At the beginning of Josephine Preston Peabody’s quaint verse play Marlowe there’s this little scene, in which two groundlings walk in a tavern. One of them comes from the playhouse, where he just saw the new play, Faustus, and is full of the wonders of it.
Little he knows that the young men egging him on are the Wits – poets, playwrights, and friends to the author of Faustus…
[Enter DAVY and OWEN, talking.]
– But what’s a Faustus?
Why, it is the man!
This man you hear me tell of, in the play!
(Come, listen here!)
And Faustus is his name;
And he it is, doth sell him to the Devil.
[The playwrights approach, one by one, affecting a thirst for information.]
What man is this?
It is a man i’ the play —
‘T is a new play; I saw it yesterday.
He sells his soul to the Devil.
— What man?
Why, Faustus is his name. — It is a scholar
That doth most rare high talking; full of names
Of all the arts that ever you shall hear.
He tells of magic — and of Zodiac —
But yet he will have more!
Who ‘s Zodiac?
Well, let that be… He signs away his soul
Unto the Devil, and he signs with blood.
Nay, in plain sight?
Then Marlowe himself arrives, unnoticed at first – and eager to hear what impression his play made on the crowds. And simple Owen, the (Welsh?) Groundling, rhapsodizes on, both rapt and terrified…
OWEN (to the group).
Ay, you should see it, you!
‘T is marvellous high with every kind of words;
And beyond that, ‘t is full of devilry,
And divers charms of magic and hell-fire;
Until his hour is come that he must die, —
When clock strikes twelve. And by and by he says,
O Faustus, — Faustus! Ye should hear him say —
— O Faustus, O! — And what ado in that?
Shall this waste pennies? Shall this bring a crowd
By bridge, by water, — horse and heels, to see ?
To pay a penny for a’standing-room,
And hear a dismal speech of Faustus, O!
Thou hast one hour to live! —
— So cuff me, now!
‘T is a brave play.
— Od’sbody! I will go
And see that very play this afternoon.
Why dost thou
Waste a good penny on a dolorous tale
Of how a man sells his immortal soul
To the Devil?
Ay! (They turn)
What think you strange in that?
‘T is an old tale, — a tale of every day.
I never heard it; and the play is brave.
He signs away his soul for twenty years
Of power and glory; power and power and power!
He will have, and he must have, and he will.
Whatever ‘t is, why he will have it! —
Doth thy tongue stick at that?
But his doth fire!
He in the play, there is no holding him.
A-made my ears hum! — ‘T is a godless thing, —
But for to see the arts he does, and all,
How he will raise up spirits to do his will,
And has Fair Helen out o’ the history
To be his love — And in the end —
— The end —
The hour comes on;
The hour it strikes. — And after all, Hell has
But you should see it, you!
How when he signs with Mephistophilis, —
A poor sad devil, Mephistophilis —
I never saw a devil sad before —
Marry, wake up!
You would be thanking heaven
It did not fall to you: else who could say?…
But later, look you, when his hour was come,
I did not grudge him, — by the mass, not I!
He talked of heaven and did make much of God,
So I began to heed, against my will,
And came nigh to a terror. (Rises.)
That were base.
Oh, say you so! But if you see the play,
Grin if you can at that! — It is a wonder
How this man Faustus, who is damned in the end,
As all men know, should so call out on God
As to put me in a terror!
So yes – it’s all very quaint and Nineteen-Tens, and a little naïve. And yet I think it catches nicely the atmosphere surrounding Faustus at the time: the wonder, the stirring poetry, the excitement and fear, the feel of forbidden things, the sulphurous intenseness of the ending…
No mention is made here of Ned Alleyn, the bronze-voiced and, by all accounts, very intense original Faustus – but all in all, I think that JPP’s Owen is a perceptive portrayal of the groundlings in Faustus’ day.
If you like, you can read the whole play here.