Reviewing a work of prose by Goethe is somewhat redundant. Writing a review of Faust is like writing a review of Romeo and Juliet, or The Odyssey. Those classic texts may be more heavily read than Faust, but they attain roughly similar cultural import. Christopher Marlowe originated the Faust legend in The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus in 1604, though it appears that he was inspired by the German chapbook Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published two decades earlier. I have not read Marlowe's version but from the title of the original it appears that Goethe was predestined to put his stamp on the legend, and that his treatment would remain the most enduring.
Oeuvre rule: I have read two other books by Goethe--The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. The first is the other classic Goethe text, and one that anyone lucky enough to taste the pangs of unrequited love should seek for catharsis, and the other is one of the premiere examples of the German Bildungsroman--the novel exploring a principal character's psychological maturation. In a way, Faust is a combination of the two. Part One features a romantic episode vaguely akin to Werther, with the exception that the playing field is somewhat unfairly tilted in the protagonist's favor this time, and Part Two portrays a spiritual maturation of sorts. But I do not want to give away the ending. Because the ending was not spoiled for me. If I were to have studied Faust in college, the ending probably would have been ruined. If I were to have read anything about Faust online, it probably would have been ruined too, so I will avoid all spoilers.
The play is a "closet drama" which apparently means that it is meant to be read in a book as opposed to seen in a theater. Still, Faust has been performed a handul of times, and what an experience it would be! One recent staging listed on Wikipedia occurred in 2000 with the famous German actor Bruno Ganz in the title role and an estimated running time of 21 hours! In the text version I read, Faust comes in at 293 pages, so it is not overwhelmingly long, but it would be hard to imagine reading it in one sitting.
Faust opens up with a rather postmodern scene, featuring the Director, the Poet, and the Clown, all discussing their allegorical roles as they relate to the composition of an artwork. Their witty banter opens up the play on a very light note, and indeed much of the rest of the play is quite comic. I am not sure how to categorize this play but it seems to me more comic than tragic. This scene is quite apart from the rest of the play, and quite short. There is next a short scene taking place in Heaven which is quite funny, and then the next scene introduces the character of Faust, and his first encounter with "spirits." We meet a colleague of his whom he vaguely scorns, Wagner, and they walk amongst the townsfolk during an Easter celebration, and are followed home by a poodle. Faust seems to know that this poodle is no ordinary dog, and once taken home into his study, the poodle transforms into the play's other principal character, Mephistopheles, certainly one of the most classic characters of all time. One would be hard pressed to pick the better depiction of the "evil force" between Goethe's bargainer and Milton's rebel angel, but in my opinion, for being much easier to identify with on a human level, Mephistopheles is the choice.
The usual elements of the legend are introduced here--Faust's desire to reach the heights of human experience and attain ultimate knowledge, and his willingness to commit his soul to Hell for the privilege. His wish is soon granted, and some of the early scenes with Mephistopheles are very humorous, when he claims that he can't do absolutely everything for Faust. After their first meeting, he asks Faust to open the door for him, because he has to exit the same way he has entered. On his second visit, Faust has to tell him to "come in" three times before he actually can. But soon their bargain is made and Mephistopheles first attempts to show Faust how to "be one with the people" which involves going out to a bar. Then there are a couple weird scenes with apes and witches, and finally the entrance of Gretchen, the object of Faust's desire. The way that Mephistopheles arranges for them to meet up is another instance of the hilarity in the play. But the fate of Gretchen and Faust's affair is one of the saddest moments of the play as well, and brings Part One to a thunderous end.
Part Two definitely branches out a lot. There are five acts in it, as compared to one act in Part One, and it is nearly twice as long. Each act is pretty much an episode in Faust's continuing quest for supreme knowledge, and they often become quite bizarre. For a while you may think you have been transported into an Ancient Greek epic during Part Two.
Act I is quite lively, with an emperor whose fool has just died, or become incapacitated by drink. Faust takes over as magician in the fool's place and greatly ingratiates himself to the emperor. Act I is the most political part of the play, with many opinions on the proper governing of a state. There is even a passage which may speak to one of the current crises in America circa 2008:
Wherever you go in this world there's always a shortage of something. It might be this, it might be that. Here it's money we're short of. Now you can't just pick up money from the floor. But there's nothing sunk so deep we can't get hold of it, if we use our wits. There's gold, coined or uncoined, under old walls or in the belly of the hills. And if you ask me who is to unearth it: An intelligent man using the brains that nature gave him.
Eventually the two provide the emperor and his kingdom with enormous treasure that is actually fake paper money, but is never really acknowledged as such. There is a great festival and gathering of fantastic spirits that Faust orchestrates, which also has a short but hilarious and weird tangent that touches on and perhaps predicts a literary craze in 2008:
The herald introduces various poets, poets of nature, court poets, love poets, sweet or passionate. In the pressure of competition none lets the other speak. But one of them gets a word in
Do you know what would really delight me as a poet? To write and recite what no one wants to hear.
The night and graveyard poets beg to be excused, because they are having a most interesting conversation with a newly arrived vampire, which might lead to a new form of poetry. The herald has no choice but to agree and he fills the gap by calling on Greek mythology which, while in modern costume, remains true to character and retains its appeal.
Act II features the Peneios, which is a weird mythological place somewhat similar to Hades, or the Inferno, populated by Griffins and Sphinxes. Faust is temporarily put into a coma state due to a visit to the Mothers, which are the "true forms" that will explain how he can meet Helen of Troy, which is his latest idea. Act II is very bizarre, and also features a scene with Wagner, who has been changed somewhat by Faust's disappearance. There is also the curious character of Homonculus, which is like a lightning-bug trapped in a jar, who explains that it is a human who is waiting to be born.
Act III is the "Helen Segment" which writes a new chapter in Greek literature many years after its proliferation. It is a self-contained episode, as is Act IV, which features the return of the emperor from Act I, and is the section of the play devoted to the investigation of war. Finally, Act V brings the work to a powerful and surprising close. Act V is probably the most compelling single part in the entire play, particularly Faust's and Mephistopheles's closing passages. The very end of the play is especially bizarre, and exeunts on a gracious and mysterious note:
Transitory things are symbolical only. Here the inadequate finds its fulfilment. The not expressible is here made manifest. The eternal in woman is the gleam we follow.
A review of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus kickstarted this blog, and it would perfect in a way if Goethe's Faust could end it, but aside from that dark thought, it bears mentioning that I found Mann's more entertaining on the whole, but wholly different. Adrian Leverkuhn and Faust are not similar characters. Leverkuhn barely speaks, and Faust is quite voluble at times. The section with "Mephistopheles" is handled with supreme care and brilliance by Mann, and that is really the only part that is comparable between the two. Both should be read by anyone who professes to love literature, and I should probably read Marlowe's version next. Mann's is longer, and more traditional as a novel than Goethe's is as a play. For its otherworldliness and its indefinability however, Faust will certainly remain one of the most impressive documents mankind has had to offer until the end of time.