What the Hell?

For Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, ‘Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed/In one self place, for where we are is hell,/And where hell is must we ever be’. For Milton’s Satan, the mind can ‘make a Heaven of Hell; a Hell of Heaven’. For Sartre, ‘Hell is other people’. For me, Hell looks something like a week’s worth of earache (I’m seeking medical attention today, in case you’re wondering). Recently I’ve been interested in the question of what Hell looks like, because I’ve been teaching Doctor Faustus and have been thinking about the brilliant stage direction, present near the end of the B text: ‘Hell is discovered’. In class, we looked at a YouTube clip of the 2011 Globe production (embedded below) and talked about the challenge the B text poses: 

One of the things that emerged from the discussion was that it’s very difficult to try and portray Hell convincingly or frighteningly. The Globe’s vision of Hell might be thought evocative, but it could also be thought hackneyed. Other than taking the easy option of following the A text, which doesn’t call for Hell to be unveiled in this way, what, we wondered, might a production do to try and negotiate this staging issue? Is there anything else, more terrifying, more shocking? A neverending loop of a Piers Morgan talkshow, perhaps? So, when I entered the Rose playhouse to see their sell-out production of Dr Faustus, I was especially interested in their promise to show Faustus ‘staring into the mouth of Hell’. 

The production was particularly interesting from a conceptual perspective as it was a heavily-cut one-man-show in which Christopher Staines was advertised as playing the title role. In fact, he did more than that, also acting as the Chorus, and the Good and Bad Angels. On the one hand, then, Staines had to make legible several different parts, and yet, on the other, the production found ways to evade direct representation of the remarkable events ostensibly depicted in Marlowe’s play. Rather wonderfully, Faustus’s journey across the universe was staged in the illuminated foundations of the Rose Theatre; Staines pulled away a black backdrop to reveal the sight/site then danced his way around the various levels of the platforms. But this was a rare attempt to make visible the landscape of the play. Otherwise, the production preferred to withhold spectacle: Mephistopheles was a disembodied voice, sounding, eerily, to my half-deaf ears, like an infernal tannoy announcer, and the train of dancing devils was represented simply by a few chiming notes of music. Faustus’s desk was situated centre stage throughout the production, but even here verisimilitude did not seem to be the main aim. At one point, Faustus pointed at the ‘Lines, circles, letters, characters’ that adorn his necromantic books, but presented to the viewer a blank page. The audience seem here to be invited to imagine these images, but at times in the production it is unclear whether the audience is asked to imagine for themselves what is not physically represented, or whether the images Faustus talks about are confined to his own mind. Thus, Faustus sees the face that launched a thousand ships, but the audience sees nothing (a neat way around the difficulty of staging that paragon of beauty, Helen of Troy) and Hell is not heralded with puppetry and bloody clothing, as at the Globe, but appears to Faustus only, in his mind’s eye.

If the intention was to encourage the audience to imagine what Faustus sees, then, for me, it was not successful. I was relatively unmoved by Staines, who conveyed little of the agony of the departing Faustus; there’s a fine line, too, between leaving interpretation open and providing little to interpret. However, the production was not a failure: although I found it experientially unsatisfying, it was conceptually interesting. Indeed, my interest in it stemmed from the dissatisfaction I felt. We can’t see Faustus’s Hell, but we can feel it; his personal Hell is the Hell of anticlimax. Faustus isn’t torn limb from limb, he just fades into oblivion, sitting in the chair of his study. Indeed, there’s barely any indication that he’s died, as Staines, still sitting in the chair, assumes the role of Chorus once more. If Mephistopheles is right, and Hell is everywhere, then it may indeed have a sort of humdrum, quotidian quality. In many respects, this seemed to me a fitting end and, retrospectively, I was able to make sense of some of the other moments I found theatrically ineffective. I’m sure that Staines’s ten minute stand-up routine (mostly ad-libbed and featuring extensive audience interaction) which replaced Faustus’s visit to the Pope, was meant to be funny, but the fact that I found it embarrassingly misjudged did not, ultimately, mean that it wasn’t interesting.* Accidentally, or not, it seemed to me to be part of a larger grim joke: Faustus can find no better use of his demonically-acquired powers than to engage in puerile and self-indulgent jesting. I was merely dissatisfied, but for Faustus the whole experience is one of profound disappointment.

* I should note, I don’t object to ad-libbing as such, rather I found this particular instance to be unwelcome.


4 thoughts on “What the Hell?

  1. Thanks for a brilliant post Eoin! A couple of thoughts– I think Michael Boyd’s Henry VIs were probably the best performances of hell I’ve seen. Very Boschian in their surreal, grotesque, and humorous quality. And I’ve also been reread ing Cymbeline, and spotted this– Giacomo: ‘To th’ trunk again, and shut the spring of it./ Swift swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning/ May bare the raven’s eye! I lodge in fear./ Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here.’ Hell is where? Your post gave me pause when I hit this line. Thank you!

    1. Thanks very much for this and for the additional examples, which I hadn’t considered! I didn’t see the Boyd productions, but it sounds great: I’m going to look for some images!

  2. I thought Faustus at the Rose was the best thing I’ve seen in ages and your review seems to suggest that the play needs fire and demons with horns, etc.
    This would belittle the piece as it is an extraordinary rediscovery of the piece as a descent into a mans madness and personal ‘hell’. I think Marlowe would be thrilled to know that his play has been rescued from the restraints of the church and given full throttle as a piece of psycho drama.
    The play has a brilliant beginning and end and is utter tosh in the middle. I, for one, and based on the standing ovation the actor received at the end, was supremely grateful that the production team were bold enough to realise that the section doesn’t hold up as good enough drama now and replaced it with something far riskier, dangerous yet still within the spirit of what Marlowe was saying about Catholicism.

    More drama like this please! And less dusty, museum piece rehashes as this review seems to want.

    1. Thanks for your comments, John. I’m afraid your assumptions about my theatrical tastes are not correct. I don’t think we should have more museum theatre (though I think museum theatre has a place alongside other forms of drama); indeed, I voiced concerns about the hackneyed nature of the Globe production’s representation of Hell in my piece. Like you, I understood the Rose production as a play about Faustus’s descent into a personal Hell and I found this extremely interesting conceptually, otherwise I probably would not have written about it. In many respects, then, I think we’re in agreement to a much larger degree than you seem to suggest. I think the idea of a one man Faustus is very brave and that there was much to admire about the production.

      It’s clear, however, that we also disagree. Unlike you, I don’t think the middle bit of Faustus is tosh and unlike me, you found the Rose production extremely engaging. I found the attempt to insert comedy unsuccessful on the grounds that I didn’t find it funny (though I suggested I found it interesting in other ways) not because I objected to ad libbing or adaptation. Again, we obviously disagree, but not, I think, for the reasons that you suggest.

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