The Globe’s flat Doctor Faustus shows belief in the Devil is fading

Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Do people still believe in the Devil these days? I certainly do, but belief in Satan seems to be fading from popular culture. Or so the current production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Globe Theatre (details here) seems to prove.

Some critics, at least the ones mentioned on the theatre’s website, seemed to like the production. However, Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph was less than impressed by all the jolly japes and Brian Logan over at the Guardian puts his finger on it for me, writing:

[The production] musters little by way of divine terror. You leave feeling you have plumbed the contents of the theatre’s wardrobe department, not the depths of the spiritual abyss. The problem is partly that we don’t believe in hell any more.

Faustus is a problem play: much of it consists of low and rather tedious comedy, book-ended by scenes of the utmost grandeur and seriousness. But if we no longer believe in the Devil, and his appearance on stage seems no more frightening than that of some pantomime villain, then Faustus’s bargain – his immortal soul for 24 years of devilish power – seems less than gripping.
But even today works of art can evoke the devilish. I am a huge fan of The Exorcist, a truly frightening movie. It leaves us in no doubt that Satan and his evil ways are a danger to us all. By contrast this production of Faustus makes little impact because Lucifer, when he appears on stage, seems no more threatening than any other imaginary bogeyman.

Marlowe’s play is one that I have read many times, but never seen until now, so I was tremendously disappointed. The hero struck me as infantile in his defiance of God, someone who clearly did not understand what he was rejecting. In this he struck a curiously modern note, reminding me of our own angry atheists, who reject God and pontificate about religion and yet never ever say anything that betrays the slightest understanding of what it is they reject. Their anger is existentially flat: a real tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But what about Marlowe himself? Did the man who wrote these lines hold religion in contempt?

Oh, I’ll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!

I do not think one can hear these mighty lines properly delivered and not feel that the drama of salvation is precisely that – a drama, the most serious and engaging drama there is. But if we have lost sight of the Devil, and the concept of evil, and the terror that damnation should inspire, then what is left to us? Paradoxically, Faustus himself provides the answer, as he fritters his 24 years in a series of silly practical jokes: he does not get much from his side of the bargain.

One wonders what the audience, which was predominantly young, made of it all? They presumably live in a world where good and evil have been replaced by the concepts of appropriate and inappropriate: Faustus then seems rather like one of the less fortunate participants in a television gameshow.

A play like Doctor Faustus simply can’t work outside the framework of Christian theology. Our loss of belief leads us into existential and cultural impoverishment.

Incidentally I have often preached about the question of evil and mentioned the fact that Satan does exist, and that damnation is a real possibility, and that our lives on earth will have an eternal resonance. Some people have thanked me for this, but not all: I was once severely told off by a lady for mentioning Hell in front of children. One cannot blame the clergy for our fading belief in hell. Uncomfortable truths…