[In “Faust Clones, Part 2,” I pick up my look at plays derived from the age-old Faust legend in the early 20th century, beginning with Gertrude Stein’s 1938 Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, the first avant-garde adaptation in my exploration, and then moving on to the musical adaptation of the story, 1955’s Damn Yankees, and Richard Schechner’s 1992 FAUSTgastronome. ROTters might be surprised how far this famous story can be stretched. (Spoiler alert: The real test comes in Part 3 . . . but I won’t say anymore about that now. I recommend that readers go back to Part 1, 15 January, to brush up on the background of the legend and some of the other works it inspired.)]
Written in 1938 by the American modernist playwright and poet Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is actually an opera libretto (for which the music was never composed) in three acts of verse and prose. Now something of a baptism of fire for U.S. avant-gardists, it was first produced as a play in 1951 at Beaver College (now Arcadia University) in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Productions have been mounted by such avant-garde strongholds as the Living Theatre (1951, directed by co-founder Judith Malina at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City), the Judson Poets’ Theatre (1979), and the Wooster Group (multimedia adaptation entitled House/Lights, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte with Kate Valk as Faustus, 1997-2001 at the Performing Garage and internationally; 2005 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn), as well as experimental artists like Richard Foreman (in French as La Fête électrique, Paris, 1982; Berlin, 1993) and Robert Wilson (Berlin and Lincoln Center, New York City, 1992—which I’ll discuss momentarily). It’s also been a favorite of regional rep companies and college and university theaters, including Brown University (Production Workshop, 2011) and the prestigious Yale School of Drama (2011, with future Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as Mephisto). Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights also made another visit to New York City in 2001 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, from the Duende Theater Company of Melton Mowbray, England, at the Paradise Theater in the East Village.
Between 1913 and 1946, Stein experimented with what she called “dramatic narrative,” different from storytelling or even plot. The play’s storyline isn’t laid out straightforwardly; it emerges piecemeal. Stein’s playwriting employed shifting identities and what we now recognize as deconstruction. Like her better-known poems, Stein’s stage dialogue includes repeated phrases, leading some characters to get caught in endless verbal Mobius strips. “In the end what emerges,” said Margo Jefferson in the New York Times, “is a portrait of human consciousness: will, need, patterns of thought and action.” Even though Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is a retelling of the Faust legend, which ought to be grim and pessimistic, Stein leavened her version with whimsy and spontaneity. Because the text is a libretto for an opera, intended to be supported and accompanied by music, singing, and dance, it’s more prose poetry than a play text. This leaves a great deal of room for directors to use an array of staging styles and techniques, which may partially explain its popularity, especially among student and novice directors as well as experimenters. Stein’s innovations have had a palpable influence on theatrical avant-gardists like Julian Beck (husband and partner of Judith Malina), Wilson, and Foreman.
In Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Faustus, a Dog (played by a human), and a Little Boy live suspended in a world of eternal light. The Dog can’t bray at the moon anymore because there’s no night. In Stein’s version of the tale, Faustus has already sold his soul to Mephisto—not for power or knowledge as in standard tellings like Marlowe and Goethe, but for electric light—which New York Times’ Stephen Holden said in his review of the 1992 Lincoln Center staging was “the brilliant central metaphor for the human assumption of godlike powers.” As Prometheus brought humanity fire, Faustus brings electric light and that becomes a motif in all productions of the play, each director devising her or his own technique of using light—and light bulbs—as a design focus. It might also be significant that the name Lucifer in vulgate Latin means ‘light bearer.’ During the transaction, however, Faustus discovered that he had no soul to sell in the first place, so he considers the deal invalid. He’s already grown bored with his soulless life on earth, beneath the harsh light of electricity that eliminates the distinction between night and day, and wants to go to hell immediately. Faustus has found that he prefers the gentler light of candles, the illuminating technique of the time before technology.
The devil will take Faustus if he murders someone, so he gets Mr. Viper (also played by a human) to kill the Little Boy and the Dog. Then, a woman born in the woods whom Stein named Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel—often shortened by theater people to MIHA—is bitten by the Viper. She comes to Doctor Faustus and asks him to save her. Reluctant to do any good deed, lest it queer his shot at getting to hell, Faustus eventually cures her. The devil has his eye on MIHA so he changes the terms of the deal and offers Faustus eternal youth if he convinces her to accompany him to hell. Meanwhile, a Man from Over the Seas has begun to woo MIHA. Faustus, feeling rejuvenated, presses MIHA to go with him, but she clings to the security of the Man from Over the Seas. She rejects Faustus, affirming her place in the world of the living.
MIHA, a single character who’s usually played by three or four actresses, is a composite of Margaret/Gretchen, the woman at the center of many versions of the legend, especially the Goethe, and Helen of Troy. MIHA, recalling Eve, gains knowledge because of a snakebite. The meaning of her four names is open to interpretation: some see her as avatars of one person, others as separate personalities, even a representation of something like multiple personality disorder. The references in her names are also up for grabs, though Marguerite is clearly an allusion to Gretchen and Helena is obviously Helen of Troy. Annabel may refer to the Hebrew name Hannah, which means ‘grace’ or ‘mercy,’ and may also refer to the mother of the Virgin Mary (though I found this explanation stretched). Ida is possibly a reference to Rhea, the mother of Zeus (and hence Mother of the Gods in Greek and Roman mythology) who hid her son from the Titans in a cave on Mount Ida (another stretch to my ears), but whatever else it may signify, I think Stein was making an allusion to the author of Gräfin Faustine, an 1841 German novel with a female Faust character in the forefront. The author’s name was Ida Hahn-Hahn (1805-80; that’s no typo—she was born a Hahn and she married a cousin named . . . you guessed it: Hahn!). The novel, not very successful, was translated into English as Countess Faustine (London, 1844; New York, 1845) and I can’t but believe that Stein read it and probably admired the writer.
I said earlier that one of Stein’s experiments in playwriting was “shifting identities,” and this is part of the technique. Faustus, whose name changes throughout the text, is also often performed by more than one actor and Mephisto is split into two characters, one dressed in red and one in black. As I’ve already noted, the dog character is played by a human actor and speaks and Mr. Viper, an incarnation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, is also portrayed by a human.
On 7-9 July 1992, Robert Wilson directed a production (which he also conceived and designed) of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights at Alice Tully Hall as part of the annual Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun! festival. (Wilson had already directed Giacomo Manzoni’s opera Doctor Faustus, based on Thomas Mann’s novel, at Milan’s La Scala in 1989 and would go on to direct Gounod’s Faust in Warsaw in 2008 and Goethe’s Faust with the Berliner Ensemble in May 2015.) The 90-minute production of Stein’s Doctor Faustus was performed by the Hebbel-Theater Berlin, where it premièred on 15 April 1992, with music composed by Hans Peter Kuhn. The lighting was created by Heinrich Brunke (with Andreas Fuchs taking over on tour), the costumes and make-up designed by Hans Thiemann and Cornelia Wentzel, and the choreography was created by Suzushi Hanayagi. The cast at Lincoln Center was: Thilo Mandel, Christian Ebert, Thomas Lehmann (Doctor Faustus); Heiko Senst (Mephisto in Red); Florian Fitz (Mephisto in Black); Katrin Heller, Wiebke Kayser, Gabriele Völsch (Marguerite Ida and Helen Annabel); Matthias Bundschuh (Little Boy); Karla Trippel (Dog); Christian Ebert (Boy); Wiebke Kayser (Girl); Martin Vogel (Country woman); Moritz Sostmann (Mr. Viper); Thomas Lehmann (Man from over the seas). The actors, all young Germans, spoke English at Lincoln Center, though most had learned the language phonetically just for these performances. (The elocutionist was Bernd Kunstmann.) I saw this production more than 20 years ago, and it still startles me when I think of it.
Wilson’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights staging included all the things audiences have learned to expect from the avant-gardist: the predominance of black, white, and red, the three basic colors the director habitually features (and a perfect palette for this play); plants rendered in geometric shapes; colored surfaces; and, most typical of Wilson’s stage work, the manipulation of light and darkness (another ideal fit for Stein’s Faustus). In fact, John Rockwell of the New York Times declared that the director “transformed [Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights] into a classic Wilson piece.” The theatrical auteur is also no stranger to playfulness and his production of the Faust story was amply buoyed with humor. (The Serious Fun! brochure declared, “The Shocking Truth – Robert Wilson is Funny!”) Wilson, of course, is renowned for his physical staging and visual work and he’s focused on the stage pictures and the look of his productions. The most prominent visual element was, of course, light. (Wilson himself designed the set, but the lighting was created by Heinrich Brunke.) The set, more kinetic than Wilson’s usual environments, was dominated by bars of fluorescent light, like translucent 4x4’s, that were raised and lowered and seesawed through the air as the actors perched on them. Squares of white light, representing heaven, appeared at the back of the black-draped set, shifting shape and color, then contracting and disappearing. Arrays of light bulbs drifted onto the stage, then blazed and dimmed as the emotional tone of the scene changed. When Mr. Viper bit one character, a blood-red rip ran through the black curtain at the back of the stage, accompanied by shrill electronic screeches.
While much of Stein’s text doesn’t make rational sense, both her play and Wilson’s production were less literary theater than sensual—words were put together, as the Christian Science Monitor reviewer quipped, “like a string of literary firecrackers” that affect us for their sound more than their sense, and the physical production was designed to appeal to our visual sense almost irrespectively of the story or the source legend. (Wilson was educated as an architect and, along with his theater work, has worked as a sculptor and installation artist.)
Another of the director’s signature techniques is the movement of his actors. In Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, the actors (all students from a former East Berlin acting academy) moved not so much robotically, but more fluidly, a little like marionettes with some of their strings cut. With chalky white face make-up, the actors made a striking, if emotionless, image. (The director used this same look in his Threepenny Opera with the Berliner Ensemble in 2011.) They moved mechanically (and therefore soullessly?), as if in a slow motion dream (a practice of Wilson’s), in accompaniment to Kuhn’s carnivalesque compositions. The Los Angeles Times’ reviewer described Kuhn’s score as bubbling “with insinuating honky-tonk motifs, jaunty little nursery rhyme melodies and a cacophonous burst of percussive sounds: breaking glass, exploding guns, slamming doors, screeching car wheels.” (Kuhn has worked with Wilson since 1979 and usually employs sounds sampled from nature. This was his first time composing actual songs.)
The match-up of Stein’s Minimalist poetry, which the L.A. Times writer likened to Dr. Seuss’s verses, and Wilson’s Expressionistic staging and design was a near perfect fit. Kuhn’s score paired excellently with Stein’s text. Theatergoers looking for a literary experience from the production, aside from the fact that they clearly didn’t know Wilson’s work, would have been disappointed, but those who could go with the visual and oral stimulation of the senses should have been thrilled at the fortuitous teaming of writer, director, and composer. How faithful or even revealing Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, in this presentation or any other, is as an exploration of the Faust legend, I won’t venture to guess—but as a piece of theater—well, as I said; it’s been two decades and I still can’t shake it.
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The hit musical Damn Yankees opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on 5 May 1955. With a book by George Abbott (1887-1995) and Douglass Wallop (who authored the 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant on which the play is based; 1920-85) and music and lyrics by Richard Adler (1921-2012) and Jerry Ross (1926-55), Damn Yankees ran 1,019 performances and won seven Tonys (and two additional nominations), including Best Musical. Wallop’s novel and the story of the play (as well as the derived 1958 film version) successfully combines the American national pastime in the 1950s with the enduring Faust theme .
Damn Yankees centers on Joe Boyd, a middle-aged, happily married baseball fanatic. In his living room watching a game on television, Joe is disheartened because his favorite team, the Washington Senators, can’t seem to win a game (“Six Months Out of Every Year”). No sooner does he mutter that he’d do anything for “one long-ball hitter” on the Senators than the devil, in the person of the slick salesman, Mr. Applegate, appears with a proposition: Would Joe be willing to trade his soul if the Senators not only win the pennant but the World Series, too? Never having put much store in his soul, Joe makes the deal. He says good-bye to his wife, Meg, while she’s sleeping (“Goodbye, Old Girl”) and disappears. Instantly, Joe Boyd is transformed into the much younger Joe Hardy and magically acquires extraordinary talents on the baseball field (“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo”).
Meanwhile, over at Griffith Stadium, the Senators’ manager, Benny Van Buren, is trying to build up his team’s morale (“Heart”). It seems a fruitless task, but Joe, the team’s new recruit, propels them to win after win. The team bucks up, but Joe is depressed because he misses Meg, whom he left without leaving a clue to what’s happened to him. He rents a room in her house just to be near her, but this only makes him more miserable, since he can’t tell Meg who he really is. Mr. Applegate again intercedes. To lure Joe completely away from Meg, the devilish Applegate conjures up Lola, a beautiful witch, as a pinch-hitter to seduce Joe away from his wife (“A Little Brains, A Little Talent”). Lola tells Joe that she’s used to getting anything on which she sets her sights (“Whatever Lola Wants”) and then demonstrates with a seductive mambo (“Who’s Got the Pain?”).
The formerly woebegone Washington Senators, with Joe as their star player, are on an unbreakable winning streak towards the American League title. Joe, however, having resisted Lola’s temptations, realizes that there are more important things to him than baseball stardom, fan acclaim, and press celebrity and decides he wants to get back to Meg. He asks Applegate to turn him back to Joe Boyd and the devil agrees to do so that night. After several delays contrived by Applegate, Joe makes it to the stadium just in time to help his team recover from a loss to the Yankees before he’s returned to Joe Boyd, and Applegate is so angry and frustrated at this success that he transforms Joe on the field as he’s making the game-winning catch, a fly ball hit into right field by Mickey Mantle, As soon as Joe makes the catch, he rushes off the field and back to his old house, hugging Meg so hard that even Applegate’s blandishments can’t pull him back into his grasp. The devil throws a tantrum as Joe holds Meg tight, anticipating his return to his dull, old life as a die-hard, middle-aged Washington Senators fan.
On 31 December 2005, in Washington, D.C., I caught a performance at Arena Stage of Damn Yankees on the Fichandler Stage. I’d never seen the 1955 musical on stage, just in the 1958 movie version (very similar to the ’55 Broadway outing despite one major cast change) and, in short, I’ll say that it was great fun and very well done. (Some spectators may have known the name of the actor who played Mr. Applegate, the Devil originally played by Ray Walston: Brad Oscar, who was the original Franz Liebkind, playwright of Springtime for Hitler, the musical-within-the-musical of the Broadway première of The Producers. He later also replaced Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock.) Oscar was quite good—he got excellent reviews, including one I saw in Variety—but I kept feeling he was projecting a little too hard, as if he forgot he wasn’t in a Broadway house but the more intimate Arena Fichandler (the theater-in-the-round space).
As I think I’ve said numerous times on ROT, when it comes to the old musicals, I have no critical distance. They’re all nostalgic for me. If I didn’t see them on stage when I was a kid, I saw the movies (as I did with Damn Yankees) or I listened to the albums, which my dad had from his youth. I literally grew up on that music—and when I was little, I knew all the words to all the songs. That said, Arena’s Damn Yankees, with Molly Smith, the company’s artistic director, staging, was a more-than-creditable production. Oscar made a delightful devil—sort of a used-car-salesman-as-Beelzebub—and Meg Gillentine was very good as Lola. (She was no Gwen Verdon—but, then, no one is.) She tended to be a better dancer than actor—though she’s an excellent singer, as well—so her witchy seductress was a little by-the-numbers, but given Lola’s routines, that worked well enough. (Lola’s numbers are almost all dance bits anyway. The original creators expressly went in search of a dancer for the part.)
As for the Joes, Boyd and Hardy, Lawrence Redmond and Matt Bogart were both fine. As it happens, I had seen them both at Arena before, Redmond as Luther Billis in South Pacific (another Ray Walston part, by the way) and Bogart as Lancelot in Camelot. Smith did a nice job using the Fichandler’s arena space, which I always think is hard to pull off smoothly in a musical. I’m sure arena staging is tough for any play, but I think it must be harder for a musical—especially the old ones which were conceived for proscenium stages. The need to get all four sections of the audience some face-time with the actors necessitates some awkward promenading sometimes—moving people around for little logical reason. In a straight play, you can create a set that gives motivation for such crosses—put a chair on one side, a table in another corner, and the actors have to go to them to sit or pick up a prop. The dancing in a musical eliminates a lot of set pieces—the floor’s too small to accommodate both choreography and furniture—so the movements can seem arbitrary. Smith and her choreographer, Baayork Lee, managed this nicely in Damn Yankees. There was even one number with props that was marvelous—a dance with ’50s-era TV sets on wheeled stands. It was a hoot—especially clothed (the dancers) and painted (the TV’s), as the production was, in the Day-Glo pastel colors that evoked the Eisenhower years. (It kind of made me think of Miami Beach back in the days when I used to visit my grandfather there—the houses were all painted pink, yellow, lime green, and baby blue! This wasn’t art-deco Miami but kitschy Miami Beach.)
Damn Yankees isn’t a very deep play, despite its take on Faust. Yeah, Joe might lose his soul to the Devil, and poor Meg may never see her hubby again and never know why—but you know that’s not going to happen, even if you’ve never seen Damn Yankees before. It’s not that kind of show. I mean, we’re not talking Carousel or Sweeney Todd here. It’s the ’50s, for goodness’ sake. So it’s just for fun, a little gratuitous sexiness. (Not sex—Joe doesn’t succumb, of course. What do you expect from a show with a song called “The Game” in which every potential sexual encounter ends when the ballplayers “think about the game, the game, the game”? Like I said: the ’50s.) But who cares, right? It’s just a hoot, and the Arena version was more than just a great way to run up to the New Year’s Eve ball-drop—it was a more-than-enjoyable evening all around. No one will ever make me forget Gwen Verdon’s Lola—I was barely a teenager when I saw the flick, but, man, that woman was still sexy when she was a grandmother! (I saw her on stage in Sweet Charity in ’66 when she was 41 and Chicago in ’75 when she was 50.) But you just have to put that aside, I guess, go with what ya got. (A little this-a. A little that-a. With an emphasis on the latta. You betcha!)
(I must confess to a little double-nostalgia connected to Damn Yankees. If you know the story, Joe Boyd is a confirmed fan of the Washington Senators. That’s the First-in-War-First-in-Peace-Last-in-the-American-League Washington Senators. When I was a school kid in D.C., before the Senators moved out to Minneapolis-St. Paul to become the Twins, not only were the Senators our team—we got to listen to important games on the radio in class sometimes—but I had a classmate named Clare Griffith. Her dad was Calvin Griffith, owner of Griffith Stadium and the Senators. Clare had a younger brother and every year in the spring, her folks had swimming parties at their house for our class and her brother’s class. We got off from school those afternoons! Now, the full name of the team was the Washington National Senators—also known as the Nats—and D.C. finally got a new ball club in 2005. They aren’t the Senators—but they are the Nationals. I’m not a baseball fan anymore—I guess I quit when the Senators left town in 1960—but there’s still a twinge when I think of the Nats coming back home. When the new Nats play the old Yankees, for some, it’s “those damn Yankees” all over again! Siiiigh.
(Sidebar number two: At a 2013 exhibit of works by Washington artists from the ’40s to the ’80s, in a long, narrow gallery, I came across Marjorie Phillips’s Night Baseball (1951), a very literal painting, with which I wasn’t familiar, of a ballgame. I wondered if the baseball diamond depicted might have been the old Griffith Stadium and I found out later that not only does the painting indeed depict that ballpark, but the game in progress is the iconic match-up of the Nats playing the hated New York Yankees—with “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio at the plate! I now wonder if maybe the game in that painting might have been the inspiration for The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which, after all, came out only three years later.)
* * * *
With FAUSTgastronome, Richard Schechner (b. 1934) and his East Coast Artists bring the Faust myth forward to the end of the 20th century with Faust as a cook-alchemist instead of a scholar-philosopher. The preparing, cooking, and eating of food is the focal metaphor for the destructive appetites of Western expansion which brought both Nazi genocide and the late-20th-century globalization, economic imperialism, and genetic manipulation.
(I have wondered if Schechner got the idea as well as the play’s title from the then-nascent technique of molecular gastronomy, the marriage of physical and chemical science with cooking. In his program note, after all, Schechner asserted that “cooking converts the raw (nature) into the cooked (culture).” “Ah, yes,” quipped the reviewer for Newsday, Julius Novick: “a learned allusion to Levi-Strauss.” Claude Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist to whose works, especially The Savage Mind, Schechner referred often in his writing and teaching.)
In Schechner and his collaborators’ version of the story, Mephistopheles, played by a woman dressed as a man but not disguising her biological gender, is aided by Hitler, also played by a woman. FAUSTgastronome draws substantially from Goethe’s Faust, with elements of the 16th-century Faustbuch and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (augmented with Adolf Hitler’s and Albert Speer’s speeches and announcements), and incorporates some of Gounod’s music (adapted and with additional music by Ralph Denzer and Michelle Kinney), some of which is sung in French; German dialogue from Goethe comprises a large part of Schechner’s text. There are, of course, plenty of anachronisms drawn from Marlowe’s 16th century to the 20th up to the 1990s. In his program note, the adapter-director described his production vision as
a “total theatre” approach—acting, singing, masking, dancing, performing, music making, environmental theatre design. Every performance must express a meeting place between the political and the personal.
In an article in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Carol Rosen maintained that Schechner’s script “travestied, pillaged, and shuffled Goethe (both Parts One and Two) and some of Marlowe”; D. J. R. Bruckner, the New York Times reviewer, noted simply that the Schechner’s cast “makes a fricassee out of” his sources and “cosmic ideas”; and in the same paper, Tom Ferrell remarked that FAUSTgastronome was “adapted—very adapted” from Goethe. Using Goethe’s play as a starting point, Schechner connects the overweening ambition of Faust with Hitler’s rise (and by extension, that of more contemporary tyrants). In the program note, the director explained that he saw that “the revel of individual power [is] derived from the devil, but exercised as a Renaissance bursting forth.” Nonetheless, FAUSTgastronome, for all its Post-modern trappings, is still at core a romance, with the Satan-infused Faust essentially a romantic hero. At the end of the day, Faust is in love with sweet, innocent Gretchen, the idealized female who may be his only salvation. Schechner pointed out that Part One of Goethe’s play “poses the question: can ‘love’ redeem sin, is Love the Divine Principle, Love such as embodied by Gretchen.” This doesn’t prevent Schechner from running in as many contemporary references and allusions as he can find.
Schechner premièred FAUSTgastronome with ECA, in residence at La Mama E.T.C., between 1992 and 1995. ECA developed the play in New York in stages and performed it in New York, across the U.S., and in the U.K. I saw the production at La MaMa in Manhattan’s East Village in March 1993 with a cast of Leigh Brown, Shaula Chambliss, Daniel Wilkes Kelley, David Letwin, Ulla Neuerburg, Rebecca Ortese, Jeff Rickets, Laverne Summers, and Maria Vail. The costumes were designed by Constance Hoffman. I don’t believe the script has ever been published, but there is a video (from Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, 1994) of a performance, with a slightly different cast, at the Riverside Church (New York, 1994).
(A brief word about Schechner’s title: in my own prose, I’m using what seems to be ECA’s preferred typography, but in quotations from periodicals, readers will see several idiosyncratic variations: Faust/Gastronome [Back Stage headline, Theatre Journal], Faust Gastronome [New York Times, Back Stage review], Faustus Gastronome [Chelsea Clinton News]. The Village Voice, Newsday, and the JDTC printed the title the same way I write it.)
Like Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Schechner’s FAUSTgastronome’s plot is deliberately simple; in both cases, the dramatic narrative is more important than the story itself. As theatergoers enter the house, Chef Faust (Jeff Rickets) is in his kitchen chopping vegetables and stirring them into a steaming pot, pounding flour into dough, checking recipe books, and eating lo mein from Chinese take-out cartons. As the spectators make their ways across the downstage area and up to their seats the musicians come in and take their places. Soon the house lights go down and the performance that’s already in progress formally begins.
Part One of FAUSTgastronome, with Faust as a master chef cooking a devil’s brew, gives new meaning to “Hell’s Kitchen.” He’s already what Marc Rubenstein described in the Village Voice as “one of those know-it-all . . . kind of food tyrants.” But that meal of Chinese noodles suddenly gives the chef a hellish case of the runs and, after defecating a string of sausages, a cache of gold coins, and a green balloon, Faust excretes Adolf Hitler (Ulla Neuerberg), in full dictatorial regalia and ranting away in German, from his bare ass. (I swear, Rickets has the hairiest butt I can imagine! The New York Times’ D. J. R. Bruckner observed that this scene “is ingenious, long and unfailingly funny; it may put viewers off food for months.”) The Führer shows Faust how to capitalize on his appetites and Hitler’s handler, a licentious and mordant Mephistopheles (Rebecca Ortese), helps the chef use what Hitler’s revealed to him. Soon Faust is dreaming of exquisite sauces demanded by great hotels around the world, control of major world corporations, awards and honors, and, most importantly, limitless sexual gratification. (In his program note, Schechner himself described the impulse of the show as “phallic energy.” To be sure the point that all ambition flows from sexual lust isn’t overlooked, Schechner has Faust constantly devouring phallus-shaped foods such as carrots and bananas.) Other types of lust that play a role in FAUSTgastronome include racism, ageism, sexism, capitalism, and despoiling the environment. In one scene, Faust seduces Gretchen (Maria Vail) with the help of Mephistopheles (whose blandishments include a rainbow, some baubles, and a pizza) but abandons her to her death when she becomes pregnant. Screaming in pain, Gretchen bears Faust’s child.
In Part Two, which Schechner describes as a “tragedy of development,” Faust is the head of the Fist Group of companies (remember that in German Faust means ‘fist’), which is engaged in genetic engineering and global exploitation (read: environmental pollution). He tells the Nazis he can improve the human race more effectively. On a late-night TV talk show, a (female) Arsenio Hall-like host (Laverne Summers), black and hip, interviews Albert Speer (David Litwin), Hitler’s chief architect, so he can justify World War II and the Holocaust. Hitler makes a brief appearance on the show, delivering one of the Führer’s screeds on Aryan racial purity in German as a caricature of a Jew out of Der Stürmer kneels in front of him and holds up English subtitles. Later, Faust appears on the same show with a teenaged skinhead (Shaula Chambliss) dressed in a Girl Scout uniform and draped in Old Glory, spouting hatred to polite applause.. At the end of the play, female demons prepare Faust for death and feed him a last meal. At first, it’s gentle and loving, leading Faust to think he’s being seduced, but turns increasingly violent and brutal as the cook’s stripped naked and the demons smear Chinese take-out all over Faust’s body and cram it down his throat. At his end, the demons throw Faust into a cauldron. Just before his death and damnation, Gretchen comes looking for Faust to escort him to hell. She catalogues the crimes against humanity of which this Faust has been guilty and, then as the demons dispose of the Satanic chef, she sits at Faust’s table and finishes eating.
The set, designed by Chris Müller and lit by Lenore Doxsee, consisted of three rough-hewn, wooden tables. The rectangular tables served as Faust’s kitchen work station at the beginning of FAUSTgastronome and at the end, they conjured up his infernal banquet room. During other parts of the play, the tables were sometimes rearranged to suggest a bedroom and a prison; occasionally they were turned over to reveal scenes of hell painted underneath the tabletops. On a platform upstage, composer Denzer conducted a small jazz combo. This was all squeezed into a small house at La MaMa, hindering Schechner’s habitual expansive stage vision. (At times I felt as if I were staring up at actors hovering right above me—not always an inviting view in FAUSTgastronome.)
Constance Hoffman’s costumes were separated into two styles. The more flamboyant characters were assigned showier costumes and props, like Mephistopheles’ black top hat and tails, white tie, and single high-heel shoe. She bore a cloven hoof and a long, rubber lizard-like tail that ended in a porn-shop dildo. (Ortese thrust this pudendal extremity under other characters’ noses like a microphone when she “interviewed” them at various moments.) Hitler was, of course, kitted out in his familiar khaki uniform, complete with Sam Brown belt and riding boots. (She also wore an approximation of Der Führer’s well-known coiffe and his Charlie Chaplin ’stache.) Other characters wore rude, generalized peasant garb in dull earth tones.
Schechner’s FAUSTgastronome, which recalls his work of the late ’60s and early ’70s, was striking in both its physical imagery and its obsession with sex. For me, the performance didn’t generate the kick of witnessing the boundaries of conventional theater being breached that exuded from the innovator’s best work with the Performance Group (founded in 1968) in those decades. For one thing, Schechner’s notion of a chef as a creative mastermind wasn’t ever as compelling as the director asserted. (It isn’t even the first time this juxtaposition was tried—if you count the 1967 film Bedazzled in which Dudley Moore, the Faust figure, plays a cook at a hamburger joint.) It seems at first an amusing and provocative idea, but it wasn’t fully enough developed in the performance text (a Schechner concept) to carry the premise off. (The amusing aspect of the idea is spotlighted by the juxtaposition of Faust’s portrayal as a gourmet chef while he fresses on carry-out Chinese food from cardboard containers! Even his last meal is Chinese take-out. Unfortunately, however, nothing is made of this tomfoolery.)
Back in the day, Schechner, whom I met for the first time in the fall of 1969 in Lexington, Virginia, when he came to Washington and Lee University for a workshop with theater students, was
synonymous with vanguard. (Schechner’d been a schoolmate at Tulane
of W&L’s theater director, Leonel Kahn.
Schechner became one of my graduate professors when I attended NYU 15
years later.) But the ECA performance left
me torn because FAUSTgastronome was
simultaneously bold and self-indulgent, sharp and shallow, revelatory and sex-obsessed. Julius Novick of Newsday described the production as “arbitrary, imposed,
smart-alecky,” which approximates my own response. (Novick also said he had the “sense of
Richard Schechner . . . saying ‘Look!
Aren’t I shocking?’” a feeling I had as well both here and at his 1986
experiment, The Prometheus Project.)
Reviews of FAUSTgastronome were all over the field. In his Times notice, Bruckner dubbed the play and production “a feast of pungent old-fashioned ribaldry” in which the “songs by Ralph Denzer and Michelle Kinney cut up not only opera, but even rap. Poor Gounod is fried and refried, in a dancing chorus of cows with heads on their hindquarters, in a lubricious parade of the Seven Deadly Sins and in a Mephistophelean song that sounds borrowed from Anna Russell.” While praising “the performance art of very talented actors” from ECA, the Timesman pronounced it all “great fun for 90 minutes,” until Schechner “turns the philosophical Part 2 of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ into a talk show for half an hour and, while it has its moments, there are not enough of them.” Bruckner suggested, “Better he had stopped the show when Mephistopheles seizes Faust and sends him to hell in a stock pot; that is the last good laugh.” In a later column, the Times’ Steven Druckman, calling the play “a stew of Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ and Gounod’s opera,” remarked, “There were moments of such gluttony that audiences had to step over stray bits of food on their way out.” In Newsday, in addition to the characterization I cited earlier, Julius Novick acknowledged that “the pathetic fascination of the old tale is not lost” and that “[e]nergy, intellect, and theatrical flair are by no means entirely missing from ‘FAUSTgastronome.’” He described the show as “well performed,” praising the actors individually, and said that the music was “agreeable and well-used,” but found the talk-show sequence “long” and “tiresome” and its Jewish caricature “one of the most offensive stage images I have ever seen.” The connection between “cooking” and “culture,” while a valid “way of looking at Faust’s quest,” “is never made manifest on stage.” In conclusion, Novick asserted, “Richard Schechner has been a significant theater artist, and might be one again if he could only control the sophomoric bad-boy urges that so frequently assail him.”
“Richard Schechner’s production is simultaneously adventurous and self-important, fiery and prodigal, sensuous and indulgent, quick-witted and facile” observed Marc Robinson in the Village Voice. He described FAUSTgastronome as “stockpot style—sometimes clever, sometimes vulgar” and acknowledged that “it nonetheless makes thematic sense” in Schechner’s context. The play’s “testosterone-driven view of life is often good-humored and only mildly embarrassing,” asserted Robinson, and the ECA’s “appealing ensemble” showed “considerable rigor.” “At its best, FAUSTgastronome is . . . high-spirited . . . and, in the end, persuasive,” but Robinson felt that “Schechner spent so much energy demonstrating the many similes of lust . . . there is little opportunity to reveal the more inward workings of Faust’s ambition.” He concluded that “we never quite feel ourselves attracted to Faust’s individualism and never question or own longings.” Calling FAUSTgastronome “dazzling.” “senuous” and “satiric” in the Chelsea Clinton News, Dan Isaac characterized the play as “a marvelous mock epic.” The performances, Isaac said, are “[w]ithout exception . . . top-grade.” In contrast, Sy Syna dubbed Schechner’s version of Faust’s story a “superficial, whirligig-paced, often-distasteful farce carrying enough messages to overload a mailman’s pouch” in Back Stage and bemoaned “the caperings and cavorting of this cast.”
Academic theater journals chimed in as well. In JDTC, Carol Rosen, noting that FAUSTgastronome shared with Schechner’s earlier work “a single phallocentric point of view,” called the play “a daring work-in-progress, linking Faustian appetites to the cult of celebrity on American chat shows.” It was, Rosen asserted, “an homage to Grotowski’s 1963 Dr. Faustus [based on Marlowe] as audience banquet, a vaudeville of birthings and bodies, feasts and sly anachronisms.” She explained, “This production turned Faust upside down and inside out . . . . In fact,” the reviewer pointed out, Schechner’s principle here, as always before, was to leave no stone unturned. Though Rosen determined that the play’s “concept sounds like vintage Schechner, . . . it is still old wine in new bottles,” she lamented. The cast “brought a lot to the table,” she reported, performing “tasks [that] were physically strenuous, and required discipline and quirky humor as well as frequent leaps of faith in the project.” Rosen’s major complaint, however, was that, despite the lofty theatrical and metaphysical ideas Schechner promises, “Faust was still played as a Romantic hero. He was hip, American, and bland in his desires, but he was, nevertheless, still a conventional Romantic hero.”
In Theatre Journal, NYU’s Sharon Mazer declared, “Faust/Gastronome is simultaneously rowdy, rough, grotesque, and sophisticated, a theatrical alchemy,” rendering “the tale . . . both exhilarating and cautionary, an invitation to celebrate the unfettering of our basest desires and a reminder of the costs to society and the earth of our excesses.” This world, wrote the reviewer, was “created before us by a company of skillful shape-shifters, and underscored throughout by music that is both original and a pastiche of contemporary trends.” Mazer described the “crucial” talk-show scene as “a stunning moment” that “highlights” our “collusion” with “the hatemongers, and self-satisfying celebrities” before, one hopes, “our celebration must ultimately be tempered by our recognition of its costs to our own humanity.” (Note: FAUSTgastronome and this review were written before the pheonomenon of presidential candidate Donald Trump and his hordes of faithful—and increasing—supporters.)
[That brings us up to the last decade of the 20th century. As I said in the introduction of “Faust Clones, Part 2,” the real test of how far a playwright can go with the Faust legend and still not break the thread comes up in the next and final installment of my examination. Come back in a few days to see where this study leads. Besides John Jesurun’s far-out rendering of the story, there’s a small treat in Part 3: a report on an unproduced play by Leonardo Shapiro, the late East Village experimentalist. I think you’ll find it interesting.]