Goethe’s Faust: Theatre of Modernity eds. by Hans Schulte, John Noyes, and Pia Kleber (review)
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Reviewed by
Hans Schulte, John Noyes, and Pia Kleber, eds., Goethe’s Faust: Theatre of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 332 pp.

Twenty articles from papers presented during a summer 2000 Faust colloquium in Toronto encompass this volume’s examination of modernity in Goethe’s Faust. Hans Schulte provides an introductory overview of the studies’ thematic range as well as a cogent definition of modernity. Modernity here connotes exploration of the phenomenology of Goethe’s theater—that is, theater as “mystery, pageant, Baroque world stage, spectaculum, panopticum, plays within plays, [and] roles within roles” (1–2).

The contributions are uniformly first-rate. Albrecht Schöne’s piece on “Faust—today” is one of the compilation’s most engaging. Schöne focuses on modern interpretations of Faust and the problems that arise when the original is too narrowly reinterpreted through a historical lens. He points out that Faust’s experimental nature concerning religion, evil, biomedical science, politics, and economics makes it particularly susceptible to procrustean interpretations that link it to such contemporary notions as modern psychoanalysis and stem-cell research.

Equally excellent is Rolf-Peter Janz’s article on the modernization of evil. Janz reflects on Mephisto’s traditional role as the one who “nourishes and provokes the evil that is part of Faust’s character” (33)—his fundamental desire to be continuously active. Janz, however, argues that Mephisto comports with the traditional role of the devil because he dispenses both good and evil in equal measure throughout the work. For Janz, Mephisto cannot be defined by any single principle. As a consequence, there is no grand satanic plan here—not even in the case [End Page 262] of Faust’s demise. Simply, Faust suborns the murder of Baucis and Philemon and then meets his end. The problem is that he does not consider the consequences of his own actions. Evil is thus the result of the banal. As Janz concludes: “If there is a crime, it is the result of thoughtlessness. And that, too, is a very modern version of evil” (39).

Peter Huber, Ulrich Gaier, and others similarly investigate the role of Mephisto, especially in connection with Goethe’s ethereal “schwankende Gestalt” (41). Most choose to see his wavering forms as illustrative of the chimerical nature of all Goethe’s characters, including Mephisto and Faust, as well as of the very form of the drama itself. Only Martin Swales defines the “Dedication” more traditionally as Goethe’s apprehensive thoughts about his own creativity in which the “figures from his creative past come back to haunt him and displace immediate and present concerns” (203).

Ernst Osterkamp stakes out new territory concerning Goethe’s perspective on classicism and antiquity in Faust II. He points to the fact that, rather than the cultured and refined Olympian gods that we might expect, archaic and sub-Olympian figures populate the work. The reason, he argues, is primarily because by the time Goethe completed the entire work the scientific strides made in archaeology since his youth had rendered his original definition of classical aestheticism and beauty “less idealized and more scientific or empirical” (165).

Somewhat less successful contributions include those by Gisela Brude-Firnau and W. Daniel Wilson. Brude-Firnau’s comparison of Faust with the popular Harry Potter series makes several observations that suffer a bit from being hit and miss, although her discussion of Chiron and the Centaur in Harry Potter is spot on. Wilson’s article on Mephisto’s homoeroticism, on the other hand, is more problematic. Many might agree completely with his analysis of Mephisto’s homosexual nature but balk at his further revelation that Goethe engaged in homoerotic relationships with Duke Karl August and with his servant Philipp Seidel. After all, Goethe’s track record of relationships with the long line of women from Friederike Brion in his youth to Ulrike von Levetzow in his old age would seem to counter Wilson’s assertion adequately.

The second part of the book is devoted to understanding Faust as a theatrical medium. Martin Swales writes on Goethe’s Faust as metatheater and tragedy. Dieter Borchmeyer presents an enlightening piece on the hidden comedy and operatic underpinnings of Faust. Jane...