And, all things considered, here is Marlowe’s Faustus, calling the devil for the first time…
FAUSTUS. Now that the gloomy shadow of the night,
Longing to view Orion’s drizzling look,
Leaps from th’ antartic world unto the sky,
And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath,
Faustus, begin thine incantations,
And try if devils will obey thy hest,
Seeing thou hast pray’d and sacrific’d to them.
Within this circle is Jehovah’s name,
Forward and backward anagrammatiz’d,
Th’ abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and erring stars,
By which the spirits are enforc’d to rise:
Then fear not, Faustus, to be resolute,
And try the utmost magic can perform.
Sint mihi dii Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe!
Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis princeps
Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus
vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis Dragon, quod tumeraris:
per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo,
signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc
surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!
And now imagine Ned Alleyn, as Faustus, making the most of his bronze-coloured voice, chanting the Latin words, slow and terrible, and the hired men shaking metal sheets backstage to make thunder, and a horned Mephistophilis, with his face painted black and a cloak of scarlet velvet (possibly a cast-off of Lord Howard himself), appearing in a cloud of black and red and evil-smelling fumes…
And imagine also an Elizabethan audience (to whom hell was a far more serious and concrete matter than it is to us), both thrilled and terrified – and, by the time Faustus begins his incantation, entirely subjugated.
Faustus was an immediate hit, and remained enormously popular well into the Seventeenth century, creating its own sort of legends. Both rabid Puritan William Prynne and glorious gossip John Aubrey told in writing a tale that must have been circulating widely: one devil too many onstage during a performance – or rehearsal – of Faustus. One that, on closer investigation, disappeared in a puff of sulphur, with all the attending chaos of terror, horror, fainting fits and madness. According to Aubrey, this was why Alleyn left the stage, became pious and went on to found Dulwich College… Elizabethan theatre-goers, Puritans and Restoration gossips all squarely blamed Marlowe for the commotion, hinting that what you just read must be a real spell. That’s what comes of keeping company with wizard-earls, night-schoolers and mathematicians.
Nevertheless – or very likely just because of all this – Faustus remained a much-staged favourite in the Admiral’s Men (and then Palgrave’s Men) repertory, and was printed many times until the 1630s, and then during the Restoration – and was still popular enough in Aubrey’s days that he included the story of the stray devil in his Brief Lives.
Quite and enduring – if somewhat questionable – fame.