The Faust figure in European culture

The origins of the Faust story

The character of Faust or Faustus has been one of the most enduring and significant figures in European culture for almost five hundred years. The earliest records of a Dr Georg Faust in Germany date from between 1507 and 1540 and concern a real person who acquired some reputation as a magician, alchemist and astronomer. After his death in about 1540, Protestant theologians began to suggest that his skill must have derived from the devil. From this speculation, there developed the legend of the learned scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. This story has been retold many times, in many different ways, depending on the date and time at which the versions appeared.

Early written versions

  • A manuscript collection of tales about Faust seems to have been in circulation in Germany between 1570 and 1587, and in the latter year the first book about Faust was published: the Historia von D. Johann Fausten [The Story of Dr Johann Faust]
  • It was translated into English by an author know only as ‘P. F.' as: The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Dr. John Faustus and published 1592
  • Christopher Marlowe probably used this book as his source for Doctor Faustus.

Popular Faust plays

Over the next two hundred years dozens of popular Faust plays were performed all over Europe by theatre-based and travelling companies of actors, most of them deriving from Christopher Marlowe's play and placing great stress on the spectacular and farcical elements of the stories. From the 1690s, especially in continental Europe, puppet and pantomime versions were performed, often by travelling groups of puppeteers, while in 1684 in England the story was staged as a farce.

The story of Faust was, therefore, known to large numbers of people, both in cities and towns and in the countryside. Very few of these people will have known any of the published texts of the story – many of them would, in any case, have been illiterate – but the oral and performance tradition remained strong until the 1770s, when the popular Faust plays began to disappear.

The Enlightenment and Romantic Faust

From the middle of the eighteenth century, there was a steady succession of new published versions of the Faust story, in poetry, prose and dramatic form. The legend of Faust attracted the interest of Enlightenment philosophers and creative artists. These were committed to the advancement of knowledge and the centrality of human experience. They were fascinated by the story of a man willing to risk everything in the hope of gaining power through knowledge.

This was an age less concerned with the fear of damnation and eternal punishment. Instead, people were fascinated by a story that could be interpreted as the individual's defiance of established ideas and systems of authority in search of understanding, insight and increased power over natural forces.

PrometheusDuring the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, Faust thus became an almost heroic figure. He was often seen in terms of the myth of Prometheus, the daring mortal who stole fire from the gods in order to assist the progress of humanity. The most influential version of this view of Faust was Faust (part 1, 1808; Part 2, 1832) by the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This and Marlowe's play are the best-known versions of the story.

Romantic writers also made a link between the exercise of the imagination and possession by some alien force and this is another of the ways in which they interpreted the Faust story.

Faust in nineteenth century music

In the nineteenth century, leading composers were drawn to the story of Faust, finding in the elements of the legend opportunities for colour, contrast, drama and the vivid representation of the demonic dimensions of the tale:

  • The Damnation of Faust for voices and orchestra by Hector Berlioz, was first performed in 1846
  • Faust, the opera by Charles Gounod, received its first performance in 1859.

Both Berlioz and Gounod were inspired by Goethe's version, but Gounod departs markedly from Goethe's plot and thus adds yet further dimensions to the story:

  • Richard Wagner wrote A Faust Overture (all that he completed of a planned symphony) which was first performed in 1840
  • A Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt received its première in 1857
  • Liszt also wrote other orchestral and piano pieces on Faustian themes (including The Mephisto Waltz)

These, and other musical versions of the story, can also be seen as representations of the demonic, mysterious aspect of creativity and that questions about the cost at which great art is achieved.

The continuing tradition

Variations on the Faust legend have continued to appear throughout Europe, and have been turned to a wide variety of purposes:

  • In 1938, the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov published The Master and Margharita, a satirical novel commenting on the political system of the Soviet Union
  • The French poet Paul Valery published Mon Faust [My Faust] in 1938
  • Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, a major German novel about a musician, appeared in 1946
  • English versions include Dorothy L. Sayers' The Devil to Pay (1939), D. J. Enright's A Faust Book (1979) and Robert Nye's Faust (1980).

‘A Faustian bargain' or ‘a Faustian pact' have become common phrases in the English language. Together with this brief historical survey of Faust versions, they are evidence of the extent to which the story has become well-known and influential. In a more secular age, Faust's tale can still be applied to contemporary situations in which individuals sacrifice values and personal relationships in pursuit of pleasure, wealth or power. As time goes on and circumstances change, this compelling story will no doubt continue to give rise to many more versions.

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