Faust
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[Faust Prezi]

I. Albert Roller for Max Reinhardt, Goethe's Faust (I & II), 1909-11.
II. Giorgio Strehler, Goethe's Faust (I & II), Piccolo Teatro, Milan, 1992.
III. Alex Olle and Carlos Padrissa, Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, Salzburger Festspiele, 1999.

There are two popular variations of the archetypal Germanic legend Faust adapted for the stage: A play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Faust written in two parts and published in 1808 and 1832 respectively, and an opera called La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz first performed in Paris in 1846. Faust is an ageing scholar who has grown weary of the world, and one day while contemplating suicide in his study, he hears church bells and Easter hymns and is saved. Shortly thereafter, he is visited by the Devil in the guise of a gentleman named Mephistopheles who promises Faust everything he wants in the earthly sphere on the condition that he becomes the devil’s servant in Hell. The arrangement is finalized in Goethe’s version when Faust signs a contract with a drop of blood, and under the condition that when he is presented with something he truly desires he will instantly die. The Devil and Faust set out on a journey that leads them to a young woman named Margerite (Gretchen) who Faust falls for. At the Devil’s urging Margerite gives her mother a sedative so that she and Faust can be together, ultimately killing the mother, and landing Margerite in prison. The Berlioz opera ends with Margerite ascending to heaven and Faust descending to heaven with Mephistopheles, while Goethe’s play, divided into two parts, leaves Faust in limbo until Part II when he eventually attains salvation. Both versions contain the principle characters Faust, Mephistopheles, Margerite (Gretchen), Margerite’s neighbor, mother, Faust’s student, and his friend. I will analyze the scenography of three productions of the Faust tragedy: Alfred Roller and Max Reinhardt’s stagings of Goethe’s Faust I and II, Giorgio Strehler’s 1992 stagings of Goethe’s Faust, and Alex Olle and Carlos Padrissa’s 1999 production of the Berlioz opera.

Alfred Roller (1864-1935) was a designer affiliated with the Wiener Werkstaette, the Vienna Secession, and the Reinhardt Ensemble. He worked with the German stage director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) between 1905 and 1924 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, and at the Salzburg Festival. Their collaborations included Faust, Oedipus, and Danton among others. Together they staged Goethe’s Faust I in 1909 at the Deutsches Theater and Faust II in 1911 in Vienna. Photographs of these productions depict the actors in Medieval-era costumes and with Realist scenography: Faust’s study is filled with alchemical apparatuses, piles of papers, and Gothic furniture. There were at least twenty scene changes in each production that were aided by the use of a revolving stage. Because the size of the revolves were relatively small, the rooms in each scene had the feeling of being cramped, in spite of the scale of production which included a cast in excess of 100 people.1

Roller’s evocative drawings for the Faust productions call to mind Robert Edmond Jones’s drawings for The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife and the architecture of the Glasgow School that combined both the geometric and the romantic vernacular. The proximity and mutual appreciation between Mackintosh and the Vienna Secessionists, of which Roller was a member, ensures this is no accidental resemblance. Expressionist, romantic, and realist themes are all present in the drawings and photographs that document the 1909 and 1911 adaptations, and not surprisingly since Reinhardt was known to work in all those themes throughout his career. Faust II takes place in a grounded, earthly milieu compared to Faust I which deals the same storyline but on a mythical and otherworldly level. Roller used a Doric temple as the backdrop to Faust I and the actors were draped in loose garments, designed by Ernst Stern, so that they resembled Greek statuary. A drawing for Part II places Mephistopheles and Faust against a Gothic facade where the scholar stands on a balcony presumably outside of his study and speaks to the Devil standing on the street below. The addition of a graphically rendered proscenium in the same flat, linear style of Roller's handwritten titles on the drawing starkly reinforces Reinhardt's maintenance of the "fourth wall" in his stage productions.

Reinhardt’s 1933 and 1937 productions of Faust at the Salzurg Festival took place in an urban
Renaissance setting and a vernacular Medieval town, respectively. The influence that the Third Reich had over the staging of Goethe’s Faust, the quintessential German drama, and over the designer Clemens Holzmeister, might be an issue worth pursuing. What is immediately obvious is how much the sets grew every year in scale and complexity from 1909 to 1937, after which the Salzburg set was shipped to Hollywood for performances there.

Giorgio Strehler, the Italian auteur and inheritor of Brechtian theater, staged various iterations of Gothe’s Faust between 1989 and 1992, and in 1992 presented both parts in four two-hour productions. Strehler was at the zenith of his stage career, having trained as an actor, and took on the role of Faust himself. He staged his 1992 production as a statement against mass-media corporate culture, and he took refuge in the grandeur and profound scale of the classic European humanist drama: “The unique and unrepeatable event of theatre as a collective human activity that is both moral in intent and educative in purpose continues to stand at the centre of Strehler’s work.”2 Strehler presented a minimalist stage set that harkens back to Appia’s rhythmic space and designs for Tristan and Isolde. Light, shadow, and darkness are the predominant scenic elements and the stage included a shaft and a revolve to accommodate the scene changes. Strehler’s production style has been called lyrical realism, and the Doric columns, exaggerated proscenium, and high contrast lighting support that conclusion. The Piccolo was Strehler’s theater, granting him a great deal of control over every element of production. Without more contextual knowledge regarding Strehler’s Faust it’s hard to discern from images alone what, if any, elements from Brechtian theater the director inherited. The tragedy has a standard narrative arc with archetypal characters that would have allowed for an A-effect by Strehler and his cast mates.

The scenic space for La Damnation de Faust at the 1999 Salzburg Festival is the same location where Reinhardt staged Goethe’s Faust in 1933, with designs by Clemens Holzmeister in lieu of Roller, under Nazi occupation. The Spanish Summer Riding School is a large arena in Salzburg with a wall resembling a Roman aqueduct or columbarium that is incorporated into the scenic backdrop of the Festival productions. An image from the 1933 play and footage from the 1999 opera shows the three horizontal colonnades with arched compartments. Olle and Padrissa utilize this colonnade along with a monumental column set in the center of the stage composed of four levels with wings that open, close, and upon which video is projected. In the opening scene brown creatures are suspended on the surface of the arena backdrop and crawl across it under raking spotlights intensifying the rough quality of the stone. Peasants dressed in all white uniforms infiltrate the empty, low-lit colonnades, walking either forward or backward, at a uniform pace until the backdrop is full of actors. The composer of the orchestra is projected onto the blank center column, which functions in this scene as a blank screen, in a brazen self-referential gesture that the shatters the “fourth wall.”

Colored light emanates from the center column and changes throughout the production to signal to the audience that they are in heaven or the earthly sphere (white), temptation (black), or hell (red). In the metamorphosis scene, Faust slides through an industrial tube before being deposited into one of the giant moulds that move around the stage throughout the production. Slowly Faust sheds his homogenous white uniform and acquires more black patent leather apparel; first a shoe, then a hat, then pants, a black t-shirt, and finally a jacket so that he and Mephistopheles are dressed in nearly identical ensembles. This Mephistopheles bears an uncanny resemblance to Lawrence Fishburne in the Matrix, and the industrial, futuristic, post-apocalyptic aesthetic (not to mention it was 1999) of this production helps solidify it as Berlioz for the Gen-Xers.

The scenography of Robert LePage’s 2008 production of Berlioz’s Faust for the Metropolitan Opera bears an uncanny resemblance to Olle and Padrissa’s lesser-known version from nearly a decade earlier. Aside from the proliferation of video projections on giant screens that form the basic building blocks of the set, LePage seems to have borrowed the Salzburg colonnade and translated the horizontal bands of compartments into his industrial metal stage set. Even the opening scene involves soldiers and dancers filing into the superstructure backwards until the grids are full. The video of a galloping horse that LePage multiplies across the background of each compartment can also be found projected three-dimensionally across Olle and Padrissa’s giant columnar set piece toward the end of the show.

Alfred Roller was quoted as having said the following about drama and about working with Max Reinhardt: “If ever a strong, uniform modern form of production should come our way, then, and only then, we shall also find a method of our own to stage the masterpieces of the past.”3 Each of the three productions of Faust described have managed to capture both their creative milieu as well as the timeless elements of the Faust trope that made them relevant to their respective scenographers and scenic designers; whom I believe managed to find modern methods of production for staging a historic masterpiece like Faust.

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Bibliography

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Trans. by Walter Arndt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Delgado, Maria M. and Paul Heritage, eds. In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theatre. New York: Maria M. Delgado and Paul Heritage, 1996.

Sayler, Oliver M. Max Reinhardt and his Theater. New York: Brentano’s, 1926.

Styan, J.L. Directors in Perspective: Max Reinhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.