views updated May 21 2018


Krautrock group

An Upraised Fist

An X-Rayed Fist

Fists Full of Dollars?

Selected discography


Faust, renowned as the grandfather of all Krautrock bands, emerged in a cloud of mystery from the European student movement and the nascent German rock scene of the late 1960s. Its origins are not merely obscure, they are contradictory. According to the standard line put down over the years, the band was the brainchild of a journalist who single-mindedly constructed a group on order for a record company, a German Überband that was meant to establish the countrys music amid the superstar American and British groups that had taken over international pop music in the late sixties.

If one buys this version, Faust was little more than the Euro-Monkees. That interpretation, however, is belied by the fierce independence Faust showed right from the get-go, the perversely strange and beautiful music that no journalist could have conceived, and a determination to make music on its own terms. So where did they really come from? There were two bands, it seems, in 1969 Hamburg. Or at least two groups of musicians, for they were not gigging at all, they were just hanging out together jamming. One group, Nukleus, included Jean-HervéPeron, Rudolf Sosna and Gunther Wüsthoff; the other called itself Campy-lognatus Citelli and counted among its ten or so members Joachim Irmler and Werner Zappi Dier-maier. The musicians in Nukleus were interested primarily in songs, while Campylognatus Citelli was experimenting with the effects of pure sound. Somehow they joined forces, introduced by Zappis girlfriend.

An Upraised Fist

They did not commit to a new band all at oncethere was first a short wait-and-see period to check each other out. But the five musiciansIrmler, Peron, Sosna, Wüsthoff and Diermaiersoon realized that their varying musical orientationspure song vs. pure soundcomplemented each other well. And if nothing else, they agreed wholeheartedly that they werent interested in music that imitated the English and American blues-based rock bands then so popular in Germany. First of all, we arent blacks who express their suffering through the blues, Irmler told German Rock Newss Carsten Agthe. But we didnt have a thousand things pounded into our heads for nothing at school. We felt we should find a way to express all that.

The name they chose was an integral part of their German identity. On the one hand, it was the name of the most significant, famous work in German literature, whose like-named hero sells his soul to the devil for knowledge, but is redeemed in the end by the love of a good woman. On the other hand, the word means fist, which linked the band to the radical workers movement in twentieth century Germany, whose most important signal of solidarity was an upraised fist. That made clear the bands own radical politicsand aesthetics.

So Faust already existed on some level when journalist Uwe Nettelbeck entered the picture around 1970. Nettelbeck was from the German far-left scene. He had written on film and music for radical magazines, and his opinions and taste were highly respected. An executive at Polydor Records approached him about putting together a German group that could compete with Anglo-American bands. Somehow, Nettelbeck heard of Faust. Faust was glad for the encounter. They had already made up their minds to record for a big label which would give them access to a good studio and equipment and a place of their own where they could experiment with their music.

Nettelbeck arranged for a Faust demo which impressed Polydor enough for the label to OK the deal. When Nettelbeck took the news to Faust, they made a set of demands: They wanted a studio of their own, a year without any pressure to get some worthwhile music together, and complete artistic independence. Although Faust had not yet proven themselves a success, Polydor agreed on all counts. It paid to convert an old schoolhouse in Wümme near Hamburg into a studio. The label also paid for an engineer, Kurt Graupner, who lived in Wümme for extended periods of time. Graupner became a key figure in Faust. He designed and built their black boxeseffects boxes that were far in advance of anything then available commercially. Graupners boxes enabled each member of Faust to electronically modify the sound of their

For the Record

Members include Werner Diermaier, drums; Hans-Joachim Irmler, organ; Arnulf Meifert, drums; Jean-Hervé Peron, bass; Rudolf Sosna, guitar, keyboards; Gunter Wusthoff, saxophone, synthesizer.

Members of two groups of jamming musicians, Campy-lognatus Citelli and Nukleus, joined to form Faust, 1969; Uwe Nettelbeck obtains recording contract for Faust with Polydor Records, 1971; released first LP, Faust, 1971; recorded with Tony Conrad and Slapphappy, 1972; dropped by Polydor and picked up by Virgin Records, 1973; Faust IV released, 1973; Virgin refused to release tapes of Munich session or to pay for session, 1974; Faust stopped recording but continued to play occasional gigs, 1975-1987; Recommended Records began re-releasing Faust recordings, 1979; U.S. tour, 1994; Jean-Hervé Peron kicked out of band, 1999; Raviwando released, 1999.

Addresses: Record company ReR Megacorp, 79 Beu-lah Rd. Thornton Heath, Surrey, CR7 8JG, U.K.; website: http://megacorp.u-net.com;email: megacorp @dial.pipex.com.

own instrument or that of other band members in real time. They could be used to record or live in concert.

An X-Rayed Fist

With nearly no effort expended, Faust had landed their ideal situation. They had a year to find themselves in a private studio. For the first six months, they did very little except play their instruments, make tapes, smoke pot, sleep in, and have daily breakfast in the huge, drained swimming pool behind their studio. Although he was under constant pressure from Polydor to produce a record, Nettelbeck held up his end of the deal and did not interfere. It took what seemed ages before anything serious was produced, Nettelbeck later told Chris Cutler in the booklet to Faust: The Wümme Years. He eventually reminded them that the label expected a record at the end of a year, and for the last six months the band worked on one slowly.

But Faust did work hard on the record, night after night, and slowly side one took shape. Opening with fragments of the Stones I Cant Get No Satisfaction and the Beatles All You Need Is Love emerging briefly from a cloud of electronic noise, Faust followed playing music that sounded like Karlheinz Stockhausen encountering Captain Beefheart. And then they ran out of ideas. We worked very hard on this, it was the whole of side one, and then we just ran out of steam, Irmler told Cutler. When the train came to a halt and we had no idea what to put on the second side, the inspiration came to mewe already have the second side! He was thinking of the endless hours of tapes they made playing at the beginning of the long, leisurely year. The other band members told Irmler to do what he wanted. So working with Graupner, he stitched material from several sessions together, which became the second side of the album. The record that finally appeared in German record stores was called simply Faust, but it became known among fans as the Clear Album. Everything was transparentthe clear vinyl record, the inner sleeve and the album jacket, which also bore a superimposed image of black X-rayed fist.

The album had not yet been released when Nettel-becks Polydor contact suggested the group perform a show at the Hamburg Musikhalle in the autumn of 1971. Nettelbeck was concernedthe music on Faust could not be performed live. But he agreed. Faust took the stage at 8 p.m. The front rows of the hall were full of record company executives from around the world, in Europe for a company convention. However when Faust played their first notes not a sound was heard. The complicated surround sound the band tried to patch quickly together had failed. Some color TVs Faust had on stage were turned on for the audience while the problem was worked on; eventually though the audience was sent to a nearby bar and told to come back at 11 p.m. Even then things didnt work perfectly and the concert morphed instead into a happening with the audience on stage performing with the band. Polydor considered it a fiasco. Irmler later told Cutler it was the only true concert we ever did.

To make matters worse, with early sales well under 1,000, Fausf flopped resoundingly in Germany. Luckily, it quickly caught the fancy of the English music scene. The BBCs John Peel began playing the record regularly. Faust arrived in the United Kingdom with other weird-sounding German groups, such as Amon Duul, Can, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, and found themselves part of movement dubbed Krautrock. Faust eventually sold some 20, 000 copies in its first year or so, quite respectable numbers, except Polydor expected Faust to be the next Beatles, a group that could sell hundreds of thousands of records. In the wake of lousy sales and the disastrous Hamburg debut concert, Fausts days with Polydor seemed numbered. In desperation, Nettelbeck called a New Musical Express journalist, who happened to be a big fan of the group, and asked him to write a major story in praise of Faust. He did, and it impressed Polydor enough to keep the label from pulling the plug on the band.

Faust was aware of their perilous position with the record company. The next record, 1972s So Far, was more structured, with plenty of nearly real songs, such as the opener, Its a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girlone of Fausts most popular pieceswhich owed a heavy debt to the Velvet Underground. Faust went on to make a third album for Polydor, Beyond the Dream Syndicate with Tony Conrad. But by that time the label was sure they would never be the Beatles. It began offering creative input. Seeing their precious independence on the block, Faust realized it was time to find a new record company.

Fists Full of Dollars?

Faust ended up at a newcomer label, Virgin Records. Their first release on Virgin, The Faust Tapes, was a collection of songs and outtakes recorded at Wümme between 1971 and 1973. It turned out to be Fausts most popular record yet in Englandnot least because it was sold at the budget price of only 48 pence. The first LP they recorded for the label wasnt nearly as successful. Forced to record in a strange, even hostile environment, far away from their personal studio in Wümme, the creative juices seemed to freeze. Making matters worse, band members were at an impasse with Virgins head. Eventually two group members, on their own, put together the tapes that would become the new Faust record, Faust IV. A tour of the United Kingdom followed, but with only half the band. It looked like Faust was disintegrating.

Indeed, the members went their separate ways for a time. When we stopped after the Virgin albums, I really had to stop everything, Irmler said in an interview at radio station KUSF. Because of the money. They wanted a bigger influence in our music. But one of the other big laws of the Faust music was, that nobody should be allowed to say anything about music except the musicians. And it happened that the president of Virgin Records wanted a little bit of influence in the Faust music and he promised us big money.

Irmler took a break from the band. But later, his interest in music was renewed and he booked some time at a studio in Munich. The band worked there for a week and a half every evening until sunrise. A music emerged that continued the idea of the first album but intensified it and brought it more to the point, Irmler told Cutler, very dense but nevertheless incredibly loose. Virgin was contractually obliged to release one more album. But when Faust sent the tapes from Munich, the label refused to accept them. Worse, it refused to pay the studio bill and the mothers of Irmler and Sosna paid the large bill.

With that, Faust seemed to disappear. In the late 1970s, Recommended Records re-released some of the first Faust albums, and later released Munich & Elsewhere/Return of a Legend, an LP of music from the Munich session. In 1988, Recommended Records brought out The Last Album. The latter records were released together on the CD 71 Minutes. During the 1980s, Faust laid low, playing only occasional gigs. They resurfaced at the end of the decade. New records and tours of Europe and the United States followed, led sometimes by Peron, sometimes by Irmler. Never again did the full original line-up play together. In 1999 the band released the album Ravvivando on its own label. By that time, Sosna was dead and Peron had been kicked out of the band. Irmler could still boast to Agthe Our latest album is more subtle than anything we did back then.

Faust had an influence on contemporary rock music. Theyve been called the founders of industrial music. It is hard to imagine avant-garde groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Caberet Voltaire or Einstürzende Neubau-tengroups which themselves had a decisive impact on the sound of popular music in the 1980s and 1990sexisting in a world where Faust had never played. A plausible argument could also be made that Faust had a decisive influence on ambient and punk music as well. However, all the members of Faust have been modest about their roles as trendsetters. We are avant-garde not as a style but just as an accident, not by purpose, Netteelbeck told Karl Dallas at the Faust website. Just because some things we are doing nobody else is doing, it puts us in a position to be avant-garde but thats just accidentally. I dont rate such terms very high. Its just music.

Selected discography

Faust, Polydor, 1971; re-released, Recommended 1979; included in Faust: The Wümme Years, Recommended Records,2000.

So Far, Polydor, 1972; LP reissue, Recommended, 1979; CD reissue, Polydor, 1991; CD reissue, Cuneiform/Recommended, 1991; included in Faust: The Wümme Years, Recommended Records, 2000.

Outside the Dream Syndicate, Caroline, 1972; CD reissue, Table of the Elements, 1995.

Faust Tapes, Virgin, 1973; LP reissue, Recommended, 1980;

CD reissue, Cuneiform/Recommended REF2CD, 1991;

included in Faust: The Wümme Years, Recommended, 2000.

Faust IV, Virgin, 1973; LP reissue, Virgin, 1993.

Munich and Elsewhere/Return of a Legend, Recommended,

1986; CD reissue on 71 Minutes of, Recommended, 1989; included in Faust: The Wümme Years, Recommended, 2000.

The Last LP, Recommended, 1989; CD reissue on 71 Minutes of, Recommended, 1989; included in Faust: The Wümme Years, Recommended, 2000.

71 Minutes of, Recommended, 1989.

Concerts 1: Live in Hamburg, Table of the Elements, 1990.

Concerts 2: Live in London, Table of the Elements, 1992.

Rien, Table of the Elements, 1996.

Untitled, Private Release, 1996.

YOU_KNOW_faUSt, Klangbad, 1996.

Ravivvando, FRAV, 1999.

Faust: The Wümme Years (5-CD box set), Recommended, 2000.


German Rock News, http://germanrock.de/f/faust/interview.htm (March 12, 2001).

Interview with Ira of the Rising Sun, http://www.goethe.de/uk/

saf/radiogoethe/faustin.htm (March 12, 2001).

Faust Website, http://www.sparc.spb.su/Avz/music/Faust/index.htm (March 12, 2001).

Additional information was obtained from the Faust: The Wümme Years CD booklet.

Gerald E. Brennan


views updated Jun 11 2018


by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


A long poetic drama loosely set in the idealized past, primarily in sixteenth-century Germany and ancient Greece; published in two parts in German (as Faust: Der Tragödie erster Teil [1808] and Faust: Der Tragödie zweiter Teil [1832]), in English in 1838.


A jaded scholar makes a wager with the Devil. The scholar, Faust, will give up his eternal soul if the Devil can offer him a single moment that he would wish to prolong.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

By common consent, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is the foremost writer Germany has produced. Constantly experimenting with new styles and subjects, the prolific Goethe (pronounced GUR-tuh) continually reinvented his own authorial persona and seldom repeated himself. The widely imitated Goethe established whole new genres with a single work before moving on to something equally original with his next achievement. Aside from Faust, considered his masterpiece, Goethe is best known today for novels such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and for his lyric poetry. Faust, written over 60 years of Goethe’s life, reflects the poet’s versatility both in its wide-ranging themes and in its dazzling array of different poetic styles. Goethe adapts the medieval legend of Dr. Faustus, a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge and magical powers. Goethe’s treatment of this old story—updated for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—offered readers fresh insights into the central problems of their own turbulent age.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Renaissance and Reformation

During the sixteenth century two connected movements transformed the largely German-speaking lands of northern Europe. First, from its origins in fourteenth-century Italy, the Renaissance brought a new perception of humanity’s place in the world. No longer did the best minds call for slavish obedience to religious authorities and acceptance of Church dogma. Instead a group of Renaissance thinkers celebrated the individual and the power of human reason. The thinkers, who called themselves humanists, rediscovered many classical literary and scientific works, making this rediscovery the mainspring of their movement. Greek texts especially had, for the most part, been ignored during the preceding centuries, a period that humanists labeled the Middle Ages. Through its emphasis on the power of reason, Renaissance humanism became associated as well with the scientific revolution inaugurated by Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543) and others. Often magic and other occult practices were pursued along with science by the same scholarly practitioners.

As Renaissance ideals spread northward, the second transformative movement emerged. A religious revolt known as the Protestant Reformation erupted in 1517 when a German priest named Martin Luther openly opposed the pope’s authority. Denying that the Church or priests must mediate between God and humanity (a necessity according to the central tenets of the Catholic Church), Luther’s followers insisted that all individuals could commune directly with God. From its origins in the German Holy Roman Empire, the Reformation spread rapidly throughout much of northern Europe, shattering the unity of the Catholic Church.

It is true that many humanists rejected Protestantism, just as many Protestants ignored humanism. Equally, both Protestantism and humanism represented a wide variety of viewpoints and embraced various and at times conflicting beliefs. Yet these two broad movements shared a common fundamental attitude. Both reflected a deep and widespread need to question traditional authority, especially that of the Church, and to challenge old assumptions about the nature of humanity. In the character of Faust, the turbulent sixteenth century found a hero who reflected this attitude perfectly: a humanistic scholar who seeks knowledge and power through magical means, uses them to make a fool of the Catholic pope, and then suffers eternal damnation.

The legend of Faust

A few historical sources record the existence of one Georg Faust, a wandering scholar and trickster who lived in Germany between about 1480 and 1540. Apparently he died while staging an exhibition of his flying ability. This historical Faust claimed to have magical powers and to enjoy the friendship of the Devil. Yet despite his shady reputation, this historical Faust was respected for his humanistic learning by a number of Protestant leaders. Popular folk stories embellished these bare bones after his death, magnifying him into Dr. Johannes Faust or Faustus (the Latin form of the name means “happy” or “fortunate”), a proud and ambitious scholar who makes a bet with the Devil in exchange for secret magical knowledge, conjures up spirits from the ancient Greek past such as Helen of Troy, and plays magical tricks on the emperor and the pope. In accordance with the pact, after 24 years he is torn to pieces by demons and carried off to the eternal torments of hell.

The folktales spread as the century progressed, their popularity suggesting that Ger-mans were both excited and fearful about the momentous changes taking place. On the one hand, advances in science and learning held great promise of liberating the human intellect from the Church’s rule, just as the Reformation allowed Germans a greater measure of freedom in worshipping as they chose. Yet like the old, the new knowledge was held by only a few, who remained figures of mystery to the common people. A residual fear persisted that perhaps the old authorities were correct after all, and that those who challenged them risked eternal damnation. The Faust tales, dramatizing the challenges to authority but ending in the punishment of the challenger, offered satisfaction in both directions, appealing to the spirit of innovation as well as conservatism.

Eventually the tales were collected and printed in chapbooks or pamphlets, of which the oldest surviving example dates from 1587. One of these chapbooks, translated into English, provided the basis for English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s drama The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, acted on the Elizabethan stage in the 1590s and first published in 1604. Immensely influential, this version soon found its way back into the cycle of Faust tales in Germany, where simplified adaptations were widely produced for popular puppet theaters. Like the English characters Punch and Judy, Faust became a stock character in common puppet shows, continuing to please crowds in German towns and cities into the eighteenth century. By then these formulaic presentations were little more than the colorful but fossilized remnants of a once vital folk myth. It was through such puppet shows that Goethe first encountered the Faust legend as a boy in Frankfurt in the 1760s.

The Play in Focus

The plot

Although written in the form of a play, because of its great length Goethe’s Faust is virtually never performed uncut. Goethe himself, who ran a theater for almost three decades, shortened it significantly for performance (he himself never directed this play). Of the two parts, Part 1 is the more commonly read and performed, and even when staged alone, it is almost always heavily cut. The two parts differ greatly in structure, theme, and subject matter. Part 1, shorter and more cohesive, focuses on a single storyline—Faust’s pact with the Devil and his subsequent seduction of the innocent woman Gretchen. This single storyline unfolds in a series of consecutive scenes without act divisions. By contrast, the almost double-sized Part 2 unfolds in five separate acts that range widely in subject matter as well as in space and time.

Part 1

Part 1 begins with three brief prefatory sections: a Dedication, in which the author looks back on the dimly remembered times when he began the work; a Prelude on the Stage, in which three theatrical characters (Director, Poet, and Clown) discuss their distinctive contributions to the audience’s experience; and the Prologue in Heaven, featuring the Lord, the Archangels of heaven, and the Devil, called Mephistopheles (pronounced meh fis stah’ fuh leez). Mephistopheles and the Lord argue over human nature, Mephistopheles suggesting that by giving humans the power of reason the Lord has only made them miserable. To settle the issue, they pick the case of Faust, a restless scholar who is always striving for new knowledge but is never satisfied. Mephistopheles believes he can easily win Faust over, but the Lord is confident that in the end “man in his dark impulse always knows the right road from the wrong” (Goethe, Faust, p. 760). The Lord gives Mephistopheles complete freedom to tempt Faust, and they wager on the out-come.

The first scene opens as Dr. Heinrich Faust sits late at his desk in his cramped and narrow study, surrounded by books and scientific instruments. It is the night before Easter. Faust has lost all joy in life. A university teacher, he has mastered every academic discipline but all he has learned is that no one can really know anything useful. In frustration, he experiments with magic, hoping to find out what “holds the world together”(Faust, p. 761). Faust conjures a magical Earth-Spirit, which terrifies him briefly and expresses contempt for him before disappearing. Wagner, Faust’s learned but pedantic and unimaginative assistant, completely fails to grasp Faust’s frustration. Faust contemplates suicide, but he rejects the option when he hears church bells and a choir celebrating Easter, with its message of resurrection and eternal life. On the morrow, Faust and Wagner mingle with happy townsfolk enjoying the spring Easter Day. They are followed home by a mysterious black poodle in which Faust senses some occult presence. That evening Faust uses magic to make the poodle re-veal its true form, and Mephistopheles appears, dressed as a wandering scholar. Mephistopheles reveals his identity but then lulls Faust to sleep, so he later wonders whether he dreamed the episode.

The next day, however, Mephistopheles returns (this time disguised as a nobleman) and tempts Faust with unlimited wealth and pleasure. When Faust declines the offer, Mephistopheles volunteers to be Faust’s servant for life if Faust will be Mephistopheles’ servant after death. Instead, Faust counters with an offer to become the Devil’s servant if Mephistopheles can ever pre-sent the unsatisfied scholar with a single moment that he would wish to prolong:

If you can delude me into feeling pleased with myself, if your good things ever get the better of me, then may that day be my last day. This is my wager.... If ever the passing moment is such that I wish it not to pass and I say to it “You are beautiful, stay a while,” then let that be the finish. The clock can stop. You can put me in chains and ring the death-bell.

(Faust, p. 787)

Mephistopheles agrees, and they seal this wager in blood. The rest of the drama follows the resulting lifelong contest, as the ironic, cynical, and inventive Mephistopheles seeks to satiate the earnest, driven, and ever-restless Faust.

As soon as he signs the wager, Faust is eager to begin. “I’m sick of learning,” he declares, “have been for ages. Let us spend our passions, hot in sensual deeps” (Faust, p. 788). He exits to pre-pare for “a whirl of dissipation” that he anticipates will bring him to “the peak of humanity” (Faust, p. 799). A freshman student arrives hoping to meet the famous scholar, and Mephistopheles, putting on Faust’s academic gown, pretends to be Faust. His sarcastic attack on academic learning and pedantry thoroughly confuses the naive student.

The first stage of Faust’s “whirl of dissipation” takes place in Auerbach’s Tavern, a drinking establishment frequented by university students, where Mephistopheles hopes to tempt Faust with the pleasures of tavern life. Mephistopheles plays magical tricks on four drunken customers, but Faust is merely disgusted. Next Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Witch’s Kitchen, where an ape-like witch gives Faust a potion that magically rejuvenates him. Then, in a brief street scene, Faust catches sight of the beautiful Margaret, or Gretchen (the German nickname). Aroused by her beauty and innocence, Faust is overwhelmed with lust. The next scene shows Gretchen in her tiny room. She braids her hair and muses about the attractive gentleman she saw on the street, then exits, whereupon Faust and Mephistopheles enter quietly. Mephistopheles gives Faust some jewels to leave in the girl’s cupboard; alone again in the room, Gretchen spots them and puts them on wonderingly.

When the girl’s suspicious mother turns the jewels over to a priest, sensing something wrong with them, Mephistopheles replaces them. This time Gretchen keeps the treasure secret from her mother, though she too senses something amiss. With Mephistopheles’ help, Faust spends time with Gretchen. His lust deepens into a love that she returns. Still wracked by lust for her, he is now also torn by guilt over his dishonorable intentions. After seeking solitude in a woodland cavern, he reappears to seduce Gretchen. The next scene shows Gretchen at her spinning wheel, singing a lyrical song about her love for Faust and her fears that once she has been seduced by him, he will abandon her. When they meet in her neighbor’s garden, she asks Faust why he never goes to church. Faust answers that he despises conventional religion but worships the “eternally mysterious” forces that work through nature: “call it what you like: happiness, heart, love, God. I have no words for it. Feeling is everything”(Faust, p. 837). Gretchen expresses her instinctive revulsion at the sight of Mephistopheles, whom she has met in Faust’s company. She also agrees to let Faust into her room that night.

In the next scene Gretchen chats with a friend as they draw water from a well. The two gossip about a woman who has been made pregnant and then abandoned by her lover to face disgrace. Alone, Gretchen reveals that now she understands what such women go through, for she is in the same state. Several months go by, and in a brief scene the deserted and pregnant Gretchen prays to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows, for salvation. One night her brother Valentin, a soldier, waits outside her door planning to ambush the man who has ruined her. Faust arrives and in the resulting fight he kills Valentin with Mephistopheles help.

The climactic scene of Part 1 takes place some months later, when Mephistopheles and Faust at-tend the fantastic and fiendish celebration of Walpurgis Night (the annual date witches and devils are thought to hold orgies). As he dances among the dark twisting shapes in the bizarre rite, Faust has a disturbing vision of Gretchen in chains. He has now reached the depths of moral degradation. After a brief interlude in which he and Mephistopheles watch a short fantastical play, Faust learns that Gretchen is indeed in chains and is sentenced to die. Ashamed at having been mercilessly cast out by society, she killed their child, then was thrown into prison, where she awaits execution for infanticide. With Mephistopheles’ magical help, Faust visits Gretchen in her cell. Her tragic fate has driven her insane, but she recovers her senses on seeing Faust. Despite her joy at his return, she re-fuses his offer of escape with Mephistopheles’s assistance. Recognizing Mephistopheles as the Devil, Gretchen rejects him and gives herself over to the mercy of God. As Faust and Mephistopheles depart, a voice from above proclaims that she is saved. Part 1 closes to the sound of her own fading voice crying Faust’s name.

Part 2

Whereas Part 1 concentrates on the intimate world of the two lovers, Part 2 moves out into the wider world of sweeping historical, cultural, and political forces. At the same time, the primarily German storyline of Part 1 largely gives way to classical Greek preoccupations. Divided into five acts, Part 2’s contents are more diffuse than Part 1’s. As the narrative unfolds, events are filled out by complex allegorical descriptions and philosophical digressions.

  • Act 1. Faust rests in a pleasant meadow, where airy spirits sing to him. Disguised as a jester, Mephistopheles appears at the Emperor’s court and advises him that mining gold and printing paper money will solve the empire’s economic woes. In a carnival pageant Faust appears dressed as Plutus, the Greek God of Wealth. He impresses the Emperor with magic tricks and rides in a chariot driven by a Boy Charioteer (who allegorically represents the spirit of poetry). The Emperor asks Faust to conjure the spirits of Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris, for his courtiers. After overcoming many obstacles, with Mephistopheles’s help, Faust succeeds. The onlookers are unimpressed, but Faust falls in love with Helen’s legendary beauty. When he tries to seize her, he is struck by a thunderclap, and Mephistopheles carries him off unconscious.
  • Act 2. Mephistopheles bears the still unconscious Faust back to his study, and calls Nicodemus, Faust’s new assistant (Wagner, the old assistant, has replaced Faust at the university). Mephistopheles encounters the same student, now an arrogant graduate, whom he harassed at the beginning of Part 1. Despite the pride he takes in his intellect, the graduate still fails to recognize Mephistopheles as the Devil. Wagner creates a tiny human being, a Homunculus, in a test tube. Without physical form but visible as a small flamelike ray of light, Homunculus reads Faust’s dreams and suggests that rather than awaken Faust at home, they take him to Greece to participate in the Classical Walpurgis Night. Homunculus explains that classical spirits are superior to northern German ones and have their own version of the Witch’s Sabbath. In the lengthy and complex Classical Walpurgis Night scene that follows, Faust remains obsessed with Helen of Troy and Homunculus seeks to gain human form. Mephistopheles meanwhile engages in sexual escapades and seeks to assume the shape of a figure in Greek mythology.
  • Act 3. Act 3 opens in the palace of Helen’s husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta and leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Troy has fallen to the Greeks, and Helen (whose flight with her Trojan lover Paris started the war) is being returned, along with her handmaids. Disguised as Phorkyas, a hideous old woman, Mephistopheles warns the women that Menelaus plans to execute them all, including Helen, and offers to rescue them. He magically takes them across space and time to a medieval German castle, where Faust appears as a knight. After defeating the attacking Menelaus’s army, Faust and Helen go to the mythical Greek paradise Arcadia, where they have a son, Euphorion. However, the exuberant Euphorion (symbolizing Faust’s restlessness) falls to his death while climbing a high cliff. The loss drives a wedge between Faust and Helen.
  • Act 4. The action returns to the imperial court, where the Emperor—who has made the economic situation worse by following Mephistopheles’s advice—now faces a rival Counter-Emperor. With the aid of Faust (backed by Mephistopheles’s magic), the Emperor defeats his rival in battle. As a reward, Faust asks for and gets a large strip of underwater land along the coast.
  • Act 5. Faust, now over 100 years old, has nearly finished a massive project of reclaiming the underwater land in the name of progress. A small coastal plot occupied by an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, is all that stands in the way of his ambitious plans to own all the land in the area, but they refuse to sell. At Faust’s urging, Mephistopheles burns down the tiny cottage where the couple have lived happily all their lives, and they perish in the flames. The remorseful Faust is visited by four hags: Want, Debt, Distress, and Care. Care blinds Faust and warns him that her brother, Death, is coming. Faust orders Mephistopheles to make sure that work on the reclamation project continues, but in his blindness he doesn’t realize that the shovels he hears are really digging his own grave. Although deceived, Faust finally appears content. He dies happy, and Mephistopheles attempts to claim him according to the terms of the wager. However, heavenly spirits intervene, and Faust, blessed by a penitent spirit identified as the former Gretchen, is carried to heaven amid a chorus of angels.

The uses of dissatisfaction

“Striving and straying, you can’t have one without the other,” the Lord tells Mephistopheles as they make their wager in the Prologue (Faust, p. 759). This idea—that endeavor and error are two sides of the same coin—lies at the heart of Goethe’s Faust. On one hand, the play suggests that striving is necessarily accompanied by error or even evil, which helps explain the Lord’s willingness to forgive Faust because error is inevitable. On the other hand, the inevitability of error does not absolve the striving individual of responsibility for this error. The individual, having fallen, needs to be redeemed, but in Goethe’s universe, man cannot redeem himself. Redemption requires divine love or grace.

Mephistopheles strives too, defeating his own aims when good issues forth from his attempts to incite evil. He functions as the Lord’s servant in the drama, even as his gadfly, but not as pure evil. This explains the Lord’s indulgent attitude towards him. “You act as a stimulant,” the Lord tells Mephistopheles, “and so serve a positive purpose in spite of yourself (Faust, p. 760). Mephistopheles himself recognizes this duality: when he first meets Faust, he identifies himself as “a part of the force that always tries to do evil and always does good” (Faust, p. 780).

Against the restless striving of Faust and Mephistopheles, Goethe poses two ideals of placid perfection: the humbly passive Gretchen in Part 1, and the spirit of classical antiquity in Part 2. In both parts, Faust’s deepest desires are aroused by these ideals, but he repeatedly destroys the things that he so ardently desires. His physical lust for Gretchen ruins the very innocence that spurred it, just as Faust’s own restless spirit (symbolized by Euphorion) shatters the harmony of his visit to Arcadia with Helen. Similarly, at the end of the poem, Philemon and Baucis (the old couple whose Greek names suggest that they too represent the classical spirit) are consumed in the flames of what one critic has called “Faust’s ruthless vitality” (Atkins, p. 3).

Alienated, skeptical, true only to himself, Faust is defined by dissatisfaction, which drives him to destroy but also to create. Critics have taken Gretchen to represent the unquestioning faith of the Middle Ages, and have likewise suggested that Arcadia and the other Greek motifs symbolize an ideal of classical balance and restraint. By contrast, Faust stands for the modern age, with its probing curiosity and secular out-look. These two qualities have traditionally been seen as originating in ancient Greek thought (which first attempted to explain nature without recourse to the divine), as reappearing during the Renaissance, and finally as being fully expressed in the eighteenth-century intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. Goethe’s drama can be understood as a reaction to the Enlightenment, one that expresses the idea that “striving” has spiritual costs as well as material and intellectual benefits. The play itself can be viewed as a response to the newly secular outlook, the message being three-fold: go ahead and strive; striving entails mistakes so you will err; in the final analysis, divine love will redeem you. It was a message that addressed humanity at a crossroads. Indeed Goethe’s life—and the poem’s long composition—spanned a time that historians point to as the very dawn of the modern age. Faust has thus been described as the first truly modern hero in world literature. In this respect, the play’s attitude towards “striving and straying” not only comments on Goethe’s age, but also predicts our own, which grew out of it.

Sources and literary context

Aside from the Faust legends of the sixteenth century, many literary influences and one real-life event contributed to the making of Goethe’s play. The Lord’s allowing Mephistopheles to tempt Faust in the Prologue, for example, is modeled on the biblical Book of Job, in which God allows Satan to tempt the pious Job. In contrast, the doomed love affair with Gretchen, which takes up most of Part 1, draws on a real-life event. Gretchen’s fate, scholars suggest, was likely based on the well-publicized case of Susanna Brandt, a German woman executed in 1772 for murdering her illegitimate child.

Just as the Faust storyline draws on older Faust legends, the Gretchen storyline shares elements with another European folktale, the legend of Don Juan, which was first put in literary form by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in his play The Trickster of Seville (1630). The play features the handsome rake Don Juan, who, among other misdeeds, seduces a beautiful young girl and kills her father, whose ghost drags an unrepentant Don Juan off to hell. Like Faust, Don Juan entered into common European lore and inspired numerous treatments in various literary forms. Also like Faust, this originally medieval folktale enjoyed a resurgence in popularity at the hands of numerous authors during Goethe’s own age. For example, Austrian composer Wolfgang Mozart created one of the best-known versions of the tale in his highly successful opera Don Giovanni, which opened in Vienna in 1787 as Goethe was working on Part 1 of Faust.

Because Goethe worked on the poem over most of his long career and because that career was so immensely influential in European literary history, parallels can be drawn between elements in Faust and the literary movements with which Goethe has been associated:

  • Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang). The young Goethe helped to found this movement with his play Götz of Berlichingen (1773; Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand) and his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Lasting from the early 1770s to the early 1780s, the time in which Goethe conceived and began work on Faust, the Storm and Stress movement rebelled against the Enlightenment ideal of rationalism and the imitation of French literature. It celebrated nature and the instinctive and emotional spirit as the source of literature, giving rise to passionate, action-oriented works. Examples of Storm and Stress themes in Faust include the ceaseless striving of the individual, the rejection of reason as the path to truth, and a mystical worship of nature in place of orthodox religion. Other major Storm and Stress authors included Goethe’s friends Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805).
  • Neoclassicism. By the early 1780s, Goethe, Herder, Schiller and others had begun to formulate a more balanced approach, in keeping with virtues ascribed to classical art. Their work now tempered the antirational, egoistic, and rebellious passion of Storm and Stress with other influences, many of which derived from a resurgence of interest in classical Greek and Latin literature. This balance is reflected in Part 2 (especially Act 3), where Goethe depicts Faust as striving for a synthesis of German energy and passion with Greek moderation and restraint.
  • Romanticism. Storm and Stress and German Neoclassicism both foreshadowed the rise of the Romantic movement in European literature, which started in the 1790s and extended well into the nineteenth century. While Goethe is often considered a Romantic author, he himself looked down on what he saw as a lack of form and polish in the work of some Romantics. Still, Romantic currents such as the presence of the supernatural and the exaltation of the individual, especially the rebel, figure clearly in Faust.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Questioning the Enlightenment

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, European thinkers and scientists had consolidated the new learning of the Renaissance. A scientific revolution, first suggested by Copernicus in the sixteenth century, had been boldly supported and built upon by scientists and philosophers such as Sir Francis Bacon (English, 1561–1626), Galileo Galilei (Italian, 1564–1642), Rene Descartes (French, 1596–1650), John Locke (English, 1632–1704), Sir Isaac Newton (English, 1642–1727), and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (German, 1646–1716). At the same time, violent and persistent religious wars had followed the Reformation, pitting Catholics against Protestants throughout much of northern Europe. Consequently the eighteenth century saw many thinkers turn away from traditional religion altogether.


“From the flowering of German literature in the twelfth century,” writes critic Jane K. Brown, “until the eighteenth century, no writer in German is thought of today as a great European writer or was even especially influential outside Germany in his own day” (Brown, p. 30). Before the late eighteenth century, Brown goes on to observe, German literature consisted primarily of translations or adaptations of French, Italian, or Spanish works. The puppet shows on Faust that Goethe saw as a boy constituted the closest thing that Germany had to an indigenous literary tradition. As they began searching for German themes in the mid-eighteenth century, talented German writers naturally gravitated toward the Faust legend. Gotthold Lessing, for example, published a sketch of a Faust play in 1759, Act 1 of which was published posthumously in 1784. Lessing, an Enlightenment rationalist who celebrated Faust as a hero of reason, was the first to depict Faust as being saved rather than damned at the end of the story. With the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, the German public immediately anointed the young Goethe as Germany’s greatest writer, and his Faust was eagerly awaited by German readers, who even before publication anticipated it as the great work of German literature. Focusing on Faust’s complex literary allusiveness, Brown argues that Goethe aimed not so much to establish a German literature as to ground that new literature firmly within the larger European literary context.

The eighteenth-century European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment (Aufklärung in German) took the humanist reliance on reason to a new level. Whereas Renaissance humanists had given reason a place alongside religion, some atheistic Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot (French, 1713–84) and the Marquise de Condorcet (French, 1743–94) attempted to enshrine reason in place of religion. Others, such as Voltaire (French, 1694–1778), David Hume (British, 1711–76), and Immanuel Kant (German, 1724–1804) emphasized reason but stopped short of rejecting religious faith out of hand.

By the end of the eighteenth century, in turn, a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism had set in, which contributed to the passionate spiritualism of the Storm and Stress period and the rising Romantic outlook. In Faust generally, Faust’s restlessness with academic learning rep-resents Goethe’s sense that Enlightenment rationalism lacked a human or spiritual dimension. In particular, Goethe satirizes the dryness of Enlightenment learning in the character of Wagner, Faust’s shallow pedantic assistant, who knows much but understands little.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars

The central event in Europe during Goethe’s lifetime was the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath—the long set of inter-national wars that ended in France’s final defeat by Britain and its European allies in 1815. Historians view these years of disturbing and bloody upheaval as ushering in the modern age. First, by overthrowing and executing the French King Louis XVI, along with much of France’s hereditary aristocracy, the revolutionaries ended the medieval system of monarchy in France and created Europe’s first modern state. Then, after hostile action from their monarchical neighbors—especially the Austrian Holy Roman Empire—the French rebels sought to export their revolution through a violent and determined campaign of conquest. The resulting wars extended from Spain in the west to Poland and Russia in the east, and from Britain in the north to Egypt in the south.

The second phase of France’s campaign of conquest is known as the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), after the French general Napoleon Bonaparte, who assumed dictatorial power in 1799 and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon I of France. Napoleon admired Goethe and requested a meeting with the famous author after occupying German lands in 1806. Shortly there-after, Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, forcing the Emperor Francis I to abdicate. Upon Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the emperor was restored as Francis I of Austria, but his empire itself remained dissolved, its German lands instead reconstituted as the German Federation. In Faust, this turbulent sequence of events supplies the background for the struggles between the Emperor and Counter-Emperor in Part 2. “What madness is abroad in these disordered days,” comments the Emperor’s Minister of War: “There isn’t anyone that isn’t either killing or being killed” (Faust, p. 877).

Goethe wrote much of Part 2 more than a decade after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. By then, Europe was entering a new age of commercial expansion, which was backed by the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of modern European states in the wake of the war, and a growing middle class. In Faust’s callous treatment of the old couple displaced by his reclamation project, Goethe questions the values of that new age. Chief among those values was the ideal of progress. Goethe was very interested in projects like the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, which were first discussed in the early nineteenth century. Yet this final episode of Faust’s life implies that Goethe himself felt ambivalent about progress: while it has positive aspects, the play seems to suggest, progress can too easily be pursued at the expense of humanity.

Publication and impact

Goethe composed most of Faust in four main periods:

c. 1770–75 Goethe conceives Faust, beginning work on what would become Part 1. A manuscript of an early version in Goethe’s hand survives. Scholars call it the Urfaust (original Faust), but Goethe never intended it for publication.

c. 1787–90 Goethe resumes work on a section of what would become Part 1, publishing it in 1790 as Faust: A Fragment.

1797–1801 Goethe again resumes work on Faust, deciding to divide it into two parts and nearly completing Part 1. In 1805 he decides to publish Part 1 and does so in 1808 (after further work).

1825–32 Goethe writes nearly all of Part 2 in the last seven years of his life. Goethe dies in March 1832, within a few weeks of completing the work, which is published later that year.

The two parts of Faust enjoyed significantly different receptions. Part 1, eagerly awaited by Goethe’s avid readership, was immediately acclaimed as the great work of literature that by then the German public was fully expecting. Indeed, on the basis of the 1790 fragment alone the German critic Friedrich Schelling had already described the work as Germany’s greatest poem. The influential Swiss cultural critic Madame de Stael, a major voice in spreading German Romanticism to the rest of Europe, wrote in 1814 that Goethe’s “astonishing” poem “cannot be exceeded in boldness of conception,” and she particularly praised its “potency of sorcery, a poetry … that makes us shudder, laugh, and cry, in a breath” (de Stael in Hamlin, p. 441). Schelling and de Staël were among the first to observe that the character of Faust can be taken as representing humanity itself. By contrast, Part 2 was less popular, even among German readers. In general it caused less of a stir, occasioning little comment abroad.

While interpretations of Faust vary widely, later criticism has been most conspicuously and sharply divided on questions of structure. One school of critics argues that the work stands as a unified whole. Against these so-called “unitarians” are critics who, owing to thematic differences and gaps in composition, maintain that the two parts should be read as two sepa-rate works. Goethe himself weighed in on the issue shortly after completing Part 2. In his last letter, written less than a week before his death, he wrote of conceiving the work as a unified whole from the earliest stage:

For more than sixty years the conception of Faust has lain here before my mind with the clearness of youth, though the sequence with less fulness. I have let the idea go quietly along with me through life and have only worked out the scenes that interested me most from time to time.

(Goethe in Hamlin, p. 431)

It was only during the latter half of the twentieth century that the aspects of modernism in Faust Part 2 were discovered. The second part of Faust is now highly appreciated and performances are no longer a rare occasion. In 1999 at the World’s Fair in Hanover, the German director Peter Stein staged a 30-hour production of Faust Part 1 and Part 2 with the text uncut. This production traveled throughout German-speaking countries in 2000 and 2001.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Atkins, Stuart. Goethe’s Faust: A Literary Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991–99.

Brown, Jane K. Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Gillies, Alexander. Goethe’s Faust: An Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1957.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Trans. Barker Fairley. In Selected Works. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Hamlin, Cyrus, ed. Faust. Trans. Walter Arndt. New York: Norton, 1976.

Mason, Eudo. Goethe’s Faust: Its Genesis and Purport. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Stawell, F. Melian, and G. Lowes Dickinson. Goethe and Faust: An Interpretation. New York: Dial Press, 1929.


views updated Jun 08 2018


FAUST . In sixteenth-century Europe, Faust was reviled as a godless man who, as a consequence of making a pact with the Devil, met a gruesome yet appropriate fate. By the nineteenth century, he had become the archetypal Romantic hero; the term Faustian, coined by Oswald Spengler (18801936), was taken as a positive epithet to describe those tormented, defiant individuals who strive for more than is humanly possible. Whether condemned or condoned, Faust is the protagonist of an enduring story that embodies fundamental religious and philosophical questions about humanity's place in the universe, the nature of good and evil, and the limitations of human knowledge.

The Historical Faust

Between 1507 and 1540, numerous references appear in German diaries, letters, and records to an unsavory character with the last name of Faust. The picture that emerges is of a fairly well educated man: He may have been the Johann Faust listed in the matriculation records of the University of Heidelberg for 1509, or he may have been the Georg Faust who received a hostile reception at the University of Erfurt. In any event, he traveled extensively, and he was viewed with a mixture of fear and contempt by his contemporaries, who describe him variously as a magician, a necromancer, a charlatan, an astrologer, an alchemist, a braggart, a sodomite, a gourmand, and a drunkard. His evil reputation, enhanced by his boast of having made a pact with the Devil, is confirmed by references to his expulsion from various cities. According to contemporary accounts, Faust died mysteriously. Philipp Melanchthon (14971560) says he was strangled by the Devil in a rural inn in Württemberg on the day their pact fell due.

Origin of the Faust Legend

The development of the Faust legend began in 1540, shortly after contemporary references to his activities ceased. The legend, a by-product of the Reformation, originated in Lutheran circles as a reaction against Roman Catholicism and Renaissance magic and science. It illustrates the anti-intellectual strain within the Christian tradition that has erupted periodically in campaigns of censorship and denunciations of "forbidden" knowledge. Faust became a convenient symbol of deviant religious, scientific, and philosophical thought. He was identified with several of the most controversial thinkers of the sixteenth century: Paracelsus, Trithemius, and Agrippa.

Literary Treatment of the Faust Legend

The earliest printed collection of Faust stories, known as the Spies Faustbuch, was published by Johann Spies at Frankfurt in 1587. Enormously popular, it was reprinted eighteen times in the next ten years. Before the end of the century, translations appeared in English, Dutch, and French. The German text went through several revisions, the last of which, republished frequently in the eighteenth century, was probably known to Goethe.

The basic story presents Faust as a scholar whose intellectual arrogance prompts him to abandon the legitimate study of theology for the forbidden science of magic. In return for a specified number of years of power and knowledge, Faust sells his soul to the Devil. He performs astonishing magical feats, conjures up the dead, flies over the earth, and eventually captivates the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, by whom he has a son. When the pact expires, he is carried off to Hell.

The two most famous literary treatments of the story are Christopher Marlowe's The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (1604) and Goethe's Faust (1808, 1832). Marlowe based his play on the English Faustbook. His version of the story is in the tradition of morality plays, but he adds the specifically Protestant theme that Faust's damnation was due to his despairing fatalism and his refusal to accept justification by faith.

The first recorded performance of Marlowe's play was in Graz, Austria, by a company of English players. The play became a staple of German puppet theater, where it was seen by both Lessing and Goethe as children. As adults, both used the Faust story in plays of their own. Faust's defiant attempt to transcend the limits of human existence appealed to both men and fit in with the repudiation of Enlightenment rationalism that characterized the Sturm und Drang movement to which they belonged.

Only fragments of Lessing's proposed Faust dramas exist, but Goethe's two-part drama is considered the greatest work of Germany's greatest poet. By emphasizing the tragic elements only hinted at in earlier versions and by making them the source of Faust's salvation rather than his damnation, Goethe transformed the story of a venal, vainglorious magician into that of an inspiring, tragic hero. In Goethe's drama, God has the last word in the prologue: Striving and error go hand in hand ("Es irrt der Mensch, solang' er strebt"), but only those who dare to cultivate the divine spark within can hope to be saved ("Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunkel Drange / Ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewusst").

The Faust story continued to be popular throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among the many authors attracted to the legend were Lenau, Klinger, Chamisso, Grillparzer, Heine, de Nerval, Valéry, and Mann. Most of them, however, rejected Goethe's optimistic conclusion and stressed instead the danger inherent in Faust's insatiable thirst for knowledge.


In The Sources of the Faust Tradition (Oxford, 1936), P. M. Palmer and R. P. More discuss the background to the Faust tradition and print many of the sources, together with the English Faustbook of 1592, several early Faust dramas and puppet plays, and the fragments of Lessing's Faust dramas. Another important book on the tradition's development is Frank Baron's Doctor Faustus: From History to Legend (Munich, 1978). E. M. Butler has made a wide-ranging study of the Faust legend in three books: The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge, U.K., 1948), Ritual Magic (Cambridge, U.K., 1949), and The Fortunes of Faust (Cambridge, U.K., 1952). Geneviève Bianquis surveys the literature in Faust à travers quatre siècles, 2d rev. ed. (Aubier, 1955). Lily B. Campbell discusses Marlowe's Doctor Faustus in the context of Reformation theology in "Dr. Faustus: A Case of Conscience," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 67 (March 1952): 219239.

New Sources

Grim, William E. The Faust Legend in Music and Literature. Lewiston, N.Y., 1992.

Mahal, Günther. Faust und Frankfurt: Anstösse, Reaktionen, Verknüpfungen, Reibungen. Frankfurt am Main, 1994.

Werres, Peter. Doctor Faustus: Archetypal Subtext at the Millennium. Morgantown, W. Va., 1999.

Wutrich, Timothy. Prometheus and Faust: The Promethean Revolt in Drama from Classical Antiquity to Goethe. Westport, Conn., 1995.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations. Princeton, 2000.

Allison Coudert (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018


The story of Faust has been widely used in literature and popular discussions to reflect on the ethics of science and technology. The Faust myth first appeared in 1587 when it was published by an unknown German Protestant in a popular chapbook. In 1592, the book was translated into English under the title The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. There have been several famous interpretations of the myth since the original publication, including works by Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), and Thomas Mann (1875–1955). All of the interpretations are united by the central theme of one man's insatiable quest for knowledge and its implications for his world and his own soul.

Historical Roots

Dr. Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540) is the historic figure on which the myth has been built. An astrologer and alchemist, Dr. Faust was born in Knittlingen, Württemberg (southwest Germany); studied at Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Ingolstadt universities; and later became a lecturer. Often accused of practicing black magic, Dr. Faust was repeatedly banished from villages. An elusive and mysterious figure, he reportedly admitted of pledging himself to the devil with his own blood. Dr. Faust was put to death in Staufen, Breisgau.

The original German publication was titled Historia von D. Johann Fausten dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer und Schwartzkünstler (History of Dr. Johan Faust, the notorious black-magician and necromancer). In this book, details of Faust's life are connected with speculative ideas about black magic and pacts with the devil. The first part of the book describes Faust's childhood and his studies in Wittenberg, which ends in a pact with the devil, because he wanted "alle Gründ am Himmel und Erden erforschen" (to probe all causes in heaven and on earth) and "die Elementa speculieren" (to speculate on the elements). This cannot be achieved through mere scholarship, but only with the aid of demonic powers. The second part describes Faust's travels—thanks to the power of the devil—through Earth, Heaven, and Hell. It also relates how he finally beholds paradise. The third part is composed of various tales, magic, and conjuring tricks. In the last part, an old man tries in vain to convert Faust's soul, but Faust renews his pact with the devil. In front of his students, Faust conjures Helena, the beautiful daughter of Zeus. He marries her, and they have a son, Faustus Justus. The book concludes with Faust's agonizing death and his descent into Hell in accordance with the rules of his satanic pact. Helena and their son disappear after his death.

This original tale is a moral and theological warning to live a God-fearing, modest life. Importantly, Faust's pact with the devil was not made out of a desire for material wealth, as was the case in most of the similar myths from that time, but rather from a desire for knowledge. Faust thus personifies the scientific, inquisitive intellect that is opposed to both the Catholic tradition founded upon papal authority and the humility and consciousness of sin found in the followers of Martin Luther (1483–1546).

From Marlow to Goethe

Marlowe was captivated by the English translation of Faust's story and used it as the basis for his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Two versions of his play exist, one dated to 1604 and the other to 1616. It is believed to be the first dramatic interpretation of the Faust tale, and it follows the original story closely in terms of the proportions of comedy and tragedy. Marlowe's Faust is a complex character and a renaissance person who is driven by an overwhelming intellectual curiosity. Always striving for power and seeking beauty, Faust signs a pact with Mephistopheles (the devil) because the sciences of his time could bring him neither godlike knowledge nor superhuman talents and power. The punishment for this hubristic bargain is eternal damnation.

Marlowe's play became one of the most successful dramas of the Elizabethan epoch. An adaptation for the puppet theater was brought to Germany by traveling artists and became an indirect inspiration for Goethe's drama Faust, because he watched the puppet play as a boy. A German translation of Marlowe's drama was published in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Upon reading it, Goethe reportedly remarked, "How greatly it is all planned!"

Goethe's Faust is possibly the most important drama in the German language, and many quotes have been adapted into colloquial usage and proverbial sayings. Goethe's tragedy has two parts, the first was published in 1808 and the second in 1832. Goethe's Faust character is distinguished from earlier variants by his rich inner complexity. The drama raises questions across the spectrum of human knowledge from philosophy and theology to anthropology and history to ethics and aesthetics.

The play opens with a wager between God and Mephistopheles. God gives permission to the devil to lure the soul of Faust, a scholar and alchemist, and maintains that Faust would be saved despite his reliance on reason and sorcery rather than faith. Later, Faust complains that "Wir nichts wissen können!" (we cannot know anything!). All science stays in the dark, because it lacks a secure and certain foundation. This is why Faust devotes himself to magic: "Daß ich erkenne was die Welt / Im Innersten zusammenhält" (That I may know what the world / holds at its very core.)

Faust is not interested merely in power, pleasure, and knowledge, but longs to take part in the divine secrets of life. He conjures up an Earth-Spirit, but it refuses to help him slake his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Faust becomes depressed and wants to kill himself. But it is Easter and the church bells tell of the resurrection. He is overcome by childhood memories: "Die Botschaft hör' ich wohl, / allein mir fehlt der Glaube" (I hear the message clearly, / but I alone lack the faith). He does not commit suicide, but his inner tensions heighten. He is both sick of life and unbearably hungry to know and experience its deepest offerings. He hunts ravenously for knowledge but he also yearns to satisfy his bodily desires for action. In this situation, Mephistopheles makes an appearance and offers to fulfill Faust's every desire—for the price of his soul.

In both parts of the drama, innocent people become victims of Faust's pact with the devil. In the first part, the victims are the girl Margarete (nicknamed Gretchen), her mother, and her brother. With the help of Mephistopheles, Faust seduces Margarete, but the narcotic he gives to her mother has a lethal effect. Margarete's brother attempts to take revenge for his mother and the lost honor of his sister in a duel with Faust, but he falls by Mephistopheles's intervention. Gretchen gives birth to Faust's child, kills it, and ends up in jail.

In the second part, Faust's megalomaniac enterprise demands human sacrifices. He wishes to wrest land from the sea in Greece, so he begins the engineering construction on a system of dykes—thus becoming an archetype not just of one pursuing scientific knowledge, but also of someone intent on technological power. The henchmen of Mephistopheles burn down the home of an old couple who had cared for him as a young man, which was the only thing that the enormously wealthy yet discontented Faust did not own. The fire kills the old couple. Faust as an engineer does not foresee the unintentional consequences of his work but finally accepts them approvingly.

Goethe's Faust is a tale of reckless striving for boundless love, knowledge, and power. In the end, this culminates in the blind and maniacal pursuit of an engineering project that breeds outrage, destruction, and doom. Nonetheless, Faust's soul ascends to heaven with the angels singing: "Whoever strives in ceaseless toil / Him we may grant redemption." And it seems that the moral is that as long as we struggle toward greatness, God will grant salvation, even if we stray into excesses and sin.


SEE ALSO Frankenstein;Playng God;Prometheus;Science, Technology, and Literature.


Anonymous. (1587). Historia von D. Johann Fausten: dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer unnd Schwartzkünstler. Frankfurt am Main.


views updated May 21 2018


A legendary occult magician of the sixteenth century, famous in literature. There is some evidence that such a person existed. Trithemius mentioned him in a letter written in 1507, in which he referred to him as a fool and a mountebank who pretended he could restore the writings of the ancients if they were wiped out of human memory, and blasphemed concerning the miracles of Christ. In 1513 Konrad Mudt, a canon of the German Church, also alluded to Faust in a letter as a charlatan.

In 1543 Johann Gast, a Protestant pastor of Basel, apparently knew Faust, and considered a horse and dog belonging to the magician to have been familiar spirits.

Johan Weyer, who opposed the excesses of witch-hunters, mentioned Faust in a work of his as a drunkard who had studied magic at Cracow. He also mentioned that in the end Satan strangled Faust after his house had been shaken by a terrific din.

From other evidence it seems likely that Faust was a wandering magician or necromancer whose picturesque character won him notoriety. No doubt the historic Faust was confused in legend with Johan Fust, the pioneer of early printing, whose multiplication of books must have been ascribed to magic. By the end of the century in which Faust flourished, he had become the model of the medieval magician, and his name was forever linked with those of Virgil, Roger Bacon, Pope Silvester II, and others.

The origins of the Faust legend are ancient. The essentials underlying the story are the pact with Satan, and the supposed vicious character of purely human learning. The idea of the pact with Satan belongs to both Jewish and Christian magico-religious belief, but is probably more truly Kabalistic. The belief can scarcely be traced further back, unless it resides in the idea that a sacrificed person takes the place of the deity to which he gives up his life.

The Faust tale soon spread over Europe and the story of Faust and his pact with the devil was celebrated in broadside ballads. The first dramatic representation of the story was Christopher Marlowe's Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus. The dramatist G. E. Lessing wrote a Faust play during the German literary revival of the eighteenth century, but it remained for Goethe to grant Faust some degree of immortality through the creation of one of the great psychological dramas of all time. Goethe differed from his predecessors in his treatment of the story in that he gave a different character to the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles, whose nature is totally at variance with the devils of the old Faust books. Goethe took the idea of Faust's final salvation from Lessing. It may be said that although in some respects Goethe adopted the letter of the old legend he did not adopt its spirit. Probably the story of Faust has given to thousands their only idea of medieval magic, and this idea has lost nothing in the hands of Goethe, who cast about the subject a much greater halo of mystery than it contained.


Bates, Paul A., ed. Faust: Sources, Works, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968.

Grim, William E. The Faust Legend in Music and Literature. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.

Palmer, Philip M., and Robert P. More. Sources of the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. Reprint, New York: Haskell House, 1965.


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The legend of Faust is well known in Germany and western Europe. The hero of the tale, a German magician named Faust, or Faustus, agreed to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, knowledge, earthly pleasures, and magical powers.

The legend is based on a historical figure, a wandering German scholar who lived between about 1480 and 1540. Contemporary accounts describe him as a magician with an evil reputation who was associated with black magic. Although a relatively minor figure, he inspired many stories that developed into the Faust legend.

To acquire greater wisdom, power, and pleasure, Faust turned away from God and made a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. But in selling his soul, he gained eternal damnation. Faust's tale serves as a warning for those seeking to fulfill their earthly desires without the help of God.

The legend became the basis for Doctor Faustus, a 1604 play by English writer Christopher Marlowe; Faust, a two-part drama by German poet Johann von Goethe, published in 1808 and 1832; and Doctor Faustus, a 1947 novel by German author Thomas Mann. The story has also inspired musical works, including the operas The Damnation of Faust (1846) by Hector Berlioz and Faust (1859) by Charles Gounod.

See also Devils and Demons; Hell.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.


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1. Opera in 5 acts by Gounod to lib. by Barbier and Carré based on Carré's Faust et Marguérite and Goethe's Faust, Part I, 1808, 1832 (in Nerval's Fr. trans.). Prod. Paris 1859, London 1863, Philadelphia 1863, NY Met 1883 (inaugural opera).

2. Singspiel in 2 acts by Spohr to lib. by J. K. Bernard not based on Goethe, comp. 1813, prod. Prague 1816; rev. 1852 as 3-act opera, prod. London 1852 and 1984.


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Faust. Initially a reprobate man who made a pact with the devil and met a commensurate end. However, he became (through the Enlightenment and into the 19th cent.) a heroic figure who sets his face against the supposed limitations of humanity.


views updated May 17 2018

Faust ★★★½ Faust-Eine deutsche Volkssage 1926

The classic German silent based upon the legend of Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth. Based on Goethe's poem, and directed by Murnau as a classic example of Germanic expressionism. Remade as “All That Money Can Buy” in 1941. 117m/B VHS, DVD . GE Emil Jannings, Warner Fuetterer, Gosta Ekman, Camilla Horn; D: F.W. Murnau; W: Hans Kyser; C: Carl Hoffmann; M: Timothy Brock, Werner R. Heymann.


views updated May 23 2018

Faust (d. c.1540), German astronomer and necromancer. Reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil, he became the subject of dramas by Marlowe and Goethe, an opera by Gounod, and a novel by Thomas Mann.