The Tragical History Of Doctor Faustus

I wanted a text with a history and historical setting, and my interest in the Renaissance made Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus a natural choice. At the same time, I have also been drawn to the issues in staging classic plays in contemporary contexts and the scenographic decisions that come about in trying to bridge past and present. The tale of Faust is German, first have been printed in 1587 in Frankfurt and being set in Wittenberg,1 but my immediate association was instead with Marlowe’s home, Renaissance England. I wanted to collapse the locations, showing that the tale is linked to both old and modern Germany and England.

I imagine the text itself as being read in the canonical English manner (considering the Royal Shakespeare Company). With actors using this mark of English theatre, I felt their costumes should relate and relied on Cesare Vecellio’s 1590 De gli habiti antichi e moderni di diversi parti di mondo2, an encyclopedic book of costume around the world, for a foreign (Venetian) notion of English dress.

I would not only use the woodcuts as inspiration for costumes, but also the color scheme. The woodcut itself is also a medium closely associated with the earliest printing presses in Germany, wherein only black and red inks were used which is visible on the title page of the first printed edition of the Faustian tale. Keeping the palette limited to black, white, and red are obvious color choices in the play’s key themes, including good and evil, power, corruption, sin, and death. The woodcut format is also a link to the past, as a medium both primitive in its European origins, and modernist, as with the prints of German Expressionists rethinking their own German past. In their monochromatic palette, high contrast, and stylized line quality, woodblock prints evoke the timeless German-ness I want to convey, and to return to Expressionism, I consider the rigid architectural elements and lighting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

Along with the color palette, reducing the props to essentials noted in the original text would be important. I was inspired by the banquet scene from Grotowski’s 1960 production of Doctor Faustus with a bare, unfinished wooden table.3 Minimalistic sets would also maximize the contrast with the Shakespearean acting style. I had in mind Lepage’s version of Berlioz’s opera as what to avoid in overusing scenographics elements, even color. I was then reminded me of the work of Robert Wilson. Although Wilson’s production of Shakespeare's sonnets with the Berliner Ensemble was not in mind when I chose the play, it became clear that this was close to my ideas in lighting and minimalism, as well as a three-dimensional version of the contrast in the woodcuts. So beginning with the woodblock print, I found my aesthetic in the monochrome visualization, high stylization of line, and connection to the early modern world out of which Doctor Faustus was born. To link these to the present, I found the same ideas in Wilson's vision of Shakespeare.

1. Productions of Goethe’s Faust pick up on the German and even the classical references—I am thinking of the 1911 Reinhardt-Roller version of Faust II—but this was not the look I wanted.
2. “On the ancient and modern clothing in various parts of the world”.
3. I don’t think, however, that I would use Grotowski’s acting model for this particular play, which I feel still should be delivered as it has been in the canon of late Renaissance literature.

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