Ben Watts eyes closed makeup, Faust 3: The Turd Coming

Development of Faust 3

A few years ago I translated the work of Heiner Müller, an East German playwright who died in 1995.  He is unfortunately little known in the U.S., but in Germany and across Europe he is revered as one of the great dramatists of the last century.   Müller is cavalier about punctuation, which is a special offense in German, where all nouns are capitalized.  Müller often uses all caps, or, deviating in the other direction, lower case for everything.  The plays whose translations I worked on were Müller's adaptations of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Macbeth.  His brutal take on these already brutal plays left a lasting impression on me.  Müller occupied a complex position in East Germany, a dissident who refused to leave.  His plays expressed his particular point of view through rather radical means, both in the construction of his texts and his work as a theater director.

Before our recent election, I had already been working on a play that resembled a play by Franz Xavier Kroetz called Request Program.  As I had worked further, I detected in a monologue that I was writing, an echo of Faust.  This led me back to re-read Goethe's Faust and Marlowe's.   As the election approached, I began to feel more and more apprehensive, and the play veered in the direction of a Vaclav Havel drama, with some sort of offstage government violence. 

After the election, as with, I would say, any right-minded adult, I was shocked and depressed.  I felt such a deep-seated anger that everything that I had believed in had been upended.  Equality, justice, civility, peace, the commonweal, and progress had been thrown overboard.  My understanding of the path of history toward enlightenment and freedom for all was shattered.

I popped on the CAPS LOCK and the play flew out of me.  I knew what I was doing with Faust, which is not an easy puzzle to solve.  I had in the meantime reread Goethe's Faust and other interpretations of the myth.  Goethe's play/poem is a mess dramaturgically.  As a whole Goethe's Faust is revered as one of the foundational works of literature for the language, as embedded in everyday German speech as Shakespeare can be in ours.  But it's hard to say what it means.  Goethe wrote Part 1 early in his life, and the second part at the end of his life. The parts are very different works.  They share his acute ear for the music of German, though he can sometimes be so enthralled by the sound of the words that little if anything is going on otherwise.  While Part 1 has a semblance of a plot and is somewhat contained in its meanderings and multiplicity of characters and scenes, Part 2 explodes with diversions and seemingly unrelated adventures. 

One strong plot line in Part 1 is Faust's effort to bed a young vulnerable girl through trickery; he kills her mother and her brother in the process.  I found this a less fruitful focus.  The pact with the devil, however, is a common element of all Fausts and it gave me my plot orientation for Faust 3.  The political dimensions of my play echo Part 2 of Goethe's Faust in which the Faust character strangely engages in the invention of paper currency and land management.  I took these social explorations by Goethe into today's political landscape.

In working on the translation of Müller's Titus, I had also become very interested in how the clown figure functioned in that play and in Shakespeare's version.  The tradition of the fool goes back to time immemorial, and in Shakespeare's plays it plays a significant role.  The clown can speak truth to power in classic texts.  As it is in Faust 3.

Another literary aspect of Faust 3 is my perversion of the Beatitudes and other parts of the Gospels.  Goethe's Faust takes place in part during Easter, and of course the idea of a pact with the devil implicates theology.  My Faust is wedded even more closely to the story of Jesus as told in the Bible.

The Bible is only sometimes regarded as a work of literature, but it had a profound effect on me, as I was required as a child to memorize portions of it.  In fact, I won the prize for memorizing the most Bible verses.  The King James translation of the Bible, though apparently inaccurate in many important respects, was drilled into my head. 

In Faust 3, I reworked these scriptures to show that the unnamed "king" has perverted the teachings of Jesus Christ in everything that he does and is.  In our current political climate, I am dumbfounded by so-called Christians who are able to support a man who in his being and in his actions is the very opposite of what the Gospels preach. 

I also cite other bits of Shakespeare, Yeats, a couple of serious songs—"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Strange Fruit"—and some Christmas carols.   

The apocalyptic view of the play is of course deeply embedded in the Gospels.  I rework those portions of the scriptures in the context of our potential contemporary world nuclear war.  Already the administration has rushed the world breathlessly toward war in the Korean peninsula. 

Elfriede Jelinek is one of my literary heroes.  Like Müller she is virtually unknown in the U.S., and her plays are rarely produced here.  She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004, and her work is quite frequently produced at German-language theaters.  Her texts are usually a block of words, punctuated, but no characters defined.  The format presents a challenge to the director, but also an opportunity for the imagination.  In seeing them, one would not know that her texts take this form, because they become so animated on the stage. 

My play has no defined characters, like Jelinek's work and some of Müller's.  Like Müller's Shakespeare adaptations that I worked on, they are in iambic pentameter, or blank verse.  I found in working on the Müller translations that my mind could start to think in this rhythm, which is quite natural to English as a language and to German as well.  At Judson, the play will not be spoken as verse.  The blank verse was just a way for me to write the play and form it.

What is the play like?

Apart from Müller and Jelinek, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is an older cousin perhaps.  Certainly in its multiple layers of meaning, which will be evident in the acting, Faust 3 comes out of Brecht's very entertaining plays about incredibly grim subjects.  In particular, I think of his The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  In Brecht's writings on theater, he emphasizes that it is important to make the audience laugh and smile and to seduce it emotionally.  Brecht liked a good song.  The clowns performing Faust 3 will make the audience laugh and, as Brecht hoped to do through his theater, provoke critical thought and active citizenship.

I recently had occasion to review a new translation of Karl Kraus' antiwar dramatic epic The Last Days of Mankind.  Kraus, also unknown in the U.S., was a very popular satirist in print who in addition performed his own work on the stage.  His Last Days runs over 800 pages and targets all segments of Austrian society in its complicity and stupidity in fighting World War I.  He often uses verbatim contemporaneous material to satirize public figures.  Kraus was fearless in skewering the war effort, a highly unpopular position.  He also targeted his fellow writers who wrote fictitious "battlefield" reports while safely remaining far from the front. 

Faust 3 is clearly apocalyptic drama.  There is a strong British tradition of Armageddon on the stage, including many fine plays by Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker, among others. 

Faust 3 participates in the long literary tradition of scatology as a means of public comment, which flourished in Greek and Roman literature.  In American literature, I think of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  In English literature, the Earl of Rochester, Jonathan Swift, Chaucer, and Shakespeare come readily to mind.

I am a big fan of Charles Ludlam, who so hilariously adapted many classic texts.  One of his early plays is called Turds in Hell.  His plays have a campy quality obviously, but there are real emotions and facets of personal and social truth expressed in Ludlam's own inimitable, highly entertaining way.

Of things I've seen recently on bigger stages in New York, I'd liken it to Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.  Her text was occasionally offensive of racial norms in speech, and the action featured the actors repeatedly passing around large watermelon replicas.  The decentralization of the casting is similar to my approach.  It doesn't follow any kind of plot conventions and yet, at least for me, the performance left a strong lasting impression.

Paul David Young