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Review of Faustus

The concept of hidden meaning is key to much of Mamet’s plays and films; we can cite as important examples the operations within Cryptogram or the disturbing and ironic free floating signifier of GROFAZ in Homicide. Indeed, the enigmatic ending of Dr. Faustus asks the viewer to interpret what is signified. Is it grace with knowledge or damnation through narcissism? In this new work, Mamet ventures into a provocative zone of artistic possibilities; yet he remains consistent with the larger unity of his oeuvre. At the same time he sustains and maintains a larger cultural tradition that surrounds the Faust legend.


Mamet directs Colin Stinton in Faustus at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, March, 2004.

DR. FAUSTUS

By David Mamet

Magic Theatre, San Francisco
March 2004

 

    David Mamet’s new play Dr. Faustus premiered at the San Francisco Magic Theater with much anticipation.  Local media reviewers gave the play a mixed response, speaking to flaws in acting and staging, without seriously considering the merits of the work as a text.  Certainly Dr. Faustus marks an important new turn in Mamet’s work since it shifts out of the contemporary to a quasi period-piece world, one with a strikingly trans-historical “reality.”  For we are at once in a generic 19th century household, keyed by clothing and manners, with 18th century set designs and the witty repartee associated with the Enlightenment.  All this is combined with Elizabethan language grounded in Mametian rhythms of speech.  Such historical pastiche, as well as the provocative experimentation in dialogue, demonstrates the play’s dramatic potential.  Likewise, that Mamet taps into the long Faustian tradition of Western art and philosophy makes for an exciting theater of ideas.

    Initially one is enmeshed in the lush language of a Shakespearian sensibility.  Mamet’s baroque dialogue, with its archaic richness, remains quintessentially Mametian, even to its repetitions and rhythms of delivery.  Such ripe and orotund speech is a stunning achievement and one wants to read the play as written text in order to linger over the dialogue.  The language challenges the actors to speak in Elizabethan roundness; and all, in this Magic Theater production, are up to the diction and delivery.  David Rasche, in the role of Faust, however, fell out of the Mametian rhythms at varying points and thus undermined the sonority of the language.

    Mamet experiments in another way.  He reaches within the great Faust tradition, then deconstructs pertinent elements.  Here, Faust no longer searches for the Eternal Feminine, but is a domestic bourgeois, married, with a sick child.  A scientist and philosopher, he believes he has the power and omniscience to put forth an overreaching view of the world based on periodicity.  But Mamet’s Faust is essentially small-minded and self-absorbed, upset because his book has received bad reviews.  He bargains the life of his wife and child primarily because he wants to prove the merits of his work.  Mamet’s characterization of Faust differs profoundly from the squandered gifts of Marlowe’s Faust, the cosmic vision of Goethe’s Faust, or the diseased genius of Thomas Mann’s Faust.  Mamet’s Faust seems banal, with the petty vanity of the academic.  To what degree this is Mamet’s choice, written into the play, or the actor’s design (or failure to shape a compelling character) is not clear. David Rashe does not perform with expanse of expression, of a kind that would represent a Faust, both magnificent, yet arrogant and tragic.  The portrayal is of a meager man, smaller than his ambition would see himself.  Whether by the author’s or actor’s design, the reduced magnitude of Faustian hubris marks a shift in the legend’s evolution.

    As a play of ideas, Mamet’s Faustus introduces a unique theological debate that unites Talmudic and Jesuitical modes of discourse.  Both traditions have used interrogation and debate as a means toward knowledge and meaning.  The play takes as one of its themes the long interdisciplinary bond between religion, science and philosophy, with the understanding that all three are intimately related.  Some of the best segments of the play explicate this play of ideas in surprising fashion, such as when first Fabian and later the Magus engage in witty repartee as “two showmen eager to astound.”

    Religion is embedded in the drama in another significant way, through the practice of prayer.  Indeed, one of the first actions of the work is when the wife puts a shawl over Faust’s shoulders, initiating the play with the subtext of a call to prayer.  Confession and atonement follow from this admonition throughout.  A number of key lines punctuate the text:  “Blasphemy and prayer are one.”  “We are all subject to grace.” “You are not punished but disclosed.”  Faust’s son states “All are chosen,” which transforms the elitist expression of “Chosen People” to a universal trope.  

    It appears that Mamet puts a Judaic gloss to a Christian struggle of the soul in his version of the Faust legend.  He meshes two religious traditions as coming from one source.  He also references the importance of the enigmatic signifier as an obscure sign, a  cabalist message, a text open to gnomic interpretation—something essential in the reading of Jewish and Christian sacred texts.  Mamet sets important dramatic moments around Faust’s book of science and the son’s book of poetry.  These are texts that must be read, analyzed, interpreted, and judged.  The concept of hidden meaning is key to much of Mamet’s plays and films; we can cite as important examples the operations within Cryptogram or the disturbing and ironic free floating signifier of GROFAZ in Homicide.   Indeed, the enigmatic ending of Dr. Faustus asks the viewer to interpret what is signified.  Is it grace with knowledge or damnation through narcissism?  In this new work, Mamet ventures into a provocative zone of artistic possibilities; yet he remains consistent with the larger unity of his oeuvre.   At the same time he sustains and maintains a larger cultural tradition that surrounds the Faust legend.


Diane M. Borden
University of the Pacific