Monday, November 28, 2011

Gluttonous Friars, and the Great Faustian Helicopter Chase

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

Last week's post started with a longish 'as you recall in our last episode' rehash of what Doctor John Faustus, the 'Boys from Below,' and all, had been up to. I'm giving brevity a try this week.

Christopher Marlowe's Faustus has flip-flopped. A lot, rather abruptly snapping:
  • From a terror-stricken repentance
  • To an apparent disinterested viewing of the seven deadly sins
  • To wanting a look at Hell
That's where I'll pick up the action:

Faustus and the Helpful Demons

"...FAUSTUS. O, might I see hell, and return again,
How happy were I then!

"LUCIFER. Thou shalt; I will send for thee at midnight.110
In meantime take this book; peruse it throughly,
And thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
We'll see how reliable LUCIFER is, when it comes to timetables. I've harangued before, about how reliable demons are, as business partners: and why Mephistopheles, Lucifer, and company, are so willing to 'help' Faustus.1

Faustus seems to have gotten flip-flopping out if his system for the moment, and is in his 'mighty Lucifer! Great Lucifer!' mode:
"...FAUSTUS. Great thanks, mighty Lucifer!
This will I keep as chary as my life.

"LUCIFER. Farewell, Faustus, and think on the devil.

" FAUSTUS. Farewell, great Lucifer...."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")

Elizabethan England, 1604, and All That

Next, Lucifer and Belzebub leave Faustus and Mephistopheles. We'd write "Beelzebub," on this side of the Atlantic, in this century, and that's another topic.

Or, maybe not so much of another topic. Elizabethan English isn't quite the language that's spoken in England today, and quite a lot has happened in the four centuries since Marlowe's play opened.

I think it's a mistake to expect Christopher Marlowe to fit into one American academia's contemporary pigeonholes; or treat "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" as if it were written by someone who either understood - or cared about - theology. I strongly suspect that Marlowe was mostly interested in writing a rip-roaring good yarn that would pack audiences in.

Doctor John Faustus, Mad Scientists, and All That

Granted, I compared Marlowe's Faustus to the 20th century mad scientist movies.2 But I was careful about how I phrased that:
"...Recently, the Faustian morality tale got recycled as the B-movie Mad Scientist. The one who meddled with things that Man Was Not Meant to Know...."
(September 20, 2011)
The 'recycling' job involved much more than re-naming John Faustus, and putting him in a white lab coat: and that's yet another topic.3

Elizabethan Drama, Movies, and Getting a Grip

I'd like to think that there aren't many folks who really believe that 'we can learn so much from the movies.' On the other hand, a friend of mine would watch a movie to learn about some subject.

Using his methods, someone wanting to learn about African economics would watch "Jungle Drums of Africa," and I've ranted about that sort of thing before.4

I don't think that people have changed all that much since 1604, when "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" was first published; or since Socrates said: "Envy is the ulcer of the soul."

I think it's reasonable to think that Christopher Marlowe had entertainment in mind when he wrote his "...Faustus." That, and earning money. I also think it's likely that a fair number of folks who saw "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" thought they were getting educated.

Which they were, sort of.

The Great Faustian Helicopter Chase

Helicopter chase?! That heading looks very odd, considering that:
  • Neither of us are living in Elizabethan England
  • Helicopters hadn't been invented when Christopher Marlowe was around
  • "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" isn't a movie
So what's with "The Great Faustian Helicopter Chase?!"

Getting chased by an aircraft was arguably exciting when Hitchcock filmed "North by Northwest" in 1959.

Trust me: this relates to Faustus. Sort of.

Helicopters replaced airplanes a decade or so later. I remember 'the good old days,' when it felt like most movies, and many television shows had to have a helicopter chase. I don't miss 'the good old days' all that much.

Marlowe's audiences wouldn't have expected helicopters. But they do seem to have liked long-winded speeches. I've mentioned Shakespeare's soliloquies before.

Four centuries later, lines like this aren't quite as entrancing:
"...Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament..."
"He now is gone to prove cosmography,
And, as I guess, will first arrive at Rome,
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Four hundred years from now, folks may wonder how we sat through helicopter chases: and that's yet again another topic.

Faustus, Mephistopheles, and Travelogues

Faustus and Mephistopheles come back onstage a little while after Chorus stop talking about those two going to Rome.

I'll skip the long spiel Faustus has, apart from this sample:
Environ'd round with airy mountain-tops,
With walls of flint, and deep-entrenched lakes,
Not to be won by any conquering prince;
From Paris next,115 coasting the realm of France,...

"...fruitful vines;
Then up to Naples, rich Campania,
Whose buildings fair and gorgeous to the eye,
The streets straight forth, and pav'd with finest...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Faustus is basically giving a travelogue. Minus the illustrations, probably. Nothing wrong with that, and like I said: Elizabethan audiences seemed to like this sort of thing.

Juicy Lines, Gluttonous Friars

Mephistopheles gives a speech that's mostly another lecture-only travelogue, and then gets to some more juicy lines:
"...MEPHIST. Nay, Faustus, stay: I know you'd fain see the Pope,
And take some part of holy Peter's feast,
Where thou shalt see a troop of bald-pate friars,
Whose summum bonum is in belly-cheer....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Now that's more like it. After speeches that the Elizabethan upper crust might have been more likely to appreciate, here's something that everybody could dig their teeth into: a demon showing off some of those evil, greedy, worldly, and definitely un-English Catholic friars! I've gone on about Henry VII and that sort of thing before.5

Marlowe's audience might have been more familiar with Latin than most English-speaking folks are these days. Remember: it wasn't all that long, since Henry VIII had decided to be his own pope. "Summum bonum" comes through Google Translate as "the highest good."

The Catholic Church: Two Millennia of SNAFUs

I don't know if Catholic friars had the sort of obesity problems that many Americans have today. It's possible, though. Catholics aren't perfect people, and some Saints earned a rep for whipping their religious order into shape.

Then there was Pope St. Gregory VII, who "was a dedicated reformer, or an enormous pain in the neck." (September 1, 2009) How folks saw him may have depended on whether or not St. Gregory VII was sorting them out.

I've discussed the Catholic Church's wildly improbable survival before. The bottom line, as I see it, is that we're getting outside help. Which is exactly what the Catholic Church has been saying for about two millennia now. (August 18, 2010)

'Satanic,' Sincerity, and Sheen

In a way, things haven't changed all that much in the last four centuries. Not in the English-speaking world, anyway.

In some circles, folks are still convinced that the Catholic Church is Satanic:

(Chick Publications, via, used w/o permission)

Folks with that sort of view are probably sincere. But being sincere doesn't mean being right. I've used this quote before:
"There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church - which is, of course, quite a different thing."
(Bishop Fulton Sheen, Foreword to Radio Replies Vol. 1, (1938) page ix, via Wikiquote)
Other posts in this series:Slightly-related posts:
  • Gluttony is one of the seven capital sins
    (Catechism, 1866)
  • Capital sins
    • "are called 'capital' because they engender other sins, other vices"
      (Catechism, 1866)
  • Greed / avarice is a sin, too
    (Catechism, 2536)
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 Christopher Marlowe's Doctor John Faustus has a knack for asking sensible questions, and either ignoring or forgetting the answers:
2 "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" and other 'mad scientist' movies aren't direct adaptations from the old 'Faust' stories. They're so similar in theme and 'message,' that I'd rather believe that 20th-century screenwriters consciously adapted an old story to a new setting. And a new set of fears.
3 It took quite a lot of work to change Doctor John Faustus into the fellows we met in cinematographic presentations such as:
I think Faustus and the standard-issue mad scientist share the same sort of confusion over what they are, and how much they can know:
"Dr. James Xavier: I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe.
"Dr. Sam Brant: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.
"Dr. James Xavier: My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods."
(X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes)
Then there's 'science,' cinema, and silliness:
  • 1965
    • Germ warfare kills lots of people
  • 1968
    • Insane computer kills crewmates
  • 1970
    • Massive supercomputer is built
    • Takes over the world
  • 1971
    • Germ warfare
    • Zombies
  • 1974
    • Killer robots
    • No zombies
  • 1976
    • A nice, neat, orderly society
      • Where life is groovy
      • Until you hit 30
      • Then you die
      • Then a crazed cop kills the master computer
  • 1978
    • Killer bees kill lots of people
    • And make a nuclear reactor 'go critical'
  • 1979
    • Set in a "dystopic future Australia"
    • Cop
    • Biker gang
    • Vendetta
    • No zombies
  • 1981
    • Set in a "dystopic future Australia," again
    • Cynical drifter
    • Small community
    • Bandits
    • Still no zombies
  • 1984
    • Evil computer mastermind
    • Determined killer cyborg
    • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • 1984
    • Toxic waste turns small town citizens into mutant flesh-eating zombies
    • A movie with a message
  • 1987
    • Yet another post-apocalyptic world
      • Warrior
      • Desert
      • Settlers
      • Gang
  • 1987
    • A nuclear/biological war killed all the men
      • Except one dude
      • Who's held captive by women
    • And there are these giant mutant frogs
    • Really: I'm not making this up!
  • 1999
    • Humanity makes an artificial intelligence
    • That takes over the world
Some of those were marketed as 'science fiction,' others as relevant cinema. What I see is a long string of movies playing up fears that computers are evil, science is bad, and we're all gonna die. Horribly. Except for improbably-colorful biker gangs and settlers.

Also giant mutant frogs.

I adapted that list from something I did in another blog:4 For someone wanting to learn about, say, penguins, the trick would be to distinguishing between films like "March of the Penguins" (2005), and "Happy Feet" (2006). I'd like to think that's a silly example, but - remember 2012? Some of my related rants, in another blog:5 I don't think that Henry VIII of England was necessarily interested in the theological angle, when he set himself up as a mini-pope. His personal knock-off of the Catholic Church wasn't all that different from the original, at least when it came to appearances. I think Henry VIII's main concern was having a proper Englishman running his church: so that he could get divorces that would stand up in an English court. 'It's good to be king.' Sort of.


Brigid said...

Stutter: "I I'd like to think that"

More stuttering: "thought they were were getting educated."

Wrong word: "a demon showing of some of those evil"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


*Lot's* of stutter: Fixed, and thanks!

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