This forms a lively drama. The work of a man in his twenties, like Christopher Marlowe, in relation to his Faustus. There are scenes of comedy and of love and seriousness. There are scenes in verse and scenes in prose. There are songs – some comic, others poignant.
The language moves the action on rapidly and evokes the feelings of the participants vividly.
The core of the story is Faust’s relationship with Gretchen. Unfortunately, she and her family members suffer the consequences, and Gretchen herself ends up in prison – awaiting execution? Gretchen refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles. The woman pays! (Bring on feminism!) Faust and Mephistopheles get away scot-free. There is no tragedy for them.
Mephistopheles’s role is that of an avuncular pandar. No pact between Faust and Mephistopheles is shown in this early version (contrast the later Part One).
Here, Faust is not demonstrably at theological fault (contrast Marlowe) but at moral fault.
The later Faust Part One follows this version fairly closely and elaborates upon it and sophisticates it. Gretchen is pronounced “saved” at the end. Part Two forms in effect, a totally different, complex work, with hundreds of characters. (Is it actable?) Faust avoids damnation (forgiven by Gretchen), and so never suffers a personal tragedy.
Goethe’s play commences in a similar place to Marlowe’s Faustus, with references to the protagonist’s mastery of philosophy, medicine, law and theology – and magic. (See below, Appendix 1.) From then on, the two diverge.
In comparison with Faust and the Urfaust, Marlowe’s version has the merits of being blunt and honest, with a suitable climax and ending.
Appendix 1. The opening lines of Goethe’s Urfaust.
The play commences with a soliloquy by Faust:
Hab nun ach die Philosophey
Medizin und Juristey,
Und leider auch die Theologie
Durhaus studirt mit heisser Müh.
I attach a very free adaptation of the first 28 lines, below, to give an indication of how they come across.
I know it all – philosophy,
Medicine, law, bureaucracy,
And sadly too theology,
Sweated over thoroughly.
I remain a stupid fool,
Of rote learning a mere tool.
Doctor and Professor I am called:
With ten years’ teaching I have stalled.
Back and fore and up and down
I lead my pupils, like a clown.
I see that we can nothing know:
It breaks my heart – a heavy blow.
I am smarter than my neighbours –
Pedants, wedded to their labours.
I don’t think of doubts and errors.
Hell and Devil hold no terrors.
But in me is instilled the yearning
To uncover what’s worth learning.
I’d prefer it if our college
Did impart more useful knowledge.
I have no money to my name
And in the wider world no fame.
To make my fortune, avoid the tragic,
I’ll devote myself to magic,
Exercise my mental strength:
Secrets will be revealed at length.
With confidence, instead of doubt,
I’ll teach the things I know about.
Appendix 2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1987), Urfaust, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jun – Epilogue by Robert Petsch
The Epilogue provides a context for the appearance of Goethe’s first version of Faust circa 1775. Here, the late Professor Petsch wrote as follows (in translation):
Among books offered for sale at 18th century Germany’s trade fairs (e.g. in Frankfurt am Main), which kept old popular books in being, there was to be found an abbreviated version of the Historia von D Johann Fausten (1587)* – a version that revealed the influence of the Age of Enlightenment in its critical attitude to the old legend. As he reports in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Truth and Poetry), as a boy, Goethe himself read and devoured the story, mislaid it, restored it, and made the content firmly his own. The figure of the old devil-conjuror on the puppet stage gripped him and made a greater impact on him. The brilliant Faustus drama by Shakespeare’s greatest predecessor, Christopher Marlowe (which Goethe only got to know later in life) had been taken by English actors to Germany, gradually turned into a popular drama, and reduced to puppet theatre.
In the “clever” 18th century, people no longer wanted to know about the fable; the clergy were annoyed by the inclusion of the Devil; the philosophers of the Enlightenment sensed stultifying superstition; but an enlightened spirit like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) had an inkling, behind the debased text of the strolling players, of the former poetic significance of the material and applied himself to an up-to-date revival; he did not wish the honest truth-seeker to be lost, despite his straying from the strait and narrow.
Then the younger generation, those of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (‘Storm and Stress’), to which Goethe himself belonged, brought to the Faust legend a deeper understanding. In contrast with the Age of Enlightenment, they sought to do justice to the seamy side of life, to understand mankind’s dark impulses and passions, and to take a leap into the incomprehensible.
[*freely translated into English and published (1592) as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor Faustus – the principal source of Marlowe’s own play.]