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Whistling in the Dark David Savran Dr.FaustusLights the Lights Hebbel Theater, Berlin (1992) Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center DOCTOR FAUSTUS LIGHTS the Lights has an immaculate pedigree in the American theatrical avant-garde. Although originally written as an opera libretto on the eve of World War II, in 1938, Gertrude Stein's text was first performed in the United States in 1951 as the inaugural production of the Living Theatre. In 1979, as directed by Larry Kornfeld with music by Al Carmines, it graced the final years of the Judson Poets Theatre. Under Richard Foreman's direction, it was performed at the Festival d'Automne in Paris in 1982. Most recently, in July 1992, Robert Wilson brought his own new production, mounted in collaboration with Berlin's Hebbel Theater , to New York's Serious Fun! festival. DoctorFaustus'spopularity with the avant-garde is not difficult to gauge. One of Stein's more conventionally plotted and accessible plays, it is a particularly rich text for a director intent upon reimagining Stein's own reimagining of a decisive moment for the production of Western culture. Unlike Marlowe's DoctorFaustus,which focuses on the conflict between the religious and the secular, the sacral knowledge of the Middle Ages, and the emergent scientism of the Renaissance, DoctorFaustusLights the Lights dramatizes a crisis in Western rationalism (that is, in the Enlightenment project). In Stein's view, it seems to have produced not the unlimited social progress and human omniscience it promised, but darkness and death (which for a Jew in France in 1938 meant, among other things, Hitler). 25 In Stein's text Enlightenment is at once literalized and subtly degraded. Reconceptualized for a technological age, it means little more than flicking on a switch. And the good Doctor in search of illumination is less the sorcerer of yore than a second-rate Edison completing an electric circuit. (The focus on "enlightenment" is emphasized in Wilson's production by the fact that the only real piece of scenery is a thin, suspended black box with the bottom cut out, at least twenty-five feet in length, from which glows a white light at once prophetic and menacing.) Stein's Modernist derision for the Enlightenment project thus signals a decisive shift in the treatment of the Faustus legend: epistemology gives way to ontology as the primary concern of Stein's Faustian speculation. The structure, status and limits of knowledge provide only the background for Stein's primary enterprise, the fierce contestation of the very being of the subject ("What am I," Faustus asks at the very beginning of the play). Stein's attention to the construction and deconstruction of being renders Doctor FaustusLights the Lights an almost ideal text for Robert Wilson, the American director surely most adept at splaying the unitary subject. Where Stein offers a heroine at once singular and plural, in the person(s) of Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, Wilson multiplies pluralities, choosing three actors to play Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, three to play the title role, and two to play Mephisto (one in red, one in black). By (re)producing a flock of protagonists, acting and interacting variously and at odds with each other and with themselves, Wilson is able to enact the syntactic undecidability of the Stein text, in which a given word or phrase may occupy several different grammatical positions simultaneously. Rather than closing down semantic possibilities, as illustrative and literalistic staging so often does, Wilson opens up the plurality of Steinian discourse, allowing the many to speak through the mouth of the one. Furthermore, as if in hommage to his queer predecessor, he seems to allow that the proliferation of heroes and heroines will unleash an uncanny (and narcissistic) homoeroticism, as one Faustus or one Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel appears almost to cruise his or her fantasmatic double. By so allowing sexual desire to circulate in unexpected directions, Wilson underscores Stein's achievement in this text of presenting heterosexuality not as a "natural" state, but an artificial one, as patently-and banallyconstructed as Doctor Faustus's electric lights. In its typically spare, cool and abstract style, its use of stark, solid-color lighting on a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 25-27
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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