opera faced the challenge of a need to incorporate edgy subject matter without offending polite society; it was, after all, an entertainment serving the affluent and the upstanding. The maiden seduced and abandoned became a favorite device in mainstream entertainment of the era. In Faust she pays for her part in the sinful transaction, renounces the seducer and the devil and is redeemed — often shown lifted bodily to heaven like a divinity or high-ranking saint — in a flamboyant exploit that manages to have things both ways: the audience is allowed to contemplate the prohibited sex act and then rejoice in its vanquishing. Curiosity indulged; order restored.

Marguerite's transgression, aside from the actual infanticide (often glossed over, in productions that omit the prison scene), can hardly be expected to scandalize or morbidly fascinate today's jaded audiences. Obscene tweets and Jersey Shore may or may not herald the end of civilization as we knew it, but when combined with the depletion of concepts like mortal sin, Satan and blasphemy, there goes one more source of oxygen for the Faust legend.

What remains of the legend today? Its sharp decline is not unfamiliar in the annals of thought. A religious code, once taken literally, often has a second life as mythology — if we take myth to mean a religion other than one's own, a cosmology now obsolete, surviving as a cultural relic, an anthropological curiosity with its own narratives, divinities and iconography; in the worst case, the prerogative of academics alone. 

Today the Faust myth seems to exist only as parody. But not parody based on firsthand knowledge of a familiar classic. Younger audiences' source of information about the Faust myth today and tomorrow is surely not Goethe or Gounod, Marlowe or Mann, Berlioz or Boito. Their knowledge of the target increasingly comes — can only come — from other satirical treatments that proliferate in the media today, obliterating the original that once inspired them. Parodies once stood on the shelf alongside the originals they mocked, but space is becoming scarcer.

And so we have the 1967 Stanley Donen film Bedazzleda trivialized Faust in which Satan is a small-time spoiler, shown tearing out the last pages of novels and scratching phonograph records; this devil is also error-prone, at one point accidentally transforming Faust (Dudley Moore) into a nun. Woody Allen includes no pact with the devil in his 1997 film Deconstructing Harry but parodies hell as a device to faintly damn certain persons and groups, most of whom are more annoying than really evil: "Floor five," the infernal elevator voice intones, "subway muggers, aggressive panhandlers and book critics." Not quite Dante, for sure. Video games and fantasy novels offer assembly-line Mephisto figures and diabolical pacts. But the frivolity award would probably go to the animated TV series The Simpsons for an episodein 1993 in which Homer Simpson sells his soul to the devil — for a doughnut. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. 

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Current Issue: July 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 1