Freedom and Oppression in "The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus"
“Hell is just a frame of mind,” wrote Christopher Marlowe in Dr. Faustus, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit declared, “Hell is other people.” Both statements – or perhaps neither – may prove to be true in the Seeing Place Theater’s The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus.
An actor-drive ensemble in which the performers also produce the work and contribute to fundraising, marketing and set building as well as writing and directing, The Seeing Place Theater’s ninth season is presented under the theme “In Extremis.” Described as exploring “perceptions of freedom and oppression,” the six-show lineup opens with The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus. Adapted and written by Brandon Walker and directed by Erin Cronican, the play will run through October 21 in the Underground Space at 64 East 4th Street.
Staging the well-known story of the religious scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for earthly pleasures appealed to both Walker and Cronican’s practical and artistic pursuits. The Producing Artistic Director and Executive Artistic Director, respectively, were searching for a show that would provide roles for three women and one man, and exploring a story of moral ambiguity seemed fitting for obvious and timely reasons. The #MeToo movement’s exposure and incrimination of abusers only enhanced its relevance as powerful men are held accountable for their actions .
“You’ve got someone who doesn’t have anything of what he wants to have based on a life devoted to God and studies,” Walker, who plays Dr. Faustus, said. “And he decides, ‘I’m sick of this. I’m going to have what I want now instead of having some faith that something will be present in an afterlife.’ And then in doing that, he doesn’t end up any more satisfied and significantly more corrupted by those actions.”
To adapt the story of Dr. Faustus into this world-premiere production, Walker turned to Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, from the 1600s, as well as more recent stage adaptations and several different operas. His script combines Marlowe’s work along with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust to form a parable intended for a modern-day audience and the atrocities of their daily life.
Dr. Faustus’ story can be seen in various adaptations featuring both ancient and present-day settings. In Walker’s script, the 76-year-old scholar has devoted his life to God, but after decades of pious work with little reward,, he feels forsaken. Frustrated and unfulfilled, he abandons hope and calls on the Devil, and the bargain is made.
Women play a significant role in Dr. Faustus’ pursuits as well as his downfall, and, as befits a Judeo-Christian tale, they have been written as the embodiment of selfless Christian purity as well as objects of temptation and lust. In a striking new take, Walker’s script turns those conventions in their head: In this adaptation, the demon Mephistopheles, Faustus’ guide through his remaining years on Earth, is played by a woman.
Rather than approach the role as a woman performing a role written for a man, Cronican embodies the character as a female. After first encountering Mephistopheles in the form of a terrifying spirit, Faustus requests that he return in a fairer form and fulfill his life-long desire of being surrounded by beautiful women.
The role of a woman can easily be a source of both internal and external conflict for the male protagonist of a religious story, and the struggles of purity, sexuality and power originally sourced from the 1600’s may feel familiar to audiences in 2018. Even when Mephistopheles interacts with Faustus in the body of a woman, the dynamics between her power and the educated, aged man shift significantly.
“There’s a constant push-pull between who knows more, because Faustus is so learned and also is male, so there is a sense of entitlement,” Cronican said. “When you have a female countering that, there’s automatically a status shift. If I were a man playing the role, you would think they were equal statuses arguing. With a female in the role, there’s a sense of, ‘He has more authority.’”
But at times, Faustus has to be reminded that he requested a female appear before him – a necessity revealing much about society’s male gaze and gendered assumptions of authority and power.
“We really tried to look at, without being too on the nose about it, how men view women in terms of looks and how is that important to a man,” Cronican said. “How does that validate a man in order to have the most beautiful woman? And what will he do to have her?”
Faustus will do almost anything in his pursuit of Gretchen, a devout Christian Sunday School teacher who has remained a virgin into her twenties. Mephistopheles dismisses her as a “goody goody” and her own sister encourages her to drink alcohol and act more selfishly. The character offers a parallel to Faustus himself until she finds herself tempted to go against her long-held beliefs, an action that results in tragedy. Developing such a character proved to be a challenge, Cronican said, for they did not want to present her as too good a person lacking in essential humanity. The result was to emphasize that Gretchen possessed longings and desires before Dr. Faustus appeared.
“There’s a risk with classic plays of having the woman be simpering or too good,” Cronican said. “You can only have good and bad. You can have Mephistopheles bad with no humanity there. We’re trying to make sure the line is very thin, but we want to make sure we cross it as much as we can.”
Women’s emotions, and attempts to repress them, are prominent even in the play’s title. Originally titled The Historia of Dr. Faustus, the change provides a clear-cut reference to the surgical procedure of removing a woman's uterus or womb that was frequently performed as a treatment for “hysteria,” a mental disorder often attributed to sexual dysfunction and long considered an exclusively female condition.
Cronican and Walker sought to emphasize this discrepancy between the standards applied to men and women – another theme of the play that speaks to a 21st-century audience. For it is Dr. Faustus, the male protagonist, whose life spirals out of his control.
“There are things men are allowed to do that are then called ‘bold’ or ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ or ‘dramatic’ – not in a negative way,” she said. “Women have the background of the word ‘hysterical’ – how do we stop a woman from feeling anything, expressing anything? I wanted to put the spotlight on that and to be able to say, ‘This is somebody who is losing control and going and going and it gets worse and worse.’”
The less control Faustus has on the chaos building around him, the more his guilt grows, until he finally takes responsibility for his actions, Walker said. This chaos is understandable to present-day audiences, especially those thinking about the American government and the title character’s habitual blaming of others, especially women, for the consequences of his own actions.
“I think people would see some of the excess that happens with Faustus echoed in our government, without us being too on the nose about it,” he said. “Particularly with the way he blames the women whenever something bad happens. It happens over and over and over again. The interesting thing is you almost ignore it because it’s so normal.”
Faustus’ story inspires timeless questions of good and evil, right and wrong, and redemption and restitution. These questions are universal, Cronican said, adding that she hopes the audience finds themselves in the characters onstage. America’s deeply divided culture, both political and social, as well as the rising awareness among the left of unconscious biases and prejudices, offers plenty of opportunities to question themselves.
“Each one of the characters does something that’s reprehensible, and they have their own reason for doing it. The question is: Are they bad people who occasionally do good things, or are they good people who occasionally do bad things? Is everybody capable of being corrupted when they get a little bit of power? When they’ve been pushed too far?”