One thing that we noticed while reading Faustus with the Paper Stage, was that perhaps a three-part reading doesn’t suit every play – and this is true of the 1616 B Text of Faustus.
Faustus, with its mix of great power, fear and comedy, is a very Elizabethan kind of thing. When you split it in three, you have a strong beginning, in which a disillusioned scholar sells his soul to the devil, a potent ending in which said scholar pays the price for his arrogance, and in between… In between one is left with a string of comic scenes that, without the bitter irony of the premise and the fearful shadow of the ending, are at risk of falling more than a little flat.
Actually, a few listeners who had missed the first part, dropped out after attending the second – probably wondering what all the fuss was about. A pity, but I’m not sure I blame them: they had come for a story of hubris, bargains with the devil and dire consequences, and what they got was a procession of deadly sins, coney-catchers at work, and the hero slapping the Pope and raising the ghost of Alexander the Great…
And, as I rattled off this list to a complaining friend, it struck me what a perfect catalogue it was of Elizabethan London. The Capital Sins had long been a staple of morality plays – and a play called The Seven Deadly Sins was still being staged at least as late as 1590-91 – though the effect of the procession on Faustus is not the usual one. The theft of the cup was common enough that Robert Greene would describe it in his Coney-Catching pamphlets, and practical jokes at the expense of the Pope would appeal to the anti-Catholic sentiment that had grown a lot stronger after the Babington Plot and the Armada. And then there was the raising of the dead to satisfy the Emperor’s curiosity – necromancy sanitised by proximity with the throne, which would have put Elizabethan theatre-goers in mind of John Dee…
Most definitely, all of them petty ways to squander demonic power… It is as though Marlowe were saying “These are our times for you, this is what we have: not much room for true greatness, is there?”
I have a pet theory about the comic scenes. Even supposing that what Henslowe paid for in 1602 was additional comic relief, there must have been some comic scenes from the beginning – and those I like to imagine written by Thomas Watson, who may have specialised in providing jests for other men’s plays, and was a close friend of Marlowe’s. I know I’m venturing on dangerous and purely speculative ground, but I like the idea of the two friends working together – one on the fiery side of things, the other providing the laughs. And Marlowe asking for specific things, to make a point: Faustus squandered his power, yes – but was there any scope for his ambition in “this” world?