Essay Series Music history

Music and the Legend of Faust Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

Music and the Legend of FaustFaust 1

Some subjects simply appeal to artists more than do others. We have symphonies inspired by Spring, the forest, the sea, mountains, rivers, the stars, and the planets. From fiction, there are Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, and jolly fat old Falstaff. Somehow, however, the shadowy figure of Faust seems to hold some sort of record. And it is this record that I would like to examine for this new series of articles.

To start, there may or may not have been a Doctor Johann Faust who died in 1540, leaving behind him a reputation for having sold his soul to the Devil, most probably by being too educated in areas that even today lie under suspicion in the eyes of certain groups with mind-sets that do not approve of any one except themselves knowing the unknowable. But the pattern for the man who probed matters best left alone became set and led the way to so many similar tales. Why how many old Universal horror films can you name with that very message?

In 1587, there appeared a “Volksbuch” that included the moralistic story of Faust. It went through over a dozen editions very quickly and was read all over Europe. His sin was that of “speculative ambition”: desiring to enjoy the cardinal sins with impunity. You see, Faust-as-modern-man or Faust-as-Prometheus had not yet been conceived. An expanded edition came out in 1590 and had Faust performing all sorts of magic tricks; but the trickster is of course tricked by the Supreme Trickster in the end and the moral pretty much remains the same.

220px-Faustus-tragedyLike the mass-media of today, a best-selling idea was quickly seized upon and Faust books by the dozens were popping up all over the continent, not to mention hundreds of puppet shows that told this and that version of the story—all of them the true version, of course—and it is very likely that many authors were influenced directly by any one or several of these. Christopher Marlowe’s  Doctor Faustus (1588) is a very uneven play, starting and ending grandly and suffering from a mid-section that is as silly in parts as any puppet play. But the message has something of a new element.

After seeing how useless it is to study the “allowed” material—theology, metaphysics, and so on—Faust turns to the forbidden books to call upon Infernal assistance. Once he has made his pact with Mephistopheles, this Faust seems content with practical jokes until he realizes the enormity of the consequences. “Cut is the branch that might have grown straight” is how the Epilogue describes the result; and we are left to feel how he wasted his opportunities rather than feeling sorry for his fate. Whether or not this is what Marlowe had in mind is not to be known, but the play seems to suggest such a non-moralizing message: if you are going to do bad, at least do it well!

What is certain is that of the several operas based on the Faust legend, only one of  them draws upon material from the Marlowe version—and that is the one the least known of the lot. (Is there a moral in that somewhere?) Since the German translation of this play was available only after Goethe had begun his more epic version of the story, scholars believe it had no influence on his whatsoever. This is neither here nor there, because Goethe’s version is entirely different and its influence on music is immense.

14706First of all, Goethe’s earlier version called the “ur-Faust” and the expansion known as “Faust, the First Part” were products of the Romantic Movement, not the Middle Ages. The philosophy of this stage in European thought could be summarized baldly and therefore badly thus: the Age of  Faith did not eliminate human misery, nor did the Age of Humanism or did the Age of Reason—therefore we must return to and trust in Nature for all solutions. Since Nature seems to be in a constant state of Sturm und Drang, it follows that a Man should be in the same state of striving for the unattainable. It is clearly stated in the “Prologue in Heaven” that while Mephistopheles scorns the useless striving of Faust, the Lord sees that as Man’s noblest characteristic. So it is part of the double bet that the Devil has to make with first God and then Faust that he can (1) turn Faust’s energies down the garden path to Hell and (2) give Faust a “moment of contentment” in which he can stop trying .  That he fails on both accounts is what separates this version from the earlier ones, for it is Heaven that greets the old scholar at the end of the Second Part as he is drawn on high by “the Eternal Feminine.”

Faust 4
Faust and Wagner being stalked by a devil of a dog

Now all I have left out of this account is the marvelous poetry, the complex philosophical problems, the hundred or so minor characters, and most of what makes Goethe’s Faust one of the greatest achievements of Western literature. On the other hand, that is pretty much what the most popular musical form, that of Gounod, does. So what I would like to do in this series of articles is trace the different musical treatments of the Faust story, mostly the Goethe version, and see how it has been trivialized here and treated reasonably there.

Essay Series Essays

Music and the Legend of Faust, Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150605_0001_NEWThe Symphonic Treatments of the Faust Legend

It is interesting to note that German composers tacitly agreed not to set their countryman’s version of the Faust story into an opera, thereby leaving the field open as it were to other nationalities. We will examine the route taken by Berlioz in the 1840s in the next essay. What is important here is the influence of La Damnation de Faust on Liszt and Wagner  .

Liszt had set upon a course of popularizing the piano as a substitute for an entire orchestra—and himself as the prodigy who could play his pieces as they were meant to be played—and in giving us a series of tone poems that have been criticized as being a bit too literal.

(To digress for a moment, while so many of us old timers associate The Lone Ranger with the fourth part of the “William Tell Overture,” not too many are aware that during the program much of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” was used as a mood-setter.)

Liszt’s Faust Symphony is a welcome exception in that the composer wanted to express the mood of the work by doing a musical character study of its three main characters: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. He was at once face to face with the problem that confronted Beethoven before that composer decided to bring a chorus into a symphony: music cannot be specific. It can portray grief or joy or pomp and circumstance, but it is at a loss to specify in purely musical terms who is feeling these emotions and what is causing them. Of course one can give the work a title such as “By a Waterfall” or “Falstaff: a Symphonic Synthesis” or “The 1812 Festival Overture” or whatever. But that is cheating, as is the use of “God Save the Queen” and “Marlborough se va-t-en guerre” in Beethoven’s noisy “Wellington’s Victory.”

Therefore Liszt gave his “Faust” movement two important themes that are supposed to show the two sides of the old philosopher’s personality, and then several other subsidiary themes that are presented in a turbulent fashion (Faust’s inner struggles?), and then there is a final falling away of the second theme (which may or may not be interpreted, as I read somewhere, as Faust’s self doubts).

Then Gretchen is given her more childlike motifs, full of innocence and love (one of which might be the “he loves me, loves me not” business from the Garden Scene). Then the horns suggest the presence of Faust himself, whose themes are interwoven with hers in a sort of love duet.

But what is one to do with the Devil? Well, this is where the genius of the composer saves the day. “I am the Spirit that denies” is Mephisto’s self description in Goethe; “and all things called forth from the Void deserve to be destroyed.” So here is a gigantic character that cannot create—in which case he cannot have his own themes—but can only destroy. So a good deal of the third movement is a distortion of what we heard in the Faust movement. The themes are taken up, distorted (think of Berlioz’ treatment of the “Beloved” theme in his “Symphonie Fantastique”), and twisted into a diabolic fugue (what else?). But twice the Gretchen theme is heard, untouched by Mephisto’s influence, to show the limits of his power and what Faust is missing.

Now this is wonderful enough, but Liszt felt the need to append the last eight lines from Goethe’s epic, the last two of which are the famous “Das Ewig Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan” (The Eternal Feminine draws us onward). These are assigned to a male chorus and towards the end to a tenor who is given the Gretchen theme with which to sing the words.

It is all very impressive and wonderful. Although I will not recommend any particular recording of this work, be sure the one you do get has the chorus at the end to enjoy the full effect.

Now the Liszt work runs a little over an hour and it would seem almost anti-climactic to hear an eleven-minute work on the same subject. But the one I have in mind is Wagner’s Faust Overture, and it is certainly worth consideration. It was originally planned to be the first movement of a full symphony, but it was put aside and Wagner was motivated to return to it when he learned about Liszt’s treatment of the concept. He never meant to publish it in its original or revised form, but there are several recordings of it and it is worth comparing what he did in about one-seventh the time it took Liszt.

It opens, naturally enough, in a somber mood, followed by a peaceful one (salvation?), and then again by heavy Beethovenesque crashes from the orchestra. We next hear a tender theme that reminds us perhaps of the heroine of “Lohengrin,” then some more tension, and a final resolution not unlike that at the end of the “Lohengrin” Prelude. Such brevity is quite atypical of Wagner (his first act of “Gotterdammerung” is longer than the entire “La Boheme”), and this Overture should be required listening to any one interested in the problems of translating Literature into Music.

In our next article, we will take a look at the Gounod version.

Essay Series Essays

Music and the Legend of Faust, 3

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0003_NEW Faust as Love Story: the Gounod Version


    Charles Gounod said he had read Goethe’s “Faust” at age 20. By the time he had seen his short-lived “Sapho” on the stage, he was determined to give the story, at least the First Part, a musical setting. By chance the librettist of “Sapho” introduced him to the librettist Jules Barbier, who just by chance happened to have a version of “Faust” that he had offered to Meyerbeer, who happened to turn it down as a desecration of the German masterpiece. Gounod  could not believe his luck

However Barbier’s libretto was based on a play “Faust and Marguerite” by a certain Michele Carré, whose permission was necessary. Although he provided the words to only two of the songs (“The King of Thule” and “The Calf of Gold”), Carré always appears as co-librettist. All this aside, the Opera turned Gounod’s score down, but a smaller, less grandiose theater accepted it. Opening was delayed a year because of a similar work being given elsewhere; and it was during this year that Gounod learned more of the craft of preparing an opera as opposed to cantatas and other vocal but static forms of music.

Like “Carmen” after it, the original “Faust” was given with spoken dialogue between the concerted numbers. But once it caught on all over Europe, Gounod scored the dialogue as recite and that is pretty much the opera as we know it today.

When English baritone Charles Santley became enamored of the role of Valentine, Marguerite’s brother, he wanted the role built up and asked Gounod for an aria in the Fair Scene based on the lovely melody heard in the prelude. Gounod obliged—for which every baritone afterwards should be grateful—and an English critic supplied the lyrics that begin with “Even bravest heart may swell.” Now (and this might be a “oner” in the history of opera) French words had to be supplied for non-English performances; and that is how the lovely “Avant de quitter ces lieux” came to be!

As for the opera itself, the philosophy of Goethe’s First Part is boiled down to a few minutes of “qvetching” in Faust’s opening monologue. (A long scene with Wagner was cut out earlier in the opera’s career.) By the time Mephistopheles conjures up the image of Marguerite some 20 minutes into the First Act, we know this will be a love story with supernatural overtones.

In fact, the Devil himself becomes little more than the Trickster figure of folklore. In this opera, his powers seem to be confined to conjuring up images (although he is unable to prevent Faust from seeing an image of the condemned Gretchen during the Walpurgis Night sequence), making wine flow from statues, and making himself surrounded by a force field when threatened by the crowd’s drawn swords. Unlike the seemingly more potent demons of modern films, this one cringes when the swords are inverted as crosses (a good director can get around this), although the crowd seems completely to forget about him seconds later.

But whatever his potential powers may be, the music has him a Charmer. I think only the French baritones on the very old recordings—Marcel  Journet for example—capture that oily spirit that Gounod seems to want. The roaring Devils brought in by Chaliapin and his basso-profundo successors seem to miss the point entirely. Those who saw Gustav Grundigs play the role back in the 1940s or heard his recording of the part will see what I mean.

With the diminution of Mephisto’s character, there is also the excision of the Witches’ Kitchen scene, most of the Walpurgis Night, and all the off-stage choruses of Spirits (except in the Church Scene). In short, this is a pretty sanitized version of the play and it makes sense that Faust should be damned at the end, since the point of view of mid-19th century French Catholics and the audiences would have expected no less a punishment. Modern audiences might wonder what all the fuss is about and claim “She could have said No” at least or “So what did she do so wrong?” at the most.

Faust himself, as I suggested, is a pallid copy of the original and exists only as an operatic tenor. Marguerite is “too virginal for words,” but her lack of depth is redeemed by her soaring melody at the end of the prison scene that is so theatrically effective. In fact the only believable character is Martha, the soprano’s earthy guardian who is willing to marry the Devil himself once she learns she is a widow.

In short, the mighty First Part of the Goethe work is boiled down to a boy meets girl story that was quite acceptable to the audiences of the time who considered going to the theater a social and not a cultural event. But it might be informative to take a peek into Edith Wharton’s New York world a few generations later and see her comments in “The Age of Innocence” about a performance attended by the hero of the novel:

 She sang, of course, “M’ama” and not “He loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of  English-speaking audiences.

That leaves little more for me to say other than we will take a look at Boito in our next essay.

Essay Series Essays Uncategorized

Music and the Legend of Faust, 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust


 IMG_20150603_0002_NEWFaust as Epic: the Boito Version

If we recall that Arigo Boito proved to be the librettist Verdi had always dreamt of and the octogenarian came out of retirement to set Boito’s libretti to “Otello” and “Falstaff” to music, then we might not be too surprised to find that the libretto Boito prepared for his own version of “Faust” is the best of the lot.

Well aware of the dangers of trying to include a good deal of both parts of Goethe’s epic, the composer/librettist still presented the first-night audience with six hours of theater that had them in a very belligerent mood  by the end of it all. That was in 1868 and by 1875 he had shortened the work to the 2.5 hours or so that it now takes to perform. I would dearly love to read at least the original libretto, which is said to have been destroyed. And despite all this, what we have is still the closest to Goethe’s “Faust” among all the attempts to mold it into an opera.

It begins with a Prologue in Heaven. After a long orchestral introduction, highlighted by trumpet calls from the various upper reaches of the theater, you hear a chorus of voices offering praises to the Lord. (What you actually see all through this is up to the director.) Then there is a mocking scherzo for a few bars and Mefistofele appears to have a chat with “Il Signor.” Immediately we are aware of why Boito titled his work after this character and not Faust. Not so much to avoid confusion with the Gounod work, but to let us know where the emphasis is to lie in this work.

Boito’s Italian practically translates the German at this point word for word. The bet is made and after a chorus of cherubim drives the Devil from the scene, the Prologue ends with an extended chorus of some length, leaving the director with the problem of offering something visual for several minutes of great choral work. The City Opera of New York gave us a laserlight show; the video with Samuel Ramey in the title role gives us shots of clouds and plaster cherubs and angels. Recordings, of course, do not have this problem.

The scene before the City Gates has a good deal of complex chorus work, very much as in Gounod; and the plot is advanced not a jot all through it, except for Faust’s spotting a mysterious Friar stalking him. In the next scene, we are on familiar territory as the Bet is made. But unlike the trivial conditions of the Gounod’s librettists, here we have a very Goethean Faust demanding his “ora di riposo”—the one moment of contentment that will make him stop his striving—in return for his soul. We also have the magnificent “whistling aria” for Mefistofeles, “I am the Spirit that denies,” that puts a very intellectual tone to this script totally lacking in any of the other versions.

There is nothing leading up to the Garden Scene as things stand now. Faust woos Margherite (as she is spelled here), Marta tries to seduce Mefisto, and they all end up roaring with laughter. As far as libretto goes, the most interesting part of the scene is Faust’s reply to the young girl’s question, “Do you believe in God?” The subsequent Walpurgis Night sequence has a good deal of very difficult chorus work that tends to last beyond the term of its musical interest; but it certainly is a good deal more atmospheric than the corresponding music in the Gounod scene. And there is no ballet.

The scene in Margherite’s prison allows her a very effective aria about her lost child and lost love; and Boito’s unorthodox harmonies are just right to show her state of mind and the situation in general. Further, they supply the greatest possible contrast with the music depicting the “Classical Walpurgis Night.” The act opens with a soprano/mezzo duet of great beauty, comparable to the one in “Tales of Hoffmann.” This is where the ballet comes, but it is of little musical interest and Helen of Troy (that should be of Sparta, of course) is given a long narrative aria that sounds as if it were taken from Berlioz’ “The Trojans.” The love duet between tenor and soprano is quite lovely, blending into a full chorus.

The final act shows the death and redemption of Faust in which the Devil and Angelic Choir are given some powerful moments. Unhappily Faust’s Moment gets lost among the counterpoint and audiences might not realize what is actually going on even with a libretto to guide them. The final moments return to the majesty of the Prologue in Heaven, but this time we have Mefisto whistling his defiance at the forces of Good.

What are most interesting are the title character and his musical treatment. His “I am the Spirit that denies” begins each stanza with a snarling tempo and ends with a piercing whistle. Both the words and musical treatment of this and his later aria, “Behold the world,” point forward to the character of Iago as expressed by Boito in the interpolated Credo: “I believe in a cruel God.” Evil is always easier to portray on a stage than is goodness, as most actors readily admit; and the worst role of all to play is a good Priest or a pure maiden. They tend to get somewhat boring. This is probably why the Devil gets all the really powerful material in this work.

However Faust’s arias, short as they are, are very moving; and Margherite is considerably more lively in her short scene in the garden and more complex in her prison scene than her French opposite. If you have never heard this opera, please give it a try on the London recording with Siepi if you can find it. I have not heard the one with Ramey, but it cannot be better than the older version.


I highly recommend the DVD on the Kultur label with Ramey. The “concept” of this production is that the universe is a theater–and this works beautifully at the end of the Prologue in Heaven, as you can see for yourself.

Essay Series Essays

Music and the Legend of Faust, 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0005_NEWFaust as Scenes: Berlioz and Schumann 

   Backing up a bit in our chronology, we can see Berlioz becoming fascinated with setting to music scenes from Goethe’s Faust as early as 1840. His idea was simply to adapt rather than adopt the German poem and the net result was his Damnation de Faust, which played to a half empty house on its opening night and then attracted even less the night after.

He subtitled it “A Dramatic Legend in Four Parts” and proceeded to indicate such elaborate stage directions that no theater could do it justice. Let the requirement of two men on horses galloping over a dark landscape and then falling into Hell suffice as an example of the problems. Therefore it could be and has mostly been given as a concert piece, a cantata, with great success in our day.

With the coming of computer wizardry, however, staging the special effects that Berlioz could only have dreamed of became possible, as one saw in the Metropolitan Opera production of just few years ago.

download (2)Faust hears happy peasants and watches an army pass over a plain in Hungary. [The first scene is set in Hungary, the composer explained, so he could write in a Hungarian March!] Back in his laboratory, he tries suicide but a hymn from a nearby church stops him. Mephisto comes to offer a chance at high adventures. They see the low life at a tavern, where we get to hear the entire “Song of the Rat” that is cut short in the Gounod opera and a grand fugue on the word “Amen.” After this,  Faust is lulled into a dream of Marguerite on the banks of the Elbe. Marguerite (a Berlioz mezzo) sings of the stranger she has met (off stage). Mephisto sings with his demons a mocking serenade, the lovers sing an extended duet, and mocking neighbors pound at the door in moral indignation.

The abandoned girl sings of her grief, Faust in the woods communes with Nature. Told that his beloved is condemned to die, Faust signs a pact, gallops off  with Mephistopheles to save her, but finds himself plummeting into Hell, where he is delivered into the flames. The soul of Marguerite, restored to its “pristine purity,” is welcomed into heaven.

Well, this is less than a Monarch Notes version of the original; therefore its popularity must lie in the music alone (although the “Invocation to Nature” sticks closely to Goethe’s text and is quite powerful). You must have heard the symphonic passages played in concerts or over the radio: the Hungarian March, the Dance of the Sylphs, the Dance of the Will-o’-the-Wisps. Many bass-baritones are sure to add Mephisto’s “Song of the Flea” and “Serenade” to their recordings, while mezzos will pounce upon Marguerite’s two lovely solos. The sequence in Hell is really upsetting, what with the infernal babble that librettist Berlioz gives the demons to sing. There are many recordings, none of which are entirely successful but the one on London (now Decca) conducted by Solti comes closest. Well worth the hearing.

It was not until 1853 that Schumann’s  Faust was completed (he had started it around 1845) and the first performance took place after his death. Even more episodic than the Berlioz version, this one is in three parts. After an overture, there are three scenes concentrating on Gretchen: in the Garden, before the Mater Dolorosa, in the Cathedral. The second part brings us into the complexities of the Second Part of the Goethe work: Ariel and sunrise, Midnight, and the Death of Faust. The third part is called the Transfiguration of Faust and sets to music the final pages of Goethe’s poem. (Here the reader is urged to compare Mahler’s treatment of the same text in his Symphony No. 8 with the Schumann rendition.)

As for the texts, while Berlioz wrote his own paraphrases and translations of the original German into French, Schumann was able to take Goethe’s lines as written. It is a pity that this work is so seldom (if ever) performed. The old London set is now out of the catalogue and a newer recording is available but I have not yet heard it. There is now a DVD, which I find quite impressive.

In the next installment of this series, we will consider two very strange versions of Faust, both in German and both…never mind. You shall see.

Essay Series Essays

Music and the Legend of Faust, 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0004_NEWFaust: Getting Away from Goethe

The year 1816 saw the opening night of what one might call today an “offbeat” operatic version of the Faust legend. Titled simply “Faust,” the not very well constructed libretto by Joseph Karl Bernard stands as an example of the Sturm und Drang mindset of Germany at that time and has little enough to do with any popular version of the story.

Without going into much detail, we find Faust already “in charge” of his servant Mephistopheles at the start of the work and wanting to use his powers to do good. Needless to say, the Devil does not have that same agenda and uses two women to work Faust’s downfall. After a lot of Gothic castles and not very interesting love interest and intrigue, Faust is dragged to hell in the final moments of the opera. Now considering the state of the opera libretto back then, a good deal of the dialogue is quite good, although the story line is hackneyed and confusing.

What is of interest to any modern listener is the music. Every reference to Louis Spohr always leads one to think of the Mikado’s line about “Spohr and Beethoven and classical Monday pops”; but the man was quite instrumental in bringing German music out of the Italian influence and into the 19th century. Though I doubt if we will ever see this opera performed in this country, there is at least one recording of it you might find worthwhile on Capriccio label. Otherwise Spohr’s version will remain a rare curiosity.

Far more powerful dramatically and musically is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” which came in the first decade or so of the next century. Here the composer-librettist describes his work as “a poem for music in two prologues, an intermezzo and three principal scenes.” He wrote that he had in mind the episodic puppet shows on the Faust theme and claimed that an unrealistic spectacle is the best way to present a supernatural series of events.

The plot, such as it is, recalls Marlowe more than Goethe, with the Duchess of Parma playing a major part–and indeed having the only solo that approaches an aria in this work. Faust does die at the end, but there rises from the spot where a dead baby lies a “naked half grown youth with a flowering branch in his right hand”; after which an epilogue tells us that using the experiences of the past, we shall find heaven at last. A strange, powerful and brooding version that deserves a lot more attention than it gets on this side of the Atlantic.

To move even further from the Romantic movement and its respectful treatment of the Faust legend, I must mention here what some might call “a Faust for our times.” It is called (hold on to your earplugs) “Faust: die Rockoper.” Thankfully I am not required to review the recordings of this 1997 work, one in German and one in English, both of which might or might not be available over here. What Rudolf  Volz did was simply to take chunks of dialogue from Goethe and set them verbatim to a heavy rock score. From what I can make of the photographs included with the CDs, I think Busoni would have approved of the staging.

Being a musical snob, I must confess that I cannot listen very long to the music, which I find utterly indistinguishable from song to song. And yet I do see some sort of poetic justice in having the Devil belt out his lines to a musical form that has made fortunes for countless performers who substitute volume, light displays and costumes for the ability to sing or play an instrument. Possibly if I was paid to sit through a performance, I might find it more tolerable. But again, this is my personal prejudice at full tilt. On the other hand, this might be a very good way to introduce the Faust story to recalcitrant youngsters who might very well accept it in this form. At any rate, a big production is at the time of this writing being planned in Munich for August 28, Goethe’s birthday. I hope he appreciates it!

For lack of room, I will stop here and devote my last article to possibly the best of the non-Goethe Faust versions. But if any of you out there know of any musical versions I have missed, please let me know.


Essay Series Essays

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.