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Teaching Romanticism XXX: Drama, part 6

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This eight-part issue was edited by Dana Van Kooy.


Wendy C. Nielsen (Montclair State University): Teaching Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II

 

Abstract: This essay offers a guide for teaching Parts I and II of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Romantic-era drama, Faust, to undergraduate students with no knowledge of German. Throughout the essay, I discuss ways to make Faust accessible to students, and include information about the best available editions and translations; possible reading and writing assignments; the supplementary use of film clips and various film productions; and how to interpret the drama through allegorical motifs such as the redemptive power of love, the Eternal Feminine, and dualities.

 

Parts I (1808) and II (1832) of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) hold an important place not only in the Romantic canon, but also in world literature and culture. Faust is arguably Goethe’s most monumental work, and English is the language of one quarter of all its translations.[1] I began teaching Goethe’s Faust as part of a Great Books course for my institution’s Honors Program, and later developed it as part of coursework on European Romanticism for English students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. My colleagues teaching nineteenth-century British and American fiction had urged me to teach Goethe’s Faust, since Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic translated Goethe and engaged with the author in literary criticism and their own writing.[2] Faust thus fits well into surveys of British and European Romanticism as well as world drama. This essay recommends strategies for teaching this text to an undergraduate population with no knowledge of German.

In the early days of teaching Goethe’s Faust, I only ventured to teach Part I, and thus used Walter Kaufmann’s 1961 translation. The edition, a dual translation, includes the German text on the opposite page, and a few scenes from the beginning and end of Part II. Teaching only Part I places emphasis on the tragedy of fourteen-year-old Gretchen: her seduction and ruination by Faust, and death following her incarceration for killing their child. In this way, Part I resembles some aspects of bourgeois tragedy, which usually entails the seduction of a middle-class heroine.

Goethe’s Faust, however, is ultimately about the journey of the play’s restless hero, and reading Parts I and II reveals the full scope of what Mephistopheles calls the doctor’s “demented quest.”[3] Some parts of the text can be excluded if time constraints exist.[4] I prefer to use Walter Arndt’s translation of Faust; the Norton edition provides students with annotations and interpretive notes by Cyrus Hamlin. A class on Romanticism might compare contemporary translations of Faust with the one that Percy Bysshe Shelley started. Indeed, translation surfaces as an issue early in the text; Faust translates the beginning of the Gospel of John as “’In the beginning was the Deed!’” (l. 1237), as opposed to “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Faust’s mistranslation signals, on the one hand, his restless spirit, which Goethe identifies repeatedly with yearning and striving. On the other hand, Faust’s mistranslation reflects the author’s characteristic pantheism: a belief in the spiritual aspect of all things. Hence, Faust conjures the Earth Spirit in “Night” (l. 480-513). After years of studying the three subjects the German university has to offer (medicine, law, and theology), the doctor wants to finally do something.

The action of Faust nonetheless remains opaque for many students, and it helps to offer them cinematic and theatrical interpretations of the plot. Unfortunately, contemporary film productions have adapted the material rather loosely. Lesson Faust (1995), directed by Jan Swankmeyer, combines Marlowe’s with Goethe’s Faust, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2011 film, Faust, also departs from Goethe’s play. Semi-recent German productions for television do not have wide release, and neither they nor the most faithful film production, a 1960 film directed by Peter Gorski and starring Gustav Gründgens as Mephistopheles, are readily available with subtitles to my knowledge. It is nonetheless worthwhile showing students that film’s adaptation of the “Walpurgis Night” scene, which ends with a scene of an exploding nuclear bomb. (Suggestions for faithful adaptations of Goethe’s Faust accessible to English-speaking audiences are welcome in the Leave a comment section.) Cyrus Hamlin’s theater review of Peter Stein’s two-day, twenty-two hour production of the play in its entirety summarizes the work well.[5] This article might prompt discussion in class about the suitability of Faust for the stage.

Part I of Faust does not adhere to the basic tenets of Aristotelian drama: there are no acts or scenes; the time extends well past one day; and the action includes excursive scenes such as “Walpurgis Night.” I draw students’ attention to the ways in which Goethe alternates intimate scenes with ones in more public settings. Thus, the three-character scene of “Study” is followed by “Auerbach’s Tavern in Leipzig,” after which Mephistopheles takes Faust to the “Witch’s Kitchen” to make him look thirty years younger. The “Street” scene in which Faust meets Gretchen follows that intimate scene.

One way for students to understand Goethe’s Faust is to teach it as an allegory of the redemptive power of love, an interpretation that Jane K. Brown puts forward in her book, Goethe’s Faust: the German Tragedy (1986).[6] Elsewhere, she describes it as a “giant morality play.”[7] The second scene, “Prologue in Heaven,” sets the stage for this allegory, when Mephistopheles makes a bet with the Lord that he can tempt Faust. The terms of the bet remain much more flexible than those set for Faust in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (ca. 1604) by Christopher Marlowe. In Goethe’s version, Faust only loses his soul to Mephistopheles if he ever reaches perfect happiness: “Should ever I take ease upon a bed of leisure, / May that same moment mark my end!” (l. 1692-93).

Part I alludes several times to mortality. In his first scene onstage, Faust contemplates—and nearly commits—suicide (l. 735-36) before the Chorus of Angels celebrating Easter morning restores him “to Earth” (l. 784). In the following scene, “Outside the City Gate,” peasants recall Faust treating victims of the plague with his father, but he admits that “with our infernal tonic / Upon these hills, these dales we visited / A plague far worse than the bubonic. / Why with this poison I myself defrauded / Men by the thousands, leaving them for dead” (l. 1050-54). In this context, the pact with Mephistopheles appears enticing, because life has little meaning for the jaded Faust. Faust’s lack of care—the personification of which eventually blinds him—leads to his careless treatment of his pubescent girlfriend, Gretchen. Death serves as a counterpoint for the theme of birth and rebirth in Faust, especially in the so-called Gretchen tragedy. During their first date in “Garden,” Gretchen mentions the death of her infant sister, born to her then recently widowed mother (l. 3121-23). Gretchen’s association with Faust will also lead to the death of her mother, and her brother Valentine’s murder in a duel with Faust (assisted by Mephistopheles). The death surrounding Gretchen foreshadows and puts into relief her ultimate acts of birth and murder, or infanticide.

The Gretchen tragedy proves challenging for twenty-first century undergraduates to comprehend. Thirty years ago, George Newtown wrote about teaching Faust: “discussion of the relation between Faust and Gretchen expands easily into examination of relations between men and women in general.”[8] However, their relationship seems peculiar, not universal, for many of today’s students, who see Faust’s relationship with a girl, who would count as a minor in our own day and age, as unlawful. Students need guidance in locating the author’s point of view in Faust. Faust expresses his own doubts about the seduction: “I wonder—should I?” (l. 2738).  Goethe leaves verse behind and composes one of the penultimate scenes of Part I, “Dreary Day,” in prose to suggest Faust’s remorse about Gretchen. Students sometimes have a difficult time understanding why Gretchen kills her child rather than raising it as her own, even when instruction includes discussions of the financial and social limitations for unmarried mothers in the eighteenth century. As Mephistopheles notes in the unlined scene, “Dreary Day:” “She is not the first.” Goethe is one among many writers during the late eighteenth century (when the composition of Faust began) drawing attention to seduced and then abandoned women who faced execution after murdering their out-of-wedlock children.[9] This capital crime became the equivalent of manslaughter starting in 1813.[10] Students might be asked to try and locate an authorial position on this social issue in Faust, and to analyze the ways in which the text constructs notions of femininity.

Gretchen’s tragedy can make more sense for today’s generation of students when it is taught within the context of “The Eternal Feminine,” a concept that is finally named in the penultimate line of the play (l. 12110). In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir assumes that this phrase, which is sometimes translated as “The Eternal Womanly,” connotes the Virgin Mary, and other feminist scholars have found the phrase provocative.[11] Conventional Goethe scholars like Harold Jantz understand it to symbolize “the great creative continuity of life, birth and rebirth in constantly renewed forms.”[12] Both of these critical views have merit, for the middle-aged Faust finds himself attracted to women in general and everything they represent on a symbolic level: youth, beauty, and the virginal maternity that the Virgin Mary embodies. Faust first views an image of the feminine in a mirror in “Witch’s Kitchen:” “I see her image dimmed as through a haze! / The loveliest woman in existence! / Can earthly beauty so amaze?” (l. 2435-37). When he meets Gretchen, the combined effect of her youth and archetypal femininity seem to attract him, for not only is Gretchen a virgin when they meet, she is also a mother figure to her younger sister. Mephistopheles even refers to her as the “mama-doll” (l. 3521). In this way, Gretchen resembles Lotte in Goethe’s novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774), a character that is responsible for raising her younger siblings. Lauren Nossett identifies characters such as Lotte and Gretchen as virginal mothers.[13]

Different characters embody the birth, death, and rebirth aspects of the Eternal Feminine in Part II. At the end of Act I, Mephistopheles sends Faust on a quest for the mysterious Mothers when Faust demands that he conjure Helen of Troy and Paris for the Emperor as an entertainment. Scholars have long speculated on the meaning of the Mothers, but it suffices to present them as representing birth and rebirth, for Helena is, in fact, dead, and needs to be reborn. At the same time, as Cyrus Hamlin notes, Goethe’s tone here is ironic (410). Acts I, II, and III should be read through the lens of irony and as somewhat unreal plays within the larger drama. They represent Faust’s pursuit of love as part of his divine redemption, but death must occur before rebirth can take place. The transformation of Faust into Plutus at the end of “Spacious Hall” in Act I, and the death of Helena and Faust’s son, Euphorion (who resembles Byron before his body disappears), mark the death parts of this cycle. Helena vanishes then too, returning to the underworld to be with her son. The otherwise baffling bellicosity of Act IV can best be understood as a response to Faust’s grief over the loved ones he loses in Act III.

Throughout Part II, it proves difficult for students to empathize with the increasingly absent Faust. Other characters act as mirrors of Faust in Part II. Act II, for example, embodies Faust’s journey of birth, death, and rebirth through the dream of Homunculus (l. 6900-20), the little man who in turn sees Faust’s vision of Helena’s conception (l. 7295-7312) before going through his own cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Homunculus remains trapped in the alembic in which Faust’s assistant, Wagner, creates him with the help of Mephistopheles, but this limitation does not stop him from striving to find love; he crashes against the shell of the sea nymph Galatea and, in death, joins her “as one!” (l. 8485). It is worth reminding students here that death in German literature can represent transcendence. In fact, Homunculus burns brightly during his short life; Mephistopheles calls him “Sparkleface” (l. 222).

The theme of transformation in Part II takes on darker tones in Act V. Faust transforms the land by draining it and having its residents killed: Philemon and Baucis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a Wayfarer who visits them. Faust tells Mephistopheles to “clear them from my sight!” (l. 11275) but later claims that he “meant exchange, not robbery” (l. 11371). This crime sets the stage for Care blinding him in “Midnight,” after which he dies. Mephistopheles tries to capture Faust’s soul, “the fluttering flibbet,” but angels distract him by taking the guise of attractive young boys (l. 11673). A good question for students to address at the end of the drama is how and why Faust escapes damnation. Part of the answer lies in the final scene, where Faust’s spirit is welcomed into Heaven by Mater Gloriosa and a Chorus of Penitent Women, among them the transformed spirit of Gretchen, now a penitent called Else, and male spirits: Pater Ecstaticus, Profundus, and Seraphicus; a Chorus of Blessed Boys; and Doctor Marianus. Goethe’s drama suggests that no man or woman can ever reach perfect happiness, and offers an interpretation of the divine that forgives and redeems those who yearn and strive to love.

The dynamic between the male and female spirits in the final scene and many of the pairings throughout the drama represent the theme of dualities, or what Goethe elsewhere identifies as polarities.[14] As Faust tells Wagner in one of the play’s famous lines in “Outside the City Gate” in Part I: “Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast” (l. 1112). Faust also creates syncretic relationships between religious and cultural traditions. While the “Prologue in Heaven” features Christian figures, Faust appeals to the Earth Spirit in “Night.” The drama attempts to bridge Classical with Nordic mythology, which is evident in the two Walpurgis scenes and the Neoclassical structure of Part II, when Faust travels through the underworld in order to marry an apparition of Helen of Troy. In this pursuit, as Cyrus Hamlin notes, Goethe casts Faust not as the sixteenth-century figure of Faustus, but rather as a medieval hero from the Germanic courtly love-song tradition (Minnesang). The way that Goethe creates a syncretism between Classical and European traditions calls to mind the “bifocal or double vision” that John Fetzer associates with romantic irony.[15]

Writing assignments on Faust might ask students to analyze the meaning and function of these dualities, including but not limited to the ways in which Mephistopheles, as a dramatic foil, gives voice to Faust’s yearning to “savor now [his] striving’s crown and sum” (l. 11586). Another project might closely examine Goethe’s depiction of science, perhaps in conjunction with a reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One of the questions Faust poses is: what is the creative force of the universe? Part I addresses this question in a mundane fashion; Gretchen represents the power of the Eternal Feminine to create life. In Part II, Goethe foregrounds his own interests in natural philosophy. Homunculus is created in a laboratory, perhaps using some of the techniques described by Paracelsus, the well-known alchemist.[16] The earthquake in “On the Upper Peneios” in Act II reflects contemporary theories about the formation of the earth, called Vulcanism (Hamlin 429). The rejuvenation and extension of Faust’s own life also raise questions that might resonate with contemporary discussions about the pursuit of longevity.

 

Bibliography

Atkins, Stuart. “Goethe’s Faust at the Hands of its Translators: Some Recent Developments.” In Interpreting Goethe’s Faust Today, eds. Jane K. Brown, Meredith Lee, and Thomas P. Saine. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex.  Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany Chevallier. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2012.

Breithaupt, Fritz. “Anonymous Forces of History: The Case of Infanticide in the Sturm und Drang.” New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies 79 (2000): 157-176.

Brown, Jane K. “The Genre of Faust.” In Approaches to Teaching Goethe’s Faust, ed. Douglas J. McMillan. New York: Modern Language Association, 1987. 26-32.

—. Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Cocalis, Susan L. and Kay Goodman, eds. Beyond the Eternal Feminine: Critical Essays on Women and German  Literature. Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1982.

Creevy, Patrick. “The Victorian Goethe Critics: Notions of Greatness and Development.” Victorians Institute Journal 13 (1985): 31-57.

Fetzer, John Francis. “Romantic Irony.” In European Romanticism: Literary Cross-Currents, Modes, and Models, ed. Gerhart Hoffmeister. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. 19-36.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Trans. Walter Arndt, ed. Cyrus Hamlin.  2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2001.

Hamlin, Cyrus. “Faust in Performance: Peter Stein’s Production of Goethe’s Faust, Parts 1 and 2.” Theater 32.1 (January 1, 2002): 116–36.

Hamlin, Cyrus and McMillan, Douglas J, eds. Approaches to teaching Goethe’s Faust. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1987.

Jantz, Harold Jantz. The Form of Faust: The Work of Art and its Intrinsic Structures. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Madland, Helga S. “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models.” German Quarterly 62.1 (1989): 27-38.

Newtown, George. “Faust in a Great Books Course.” In Approaches to Teaching Goethe’s Faust, ed. Douglas J. McMillan. New York: Modern Language Association, 1987. 108-111.

Nielsen, Wendy C. Nielsen. “Goethe, Faust, and Motherless Creations.” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2016): 59-75.

Nossett, Lauren. “Impossible Ideals: Reconciling Virginity and Maternity in Goethe’s Werther.” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2016): 77–93.

Schöpp, J. C. “Playing the Eclectic: Margaret Fuller’s Creative Appropriation of Goethe.” In Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Crossings in a Revolutionary Age, eds. Charles Capper and Christina Giorcelli. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007). 27-44.

 

Notes

[1] Stuart Atkins, “Goethe’s Faust at the Hands of its Translators: Some Recent Developments,” in Interpreting Goethe’s Faust Today, eds. Jane K. Brown, Meredith Lee, and Thomas P. Saine (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994), 231.

[2] Patrick Creevy writes that “the English mythic Goethe really did come and did go with that age we call Victorian;” “The Victorian Goethe Critics: Notions of Greatness and Development,” Victorians Institute Journal, 13 (1985): 34. See also J. C. Schöpp, “Playing the Eclectic: Margaret Fuller’s Creative Appropriation of Goethe,” in Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Crossings in a Revolutionary Age, eds. Charles Capper and Christina Giorcelli (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 27-44.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, trans. Walter Arndt, ed. Cyrus Hamlin, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2001), l. 303, p. 10. Further references to Faust are from this edition and provided by line number, and interpretations that are indebted to the appended “Interpretive Notes” by Cyrus Hamlin are referred to by page number.

[4] The following sections can be left out of the assigned reading: “Walpurgis Night’s Dream” (l. 4223-98) in Part I; the majority of “Charming Landscape” (l. 4635-4727), the beginning of “Imperial Residence” (l. 4728-4885), and most of “Spacious Hall” (l. 5065-5954), and “Brightly Lit Ballrooms” (l. 6307-76) in Act I; “Narrow, High-vaulted Gothic Chamber” (l. 6566-6818) and part of “On the Upper Peneios” (l. 7495-7709) in Act II; part of “Shady Grove” (l. 9594-9690) in Act III; and all of Act IV (l. 10040-11042).

[5] Cyrus Hamlin, “Faust in Performance: Peter Stein’s Production of Goethe’s Faust, Parts 1 and 2,” Theater 32.1 (January 1, 2002): 116–36.

[6] Jane K. Brown, Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

[7] Jane K. Brown, “The Genre of Faust,” in Approaches to Teaching Goethe’s Faust (NY: MLA, 1987), 27.

[8] George Newtown, “Faust in a Great Books Course,” in Approaches to Teaching Goethe’s Faust (NY: MLA, 1987), 109.

[9] See Helga S. Madland, “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models,” German Quarterly 62, no. 1 (1989): 27-38.

[10] Fritz Breithaupt, “Anonymous Forces of History: The Case of Infanticide in the Sturm und Drang,” New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies 79 (2000): 157-176, 166.

[11] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany Chevallier (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2012), 188. See the collected edition, Beyond the Eternal Feminine: Critical Essays on Women and German  Literature, eds. Susan L. Cocalis and Kay Goodman (Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1982).

[12] Harold Jantz, The Form of Faust: The Work of Art and its Intrinsic Structures (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 106.

[13] Lauren Nossett, “Impossible Ideals: Reconciling Virginity and Maternity in Goethe’s Werther,” Goethe Yearbook 23, no. 1 (2 June 2 2016): 77–93, 77.

[14] In his essay, “Polarity” (Polarität, 1799), Goethe provides a list: “We and Objects; Light and Darkness; Body and Soul; Two Souls; Spirit and Matter; God and the World; Ideal and Real; Sensuality and Reason; and Being and Yearning” (Wir und die Gegenstände, Licht und Finsternis, Leib und Seele, Zwei Seelen, Geist und Materie, Gott und die Welt, Gedanke und Ausdehnung, Ideales und Reales, Sinnlichkeit und Vernunft, Phantasie und Verstand, Sein und Sehnsucht); Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, vol. 6 (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1986), 443.

[15] John Francis Fetzer, “Romantic Irony,” in European Romanticism: Literary Cross-Currents, Modes, and Models, ed. Gerhart Hoffmeister (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 19-36, 21.

[16] For more information on the context and creation of Homunculus, see Wendy C. Nielsen, “Goethe, Faust, and Motherless Creations,” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2016): 59-75.


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