Music and the Legend of Faust, 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0001_NEWFaust: a Version for the Fifties 

   Every important myth or legend (and there is a difference between them) is adaptable to meet the Worldoutlook of every new generation. So the Faust of Marlowe’s Elizabethan world is not that of Goethe’s, nor is Goethe’s that of Gounod’s. In fact, the Faust of Thomas Mann in the novel is not the Faust of the version with which we shall end this series.

Just as James Joyce made his Ulysses into the universal Everyman, Leopold Bloom, this last Faust of ours is an aging middleclass American named Joe. As his wife laments at the start of this work, six months out of every year he sits by the television set and cheers on his beloved but always-defeated Washington Senators. Yes, this is the Faust for the 1950s, the Faust of “Damn Yankees.” Based on the novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglass Wallop, this musical (with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott, Douglas Wallop and Richard Bissell) opened on May 5, 1955 with the powerhouse Gwen Verdon as the temptress Lola.

Returning to the touring company practice of the Middle Ages, the Devil–here called Mr. Applegate–is played for laughs, right down to his flaming red socks and long solo about “the Good Old Days” in which murder and chaos was rife all around. This must have struck deep chords in the audiences, considering the events of 1955 that had taken, were taking, and were to be taking place outside of the theater.

Soviet MIGs shot at US aircraft, Red China released 11 of our airmen, Eisenhower had a heart attack, a bomb exploded, “Connie” and “Diane” lashed out at the Caribbean area, and life went on as usual as if some real Applegate was having a good time. Even the books on the best seller lists included stories of death and suffering: “Andersonville” and “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.” And to cap this all off, the much admired and finally much attacked Quiz Shows started their four-year journey from fame to shame.

On the other hand, the American public in the mid 1950s was above all complacent; and the cozy audiences in the darkened theater did not want any deeply philosophical Mephisto making them think too much. So the Lola character is expanded from the rather pallid character in the novel, not only to suit the talents of Gwen Verdon but also to show how all the evils of this world can be overthrown by Love. So we have the endless repetition of “Heart” (as in You Gotta Have); but this is not really the theme of this play (so much for the Faust legend if it were). I have always thought the theme of this version lay in “A man doesn’t know what he wants until he loses it.” In short, this is more Ibsen than Goethe.

Consider. The faithful wife (read Solveig) awaits her missing husband (read Peer Gynt), who is off on wild adventures (playing for his beloved ball team) and finding himself under the spell of a seductress (read the Troll King’s Daughter), and so on. But is not “Peer Gynt” a retelling of the Faust story in Norwegian terms? The Button Molder, the Troll King, and all the other negative personalities Peer meets are merely aspects of one Great Evil One. Ibsen tells us that being true to only oneself is to be a troll, an inhuman. In “Damn Yankees,” Joe is true to his team. Big deal, say some; Good for him, say others. But that is not enough to risk one’s soul for–although some “professionals” have already done that many times over for better contracts or mob payoffs.

(Of course, even “Gypsy” is arguably a Faust variant, with Rose as her own Mephisto, ever willing to sacrifice her children for the sake of her own ambition. But as much fun as it might be to force any plot into a legendary mold, it is somewhat profitless except as a party game.)

Yes, this a Faust for the 50s. It is not, again, the Faust of the 1750s or of the 1850s or even of the 2050s to come. It reflects, as all good legends must, the values of the people for which it is recast. Marlowe used it to remind us that progressing too far will have its fatal consequences. Goethe used it to help end the so-called Age of Reason that condemned man to factories and mines. Gounod saw it as an excuse for exquisite love duets, Boito for powerful arias and choruses. Liszt, Mahler, Wagner, Schumann and others felt it in musical terms, while my correspondent in Germany fitted it for a special musical audience in this decade.

“Damn Yankees” actually brings the American Musical back to its reputed origin when a terrible play named “The Black Crook” (a Faust story!) boosted sales by adding dancers in tights and ran for years, setting the pattern for so many musicals to follow. And who knows what the next century will bring.

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