This weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus in a theater based on (and named after) Blackfriars theater in Britain (contemporary with Shakespeare and Marlowe). For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of the play, the gist is as follows: Dude named Faustus makes a deal with a demon named Mephistopheles–and by extension with Lucifer himself–selling his soul if he can retain Mephistopheles as his servant, companion, and teacher for the rest of his life, which is given an end date in the contract. Now, go read the play–or better yet see it. There will be a major spoiler in this post, and I would rather you all watched or read the play yourselves before checking out what I have to say.
The play was wonderful, the actors were nearly flawless, and the setting was incredible. Sitting in the balcony looking down on the action (which was almost directly underneath us), I was caught up in the magic of the theater once again. Though the actors used no background set and relatively few props, they drew me in and wrapped me in the intensity of the plot. I was watching Faustus, yet I was Faustus. I am watching the sinner sell himself to Lucifer, and I am the sinner who has given myself over to destruction.
At the climax of the play, Faustus sees a vision of Christ on the cross. He recognizes the power of Christ to save. And there we were–the whole audience–watching Faustus while being Faustus. Would he choose to confess and beg for mercy on his death bed? Would he–and vicariously, would we–be saved? Lucifer watches in horror as Faustus gapes at his vision of Christ. We hold our breath and silently beg Faustus to save us all by rejecting Lucifer and clinging to Christ.
But Faustus turns.
He leaves the vision behind, renounces Christ for the final time, and is ushered into Hell.
The theater is silent. We are shocked, though we have seen the ending from the beginning. We feel the flames of Hell licking at our feet. We hear Faustus’s final screams echoing in our ears. At once Hell is real, and Lucifer stands before us. The light has been sucked out of the room. We are Faustus, and we are in Hell.
Lucifer stands and recites the moral of the tale. We gape at Faustus’s body, enshrouded in a faceless demon’s suit. The Devil has won, and we are alone.
Yet, even then–even in the face of tragedy–even as we see where the tortured soul lies, we are reminded that Faustus had a choice. We are hopeful that we can choose the other path. We rejoice because Heaven is as real as Hell, if only we will hear Christ’s call.
In the literary world, the word for this is catharsis. A typical part of tragedy (particularly in ancient Greek plays and those in the Western tradition), catharsis is a method by which is excite or purge (or perhaps both) pity and guilt from our souls and from our communities. There is a scapegoat, in this case Faustus, who suffers so that we may suffer vicariously. Faustus represents the perfect lamb of Israelite sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Faustus dimly echoes our Savior Jesus Christ, who died so that we might live. Faustus does this even as he rejects the atonement Christ offers. He does this all by exposing the wretchedness in our own hearts–the silly jabs we make at others, the forbidden things we desire, the cruelty which simmers beneath our put-together (public) faces. We watch Faustus in awe. We laugh at some of his antics, we marvel at the power he commands–or thinks he commands–and we watch him sink into his own depths of sin. We shudder and squirm when we realize that we perhaps shouldn’t be laughing or admiring this trickster. We realize that our sin is Faustus’s–valuing ourselves and our desires above all. When Lucifer wins in Dr. Faustus, we are driven to Christ in recognition of our one wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. We are Faustus, and we have a choice.
Whether Lucifer wins is determined by our decision. May we find our refuge in Christ.