A Cameo in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus
Puritans and other miserable killjoys, such as Adolf Hitler, have long seen the theatre as a den of sin. But did you know that Satan once appeared on stage? Dr. Faustus is a play by the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). It tells the tale of the titular doctor, a scholar at the University of Wittenburg. Dr. Faustus has an incurable lust for knowledge and power, and one he has mastered every known discipline his research inevitably leads him to become interested in the dark arts. He succeeds in summoning one of Satan’s little helpers, but cannot enslave him.
Faustus thus decides to sell his soul to The Devil, and receives great powers. He soon regrets his pact, however, and the end of the play sees Faustus dragged to hell to fulfil his part of the bargain. We have to remember that this was very controversial for the period. Witchcraft had been made a capital offence in England in 1563, and witch trials took place through the Elizabethan period. People were absolutely terrified of witches and The Devil in general, and so enacting a pact on stage was a bold move that both titillated and petrified in equal measure.
In one staging of Dr. Faustus in the early 17th century, it is reputed that the performance was interrupted by an unexpected guest. In his anti-theatre polemic, Histriomastix, the Puritan William Prynne related that âthe visible apparition of The Devil [appeared] on the Stage at the Bel-savage Playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it) there being some distracted with that fearful sight’. Bravo, bravo, darling!