Review of Faust, Part I

Image result for faust philip wayneWhat was it about?

Heinrich Faust’s desire for knowledge is so great that he makes a pact with the devil to attain it. The more he reads the more he feels in despair. He doesn’t want any kind of knowledge. He wants the knowledge that is only proper to God. At the start of the play, Faust contemplates suicide, but the sound of bells ringing stays his hand. As he is returning to his study on Easter day, he notices that a small dog is following him. He tries to get rid of the dog but to no avail. In his study, the dog transforms into Mephistopheles (i.e. the devil), and Faust sells his soul. The two go on adventures throughout Leipzig. Mephistopheles calling the shots, and Faust obeying. It is all fun and games until Faust meets Gretchen. Faust, Part I by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a cautionary tale about one man’s lust for knowledge.

What did I think of it?

Faust is a poem in two parts, but the actual story is in the first part. I have not read the second part yet, but when I do I will review it here. Although Faust takes place during Easter, it is perfect for the winter holidays. There is magic everywhere. The play takes place in Heaven, Hell, and on earth. Mephistopheles and Faust participate in ceremonies and celebrations. I would love to see this play performed on stage. It reminded me a lot of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps because they both are moral tales.

Part I is not very philosophical. Most of the emphasis is on the action. Faust makes a pact with the devil and decides to seduce a woman. The reader is, however, dazzled by an array of really odd characters. Everything is so dramatic. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the translation. Philip Wayne tried to preserve the rhyme pattern found in the original German, but that just ended up compromising the poem’s lyricism. I feel like a lot was lost in translation. I hope to purchase a new edition in 2017 before reading Part II. Still, I loved the magic of the story and the character of Mephistopheles. I assume that Faust’s character (whom we don’t learn much about in Part I) will be explored in more detail in Part II.

Favorite Quote

[Mephistopheles]:
You are, when all is done – just what you are,
Put on the most elaborate curly wig,
Mount learned stilts, to make yourself look big,
You still will be the creature that you are.

[Faust]:
I know. In vain I gathered human treasure,
And all that mortal spirit could digest:
I come at last to recognize my measure,
And know the sterile desert in my breast.
I have not raised myself one poor degree,
Nor stand I nearer to infinity.

Review of Murder in the Cathedral

What was it about?

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot is a play in verse about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Caught up in one of the perennial conflicts between pope and emperor, Thomas Becket is exiled to France. Upon his return to England, four tempters try to prevent him from assuming his role as archbishop. They remind him of the power he had as Lord Chancellor to Henry II prior to his ordination. In view of more pleasant alternatives, why risk martyrdom?

What did I think of it?

Thomas Becket’s tomb was the site of a popular pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages. He was venerated as a holy archbishop who defended the Church against the encroachments of the State. Becket represented not only a good person but a man who defended a particular model of Church and State. Eliot rightly explores Becket’s murder from this latter perspective. Becket is not humble and peace-loving but arrogant and power-seeking. I really enjoyed this play. Despite its short length, the play packed a punch. It explored questions relating to Church and State that are debated still today in England. I also loved the style. I know that not everyone will enjoy a play in verse, but the repetition of imagery and language heightened the drama. The critics are right to compare this play to Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. They are both excellent!

Favorite Quote

“Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.
They speak better than they know, and beyond your
understanding.
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the
action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.”

Review of Don Carlos (Mike Poulton Adaptation)

What was it about?

Don Carlos, the Prince of Spain, is the son of the tyrannical King Philip II. At the start of the play, King Philip has commissioned the Duke of Alba to violently impose Spanish rule on Flanders. Carlos hates his father for two reasons: for marrying Elizabeth, a woman whom Carlos loved first, and for his ruthless political policy. With the help of Rodrigo (the Marquis of Posa), Don Carlos attempts to stop the Duke of Alba from enslaving Flanders. In the background is the passionate love of Elizabeth for her step-son. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos is a fast-paced, intrigue-filled play centered on the tumultuous relationship between an ambitious monarch and his naive son.

What did I think of it?

I have never read the original play by Friedrich Schiller or seen a performance of Poulton’s adaptation, so I don’t know how this book stacks up against other versions of Don Carlos. However, I did enjoy this version. While some of the characters (such as Elizabeth and especially the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor) were not as well developed as I would have liked, the intrigue kept me engaged. This was definitely a page-turner. Don Carlos is a visionary, but because of his age, he is very short-sighted. He doesn’t really understand the forces at play in his father’s court. The whole play is in verse, but this speeds up rather than slows down the action. My only major criticism was the pacing. While most of the play was at a reasonable but engaging pace, the denouement was too steep. The story wrapped up too quickly. It would be interesting to compare this adaptation to the original Schiller play. Maybe there is more character development in the original. Regardless, I enjoyed Don Carlos and recommend it to anyone interested in a light historical drama.

Favorite quote

[Carlos]:
“Of all the fathers in the world
why do the Heavens punish me with him?
Of all the sons that could have pleased a king
why was God pleased
to displease this King with me?
No two minds are more at odds,
yet here we remain – we three – unnaturally linked
in a single chain of love. Impossible equation!
Wretched, wretched fate!”

 

Review of L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary)

2253660What was it about?

L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) is a 1912 play in four acts by Paul Claudel. The drama is centered around a young woman named Violaine who contracts leprosy from a friend (Pierre de Craon) and is banished from her family by her jealous sister Mara. At the start of the play, Violaine learns that Pierre, who is a stonemason and a builder of cathedrals, is suffering from leprosy. As a show of compassion, Violaine kisses Pierre. But Violaine is engaged to be married to Jacques Hury, the same man whom Mara loves. Mara conspires with her mother to break up the relationship between Violaine and Jacques. Mara approaches Violaine and informs her sister that she knows the truth about her condition. Without a warning, Violaine leaves home to live alone in a cave outside of the village. Shortly afterward, Anne Vercors, the father of the household, sets off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Everything seems to be going in Mara’s favor, but her luck soon runs dry. She is not as “in control” of her life as she thinks. Written in the style of a medieval mystery play, L’Annonce Faite A Marie has more than just an earthly dimension; it has a pronounced cosmic dimension. There are miracles in the play of Biblical magnitude. Violaine is not merely a pitiful character. Her suffering has a spiritual significance, one that the characters discover over the course of this lengthy play.

What did I think of it?

Although the play is a little over three hundred pages long, I got through it in the space of two days. This is a play unlike any other written in the last century. As I mentioned above, it is written in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays. Therefore, the audience is expected to know something about the Christian faith. The Mass and the Angelus feature prominently as well as a few earth-shattering miracles. Like much of Claudel’s works, there is no real frontier between the earthly and the spiritual. God’s hand guides the action. L’Annonce Faite A Marie really caught my attention as I have a great interest in medieval French hagiography particularly in the context of performance. I welcomed the blending of the sacred and the profane, and (for the most part) appreciated what Claudel was trying to accomplish through his play. However, I was shocked by the ending. The whole play was an emotional roller coaster ride. There was one life-changing event after another. And I enjoyed it. I raced toward the end hoping that there would be a neat conclusion, but there wasn’t one. Mara’s character continues to baffle me. I wanted her to develop as a person, and evidently she does, but her development is so subtile that I missed it the first time I read Act IV. I have since reread the last act along with the alternative ending. Although I understand the endings more than the first time I read them, I can’t honestly say that I’m satisfied. L’Annonce Faite A Marie definitely challenged my expectations. I have a tendency to expect a certain kind of ending from stories. I hope to reread the play sometime soon because I was so emotionally involved throughout most of it. In fact, I have never experienced such emotions whilst reading a play. If you like reading plays, I highly recommend this one despite my reservations about the ending because it is different than anything you’ve probably ever encountered.

Review of A Man For All Seasons

What was it about?

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A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt is a play about the life of Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII who was later executed for refusing to acknowledge the king as the supreme ruler of the Church of England. In addition to being venerated as a Catholic saint, Thomas More is known in the West as the scholar who wrote Utopia. Although an Agnostic, Robert Bolt admired Thomas More for being true to himself and for striving after an ideal. In his preface to the play, Robert Bolt wrote, “[W]e no longer have, as past societies have had, any picture of individual Man (Stoic Philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentleman) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves; we are anything. But if anything, then nothing, and it is not everyone who can live with that, though it is our true present position. Hence our willingness to locate ourselves from something that is certainly larger than ourselves, the society that contains us.” 

Thomas More had an identity that was not determined by the swiftly-changing values of his society. A Man for All Seasons portrays More as a brilliant statesman who loved life and law, but when push came to shove, defended what he believed.

What did I think of it?

This is the second contemporary play I have read about a Medieval saint ( I read Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw in June). Both plays offer a refreshing portrayal of the heroes. No longer are More and Joan of Arc depicted as stock saints – perfect individuals who have no fear of death. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More respects the law and turns to it for guidance. Although he is a staunch Catholic, More admits that he doesn’t always know what God wants of him.

Like Bishop Cauchon in Saint Joan, Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons is not a purely evil man. He has understandable objections to the Pope’s conduct. Pope Leo X supported sins when they were convenient (Henry VIII’s incestuous marriage to Catherine of Aragon appeased the Spanish) but denounced them when they weren’t in his favor. The Pope was politically motivated like Henry VIII. A Man for All Seasons underlines the Church-State tension.

The most interesting character in the play is The Common Man. The Common Man introduces each scene but takes on such roles as a servant, a boatman, a spy, and eventually as Thomas More’s executioner. As the play goes along, the Common Man assumes more unpleasant and controversial roles in the kingdom. Money and fame are temptations. Unlike Thomas More, the Common Man has no integrity of character. He will do anything to climb the social ladder.

I laughed at More’s sarcastic jokes, sympathized with his personal struggles, and was inspired by his final words to his accusers. Thomas More is diplomatic throughout the play. Even before his family, he does not insult the king. A Man for All Seasons is an excellent portrayal of a man whom I’ve admired for years.

Favorite Quotes

[The 1520 quote from Robert Whittington that inspired the title of the play]: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

[Thomas More to his daughter Margaret]: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.” 

Joan of Arc: Saint, Traitor, or Heretic?

Saint Joan - New MermaidsThere have been many adaptations of the life of Saint Joan of Arc. Among the many adaptations created were Christine de Pizan’s poem Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc (Song in Honor of Joan of Arc) in 1429, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Giovanna d’Arco (1845), and Georges Méliès’ silent film Jeanne d’Arc (1900).  The Nazis even made a propaganda film on the life of Joan of Arc: Das Mädchen Johanna (1935). She has been memorialized in countless films, plays, songs, paintings, and sculptures. She is also the patroness of France and the patron saint of soldiers.

 In 1924, four years after the canonization of the maid of Orleans by the Catholic Church, George Bernard Shaw wrote and directed his own play about Joan of Arc: Saint Joan. A year later, Shaw won the Nobel Prize in literature.

 Saint Joan is a more or less historically accurate retelling of the events that led up to the execution of Joan of Arc. It follows the maiden turned warrior from the gates of Captain Robert de Baudricourt to her execution outside of the cathedral of Rheims. Unlike many adaptations that focus on Joan’s miracles or on her maidenhood, Shaw’s play portrays Joan as nothing short of a warrior. She is stubborn and prideful, not afraid to criticize military and ecclesiastical officials to their faces. She is neither beautiful nor gentle. The other characters speak and treat her like a man. Joan leads Jean (called Dunois in the play) and the French army to victory against the British who had laid siege to Orleans. Afterward, she crowns Charles VII (the Dauphin) king of France.

 The focus of the play is not on the nitty-gritty of warfare but on the nature of Joan’s crime. Why was she burned at the stake, and why, after almost four hundred years, was she canonized a saint? Shaw’s Joan is a Christ-like figure. Like Jesus, this Joan puts herself above the political and religious leaders of her time. She claims that the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret have given her a mission that she must fulfill at all costs. There is one question that all the leaders struggle to answer: Who is this Joan of Arc? Like Jesus whom some claimed was a prophet, others claimed was the Messiah, and still other claimed was a blasphemer, Joan’s identity is a mystery. The Archbishop Regnault de Chartres thinks Joan is foolishly “in love with religion” (Scene II, line 466). The Nobleman believes that Joan is a witch (Scene IV, line 87) while Cauchon is convinced she is a heretic (Scene IV, line 267). Only Dunois thinks Joan is a saint (Scene III, lines 176-177).

The play analyzes the motivations behind the execution of Joan of Arc. Shaw disagrees that she was killed for dressing like a man or because the Church thought she was a witch. Rather, he believes that her executors were convinced that Joan was a threat to the established political and religious structures in Europe. To Shaw, Joan was one of the first Protestants and Nationalists (he uses the terms rather anachronistically). Bishop Cauchon is outraged by Joan’s lack of reverence toward Church authority. Because she claims an authority over and above that of the Pope, Cauchon labels Joan a heretic.

[Cauchon]: “A faithful daughter of The Church! The pope himself at his proudest dare not presume as this woman presumes. She acts as if she herself were The Church. She brings the message of God to Charles; and The Church must stand aside. She will crown him in the cathedral of Rheims: she, not The  Church! She sends letters to the king of England giving him God’s command through her to return to his island on pain of God’s vengeance, which she will execute. Let me tell you that the writing of such letters were the practice of the accursed Mahomet, the anti-Christ. Has she ever in all her utterances said one word of The Church? Never. It is always God and herself” (Scene IV, lines 369-379).

Richard Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick, wants Joan killed for a different reason. As a statesman, Joan’s alleged heresy is of little consequence to him. But her role in crowning the Dauphin is inexcusable. She undermines the feudal system by crowning an absolute monarch. Because Warwick has an obvious stake in the current political system, he can’t let Joan get away with what he considers as treason.

 [Warwick to Cauchon]: “My lord: pray get The Church out of your head for a moment; and remember that there are temporal institutions in the world as well as spiritual ones. I and my peers represent the feudal aristocracy as you represent The Church. We are the temporal power. Well, do you not see how this girl’s idea strikes at us?” (Scene IV, lines 470-475).

 In Saint Joan, the eponymous hero is like Jesus, executed for religious and political reasons. While there are many obvious differences between Joan of Arc and Jesus, I find the similarities quite striking. It is no accident that Shaw places the words of Caiaphus in John 11:49 in the mouth of the Chaplain, John de Stogumber: “It is expedient that one woman die for the people” (Scene IV, lines 586-587).

 The play does not paint any of the characters in black and white. Joan may hear messages from God, but she is still human. She doesn’t want to die. By showing her love for life, Shaw repudiates the notion that Joan is a rash or suicidal person. Even Bishop Cauchon and the Inquisitor, Bishop Jean Lemaitre, are not sinister characters. Shaw makes it clear in his Preface that Cauchon and Lemaitre were not essentially different people than ourselves.

 The end of the play was quite enjoyable and included a very interesting commentary on Joan’s legacy. I recommend this play to anyone who enjoys learning about an old hero through the perspective of a modern writer.