The Tragical History of Dr Faustus

Definition

Theater

  • A blank-verse tragedy written (c. 1590) by ChristopherMarlowe, which is probably the first dramatization of the Faustlegend. Spurred on by his lust for power and knowledge, the scholar Faustturns from conventional learning to the study of the forbidden arts. He summonsup the demon Mephostophilis, who promises to gratify his every desirefor 24 years if Faust will surrender his soul to the Devil at theend of that time. The climax of the play comes when the Devil arrivesto claim Faust for his own.
    FAUSTUS O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!
    The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
    The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
    O' I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
    See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
    The earliest known performance was given by the Admiral'sMen in 1594, when Edward Alleyn took the lead.

    According to that redoubtable enemy of the theater William Prynne (see notorious whores), Alleyn's conjuration of the devil during one early performance had consequences he could hardly have bargained for: in response to his words, an actual devil suddenly appeared on the stage "to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators". Preposterous as this story no doubt is, the play has a sinister reputation amongst actors second only to that of Macbeth (see Scottish Play). It is said, for example, that actors appearing in the play will sometimes have the impression that there is one more performer on the stage than can be accounted for, and that this unannounced extra will subsequently disappear without ever having been identified.

    Although versions of the Faust story continued to be staged during the three centuries after Marlowe's death, this was invariably in forms that owed little to the Tragical History. For example, the 1685 Dorset Garden production interpolated "the humours of Harlequin and Scaramouche" and concluded with a scene in which the dead Faustus suddenly revives to give the audience a song and dance. Regular revivals of Marlowe's play had to wait until the 20th century, when it provided a vehicle for (amongst others) Orson Welles (1937), Richard Burton (1966), and Ian McKellen (1974).

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